Jamaica’s Road to Independence – Part 4

The story of Jamaica’s road to Independence concludes with Part 4.  If you have not already done so, please read Parts 1, 2 and 3 in previous blogs. 


 “Where ever you travel there is a Jamaican”.  For example I was in the upper reaches of the Austrian Alps when one of my fellow students ran excitedly to tell me “The Chalet owner’s daughter is married to a Jamaican”.  Who would have thought I would be talking to another Jamaican while studying dams high up in those mountains!

So why do Jamaicans have such a migratory spirit? 

The Urge to Travel

The Caribbean has long been a migration hub, with many of its inhabitants seeking employment opportunities by moving either within the region or to a number of larger countries.  These countries include Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, the United States of America (USA), Canada, and former colonial powers such as the United Kingdom (UK) and France.

Although many of these destination countries have limited labour migration, particularly in the context of the global economic downturn, migration remains important in Jamaican society.  For despite its political stability, Jamaica is a poor country dependent on services, tourism, and remittances, with generally high unemployment levels.  Many of us remember hearing of family connections in Panama and Cuba. 

Panama Canal

After success in building the Suez Canal, French investors commenced work on the Panama Canal in 1881, but by 1894 experienced construction problems, delays, bankruptcy, and legal troubles.  This left many Jamaicans and other Caribbean labourers recruited by the French stranded in Panama, having to be repatriated at their governments’ expense. 

Working on the Panama Canal

After the French experience, Jamaica placed a tax of one pound sterling on anyone recruited by the USA to work on the Panama Canal.  Thus mostly skilled Jamaican workers were recruited as only they could afford the tax.  Thousands of Afro-Caribbean women also travelled to the zone to work as domestic servants, laundresses, or cooks. 

By February 23, 1904 Panama gave control to the USA, who completed the Panama Canal in 1914.  Working conditions were harsh with possible jail time or deportation if they failed to show up for work.  Construction of the canal exacted a high human toll, with high rates of disease and workplace accidents, and a pervasive system of racial segregation. 

United Fruit Company

Banana and sugar cane plantations in the region offered other migration opportunities for Jamaicans.  The United Fruit Company (UFC), a USA company, was a major banana and sugar multinational player in Latin America and the Caribbean.  UFC was far bigger than most national governments in the region.  It offered large numbers of Jamaicans the opportunity to travel to Panama, as well as to other Central American countries, to work on its banana and sugar plantations.

United Fruit Company Bananas

Between 1900 and 1913 some 20,000 Jamaicans migrated to Costa Rica to work on the newly established UFC banana plantations.  In 1899 UFC hired some 300 Jamaican with experience in the area of sugar production, construction of railroads, aqueducts and other facilities to work in Cuba and so guarantee the transportation of the final product to the USA.  These skilled workers were recruited with the condition “as soon as the Jamaicans should fulfill their commitments in the future sugar production crop and its requirements, they were to be sent back to their country”. 

This requirement was never accomplished by UFC, on the contrary, that agreement was violated time and time again. Using the UFC´s fleet of ships, there was a constant movement of Jamaican workers (illegally) between Jamaica and Cuba, due to the proximity of both islands.

Other Opportunities

More than 10,000 Jamaicans, a mix of skilled and unskilled laborers, were recruited along with other Caribbean soldiers for the British West Indies Regiment.  This was a strategy adopted by the USA and the UK when both countries needed labour during World Wars I and II. 

Empire Windrush Sailing to the UK

Post-World War II reconstruction in the UK also required labour, much of which came from Jamaica and Barbados.  Large numbers of skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers were recruited for hospital services, while others gained employment in industry and transport. The 1961 census in Great Britain recorded some 100,000 Jamaicans in England. 

The changing migration policies of traditional receiving countries in the 1960s altered the direction of Jamaican emigration.  Restrictive immigration laws in the UK coincided with the passage of legislation in the USA and Canada that made education and skills more important determinants than nationality and race.  From the late 1960s onwards, the USA became the chief destination for skilled migrants from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.

A Call for Change

Marcus Garvey

Between 1900 and the outbreak of World War 1 the most interesting political developments in Jamaica were not within the traditional political arenas but in the area of voluntary, non-official organisations.  One such organisation, formed in 1894, was the Jamaica Union of Teachers (JUT), with strong links with the National Union of Teachers in Britain.  Although its prime concern was the field of education, problems in that area frequently involved it in political events.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by Jamaican Marcus Garvey, advocated black nationalism and Pan-Africanism in Jamaica and among the African diaspora.  From the 1920s the growing professional classes and people of mixed African and European ancestry agitated for more-representative government.  The 1930s saw Jamaica heading towards another crisis. The contributing factors included discontent at the slow pace of political advance, the distress caused by a world-wide economic depression, the ruin of the banana industry by the Panama industry Disease, falling sugar prices, growing unemployment aggravated by the curtailment of migration opportunities and a steeply rising population growth rate.  

Sir Alexander Bustamante

In 1938 things came to a head with widespread violence and rioting.  Jamaicans responded to the crisis by establishing their first labour unions, linking them to political parties, and increasingly demanding self-determination.

The Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), named after the founder Sir Alexander Bustamante, was established in 1938.  In 1943 Bustamante founded and lead the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the political party affiliated with the BITU.  The People’s National Party (PNP), founded in 1938 by the Honourable Osmond Theodore Fairclough, is the oldest political party in Jamaica.  Fairclough recruited the PNP’s first leader Norman Manley, Bustamante’s cousin.  In 1952 Norman Manley founded the National Workers’ Union, which is aligned with the PNP.

In six decades, Jamaica had moved from the derelict political conditions of 1866 to1884, to the threshold of her modern political system. During the latter decades of this period much that is characteristic of modern Jamaican politics had begun to develop. Political campaigning involved big public meetings, songs, banners and processions in support of candidates in both local and national elections.


Jamaica was little affected by World Wars I and II, though many of its people served overseas in the British armed forces.  After World War II the island profited greatly from the Colonial Development and Welfare Act and from outside investment.  

Norman Manley

The Jamaican branch of the University of the West Indies was established in 1948 from Colonial Development grants.  This institution became an important factor in the preparation for independence.  

A sugar refinery, citrus-processing plants, a cement factory, and other industrial projects were started.  The severe August 1951 hurricane temporarily stalled development by devastating crops and killing about 150 people.  Development of the tourist trade and bauxite (aluminum ore) mining helped increase employment opportunities in Jamaica.

Both Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley were instrumental in Jamaica’s move towards self-government.  The first general elections under Universal Adult Suffrage was held in December 1944.

The constitution of 1944 established a House of Representatives, whose members were elected by universal adult suffrage; it also called for a nominated Legislative Council as an upper house (with limited powers) and an Executive Council.  A two-party pattern soon emerged, and the constitution was modified in 1953 to allow for elected government ministers.  In 1957 the Executive Council was transformed into a cabinet under the chairmanship of a Premier.  Jamaica obtained full internal self-government two years later.

Jamaican Flag

In 1958 Jamaica became a founding member of the West Indies Federation, a group of 11 Caribbean islands that formed a unit within the Commonwealth.  Norman Manley, leader of the PNP, became Premier after the elections of July 1959.  In 1960 the JLP under Bustamante pressed for secession from the federation.  A referendum in 1961 supported their views.  The JLP was the overall winner of elections in April 1962, and Bustamante became Premier.  In May 1962 the Federation was dissolved.


On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became independent with full dominion status within the British Commonwealth.  Under the constitution the British monarch was retained as Head of State and Bustamante assumed the title of Prime Minister.

The ceremony, witnessed by Britain’s Princess Margaret and USA Vice President Lyndon Johnson, observed lowering of the British Union Jack and raising the black, gold and green Jamaican flag.

We hope you enjoyed this brief history of Jamaica’s Road to Independence.

Leave us a comment on suggestions for the next series.

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