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Full Emancipation and Indentured Labour

Upon their full emancipation peaceful celebrations could be heard all around the island of Jamaica. Shackles and chains that had previously kept the ex-slaves in bondage were loaded into a hearse which was ceremoniously driven along the streets Spanish Town, the then capital of Jamaica and then burnt.

The abolition of slavery proved difficult for the white plutocrats within the Jamaican society. Not only did they no longer have a steady workforce, but there was also the removal of special trade preferences given to Jamaican sugar in the European market. Additionally, British sugar producers were now faced with falling sugar prices. This coincided with rising labour costs as the now freed slaves demanded proper wages for work done on the plantations. These economic difficulties were further propagated with severe competition from other British producers in colonies such as India, non-imperial cane sugar producers in Cuba and Brazil and beet sugar producers in the United States and Europe.


The abolition of slavery placed the planter class of Jamaica in a very precarious position: the plantations on which they made millions cultivating sugarcane were now without sufficient manual labour. This presented a grave economic catastrophe and so it was in the plantation owners’ interests to maintain the profitability of their plantations by acquiring a cheap, new labour force.  The first alternative they explored where to contract European labourers. This proved to be futile as they were unaccustomed to the tropical climate, the hard manual labour and a number of tropical diseases for which they had no immunity. Thus some returned to Britain on ships while others stayed in the Island and made it their home.

The second alternative employed by plantation owners in Jamaica was the use of Chinese, Syrian and Indian Indentured labour. This type of labour had previously been successful in Cuba and would turn out to be a feasible alternative.  Consequently, labourers from China, India and Syria were recruited from their countries with the promise of land and money upon the completion of their contracts. This would start from as early as 1845 and ended in 1916.  Initially with the labour done by these indentured servants, the plantations saw some prosperity for the sugar industry on the island. This would be short lived as the labourers soon realised that the promises made to them for the contraction of their labour were falser and wholly inaccurate. They living conditions were dismal, working conditions were poor and many were relegated to reside in slums previously inhabited by the enslaved Africans.  Some of these indentured labourers opted to return to their countries after their contract period expired, however, many others opted to stay in Jamaica venturing into other occupations.

The third option was to divide land up and earn income from rents, however this led tennants to join the strikes in Jamaica in the 1930's see this interesting account from Pennants in 1938 - its a transcribed interview from 1974

Click Here  or read an excerpt  Here

By the beginning of the 20th century it was commonplace for many colonies to have the Chinese corner shop or restaurant. Following the examples outline by the Chinese the Syrians and Indians moved from the plantations into local commerce establishing business enterprise that sold jewellery or furniture.

Their lives were comparatively better than those of the freed slaves who opted to work on the plantations. This in part led to the development of rigid social structures and classes with the white plutocracy occupying the top of the social pyramid, the mulatto children were situated in the middle, the indentured servants occupied the third tier and the previously enslaved were at the bottom of the pyramid. This resulted in the further propagation of racism and colourism on the island.

Elements of this social stratification exists today in the Jamaican society which due to its melting pot of cultures and ethnicities has been described as a plural society by sociologist M.G. Smith.  Pluralization not only existed in the social groups within the Jamaican society but could also be seen in the culture, economy and agriculture.  The East Indians and Chinese following the legacies of the Taino, Spaniards and Africans infused bits of their culture within the one that could be found in Jamaica.


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