Tue | Jan 15, 2019

Piece of Jamaica in Cuba

Published:Sunday | April 15, 2018 | 12:07 AMPaulette Ramsay
A house in Cuba, which bears resemblance to houses in Jamaica.
A house in Cuba, which bears resemblance to houses in Jamaica.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Revolutionary Party and Government changed the names of some towns to the names of different Latin American and Caribbean countries.

This explains why some places in Cuba bear names such as Trinidad, El Salvador, Jamaica and Honduras, among others. Costa Rica is the name of a town that was known as Ermita, before the Revolution. Originally named after the wife of the manager of the sugar mill where many Jamaicans worked after being recruited to work in Cuba in the early 20th century, this town bears a special relationship to Jamaica.

In 1912, the United Fruit Company was given special permission to recruit more than one thousand Haitians to work in the sugar mills or centrales in Oriente as the demand for sugar grew. At the end of World War I, the demand for sugar became even greater because beet fields had been destroyed in Europe. Despite the laws that restricted the recruitment of black workers into Cuba, the prior permission granted to the United Fruit Company made it easier for sugar companies to obtain licences to recruit West Indian workers to labour in the sugar mills like Ermita (now Costa Rica), because the demand for sugar worldwide was so huge.

Many persons of Jamaican descent, such as Samuels, Wellesley Shaw, Wilfred Wilmott, the Biggerstaff family, the Williams family, among others who are second and third generation Cuban-Jamaicans, still reside in Costa Rica in their typical mid-20th century Jamaican style houses, with wooden verandas to the front and hibiscus hedges around the yard. Some of the houses are the same ones, many now quite dilapidated, that were built by their Jamaican grandparents and parents in the early twentieth century.

Biggerstaff was born and raised 75 years ago in the same old wooden house she now occupies with some of her children and grandchildren. It was built by her father, a Jamaican from Portland. They are nostalgic about the days when they listened to the many stories about Jamaica that were told to them by their grandparents and parents, who tried to instil pride in the homeland in their descendants.

Morris, who was born in Cuba, recalls his father's stories about being taken to England to fight in the First World War at the young age of 18. The elder Morris knew nothing about guns or the battlefield and despised everyone who involved him in this war where he watched his older brother die beside him, when he was shot by enemy fire.

As soon as he returned to Jamaica, still frightened, dissatisfied, and disillusioned, but happy to have survived the ordeal, he seized the opportunity to set sail for Cuba to work in the sugar mill in Ermita (now Costa Rica). He migrated to Cuba from Balaclava and later sent for his wife, who was originally from Cross Roads.

Jamaicans were always proud of their heritage and culture and relied heavily on the Officers of the British Colonial Office to defend their rights and ensure their safety and well-being. Morris, now 84 years old and blind, has very vivid memories of life in Ermita with the old Jamaican folks. He showed his parents' old passports, stamped by the British Colonial Office and still carrying their faded black and white photographs from the early 1900s.

Morris recalls the good relations Jamaicans enjoyed with the Americans because of their English which made communication between them easier than it was with Spanish-speaking workers. His father was in charge of the sugar boiler and he recollects that other men worked as builders of houses on the estate, some tended the horses and some did iron work on the railway lines.




He also recalls the attitude of the Jamaicans, who insisted on cautioning their children about mixing with Cubans. Children of Jamaican parents were not allowed to speak Spanish at home and so they ended up becoming bilingual speaking Spanish with their friends on the playing fields, etc and English with their families at home.

Men who married their Jamaican girlfriends or brought their wives to Cuba were considered to have preserved Jamaican values better than those who did not. They did not want their children adopting Spanish or Cuban behaviour and insisted on teaching Jamaican values "good manners", saying grace before meals and going to either the Methodist or Anglican church that they had established.

They cooked Jamaican foods such as rice and peas and established their own schools, where they taught their children to read English by reading the English Bible and singing Anglican hymns, studied English Grammar and told them Anancy stories and other folktales. Their children attended Cuban schools in the days and Jamaican (English) schools in the evenings. The Biggerstaff's house was the main English school with more than forty students at times sitting on the veranda to learn English.

Today, many Jamaican descendants in Costa Rica long to see the birthplace of their ancestors. Among their valued possessions are the very passports, ship tickets, birth certificates and faded black and white photographs of their Jamaican forebears. Some passports show that their ancestors travelled to Cuba on British Colonial passports from as early as 1915, 1916 and 1918.

Leonard Biggerstaff's passport reveals that he was born in 1901, registered as a British born subject and obtained his passport in 1919 to travel to Cuba as a labourer. This means that Biggerstaff was selected to work in Cuba under the Emigrants Protection Law of 1902 and 1905, when he was 18 year old.

All Jamaicans travelling to Cuba were advised to register at a British Consulate upon arrival. Of course, these memories for the most part, are of a Jamaica that no longer exists. But they themselves serve as testimony of the tremendous journey that many Jamaicans travelled in order to make a contribution to Cuba's economy, when sugar was king in Cuba.

- Dr Paulette Ramsay is Professor of Afro-Hispanic Literatures and Cultures and Head, Department of Languages and Literatures, at the University of the West Indies, Mona