Jamaica Fiwi Roots

The Settlement of the Irish in Jamaica

The Irish arrived in Jamaica shortly after the English had wrested control of the island from the Spanish in 1655. It had only been two years before that that Ireland had ended its own war with England; a war that pitted Catholics against Protestants and Royalists against Parliamentarians. It was a time of great turmoil in Ireland, England had won the war and a vast number of Irish men, women and children were either killed or displaced and forcibly deported from the country with many destined for the West Indies.

Irish Confederate Wars

The years leading up to the Irish wars were contentious ones in England and Scotland. King Charles I was crowned in 1625 and in the same year married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, making many of his subjects, particularly the Puritans, suspicious. Making matters worse, there was ongoing tension with parliament over money at a time when the King needed money to fund foreign wars.

Charles believed in the divine right of Kings; i.e. Kings are chosen by God and are not subject to the laws, as other men are. Charles dissolved parliament three times in the first four years of his rule, and in 1629, resolved to rule alone, he dismissed parliament for eleven years. During this period, he raised revenue by non-parliamentary means making him even more unpopular. His authoritarian rule and quarrels with Parliament eventually split the country, throwing it into a civil war that led to his trial for treason and his execution in January, 1649.

The Court's ruling on King Charles:

"This Court doth adjudge that he the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy to the good people of this Nation, [and] shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body".

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, a skilled politician with a strong power base, was from a wealthy family and a descendant of Thomas Cromwell, one of King Henry VIII's ministers. He is the only non-royal to have ever held the title of Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had strength of will, foresight and determination and was a prominent player in bringing Charles to trial and his execution, raising the ire of royalists for his role in the execution of their King.

Cromwell was first elected to Parliament in 1628 but his tenure was cut short in 1629 when parliament was suspended by King Charles. He returned in 1640, when Charles was essentially forced to reconvene Parliament following a rebellion against his rule in Scotland. By then, Cromwell had become a devout Puritan who believed that Catholic influence tainted the Church of England and should be removed.

Following the execution of the King, his followers, "the Royalists", signed a peace agreement with the Irish Catholic Confederation which had ruled two-thirds of Ireland since 1641, effectively aligning themselves with the Irish Catholics against the English Parliament. They also were joined by the Catholics in Scotland who also felt alienated by the execution.

Cromwell and the Displacement of the Irish

In August 1649 Cromwell sailed for Ireland determined to re-conquer the country and quash the new alliance . He was intent on bringing Ireland under complete English control and his actions at Drogheda and Wexford earned him a reputation for cruelty. Cromwell's own report sent to the Speaker of the English Parliament about the battle at Drogheda, presented below, describes the horrors the Irish faced and a General insensitive to their plight.

"In the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and, I think, that night they put to the sword about 2,000 men. Divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town, where about one hundred of them possessed St Peter's steeple [and two other Towers]... I ordered the steeple of St Peter's to be fired where one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames: 'God damn me, God confound me: I burn. I burn'... The next day, the other two Towers were summonsed... When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the others shipped to the Barbadoes... The last Lord's Day before the storm, the Protestants were thrust out of the great church called St Peter's and they had a public Mass there; and in this very place near one thousand Catholics were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety. I believe all the friars were knocked promiscuously on the head but two; the one of which was Fr Peter Taaff... whom the soldiers took and made an end of; the other was taken in the round tower, under the repute of lieutenant, and when he understood that the officers in the Tower had no quarter, he confessed he was a friar; but that did not save him."
--Selected Documents in Irish History, Josef L. Altholz

In the end, both Catholic and Royalist resistance had been crushed. The English had confiscated the land of all "rebels" resulting in forty per cent of the land of Ireland being redistributed from Irish Catholics to English Protestants . Active participants in the fight against the English were deported from the country, many destined for the West Indies in indentured servitude to work the sugar plantations for periods ranging from four to seven years.

The Arrival of the Irish in Jamaica

The period of Irish indentured servitude had two main phases. The first occurred during the years 1641-1651. The failed attempt to overthrow the English-dominated government and restore the rights of Catholics led to a crackdown by England Irish rights, many were forcibly removed and sent to British plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. The second second major period was around 1652-1660, when the focus was on children. After a decade of brutal treatment, Ireland was full of orphans. Thousands of orphaned children were transported to the British colonies to be raised as laborers. For years, Irish laborers constituted a major population segment of the British colonies.

Jamaica was still under Spanish rule when the Irish wars ended, and Barbados had already had over 25 years of English rule. The few surviving members of the garrison after the the battle of Drogheda who were sent by Cromwell to Barbados, were amongst the first Irish displaced by the war to arrive in Barbados. Over time, many more arrived, destitute and homeless. Widows, orphans and wealthy Catholics stripped of their land and all they owned, suffered the same fate.

By the end of 1655, workers were needed in Jamaica to begin the process of building the new colony. Irish workers were sent from Barbados as well as from Ireland. Some were convicts, many were indentured servants but very few of them had committed any great crimes. The plight of Irish workers in the early days of their arrival, was likely not much better than that of the African slaves. But, unlike the slaves, the Irish had options once their term of servitude ended. After they had served their time, they had options such as participating in the militia to defend of the island, which would greatly improve their circumstance, and open up possibilities to move into positions of power and political influence.

The number of Irish in Jamaica was also augmented by the arrival of free Irish choosing to settle in Jamaica after having completed their indentures elsewhere. The price of land on smaller islands like Barbados was becoming inflated with the increasing demand for sugar cultivation. A Barbadian historian calculated that in the years following 1660, about 5,000 Irish settlers frustrated by their inability to gain access to land, left the island bound for Jamaica. Another 5,000 headed for mainland America, the Leewards, Windwards and Surinam.

These free Irish settlers -- those arrived from other places and those who completed their servitude in Jamaica -- would eventually build their lives becoming merchants or traders or owning their own plantation and their own slaves. Names such as O'Hara and O'Connor are recorded as recipients of remuneration, during the slave compensation hearings in 1837.

An Irish Governor of Jamaica, Champion of the Enslaved

A lot changed for the Irish during the 17th and 18th century, both in Jamaica and in their homeland. By the beginning of 1800s, the relationship between England and Ireland -- at least for the privileged -- had changed, so much so, an Irish lord, Howe Peter Browne 2nd Marquess of Sligo, was appointed Governor of Jamaica and Cayman Islands in 1834, the same year in which the Emancipation Act was enacted. The Act did not provide immediate freedom to the slaves, they were instead transitioned to a four year period of "Apprenticeship" under their masters.

He, Lord Sligo, was the owner of two plantations in Jamaica, which he inherited from his grandmother Elizabeth Kelly, daughter of a former Chief Justice of Jamaica, Denis Kelly, of Galway. Being a plantation owner himself, the island's plantocracy expected a ready ear to their concerns but he had a much different vision. He found slavery to be abhorrent and ordered the Jamaican House of Assembly to put an end to the inhumane treatment of slaves such as whipping and branding. He was bent on establishing a system that removed forever, the reproach of slavery. He gave careful consideration to the poorest of blacks who carried their complaints to Government House. Against the opposition of the Jamaican parliament, he advocated the building of schools for the African population, two of which he built at his own cost on his property. He was the first plantation owner to initiate a wage system for black workers and later, after full emancipation in 1838 and the end of the apprenticeship, to divide his lands into farms and lease them to former slaves.

National Gallery of Jamaica

The sugar works at Kelly's estate, 1836
One of two plantations owned by Lord Sligo

The planter-dominated assembly in revolt, accused him of siding with the Africans. They began a campaign to vilify him in the local and British press resulting in his removal from office in September 1836. He returned home, but not before receiving a gift from the black community who saw him as their champion, and in an unprecedented gesture gave him an silver candelabrum inscribed as follows:

"In grateful remembrance they entertain of his unremitting efforts to relieve their suffering and to redress their wrongs during his just and enlightened administration of the Government of Jamaica."

Back home, he continued his fight for the blacks in the House of Lords where he announced on March 22, 1838, that regardless of the British Government's deliberations, he proposed to free all apprentices on his own estates in Jamaica on August 1, 1838. His announcement helped to shepherd in full emancipation on the same date. The town of Sligoville in Jamaica, the first free slave village in the world, was named after him.

The Irish after 1834

Migration to Jamaica continued through the 17th and 18th centuries. The draw of a new life and a new start after a 4-7 years of indenture was a price many were willing to pay.

Publication: Limerick Reporter
November 17, 1840

The Slave Emancipation Act was the beginning of the end of Slavery in Jamaica. It also represents the birth of a period in Jamaica's history that paved a path to its national motto; "Out of Many One People".

The emancipation of slavery changed the calculus for the plantation class in Jamaica. With their ability to own slaves for a lifetime of labor removed as an option, new ways had to be found to address the labor needed to run the plantations. This led to the creation of programs such as the "Bountied European Immigration". A marketing campaign launched in Europe to find new workers with enticing language depicting a life of opportunity and enticing benefits.

The image of an article "Emigration to Jamaica" that appeared in the Limerick Reporter, published November 17, 1840, in Ireland, is presented here as an example of how the idea was sold in countries across Europe. Workers from Ireland, Scotland and Germany responded, but the experiment was not without problems as evidenced by the excerpt that follows...

Excerpt from an article in the Patriot Newspaper, London. The full article is available below.

If the negroes were intractable, the emigrants have shown themselves a hundred times more so...

The spiritless negro may talk clamoressly; yet even then it is humbly; and he never raises his finger against his manager. But the emigrant who is brought here avowedly to set him an example of proper behaviour for servants and labourers, is insolent soon, and hesitates not to double his fist and threaten. It is reported that one of them said, "If there is another rising, I'll join the blacks!"

The European experiment did not last long, eventually ceding to similar offers in Asian and the Middle-East.

The period beginning in 1834 onwards was the genesis of the "Out of Many"... it took several generations more for the "One People" to begin emerging.

The Inducements

The inducements of the European Bountied Immigration and its subsequent forms that were extended to other nations, had a basic promise; a world of opportunities await you, far beyond anything you could achieve in exchange for a few years of your labor. The inducements in the Limerick Reporter of November 17, 1840, can be summarized as follows:
  • A free passage, with food, comfortable accommodation during the passage "and every other necessary attention" for the entire family
  • A comfortable cottage for the family with Gardens and 1 acre or more of provision lands
  • Medicine and medical attention
  • Education in reading, writing and arithmetic for children too young to work
  • The option to get milk from a cow on the estate or be paid 2 pence per day in lieu of, and if the family chooses to purchase a cow, it will be allowed to graze along with the other cattle.
  • A Sow and provisions such as oatmeal in the first year and Saturdays off to attend to your own provision land
  • Wages of 1 shilling, 6 pence sterling or 2 shillings, 6 pence in the Jamaica currency, for a 9 hour work day.
  • Mechanics would be paid 2 shillings sterling or 3 shillings in Jamaica currency
  • The rate pay would be set for 3 years

The Business of Importing Indentured Servants

Publication: Patriot, London
August 26, 1835

Ships such as the Robert Kerr, New Phoenix and James Ray, transported hundreds of Irish from ports such as Limerick and Belfast. Some of these ships were owned by English planters. The James Ray, was owned Hamilton Brown, a property owner, plantation attorney and a Member of Assembly for the parish of St. Ann. In December 1835, the ship left Belfast with 121 Irishmen and their families from Ballymoney, County Antrim, and on arrival in Jamaica they were located on his estates and pens in St Ann. The following year it brought another 185 for St. Ann. In January 1840 the New Phoenix transported 136 lrish from County Kildare, for the properties of the London company of W.R.&S. Mitchell Leicesterfields in Clarendon, Boroughbridge in St. Ann. Importing immigrants was becoming a profitable business, with importers receiving £15 for each immigrant they brought in.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, there was a public dissent on the practice. By 1840, suspicion arose that the Jamaican Legislature intended to boost lrish immigration on a much greater scale. There was speculation that as many as 50,000 were sought by the planters and ships like the Robert Kerr, with the assistance of unscrupulous agents in lrish ports, was the first of a series of Jamaican "man traps" that would enter ports and lure the poor and the uninformed away to a life of servitude with the promises of "free passage, high wages, and the hope of a better life".

One concern. that was certainly valid, was that the immigration Act did not grant authority to the agents to enforce the advertised terms. Once the immigrants arrived the settled terms would be between individual immigrants and their employers in Jamaica. Many immigrants did in fact end up with terms that were far less than what was promised, and in fact suffered abuses by their employers, with longer hours, lack of medical attention and far inferior accommodation to what was promised.

Footprints in the Sands of Time - The Irish Legacy

The Irish presence in the Jamaica is firmly established. Today, there is still strong evidence of the Irish inflence in names of many places:

  • Carrickfoyle near Granville in Trelawny, named after a place in Ireland.
  • Charlemont is found in St. Catherine. There is a Charlemont in Armagh in Northern Ireland.
  • Clonmel in St. Mary, named after a town in County Tipperary, Ireland.
  • Donegal and Kildare in St. Elizabeth, derived from the name of counties in Ireland.
  • Dublin Castle, located in St. Andrew, is the name of a major and important Irish government complex, conference center in Dublin, Ireland.
  • Irish Town and the Cooperage in the hills of St. Andrew, was named after the Irish settlers who were coopers and lived lived in Irish town settlement.
  • Knockpatrick in Manchester, is also the place name of a place in Limerick, Ireland called Knockpatrick Hill, that was an important pilgrimage site.
  • Altamont in Kingston, is also the name of an Irish Heritage site called Altamont Gardens, an old-world Garden with riverside walks covering over 40 acres.
  • Mount Eagle, Westmoreland, is also the name of a place in the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland, with grand views overlooking the Atlantic ocean.
  • Newry is in St. Mary and the name originated in Northern Ireland.
  • Vinegar Hill, found in Westmoreland, was Irish settlement that was named in memory of the defeat of the United Irishmen in the Battle of Vinegar Hill, Ireland, in 1798.
  • Ulster Spring located in the mountains of Trelawny, Ulster is also the name of one of the four traditional Irish provinces. When the country was partitioned into two states in 1921, six of the nine counties of Ulster became Northern Ireland. The remaining three, Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan were aligned with the country of Ireland, then known as the Irish Free State.
  • Sligoville located in St Catherine, named after Lord Sligo, Champion of the Slaves. Jump to his story above

The red stripes on the side of the pants of the Jamaican Constabulary was patterned after the Royal Irish Constabulary. Various Irish regiments, such as the Earl of Ulsters, the Royal Leinsters, the Royal Irish Rifles, and the Royal Inniskillings, were billeted at New Castle. Even the inflections of the Jamaican patoi have similarities with the lilt of the Irish.

In business, there are links to the Irish homeland with companies such as Digicel, which was founded by Denis O'Brien who got his start in telecommunications with the Esat Telecom Group, initially formed to compete Ireland's state-owned telephone company, Eircom.