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A Study of the Oppression of the Jamaican Working Class


Jake Grace

Jamaica has been a land exploited and oppressed by white nations for much of its history. First colonized by the Spanish and then the British, it seems hard to imagine a time when it was just the native people living in peace and harmony with the land. Many years after the white man first jammed himself onto the beaches of Jamaica, reggae music was born. A continuing tradition, this easy-to-groove-to music style originated as a voice against this oppression; it was the peaceful islanders way of finally communicating their plighted history to all who would listen, or all who could appreciate a good beat. Much of this oppression came in the time of slavery; a period of nearly two hundred years where those of a dark skin were considered property of the light skinned ones, inferior in all ways. Most of their labor was on sugar plantations, an export that Jamaica was supplying much of the world with. Later in their history, it would be bananas that the British would learn to exploit.

Until the philosophy which holds

One race superior and another inferior

Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned

That until there are no longer first class second class citizen

Of any nation. Until the color of a man’s skin

Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes

That until their basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all,

Without regard to race.

That until that day,

The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship

And the rule of international morality

Will remain but in a fleeting illusion

To be pursued, but never attained…

-Haile Selassie

Even as slavery was finally abolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, these views and the oppression brought on by them continued. Without the thousands of hands working for free on the plantations, the British could never keep these sugar plantations operating at a profit. The goal of the British Parliament was simple; the keep the Jamaican economy afloat, at all costs. They simply had to have the Jamaican working class continue to work at practically slave wages, as hard as they did when they were considered property. A profit must be had; this meant oppressing the ex-slaves, making it difficult for them to succeed as subsistent farmers or as independent businessmen. The British intended to keep their absolute power over this colony, cutting down the success of the Jamaicans in a variety of methods.

Our country believed for a long time that one race was superior and all others inferior, and that the "superior" race had the right to own the lives of people of a different skin tone. Eventually, abolitionists found support enough for their cause to start a wave that convinced a nation of blind to see. Jamaica’s situation was different. The British came storming in to this paradise of resources and, as was customary of their empire, colonized it. They forced upon the indigenous folk their "proper" ways, including their religion, and developed a system whereby they legally owned them.

The treatment of the slaves was as objects, not as humans. Housing was minimal; they were often forced to farm their own food in addition to working in the plantations all day. The women often birthed bastard children with the light skin of a British father (Ragatz, 377).

1831 marked the beginning of the end for Jamaican slavery. Rebelling slaves in St. James, Trelawny, Hanover, and other towns left a trail of burnt plantations, beginning two days after the carefree English lifted their glasses to celebrate the birth of Christ. After several years of this rebelling and much money lost, the British Parliament realized that change must be quickened, not avoided. Their plantation system was in dire straits because of this rebellion, facilitated by smooth public speakers such as "Daddy" Sam Sharpe, reputed to be the leader of the rebellion (Ragatz, 117). In 1833 they declared an end to this legal ownership. A system of apprenticeship was instigated, whereby only slaves fewer than six years old and over seventy years old were released immediately. Though this meant a decrease of 22% of the islands slave population (Holt, 73), most remained on the plantations, awaiting the rest of their family’s release. The British Parliament, fearing the complete collapse of the Jamaican economy if they freed all slaves at once, declared an apprentice period whereby the women and men would be released several years later, in 1838 (Holt, 74).

Their sugar supply, most of which came from Jamaica, was in danger of being obliterated even before slavery was abolished. Realizing that their tea would be awfully bland without this sweetener, the English attempted to design a system of "free labor" that would harness some of the island’s cane producing potential. But Jamaica was already facing competing problems with exports from Barbados, Cuba, and India. Their sugar production had dropped from 20% of the world’s sugar in 1820 to 11% in 1830. By the time slavery and apprenticeship were over in 1840, Jamaica was producing just 3% of the world’s sugar, just two decades after producing 1/5 of the total supply (Holt, 119).

The abolishment of slavery didn’t mean that the freed Jamaicans just ran into the woods and slept beneath a banana tree for a few nights. The number of peasant estates (segments of 10 acres or less), increased twenty times from 1840-1845 (Holt, 89). The natives were enthused at the prospect of their own self-subsistence, buying their own small plot of land, and the island went from a small series of large plantation settlements to a large series of small segments.

But it wasn’t that simple. The land sold to them by the English was often too small and the soil to hard to grow a great number of crops on. "Ex-slaves who simply quit the plantations became, in general, impoverished peasants, eking out a meager living on land which was often marginal and often legally disputed. They remained a poor, depressed and marginal people…" (Walvin, 326).

The British parliament, in their predictions of what would happen to the West Indies Islands after the abolishment of slavery, expected the Jamaicans to prosper, despite providing them with no money and no education. This lack of immediate prosperity by the natives caused the British to build an even firmer racist view. They believed that the lack of immediate success by the natives after being freed was grounds enough to determine that "white races (and especially British) were superior to the black and the brown; that human differences were racially determined" (Walvin, 332). This belief in superiority became even stronger than it was during slave times; those who believed in it felt that they now had scientific evidence to back it up. The "Quashee" theory was commonly believed: "aside from its racial assumptions, ex-slaves were culturally endowed with relatively simple aspirations that could easily be satisfied in a tropical environment and worked just enough to gratify immediate desires" ( Holt, 146)

Though reggae music would not begin to take a sound for decades, this laid the groundwork for the oppressive feelings and voice expressed in the music. The combination of the economic stranglehold the British had locked onto the island and the Quashee belief of white superiority frustrated the native islanders. The Jamaicans could feel the sneer that the British now looked on them with; a look of pity at being intellectually inferior. In many ways, the abolishment of slavery had fueled the racial fires.

Them crazy, them crazy

We gonna chase those crazy

Baldheads out of town

I and I build the cabins

I and I plant the corn

Didn’t my people before me

Slave for this country?

Now you look me with a scorn

Then you eat up all my corn

Build your penitentry

We build your schools

Brain-wash education

To make us the fools…

-Bob Marley

Crazy Baldhead


Jamaica’s economy had prospered during British colonization. The extraction of bauxite in large quantities had made Jamaica a gold mine. Agriculture continued to bring the island much revenue; sugar continued to be a major export, despite its decline as the primary world supplier. An end to slavery didn’t mean the withdrawal of the British from the island. They still controlled and oppressed much about the Jamaicans’ lives and lifestyles.

Small farms, usually of no more than twenty acres, began to produce sugar products, usually of "extremely high quality". The coffee industry suffered severely as a result of the abolishment of slavery, and the small settlements were cashing in on this as well, growing "inferior" coffee for the American market (Halt, 160). Not all peasants were fortunate enough to support their lives through such small business methods. Many returned to the plantations, more properly called "estates" at this point because of their decrease in size, to earn the small wage they could. Though sugar and coffee were still very lucrative exports, the Jamaican laborers saw no evidence of this in their wage. Though many had become dependant on everyday goods that only money could buy, they didn’t return to work on the plantation full time.

"Peasants did work for wages on the plantation; the problem was that they worked only six hours a day, four days a week, and an unreliable number of weeks a year" (Holt 148).

Who could blame the peasants for not wanting to conform to Babylon after years of being a slave? Regardless of their feelings on it, money had become a reality. Thus the British still needed the hands of the peasants, but knew that they could be easily exploited.

"Withdrawal from estate residency came more gradually, and in the context of the freed people’s struggle to define the proper limits of their former masters’ authority not just over their work but over their lives as well …Substantial numbers of estate residents and village settlers continued giving intermittent labor for almost a decade after emancipation" (Holt, 155).

The peasants faced an usual right in their freedom: they had the ability to distinguish what their employer could and couldn’t tell them to do. The British were fired up at this lack of control over the Jamaicans, and began to look for power over the ex-slaves in new ways. Ultimately, disputes over the housing would lead most peasants to leave the estates and find other housing, which led to the boom in purchasing of small parcels of land between 1840-1845. The disbursement of these new peasant settlements was not random. Most were settled around major estates or plantations, within a commutable distance to the fields where they worked (Holt 155). These settlements were also often close to seaports, indicating that perhaps the peasants had the hopes of utilizing the world trade routes if their subsistence was successful. These factors — hard work, combined with what they had learned on the plantations — seems to deflate the Quashee theory that all island natives were lazy and stupid.

Many of the peasants were forced to continue to live on the estates grounds. As time after slavery progressed, Jamaica’s economy slipped into further depression, largely due to the decrease in the sugar industry and exports. One observer put the situation succinctly:

"No laborer likes to live on the estates, nor will he do so unless necessity constraints it, for fear of being turned off when any dispute arises, and the whole of his ground provisions be forfeited" (Holt, 267).

But as the economy sunk further into depression, more peasants were forced to move back onto the plantations and work part time for the estate owners, mostly British. Landlords generally wouldn’t allow Jamaicans living on "their" land to grow export crops, yet another way they held their success and independence in check. Estate owners would often make the groups of peasant families move; they would often be congregated in one area, a village of sorts. These congregations would be required by the owners to move their quarters every few years. According to a minister in Jamaica at the time, the purpose of this cruel tactic was obviously "to prevent the laborers form profiting by the bread-fruits, coco-nuts and other trees of small growth which they planted around their dwellings" (Holt 267). Heaven forbid the oppressed peasants would have enough to eat, maybe even enough to allow them to stop working for the plantations slave wages. Tensions continued, especially as it became increasingly obvious that Britain was oppressing the natives with their politics. By the 1860’s, conflicts over the land were a common occurrence, often involving bloodshed. Both the English and the Jamaicans felt they had a right to the land, and both were willing to fight for it. The racist views of the British fueled their battle for the land. How could a species that, according to their supremacist views, was inferior in all ways, own land? They refused to believe that encouraging the success of the peasants would lead to a recovery of the Jamaican economy, probably because it meant the removal of their imminent power and their acceptance of blacks as a capable race.

"A powerful tradition had taken hold in which the ex-slaves were characterized as endowed with relatively simple material aspirations easily satisfied in a tropical environment" (Holt, 279).

The casual attitude of the Jamaicans was constantly misconstrued as laziness by the overworking British. These racial tensions and the unfair oppressive measures relentlessly administered by the British government came to a climactic point in 1865 at the Morant Bay courthouse. An attempt was made to arrest several peasants after a semi-riot had occurred on the steps of the courthouse two days earlier, during which several police officers were beaten. The peasants were prepared, however, and several hundred men were waiting to drive the police away from the scene. The organized Jamaicans then proceeded to march to the courthouse, gathering support in the streets along the way. They destroyed the courthouse, the symbol of the oppression of a self-governing island where the natives would benefit from their labor. The courthouse was just the beginning, as the rebellion attracted thousands of peasants to unite against the British estate owners.

"As employer, the planter paid them low wages and sometimes no wages at all. As landowner, he charged them high rents or kept them out of possession of land for themselves. As magistrate, he weighted the law in favor of his own class and denied them justice" (Holt, 300).

It’s fitting that the rebellion began at a courthouse, as that is the root of the control the British were able to maintain over the peasants.

The rebellion marked a change in some of the attitudes and patterns that had existed in Jamaica for so long. Over the next several decades, peasant settlements increased dramatically, and it became clear that the sugar industry would never be what it was during slavery. Without the peasants working for little or no wages, the amount of labor required to run an estate could never be met. The success of the peasants in their subsistence lifestyle was easily seen in their progress, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were 72,000 owners of plots of land of ten acres or less, suggesting that over half the population lived on peasant-sized freeholds (Holt, 317). This infrastructure was an ideal setup for the success of the fruit industry, which continued to encourage the growth of the peasant population and independence from British capital. Banana growing in particular favored this subsistence lifestyle.

By the end of the nineteenth century, fruit had become Jamaica’s single most important export (New Internationalist, 317). Part of this success came from the increase in American purchasing of Jamaican exports. In 1865, Jamaica sold 79% of its exports to Great Britain, and bought 61% of their imports from there. Even the small amount of American imports came on British vessels, "suggesting continued British dominance of shipping and tonnage" (Holt, 348). By 1899, the United States was "the Big Island’s" most important trading partner, both in imports and exports. By 1903, fruit made up 56% of the island’s exports, half of which came from bananas. Sugar accounted for less than one seventh of the island’s exports, one-quarter the value of bananas (Holt, 350). The peasants were enjoying success on an economic level as a result of the boom in the banana trade.

A handful of enterprising Jamaicans and Americans facilitated this switch from bananas as a domestic crop to an export crop. These locals "procured fruit from peasant producers, who brought it down from the hills, one stem at a time on their heads, to the seaports or to light boats plying the coast" (Holt, 348). It seemed that the Jamaicans had found a way to break free of the seemingly endless barriers the British had put up to block their financial independence. It was the popularity of the bananas on the American market that allowed this success of a homegrown export crop. Ironically, it was an American company that would soon monopolize this trade, ending the success of the peasant class.

A Boston man named Lorenzo Baker used his fleet of Caped Cod fishing vessels to ship bananas to the US, naming his company ‘United Fruit’. By 1886 he was shipping out 46% of their bananas (Holt, 350). In an age when refrigeration was not a possibility, a speedy, organized shipping operation was essential to success in the banana business. Baker formed a close relationship with Atlas, a British owned steamship company, who would speedily deliver the fruit to the states (Holt, 351). The Brits had found a way to screw the Jamaican working class once again.

Baker quickly converted the independent peasant banana growers back into wageworkers by monopolizing the market. His company, later to be renamed ‘Dole’, would buy out most other companies. Holding this monopoly on the shipping business, the peasants were forced to sell to United Fruit, but never for an agreed price. Buyers of their fruit would judge the quality of the fruit upon delivery, sometimes rejecting it outright and leaving the producer high and dry (Holt 355). Without any alternative, private peasant growers would be helpless.

"Under these conditions, deprived of autonomy in the production process and of the ability to bargain over prices, peasant producers were more like wage workers paid at a piece rate than independent contractors" (Holt, 355).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, this one multi-national corporation had crushed the formerly independent peasant cultivators, pushing them back to slave labor and oppression, a period they had worked so hard to advance from.

In 1920, an English chap named John W. Grace was requested (via letter) to come to Jamaica and assist his brother, Michael Sheffield Grace, in running his banana shipping company. John was my great grandfather. He had enjoyed success as a physician in England, and decided to, along with his two daughters, take his brother up on his offer. Upon arriving in Kingston, where the small company was located, he learned that his brother had died during their journey to assist him. He suddenly found himself as owner of the company, called W.R. Grace, and had no alternative but to stay and run the business, living with his two daughters.

His daughters were named Alicia and Katherine. They spent twenty-two years in Jamaica, arriving when Alicia was just eight years old. Alicia is my great-aunt, and is still alive and well in France. I asked her if she could recall some of the details of her life in Jamaica, in particular the relationship between her family, as wealthy British, and the Jamaicans who lived and worked for them.

The company, though small in comparison to United Fruit, relied heavily on the labor of the peasants. Alicia said that they had a friendly relationship with the Jamaicans, with rarely a conflict occurring. However, she was quick to point out that it was "not on a social basis - never intentional exchanges". She said that her father would even go out of his way to help some families when they came to him for emergency medical assistance. It seemed that although they were cordial, they still considered them peasants and lesser people, perhaps even a lesser race. Such views were not unheard of at the time period, especially from the British.

The servants lived in the hills of the Blue Mountains, and most had about a mile walk to the plantation every day. She described these villages, which she saw only a few times, as "a very low standard of living", but that they never did anything to try and improve this situation. I asked if it was true that most Jamaicans had no shoes, and she replied, "Yes, but they had thick feet". It was probably hard for her to notice the troubles of a nation that had been repeating for almost a century as an adolescent, especially if they were accepted in her household.

Many peasants would harvest the fruit and prepare it for shipping, while others would work on upkeep of the grounds. They had five indoor servants, whom the family would interact with more than any other of the workers, and they even provided several of the women with room and board.

I asked Alicia if there were any tensions between them and the Jamaicans, who had been oppressed by their country for so long. She replied, "They considered their poverty natural". How easily it is to see what we want. If this attitude were truth, and not just what she chose to see, it would be a shame to think that they had given up their dreams of once again being self-sufficient. But after so many years of being held down, it must have been hard to not try and be happy with the unfair hand they were dealt.

Alicia comes from a very proper English lifestyle, and eventually married a French count. The point is she has lived in an upper class, practically royal lifestyle her entire life. Her view can be considered narrow minded, perhaps even racist, due to this protected lifestyle. She seemed to acknowledge nothing of the horror that the English and Americans had inflicted on the Jamaicans.

The company grew from 50 to 2,000 employees during the time that he ran the business, from 1920 until 1942. John and his daughters were forced to leave at the beginning of World War II, to return to England to assist with the war effort. At this point, the Jamaican banana trade was coming to a virtual standstill because of the war. Boats were requisitioned for the war and shipping was interrupted (New Internationalist, 3). The company, however, continued doing business and still exists today. Though no member of the Grace family is involved in the operation of the company, it bears the same name, ‘W.R. Grace’.

W.R. Grace throws a large, weeklong party every ten years, the last one being in 1992, and the next in 2002. Alicia attended the last party, being housed and treated very well out of respect for our family’s founding the company. The company is still run by English men, and many Jamaicans still slave for their capital at extremely low wages. I hope to crash the party in 2002 with my brothers, making my virgin voyage to Jamaica and seeing firsthand the situation that I’ve read so much about, but heard such different viewpoints on. Hopefully we’ll be put up for the week and treated as well as she was.

Jamaica has much poverty; anyone who has ever visited there will tell you that. But after finally gaining their political freedom from England in 1962, they can be assured that any strides they now make as a culture, both economically and socially, are their own, and not England or America’s. With the formation of two major political parties, the Jamaican Labor Party and the People’s National Party, the people are better represented politically. A lack of representation in this aspect is what kept their country impoverished for so long. Two large labor unions have since been formed as well, to ensure the rights of the working class: the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the National Worker’s Union (Anadol). These two organizations gave and continue to give the blue-collar class a voice. Reggae music helps in making the world hear this voice, and learn from their past, hoping that it will never happen to another culture.

Though much of Jamaica’s economy still relies heavily on tourism and the visiting of white people with money to spend on their island, they are visiting, and not staying. Hopefully, the days of political oppression are over. Those days began centuries ago, when it was determined that the profit to be had by foreigners through the export of Jamaican resources, namely sugar and later bananas, justified the enslaving of an entire race of people.

When the voice of abolishment became too loud for Parliament to ignore, they had to find a way to keep to laborers working for practically no wages; in essence, they were expected to remain slaves. This meant the British had to find ways of stomping down the success of the Jamaican peasants, who certainly weren’t eager to return to the slave fields they had just gained freedom from. Marginal lands were handed to them for use in farming, or they were kicked off the estate lands for not paying enough rent or not working enough in the fields. Everywhere they turned, the grips of Parliament clutched their throats.

Even when bananas became successful overseas, and it seemed that the peasants could finally supplement their farming lifestyles, they were soon monopolized, this time by an American company with the help of British boats.

Studying this time period from several viewpoints was fascinating. A first hand account of life in Jamaica from a living relative showed how ignorant the British were to the plight of the Jamaican people; the methods employed by Parliament and local estate owners showed how far they were willing to go to ensure they stayed in power.



1) Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938.Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore. 1992

2) Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean

    1. Octagon Books, Inc; 1963.

3) Walvin, James. Black Ivory; A History of British Slavery. Howard University Press, Washington, D.C.; 1994.

4) Petras, Elizabeth McLean. Jamaican Labor Migration: White Capital and Black Labor, 1850-1930. Westview Press, London; 1988.

5) New International Magazine. ‘Battle of the Bananas’.; Oct., 1999.

6) Anadol, Sinan. ‘Caribbean Soul’.; May, 1998.