Jamaica Fiwi Roots

The Settlement of the Syrians and Lebanese in Jamaica


The countries of Syria and Lebanon did not exist when the first Syrian/Lebanese immigrants landed on the shores of Jamaica in the 1890s. Both were part of the same geographic entity called Greater Syria, ruled by the Ottoman Empire when they arrived. The creation of the two countries occurred after World War I when the Ottoman Empire was defeated, leaving the French in control of Greater Syria. France decided for political reasons, to separate Lebanon from Syria in 1920. They saw unity as a threat to its military and political might within the region, so their objective was to encourage religious, ethnic and regional differences within the region, which would hinder political unity.

The early Lebanese/Syrians who came to Jamaica, originated from a region known as Mount Lebanon, now a part of the country of Lebanon, but was part of Greater Syria at the time of their arrival. This explains why the terms Syrian and Lebanese are often used interchangeably in Jamaica.

Lebanon was a largely Christian country, and like the Jews, were subject to persecution by the Muslim Turks who were in control under the Ottoman Empire. The Lebanese/Syrian immigrants arrived in Jamaica in the 1890s. The exact date is unknown and it is also unclear why Jamaica was chosen, but there are several interesting datapoints that may lend a clue. The following excerpt from a piece in the Gleaner, provides an insight into the mindset of the immigrants at the time:

Nellie Ammar, the daughter of one of the earliest Lebanese immigrants and matriarch of the well-known Ammar retail family, collected stories from many of her relatives and friends prior to her own passing in the late 1990s. In an article for the Jamaica Journal she referenced her father who explained that for many who left the Middle East in the 1860s and 1870s, Britain was seen as the country of freedom. America was still emerging from the throes of its own bloody civil war. Therefore, according to him, the earliest Lebanese/Syrian immigrants seemed to have decided to seek the protection of the British Flag wherever they could and Jamaica fell into that category.

The timing of the 1890s may also be significant. Jamaica's Great Exhibition, was held in 1891. Inspired by England's own "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations", held in 1851, it was meant to showcase to a worldwide audience, the virtues of the country's industries and as a place to do business. Word of the exhibition in Jamaica would have spread far and wide, including the Middle East and may have played a part in the early middle eastern immigrants making it home.

Peddlers to Retailers

Unlike many of nationalities such as the Irish, Chinese and Indians who came here through indenture, the early Lebanese/Syrians came here by choice. Today, the familiar names of Ziadie, Hanna, Mahfood, Issa, Joseph, Matalon, to name a few, are well known names in the world of Jamaican retail and business. The path from the humble beginnings of first immigrants who arrived over a century ago to the successes of names just mentioned, is a story of building on small successes.

The early settlers started out peddling goods. They would borrow from others in their community who had the resources to lend, buy a small amount of goods and sell them door to door. As business improved, they would expand by improving on their mode of transport, a mule for instance, and so be able to expand the range of goods and/or cover greater distances. Eventually as business improved further, they would eventually open a dry goods shop, many of which still exists downtown Kingston on Harbour Street, King and Orange Street.