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Jamaicans’ Suffrage Prior to Immigrating to America

Early Jamaican History

Columbus Claimed the Island for Spain

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Native American Tainos

Tainos colonized Jamaica Island long before Columbus’s arrival. They compose one of the largest ethnic groups of Jamaica. They were the major part of the Jamaican population before the arrival of Europeans and still are a prominent ethnocultural group of the island. According to Neeganagwedgin, “about one million of Taino people lived on Jamaica Island before colonization” (378). Even though their numbers drastically changed after the colonial rule, they did not vanish and managed to preserve their heritage, thanks to their rich culture. Tainos have an elaborate oral tradition, beautiful totemic craftsmanship, and compelling folk drum music.

Christopher Columbus Arrived in Jamaica

Columbus was the first European to reach Jamaica in 1494. During his extensive period of traveling around the Caribbean, Columbus visited Jamaica numerous times and even was stranded on the island with his crew for a year (Kummels et al. 64). Columbus performed a couple of expeditions into the island in hopes to find gold, but with no success. Even though Spanish Empire granted Jamaica to the Columbus family, there were no proper settlements, and the island was mainly used as a supplier of simple raw materials, like hides or meat.

Settlements Established in Jamaica

Juan De Esquivel Arrived in 1509

The famous conquistador Juan de Esquivel occupied Jamaica in 1509. It wasn’t his first voyage to Jamaica, as he previously helped Columbus on the Hispaniola Island. With his men, he established the first permanent European settlement on the island. The birth of the Seville colony near St Ann’s Bay marked the beginning of the official governance of Jamaica by the Spanish Crown. Unfortunately, the North Coast of Jamaica was less than hospitable, and settlers were forced to move the town. In 1534, the new settlement was founded, called Villa de la Vega (Kummels et al. 103).

Jamaica Becomes Underdeveloped Because of Lack of Gold

Spanish colonists extensively surveyed Jamaica for gold. Enslaving the local population, they overworked the native people of Jamaica to death (Neeganagwedgin 384). The savage work conditions and various diseases brought by colonists diminished the local labor force severely. That is when the Spaniards started to ship West African slaves to Jamaica in masses. Unfortunately, even after extensive mining, no gold deposits were found on the island. After the abandonment of the idea of gold mining, the Spanish Empire used Jamaica only as a military outpost for their expansions into the Americas.

Spain Ceded Control of Jamaica to Britain with the Treaty of Madrid

Britain Overpowered Spaniards to Take Jamaica in 1655

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British Left Island to the Pirates Until 1670

After the invasion of Jamaica in 1655, the Treaty of Madrid acknowledged the rule of the British Empire over the Caribbean. The invasion itself was bloody; both Britain and Spain lost a lot of troops. Because of the lack of soldiers, the British Crown was forced to use the services of various pirates to defend the newly acquired Jamaica. Port Royal, the town situated on the southeast coast of Jamaica, became the notorious pirate den (Kummels et al. 80). To compete in trade with the Spanish Crown, Britain sanctioned various pirated groups to attack Spanish trading fleets. This is how privateers were born, legal pirates on the service to the British Crown.

Freed Spanish Slaves Became Maroons

The first independent settlements of runaway African slaves in Jamaica date back to 1655 (Kummels et al. 42). Hiding in the depths of the island and joining the native people, those slaves managed to survive for quite some time. After the events of the invasion of Jamaica, a lot of Spanish African slaves were displaced, so Maroon communities became even larger. Maroons attacked the white plantation owners and became a real threat to the British Government on the island. After the prolonged warfare, the British colonists were forced to sign the treaty with the Jamaican Maroons, effectively freeing those people.

Britain Turned Island into Sugar Plantation

The Slaves Produced Over 80,000 Tons of Sugar

Sugar production was on the increase. The British population extensively used this product in their cuisine and the tea tradition. It was so profitable that in the late 17-th century sugar cane plantations completely replaced both cotton and tobacco plantations in Jamaica (Seth 766). The coastal region of Jamaica was perfectly suited for cultivating sugar cane, and because of the peculiar technology of cultivation, it was more economically effective to grow sugar cane in large fields. To supply those fields with the workforce, Jamaica already had an extensive slave trade system established. Therefore, Jamaica Island had great potential for the sugar industry.

The Government Tried to Balance the White to Black Population

In the early 19-th century, the average-sized sugar plantation in Jamaica housed about 200 slaves (Petley 447). The black population was five times larger compared to the white population. Such a huge concentration of slaves resulted in various uprisings. According to Richards, “The British Empire tried to enforce strict policing among the slaves, but it only provoked more conflict, such as the Baptist War” (7). Huge losses of life and property forced the British Government to ban the import of slaves to Jamaica, then ban the slave trade altogether in 1808. By 1834 slavery itself was abolished, but the violent emancipation period still kept the freed African people in a severe dependency.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Hart-Cellar Immigration Reform Act Allowed for a Surge of Immigrants to the U.S.

The Largest Wave of Immigrants from Jamaica Began in 1965

Britain Restricted Immigration from Its Former Commonwealth Colonies

After the Second World War, the United Kingdom granted independence to most of its colonies. After those events, the British Nationality Act of 1948 was introduced, which allowed the people from former colonies of the British Empire to live and work in the United Kingdom without a visa (Altink 34). It provoked a huge wave of migration into the United Kingdom; therefore, as a countermeasure, Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962. This act severely restricted migration from the Caribbean to protect the domestic labor market of the United Kingdom.

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The Hart-Cellar Immigration Act Opened the Way for a Surge of Immigrants

With the extensive restrictions on migration policy in the United Kingdom, Jamaican immigrants searched for a new place to settle. In 1965, with the introduction of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Jamaicans could immigrate in masses and completely legal (Ferguson and Bornstein 26) into the United States. Abolishing the old quota system based on nationality, the Hart-Cellar Act implemented the new system that focused on family reunification and immigration of specialists. This act stimulated the migration from the Caribbean in general and helped to reinforce the cultural bond between this region and the United States.

The Second Wave of Jamaican Immigration to the U.S. in the seventies

Immigration flow from Western Hemisphere to the U.S.

To fill the gaps in the labor market and stimulate the influx of workforce into the United States, Congress developed a new bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act. This bill of 1976 tried to increase the immigration flow from Western Hemisphere Nations (Ferguson and Bornstein 29). It also introduced the preference system for people coming from Western Hemisphere countries and removed the “special immigrant” restrictions for such nationalities. The 20,000 per-country immigration limit was also applied to those countries, which again allowed people from Jamaica to immigrate to the United States in large numbers.

Many Reasons for Jamaicans to Immigrate into the U.S.

Following the process of gradual independence from the British Empire, Jamaica fell into political turmoil. The rapid transition from the agrarian country to the developing industrious society and infighting between various political parties took a great toll on the Jamaican citizens. As Figueroa notes in her novel, “Jamaica is a small island; everything might be known, but everything is off the record” (7). From 1975 to 1981, the political pressure escalated into a civil war. With such a level of civil unrest, there are numerous reasons for Jamaicans to immigrate into the United States. Those hardships include poverty, unemployment, high crime rates, and widespread corruption. Numerous questionings of government officials were performed about the legitimacy of some regional elections, yet, sadly, people’s voice is rarely heard in Jamaica as of today (Altink 37).


Jamaica is a beautiful country with a rich history. Even though it suffered greatly under colonial rule, its people still managed to move forward. Through the path of numerous hardships, the Jamaican Island evolved from the small Spanish military outpost into the richest European colony in the world and then finally got independence in the middle of the 20th century. It is still a developing country, so there is a lot of strife going on in Jamaica even today. This forces a lot of Jamaican citizens to immigrate to the United States. Nevertheless, judging from the rapid transformation of Jamaica in the 20th century, there is a bright future ahead.

Works Cited

Altink, Henrice. “Facilitator or hindrance to social change? The Westminster model and racial discrimination on the Jamaican labour market, 1944–1980.” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, vol. 53, no.1, 2015, pp. 29-48.

Ferguson, Gail M., and Marc H. Bornstein. “Remote acculturation of early adolescents in Jamaica towards European American culture: A replication and extension.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 45, no. 15, 2015, pp. 24-35.

Figueroa, Esther. Limbo: A Novel about Jamaica. Arcade Publishing, 2014.

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Kummels, Ingrid, et al. Transatlantic Caribbean: Dialogues of People, Practices, Ideas (Global Studies). Transcript-Verlag, 2015.

Neeganagwedgin, Erica. “Rooted in the land: Taíno Identity, Oral History and Stories of Reclamation in Contemporary Contexts.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, vol. 11, no. 4, 2015, pp. 376-388.

Petley, Christer. “Plantations and Homes: The Material Culture of the Early Nineteenth-Century Jamaican Elite.” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 437-457.

Richards, Jake Christopher. “Political Culture in Jamaica before Anticolonial Nationalism.” History Compass, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-11.

Seth, Suman. “Materialism, Slavery, and the History of Jamaica.” Isis, vol. 105, no. 4, 2014, pp. 764-772.

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