Jamaica


Jamaica
   Jamaica, a large island in the Caribbean Sea, was originally colonized by the Spanish, but conquered by the British in 1660. Along with many smaller islands, it was often referred to simply as the “sugar islands,” sugar, along with its by- products rum and molasses, being a great source of wealth. From the period of the Napoleonic Wars, coffee was also grown. By the late eighteenth century, it was estimated that the capital invested in the West Indies amounted to four times that invested in India. All of Jamaica’s exports were grown on slave-worked plantations. Its nonwhite population included “maroons,” descended from escaped slaves, who lived in the mountainous interior; although the Maroons often cooperated with the British, encouraged by the example of Haiti, they rose unsuccessfully against the crown in 1797.
   Jamaica’s representative institutions were dominated by the white planter class, and that class and its London representatives energetically opposed the abolition of slavery and of the slave trade in the British Empire, the Jamaican assembly going so far as to contest the right of Parliament to enact abolition. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 marked the beginning of a decline in West Indian influence in London. Growing pressure from abolitionists and their evangelical supporters made it clear that slavery could not long survive. A slave rebellion in 1831, occasioned by confused rumors about the emancipation policy of the new reforming government in London, probably had little effect on the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the empire in 1833. The introduction of a system of “apprenticeship” - in effect indentured labor - in 1835 was intended to address the fact that former slaves often refused to work on plantations, but it occasioned many problems, and was abolished in 1838. The movement for free trade in England led to an end to preferential treatment for West Indian sugar, and compounded the island’s economic difficulties. An attempt to overcome labor problems by importing indentured workers from India failed. The domination of Jamaican politics by a tiny white planter electorate did not prevent the conflicts between the local legislature and the colonial executive familiar throughout the empire in this period; if anything they were more vituperative than usual, and Jamaica’s economic problems in the wake of abolition led some planters to muse about joining the United States.
   At the same time American slaveholders held up Jamaica as an example of the problems consequent on abolition. At Morant Bay in 1865, riots among the black population killed about 30 people; official reprisals ordered by Governor Edward Eyre killed several hundred, and a colored member of the legislature was hanged after a dubious trial. This led to the recall of Eyre and a long controversy in Britain between his supporters led by Thomas Carlyle and emancipationists led by J. S. Mill; this issue displayed in sharp relief both sides of Victorian attitudes to race. In the wake of the massacres, the Jamaican assembly was disbanded. The Jamaican constitution of 1885 created a semi-representative government, but it did not work well. By 1899, the island was close to bankrupt and the Colonial Office imposed direct rule. Some improvement in Jamaica’s fortunes followed in the Edwardian period. The age of high imperialism thus saw one of the original and most profitable of colonies fall into a state of relative unimportance.
   FURTHER READING:
    Brown, Aggery. Color, Class, and Politics of Jamaica. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1979.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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