Of Many Cultures The People Who Came
Sir Alexander Bustamante, National Hero and first Prime Minister of Jamaica, used to boast that he was 50 per cent Irish, 50 per cent Jamaican and 10 per cent Arawak. Well known for hishumorous nature, charm and charisma, 'Busta' as he is affectionately known, was clearly touched by Ireland's blarney stone he had the gift of gab, so to speak.
Busta is not the only prominent Jamaican to claim Irish heritage. There's poet Claude McKay, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, one of Jamaica's foremost historians and former UWI Vice Chancellor, Sir Philip Sherlock, writer John Hearne, and successful horse trainer, Phillip Feanny, whose mother is from County Cork, Ireland. In addition, surnames such as Burke, Collins, Mackey, Murphy and Madden, to name just a few, are common enough. Irish influence is also found in the names of places. There's St. Andrew's Irish Town, St. Mary's Kildare and Clonmel and St. Thomas' Belfast and Middleton among others.
In 1641 Ireland's population stood close to 1.5 million. Following a 1648 battle in Ireland known as the "Siege of Drogheda" in which Irish rebels were brutally subdued, Oliver's son, Henry, was named Major General in command of English forces in Ireland. Under his jurisdiction, thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies to provide a source of indentured labour. Between 1648 and 1655, over 12,000 political prisoners alone were sent to Barbados. This was the first set to come involuntarily as prior to that the Irish had willingly chosen to subject themselves to terms of indenture for the chance to start a new life in the New World upon completion of their contracts.
By 1652, Ireland's population had dwindled to a little over half a million famine, rebellion and forced deportation, all factors.Throughout the early years of the 1650s there was a push to send young men and women to the colonies in what the English believed was a "measure beneficial to the people removed, who might thus be made English and Christians; and a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired the men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls in a country where they had only Maroon women and Negresses to solace them" (Williams, 1932, pp. 10-11). The 13-year war from 1641-1654 had left behind large numbers of widows and deserted wives. In addition, many Irish men, their properties confiscated by Cromwell had no means of making a living. By 1655 some 6,400 Irish had been shipped off when in March all orders to capture "all wanderers, men and women and other such Irish in their possession" were revoked (Williams, pp. 12-13).
Following the 1655 British conquest of Jamaica, Irish labourers were largely sent from Barbados as well as Ireland to get the island up and running under British control. Within a decade, when many Irish had served their terms or indenture, their names begin to appear among the lists of Jamaican planters and settlers (Williams, p. 53).
However, other European immigrants did not seem to fare as well as the Irish in the tropical climate. In the mid-1830s, for example, when the government was particularly concerned about replacement labour for the newly-freed slaves on the sugar and coffee plantations, the over 1,000 Germans and close to 200 Portugese from Madeira, the Azores and Portugal notched a high mortality rate. The idea was to eventually create townships for the European immigrants in the island's highlands where the temperature was cooler and they would work as small farmers, labourers and artisans on coffee estates and cattle pens. However, this would take time and in order to maintain pre-abolition levels of production, labour was needed in Jamaica's low-lands where the best land for sugar cultivation was located. Hence the implementation of bounties for European immigrants and the institution of ships like the Robert Kerr, known as "man-traps" and sub-agents who wandered into quiet Irish towns and attracted people with the promise for free passage, high wages and the hope of bettering their lives. The immigration of Europeans never filled the abolition labour gap and so by 1840 the government began to look to the Maltese, the free Negroes in the United States and the Asians. In 1842 laws to break up what had been completed of the townships were passed and the idea of highland colonization was abandoned.
IRISH IN CONTEMPORARY JAMAICA
Thanks to Rob Mulally for his help with this piece.
Williams, J.J. (1932). Whence the "Black Irish" of Jamaica. NY: The Dial
Press. Mullally, R. (2003). "One Love' The Black Irish of Jamaica.
on-line. Available at www.thewildgeese.com, Senior, C. Robert Kerr emigrants
of 1840 Irish 'slaves' for Jamaica.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 01, 2003.
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