Wed | Sep 22, 2021

Early Jamaican migration to Ecuador and influence

Published:Thursday | August 20, 2015 | 12:00 AMPaulette Ramsay
The beauty on the tracks, Engine 54, which was built in 1944 in Canada, served Jamaica Railways till 1968, however, the most complicated railway in the world was built in Ecuador by indigenous people from Central America and workers of African descent from Jamaica.

"Solomon Grampa gone a Ecuador

Lef him wife an pickney out a door

Nobody's business but him own."

Jamaican migration in the 19th century to Central America and other Caribbean countries has been the subject of much study. There is significant research on the first large-scale movement of Jamaicans in 1850, to Panama, where they worked on the construction of the railway line, as well as their departure in 1880-1904 to build the Panama Canal.

Historians like Franklin Knight have documented the movements of Jamaicans to Cuba: to provide slaves for the sugar plantations in the early 19th century; to fight in the Cuban War of Independence and as seasonal workers employed by the United Fruit Company between 1902-1931. However, I am not aware of any studies that have given attention to the migration of Jamaicans to Ecuador. Even those studies which investigate the black presence in Ecuador ignore the Jamaican heritage and contribution.

The extract quoted above is from a well-known Jamaican folk song, but it is quite dubious if many Jamaicans are aware that these rhythmic lyrics actually have a basis in historical reality.


Travelling the Caribbean


Eminent UWI Professor Emeritus, Patrick Bryan, in an article in The Gleaner of June 2, 2000, asserted that: "Between about 1850 and 1930, Panama, Cuba, Costa Rica were the three most important destinations for Jamaicans, but there were other destinations as well - Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bryan, however, does not provide us with any details of this contact between Jamaica and Ecuador.

Information in the Ecuadorian Historical Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not abundant, but exists because the construction of the Guayaquil-Quito Railway line remains a testimony of the determination of President Jose Eloy Alfaro (1895-1901 and 1906-1911) who had believed that the answer to Ecuador's pursuit of prosperity would be found in the locomotive. He endorsed the plan to link the lowlands with the highlands that were designed by his predecessor, Gabriel Garcia Moreno (1821-1875), after the first English engineer Kelly, who obtained a contract in 1885 to build the line, immediately became bankrupt, and left Ecuador. In 1897, Alfaro found favour with two Americans - Archer Harman and Major John Harman - who committed to building the railway line.

The Guayaquil-Quito Railway line, built between 1897-1908, has been described as the "most challenging and most expensive" railway line to be constructed in the world; as it had to be built through some of the most treacherous parts of the Andean range. Construction was hampered by torrential rainfalls, the caving in of mountains and landslides that repeatedly destroyed sections that had already been built. Workers were also plagued by diseases, such as malaria, which killed many of them. The most dangerous sections of the construction were the highest parts of the mountain range, and even more perilous was the peak which comprised a monstrous mountain called La nariz del Diablo/The Devil's Nose. This was said to be a solid wall that had to be destroyed to a allow the continuation of the line. Four thousand (4,000) Jamaicans were recruited in 1900 for this section of the construction, as it was believed that no one was likely to conquer this mountain.

The Jamaicans had gained fame for their experience in the building of railway lines, having witnessed and, in some cases, worked in the construction of the railway line in Jamaica (opened in 1845) - the first railroad outside of Europe and North America and the second British Colonial Railway after Canada. Their experience working alongside British engineers made them suitable for recruitment to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama railroad between 1850-1855. Besides their experience with railroads, the Jamaicans were also valuable for their discipline, linguistic skills (ability to understand English) and ability to handle dynamites. It is said that many a Jamaican finger, hand and life was lost in the construction, as they blasted the formidable rocks in the Andean mountain range.


Efficient transportation


Its completion was celebrated as a tremendous success as it improved mobility in the country from the highlands to the coast. Jose Alfaro was convinced that this Trans-Andean Railway would also modernise Ecuador and rescue it from stagnation. Indeed, prior to the construction of the railway, movement between the coastlands and the highlands of Ecuador on mules took 10 to 12 days. The railway was welcomed, especially by members of the elite groups, government officials, businessmen and travellers who were happy for the opportunity to move from coast to coast in a much shorter time. The view was also held by politicians that it served to unify the country as there was now more contact between people on both sides of the country, who were no longer separated by impenetrable mountains. Despite this welcoming of the railway line, it proved to be extremely costly to maintain. There were frequent landslides along the line which required frequent repairs. The State could not sustain the enormous costs associated with operating this railway that had also required huge sums to be built. Eventually the railway line was closed in 1960.

It is still regarded as the most "complicated railway in the world", and it would not have been a reality without a hardworking group of indigenous people from Central America and workers of African descent from Jamaica. The stretch of the railway called La nariz del Diablo/ The Devil's Nose was declared a State Cultural Heritage Site in 2008. This famous tourist attraction referred to as "the railway in the sky"; is a place that inspires great awe as people try to imagine how anyone could build through such perilous terrain. Also dubbed 'The Redemptive Work', it is the most celebrated accomplishment in Ecuador, but it was one which also resulted in massive destruction of the Ecuadorian landscape because its construction required the destruction of vast areas of the mountains. Additionally, many Jamaicans lost their lives as the Ecuadorian Government poured all its resources into the construction of the most expensive railway in the world.

The National Archives in Spanish Town holds a few records of some Jamaicans who migrated to Ecuador in the 1900s. One case involves 11 Jamaicans who requested that they be repatriated to Jamaica. Other records reveal that similar requests for repatriation were made in 1933. The records also show that between January 1930 and December 1934, 54 Jamaicans paid their own passages back to Jamaica from Ecuador. Repatriation was sought due to the very arduous nature of the job, low wages, rough terrain and ill-health, which many found to be overwhelming. Between 1901 and 1915, correspondence between the then Acting Colonial Secretary Philip Cork and one Mr S. S. Wortley, inspector of labourers, reveals complaints by Jamaican labourers against the company in charge of the construction. They complained of being beaten and hunted by the Ecuadorian army when they tried to escape the harsh conditions in which they worked.

Interestingly, a long-standing legend in Ecuador, among the very few who know of the Jamaican presence in Ecuador, was that the Jamaicans went to Ecuador as slaves and were only able to build the railway because they practised witchcraft (obeah) and made a pact with the devil. This is the story that tour guides recount to visitors to the most treacherous sections of the now non-functioning railway line.


Lack of loyalty


Besides propagating and spreading this misunderstanding of the status of Jamaicans who migrated to Ecuador, the legend also makes specious claims about their disloyalty to each other, purporting that they often killed each other to ensure that there would be less of them to be paid so they would each earn more in this way. Today, there is a small group of Ecuadorians of Jamaican descent who have recently discovered their Jamaican ancestry and have begun to conscientiously and diligently research the history of their forebears in Ecuador and challenge these specious arguments.

Ironically, the entrepreneurial Jamaicans went to Ecuador with the dream of earning money to send back for their families and to eventually return with money. However, they discovered that the many promises of the American engineers and recruiters would not be met even as they faced grave peril on the mountains. Nevertheless, the majority of the Jamaicans showed commendable determination to see the completion of the railway line despite disappointment, economic insecurity and the threat to their safety. The Jamaicans helped the Ecuadorian government at the time to realise their dream to connect mountain with coast in their pursuit of economic prosperity and modernity; while their own dreams to achieve economic gains were not met. Today, many Ecuadorians are unaware of the tremendous sacrifice of Jamaican lives that was made for the building of Ecuador's most important tourist attraction - the Devil's Nose.

- Dr Paulette A. Ramsay is senior lecturer and head of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, The UWI, Mona Campus. She is a researcher in Hispanic Caribbean and Afro-Hispanic Cultures and Literatures. Email: