Approximately 37,000 Indians immigrated to Jamaica between 1845 and 1916. The East Indians arrived as indentured laborers seeking to earn enough to afford a better life back in India. Most Indians had the intention to return home at the end of their contract, but only 38% of the 37,000 repatriated. The majority settled on the island to become the largest ethnic minority on the island. Today, they represent about 3% of the Jamaican population.
On May 10, 1845, a ship named the "SS Blundell", docked at Old Harbour with 261 Indian indentured workers -- 200 men, 28 young women and 33 children. They were the first set of Indian immigrants to arrive in Jamaica.
On arrival, the laborers were each given a single change of clothing, tools for agriculture and cooking pots. They were divided into groups of 20 to 40 and sent, first by mule cart and in later years on overcrowded freight trains to plantations in Portland, St. Thomas, St. Mary, Clarendon and Westmoreland.
They worked for a stipend that was less than what was paid to ex-slaves. They lived in shared accommodations with several families having to share a single room. The overwhelming majority of the Indian immigrants were Hindu, but little provision was made for their faith and cultural practices. They were not allowed to leave the plantation without a permit and many suffered from diseases.
The following year, in 1846, an additional 1,852 East Indians arrived, five times as many as those who came before, with an additional 2,439 arriving in 1847. Many of of the Indentured Indians were lured into their contract, per H.N.D Beyts, the Protector of Immigrants:
"The Coolies who are ensnared by these unprincipled intermeddlers are often grossly deceived. Those who are desirous of going to a colony of their own choice, either because they have been there before, or have their relatives there whom they wish to join, or who are induced to go there by the fate experienced there by others who have returned to their homes are either inveigled away by deceitful promises or taken fraudulently and without their consent to the depot of another colony. Women are enticed away from their husbands and families. Those Coolies who, resisting promises and despising threats, escape from the stratagems devised for the purposes of entrapping them, see their families held in durance, and in open defiance of the authority of local laws, the servants of the local industrial establishments are decoyed away from their masters."
Most of the planters did not see an economic benefit in incurring the additional cost of sending the laborers back to India at the end of their indenture. So, they lobbied the government to provide incentives to the Indians to stay in Jamaica and to limit what they, the planters, would have to contribute to any repatriation. It was decided that land and money would be used as the main incentive. At the end of their contract, the Indians were offered 10-12 acres of land or cash. With most plats located in mountainous and infertile areas, many chose to take the cash in hand and by 1877 close to £32,000 had been spent on these money grants.
In 1879, the government suspended the option of receiving cash, leaving no option other than to accept the offer of land or stay without receiving anything. Eventually, this course of action also proved to be too expensive to the government. The cost of the land grant was proving almost as expensive as repatriation. The grants were costing £12 per person compared to £15 per person to repatriate.
The land grants were suspended by the government in 1897. It was resumed six year later in 1903, only to be finally withdrawn in 1906. By that time the rules had changed, requiring male immigrants to pay up to half of their passage and female immigrants up to one-third. In addition, the cost of blankets and warm clothing became the responsibility of the immigrants. This hardship ruled out returning home for many.
Repatriation was further complicated by the lack of ships. The government stipulated that ships had to be full to justify sailing. This made dates unpredictable and by the time there were sufficient passengers, the ship was often oversubscribed forcing the immigrants to make a choice of splitting up the family or remaining for another date.
The advent of World War I, was the final nail. Ocean travel was curtailed and ships were recommissioned for use in the war. The last set of repatriates left in 1929.
The final group of Indian immigrants landed in Jamaica in 1914. Most settled in Jamaica.