The original inhabitants of Jamaica are long forgotten, their name barely a footnote in Caribbean history. The main legacy of the Arawak Indians has been the word "Xamayca," meaning "land of wood and water," ("A Brief History of Jamaica"). Xamayca gradually became rendered as Jamaica, an island nation with a tumultuous but vibrant history. The first non-native settlers on Jamaica were the Spaniards. Christopher Columbus included it in Spain's territorial acquisitions in 1494. Soon thereafter, a small Spanish settlement existed on the island until 1655. The Spaniards killed every last Arawak, either via use of force or exposure to disease. Moreover, the Spaniards bought African slaves and brought them to Jamaica to work on the budding sugar plantations. Growing interest in sugar was fueling the Age of Imperialism. Britain was poised to strike the Caribbean.
In May 1655, a convoy of British ships arrived and startled the Spanish settlement. The Spaniards were outnumbered, and the British easily seized the territory in 1670. During the transition, an unknown number of slaves escaped and fled to the mountains. The self-liberated mountain dwelling former African slaves would be known as "Maroons," and they continued to fight for their freedom, liberty, and independence throughout British rule.
However, the British perpetuated the legacy of Spanish plantation economy and slave labor. The Royal Africa Company, formed in 1672, used Jamaica as a slave-trading post and distribution point for the entire West Indies ("Brief History of Jamaica"). The history of Jamaica was forever altered by the European conquest, but it was the relationship with the British that would characterize Jamaican cultural, economic, and political evolution. In 1707, Oliver Cromwell helped to unite Scotland and England into one nation, Britain. A unified Britain was a stronger Britain that would be emboldened to boost its colonies' production of raw materials and ensure centuries of colonial dominance throughout the region and the world.
Britain strengthened and diversified Jamaica's economy in several ways. The slave trade was one important global market that drove income to Jamaica. Planters banked on numerous crops in Jamaica, beyond sugar cane. Cocoa, indigo, and eventually coffee would become cash crops grown in Jamaica. In addition to the bulk of the African slave labor pool, the British also employed Irish slaves and indentured servants who were brought over as political prisoners (Tortello).
One of the factors that influenced the evolution of Jamaican politics and its relationship with Britain was the absentee model of plantation management. By the time of abolition, nearly all (eighty percent) of Jamaican plantations were run by absent owners: English landowners who rarely visited the island (Tortello). Landlords put in charge an overseer to manage the slaves and plantation accounting. The managers were often Scottish settlers or attorneys (Tortello). Slave revolts against the overseers occurred fairly regularly.
Zacek notes that primary British sources describe colonial settlements in Jamaica as being absentee in appearance; they exhibited little aesthetic character, with haphazard buildings constructed "as if we were passing visitors, wanting only tenements to be occupied for a time," (263). The landowners preferred to remain in the old country, surrounded by the wealth and "commercial policies of the metropole" in London, Bath, and other English hubs (Zacek 4). English landowners who had invested in Jamaica were among the wealthy elite, and formed a unique subculture in England based on their common business and commercial interests in the West Indies (Zacek). Likewise, Zacek notes that the West Indies political lobby had become remarkably powerful in Parliament and a potential thorn in the side to King George III. Absentee owners were accused of "shameless excesses," as they reaped the rewards of their plantations without lifting a finger (Zacek 4). It is likely that the behavior and reputation of the absentee plantation owners helped to boost the call for emancipation throughout the Empire.
According to Morgan, "Jamaica was the wealthiest territory in Britain's Atlantic empire," (1). Sheridan likewise claims Jamaica deserves honors as the "leading sugar colony of the British Empire in the
However, some sources suggest that competitor markets like St. Kitts and Barbados, also British colonies, were more prosperous than Jamaica at the time of the American Revolution in 1776 (Zacek). Regardless of its relative market share in sugar and its corresponding economic ranking, Jamaica was doing exceptionally well as a British Crown investment. It would remain so only as long as free labor was built into the pricing model of sugar, coffee, and cocoa exports.
The British eased its way out of the slave market for a number of different reasons, not all of which were related to the moral degeneracy of the institution. By the early nineteenth century, sugar markets were floundering after decades of growth. Ryden states, "Most historians describe the moral distaste for slavery as the sole reason for the cessation of the British slave trade. Data from the Caribbean…show that an economic crisis faced by sugar planters was critical to the timing of abolition in 1807." (347). Emancipation further crippled an already floundering sugar economy. Within the next several decades, cane sugar would receive some serious competition from beet sugar production, which could take place in Europe. Beet sugar and other cane competitors were rendering sugar plantations far less prosperous than they had been in their heyday, and might have been related to the decision to do away with maintaining a large pool of slaves.
The exact year of emancipation in Jamaica is unclear. Conflicting dates of emancipation of the slaves range from 1807 (Ryden) to 1833 (Draper), 1834 ("A Brief History of Jamaica," "Brief History of Jamaica,"), and 1838 ("Jamaica Timeline"). Draper pinpoints pan-colonial emancipation throughout British colonies as being in 1833. Discrepancies are likely due to the fact that a pan-Caribbean act of emancipation might not have been locally enacted in Jamaica at once, and also due to the fact that emancipation might have been a slow process to implement on a logistical level. Emancipation was in part economically motivated, due to the fact that sugar prices had recently dipped and the British economy needed to become more diversified. However, slave revolts might also have provided a political impetus. The 1831-2 revolts precipitated social change, but the slaves might also have capitalized on the opportune moment of revolting against their absentee masters. Overseers, perhaps many of who held grudges against absentee owners, might have contributed to an unstable social reality in Jamaica.
As part of its comprehensive emancipation policy, the British government decided to offer a total of £20 million to the landowners in exchange for losing their free labor pool. Nothing, of course, was offered to the slaves. Freed slaves found themselves in a peculiar predicament. As far back as 1761, a law was passed to place a cap on the value of black-owned property. It was a law responding to visible social unrest in Jamaica, representing a heavy-handed approach to British rule. The 1761 laws also responded to slave revolts like Tackey's Revolt of 1760, and were aimed to "bolster white privileged status" in Jamaica in spite of their already being a sizable number of blacks like the Maroons who were able to own land (Smith 329).
Emancipation was a political necessity at the turn of the 19th century. Smith postulates that slavery failed in part because the local black community was becoming politically empowered. Absentee ownership may have contributed to the enabling of self-empowerment by black Jamaicans. Unlike Barbados, Jamaica never attracted a large number of white British settlers. The absentee model would forever determine the social, political, and economic status of Jamaica as unique among the colonies. Britain's largest West Indian colony was becoming increasingly black, and inevitably revolts were taking place at a rate overseers could no longer tolerate. Furthermore, laws against intermarriage and land value laws were contributing to a racially motivated political agenda that was untenable but enforced by British power.
After emancipation, slaves were not truly liberated. The British remained firmly in power, and blacks were unable to participate in the economic or political institutions governing Jamaica. All social institutions, such as churches, were racially segregated. Intermarriage was increasingly being legally barred as well as socially proscribed. After emancipation, former slaves were either encouraged or tacitly forced to remain with their plantations as a source of cheap, if not totally free labor. In some cases, the slave's decision to remain on the plantation was made out of personal need. As Smith puts it, slaves remaining on a sugar plantation "were more likely to occupy higher positions within the plantation hierarchy than other members of the slave population," (329-330). This was mainly true for male slaves, but some female slaves were able to obtain positions of relative power.
Between 1834 and 1838, during the critical time of transitioning from…
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