Jamaican People; Jamaican Heritage; Jamaican History
Although over 90% of our population is comprised of individuals of African descent, the contribution of other ethnic groups such as the Indians, the Chinese, the Germans, the Jews, and the Syrians/Lebanese to the social and economic development of the country is significant.
The Arawaks were a mild and simple people by nature. Physically, they were light brown in color, short, and well-shaped with coarse, black hair. Their faces were broad and their noses flat. The group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Jamaica were the Taino Indians.
In 1655 Jamaica was wrested from the Spanish by the British. Most of the early British settlers were English, who set up large sugar and other plantations. Throughout slavery and afterwards, the British (mainly the men) produced children with the black population.
England gained formal possession of Jamaica from Spain in 1670 through the Treaty of Madrid. As there was no longer a need for constant defence against Spanish attack, planting of crops began.
The British controlled the land until 1962. They built their kingdom on sugar cultivated by African labor. They also exported rum and molasses that were traded for flour, pork, and pickled fish.
The first Africans arrived in Jamaica in 1513 as servants to the Spanish settlers. With the advent of the Sugar Revolution, there was an acute labor shortage. This need was met by large scale importation of enslaved Africans. Later, slaves were imported from West Africa. Many of these Africans mixed with the Tainos and Spanish to produce mixed race children.
These Africans were freed by the Spanish when the English captured the island in 1655. They immediately fled to the mountains where they fought to retain their freedom and became the first Maroons.
The chief survivals of African culture are said to be in the parishes which had the largest number of these voluntary workers. For example, the kumina ritual of St. Thomas is one of the best-known surviving rituals.
The East Indians are the largest ethnic minority in Jamaica. They arrived as indentured laborers between 1845 and 1917. The East Indians came to Jamaica to earn a "fortune" to start a better life back in India.
The East Indians introduced several plants and trees in Jamaica, the most common being betel leaves, betel nut, coolie plum, mango, jackfruit, and tamarind. The food habits of East Indians have a distinctly East Indian flavor and taste. A typical East Indian dinner consists of curried goat, roti, pulses usually cooked with mangoes, curried potato, eggplant, bitter gourd and okra.
Jamaica's first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1854, as indentured workers. These first immigrants were all male. Although some Chinese went back home to marry Chinese wives who they brought back to Jamaica, others inter-married with non-Chinese Jamaicans contributing to the island's racial mixture.
Other free immigrants came in the 20th century, also establishing businesses. They too have mixed with white, Indian and black. With widespread immigration to North America in the 1970's, Chinese formed less than 1/2% of the Jamaican population in 1991. In the 21st century, a fresh wave of Chinese has been coming directly from China, and the “Chiney Shop” is on the rise again across the island.
The Chinese represent a small proportion of the Jamaican population, nevertheless, their impact has been great particularly in the area of commerce. Apart from the development of commerce, the popularity of Chinese food among Jamaicans is a lasting contribution to the island.
The Germans came as indentured laborers. After emancipation, the Colonial Government of Jamaica adopted a program of settling European peasants in the island. It was hoped that they would create a thriving settlement and act as a model for the ex-slaves. It was also hoped that if the hills were settled by Europeans, the ex-slaves would continue to work on the large estates. The program was never a success.
The first Jews came to the island during the Spanish occupation of the island, 1494 - 1655. These Jews came from Spain and Portugal. They fled because of the Spanish inquisition. To conceal their identity they referred to themselves as "Portuguese" and practiced their religion secretly.
Jamaica's Jewish population was never large. However, their contribution to the economic and commercial life of the nation outstripped that of any other group of comparable size in Jamaica.
Lebanese and Syrians came to Jamaica in the late 19th century. The majority came from Lebanon, the others were from Damascus in Syria and from Bethlehem in Palestine. They established themselves as merchants of clothing, textiles, and other dry goods. Many of them started out by roving around the country carrying their goods on their backs. Descendants of these immigrants, though few, have contributed significantly to the development of trade and commerce in Jamaica. The early generations would often send back to their homelands to find wives. Later generations have mixed with the wider Jamaican population.
Despite being a small percentage of the Jamaican population, this group has played a significant role in the commercial and industrial development of the economy. Through their influence as well, Syrian bread has become immensely popular among Jamaicans.
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An editor/writer with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to report writing. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician, and loves to see people transformed through her work.