Wed | Sep 27, 2023

Lawrence Nicholson | Family business lessons from history

Published:Wednesday | May 24, 2023 | 12:46 AM
Lawrence Nicholson
Lawrence Nicholson

Higman and Monteith stated that “the study of business history as a distinct discipline is well established in many places but relatively neglected in the West Indies”.

Danns opined that scholars who have written on the development of the Caribbean, such as Clive Thomas, George Beckford, Norman Girvan, Lloyd Best, Havelock Brewster, William Demas and Alister McIntyre, gave little attention to the role of the entrepreneur in promoting economic growth and prosperity.

These statements captured the posture of owners of businesses 20 years ago, when a team from the University of the West Indies conducted a study of family-owned businesses, FOBs, and women-owned businesses, WOBs, in Jamaica. There was little interest in the history of entrepreneurship or business in the Caribbean.

While there is an indication of a change in posture among businesses in Jamaica, there are those who contend that the past is the past, and business in 2023 should not be held to the knifepoint of history. This view seems in contrast to the work of Professor Beckles and others, who remind us of the words attributed to George Santayana – “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

By not paying attention to the historical context of businesses in the Caribbean, does that pose a risk to FOBs in Jamaica?

A reflection

FOBs have a long history and their role and influence did not start with the onset of the documenting of academic research, started in the 1980s.

One researcher, Colli, declared that “the family firm is a form of productive organisation whose origin is impossible to locate precisely in place or time”. While this might be true, there is no imprecision regarding the impact of FOBs on Caribbean people, part of which has not been covered in glory.

The Caribbean continues to experience the impact of European-based FOBs, as documented in the work of Professor Beckles and others.

The link between European families who owned property and businesses that supported and maintained slavery in the Caribbean forms part of the history of FOBs in the Caribbean. While some are uncomfortable and would want to avoid reference to any racial/ethnic group in discussing the history of FOBs in the Caribbean, it is a non-trivial task to attempt to eliminate the racial/ethnic mix in any useful discourse on the history of entrepreneurship in the Caribbean.

FOBs in the Caribbean have baggage that must be left in the past.

Not counting the indigenous people of the Caribbean, FOBs can be traced to the 17th century, fuelled by mercantilism and the slave and non-slave triangular trade that were facilitated by laws and regulations designed by Europeans.

The plantation economy that emerged from this trade was sustained by people of African ancestry, working as slaves owned by families in the United Kingdom. Many were absentee owners with strong family ties to the highest seat in government and positions of influence.

Professor Beckles’ work has helped to fuel the call for restitution by many of the families who have benefited economically from their exploitation of the Caribbean. Many will argue that this call for reparation is a reminder of part of the downsides of FOBs; the danger of having the wealth of a nation “mostly in the hands of a few families”, often referencing the famous, and maybe mythical, 21 families that “controlled Jamaica”.

It is therefore not surprising that many are not enthusiastic supporters of large FOBs, especially those which are in the hands of people of European ancestry.

In the discussion of the history of businesses in the Caribbean, some have argued that the advantage and privileged position experienced by the Europeans was extended to other ethnic groups, except people of African ancestry, the enslaved.

For example, circumstance and the regulatory framework that govern the coming of the East Indians, Chinese and Syrian-Lebanese allowed them to keep their families together, an important element for the sustainability of family businesses.

Interestingly, many historical references to the genesis of family businesses for people of African ancestry place them in the farmers’ market, where they plied their trade on Sundays. There is little historical reference to the entrepreneurial activities of people of African ancestry prior to their enslavement, few even suggesting that some of their entrepreneurial activities were motivated by the ethnic groups that arrived in the Caribbean after emancipation.

Professor Verene Shepherd considered this to be a distortion of history by stating that “there are entrepreneurial myths that we have to get rid of. We need to look to history for the examples. Before the Asians came here, it was the black people who were the entrepreneurs, and even before then in Africa”.

Diverse enterprise

A historical reflection of the business landscape in the Caribbean reveals that while the Europeans held a dominant position in the ownership of business from the 1600s to well beyond Emancipation, other ethnic groups were actively involved in entrepreneurial activities.

The dominance of the Europeans resulted from access to more of the available resources and the prejudices that existed; some of these advantages have been extended to other ethnic groups, except for people of African ancestry.

History tells us that the stigma and scars formed are not easily erased, especially when current institutional systems and processes facilitate their retention and maintenance.

The business landscape has changed and continues to change. The ‘wealth of the nation’ is not as concentrated in the hands of the ‘21 families’.

Jamaica and the Caribbean have come a long way. But the journey continues, and FOBs across all ethnic groups have the responsibility to increase this diversity.

There are scars from history, scars that serve as reminders to resolve and not to repeat that which pits one ethnic group against another, and to put systems and processes in place that provide equal landing space for all groups.

FOBs must respond. The longer FOBs take to learn the lessons from the past, the more time they will waste time fighting against each other, rather than giving support and building a strong fraternity.

The economic future will benefit from a competitive, yet united and supportive fraternity of FOBs. History instructs, and FOBs ignore it at their great peril.

More anon.

Lawrence Nicholson, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the Mona School of Business & Management, University of the West Indies, and a director of the RJRGLEANER Communications Group. Email: