Caribbean migrants in Panama and Cuba, 1851-1927: the struggles, opposition and resistance of Jamaicans of African ancestry.

Author:Barima, Kofi Boukman


Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that propagated programs of advancement for Africans in the Americas was organized in 1914 in Jamaica and later in 1916 in Harlem, USA. It is from the new headquarters in Harlem that the UNIA would mushroom into a worldwide organization fighting for the rights of Africans in the Diaspora and Africa to define, decide and control their destiny. Tony Martin, John Hendrick Clark, Amy Jacques-Garvey, Rupert Lewis and several other Garvey scholars highlight in their numerous studies that the problems of unemployment, discrimination, white terrorism and other oppressive conditions that confronted Blacks throughout the Americas helped to stimulate an interest in the programs of the UNIA among Africans across the Diaspora who were in search of protection against exploitation and terrorist acts that were fixtures of capitalist enterprises. In Latin America the UNIA appealed to Black migrant workers from British Caribbean colonial societies. Like Blacks in the United States, Afro-Caribbean (people of African heritage from or living in or around the Caribbean) workers were bested by discriminatory, terrorist and exploitive acts committed by white persons in pursuit of capital.

Therefore, they found solace in the message of Marcus Garvey and in the programs of the UNIA, and like the African-American labor force, the Afro-Caribbean workers of Latin America were formally enslaved persons or persons born in the immediate years following the acts of emancipation. In the British Caribbean two emancipations occurred, the first in 1834 that ended slavery and the second in 1838 which ended apprenticeship.

Hence, Caribbean peoples of African ancestry shared a commonality with African-Americans in that after emancipation they continued to experience exploitation of their persons by capital and industry. To confront the abuse they faced, Afro-Caribbean persons resisted in several fashions, and migration was used in conjunction with political agitation. And thus, in the context of this discourse, migration will be assessed as an option opted by Afro-Caribbean persons to escape the oppression of a post-emancipated society. Also, it will be argued that in favor of leaving the Caribbean to labor in American industries in the Spanish speaking Americas, Afro-Caribbean persons were leaving a bad situation to find a better situation, but instead they found themselves in a worst position. Hence, they were 'jumping out of the frying pan' and into the fire. This paper will discuss the migration of person of African ancestry from the Caribbean with an emphasis on the Jamaican migrants to the Latin American in the countries of Panama and Cuba. In addition, the study will examine the development of the Afro-Jamaican (Jamaicans of African ancestry) into radical workers under the auspices of the UNIA, and in order to fully understand the migrant reality of Afro-Jamaicans, the socio-economic factors provoking the stream of migrations from Jamaica is discussed.

Afro-Jamaican Migration to Latin America: Contributory Factors

At the root of the reasons for migration was the Afro-Jamaican perception that earning a living wage was more possible in Latin America and that the social and economic complexities in Panama and Cuba were new grounds for at least the first wave of Afro-Jamaican migrants. Still, when knowledge of the reality of these locations filtered into Jamaica through letters and returnees, people continued to trek to Latin America in droves. But why did Afro-Jamaicans continue to relocate after learning of the racial oppression and exploitation in Latin America? In grappling with answers for this question it is reasonable to speculate that many could not imagine anything worst or comparable to Jamaica's post-emancipation reality that possessed limited avenues of social advancement, and more importantly, most Afro-Jamaicans consciously realized that chances of surviving Jamaica's harsh economic and social order was pegged heavily to working outside of the island. Thus, many Afro-Jamaican migrants settled permanently in the Latin American spaces of Panama and Cuba with the intention to use Latin America as Erna Brodber points out "as a source of cash to support a life in Jamaica". (1) And furthermore, the innumerable obstacles that resigned the bulk of Afro-Jamaicans to a life of poverty and destitution between the mid nineteenth and early twentieth century was ultimately the driving force prodding and sustaining their migration to Latin America.

At the time the first wave of Jamaicans went to Panama, the island economy, laws, and social practices were severely oppressive for Afro-Jamaicans, and society would remain that way for Afro-Jamaicans during the various periods of migration into Spanish speaking America. The first sets of migrant Jamaicans to Panama left the island in 1850 to work as laborers on the construction of the Panama Railroad. Here, the overwhelming amount of Afro-Jamaicans that decided to work elsewhere other than Jamaica is an indication that they were dissatisfied with the planter's (2) intent to control, restrict and define their progress in Jamaica.

Approximately sixteen years before this trek to Panama, gradual-freedom was imposed by the colonial government on its colonies in the Caribbean. Gradual freedom known popularly as apprenticeship was designed to last until 1883, but because of the inadequacies of the system the British were forced in 1838 to issue freedom to the enslaved Africans in its Caribbean colonies. During this period of apprenticeship, rightfully labeled by Petras as "a modification of slavery" it is understood that: (3)

In theory ... (it) was intended to provide a transition period during which all classes might adjust gradually to the new social relations of freedom. In practice, no such high minded purposes were served. The law extended the power of the former slave owners to compel labor to work on the estates for a few more years under conditions dictated by the owners. (4)

Although her analysis is correct about the law being an important medium in continuing the planter's hegemony over labor; Petras should have also discussed the proactive measures of Afro-Jamaicans in resisting apprenticeship as a major factor for its failure. Second, the planters struggled tremendously with the African mass over working hours on the plantations; and across the Caribbean, Blacks had developed their own notion of gradual freedom. And under the new system, Blacks believed that they had the right to define their working hours and to select employers wherein apprenticeship was interpreted in the Afro-Caribbean worldview as a sanction of their struggle during slavery to have complete control of their person and actions. Hence, as a result of their militant approach to apprenticeship the conditions in this period were extremely oppressive as well as brutal for the bulk of Africans in Jamaica and throughout the British Caribbean, and in short, it was truly a modified slavery.

Technically the planters were denied the privilege to punish those workers reluctant to work and abide by the rules of the new system. However, the state was invested with those privileges of the slave master to coerce the African masses to comply with the regiment of apprenticeship. As during slavery, the whip was used as the preferred instrument to deter noncompliance with orders for men. Truancy and other acts of resisting apprenticeship by women were typically punished with confinement to a prison treadmill. On these occasions when the women became weary they were flogged. The amount of "freepersons" that were subjected to this inhumane treatment speaks of the continued struggle for them to control their person and action.

In the first year of apprenticeship in Jamaica, August 1834 through July 1835, the "25,395 instances of punishment reported ... imply apprentices" lack of cooperation with the apprenticeship regime. (5) The methods of resistance used by enslaved Africans against apprenticeship are the same methods that they employed against the institution of slavery. Theft, running away, neglect of duty, disobedience, cutting and maiming cattle and insolence were seen as an offense by the state, but these were the strategies that Afro-Jamaicans used to cripple the system of apprenticeship. These strategies are furthermore an indication that Afro-Jamaicans were conscious of exploitive working conditions.

In 1838 when apprenticeship collapsed, the Afro-Jamaican struggle did not end against planter hegemony of labor and land. The planters, because they had over two centuries of unrestricted use of African labor, they reluctantly accepted the emancipation of enslaved Africans. Hence, their attitude toward emancipation reflected the general mood of emancipation throughout the British Caribbean, and thus in a shared sense (within the ranks of the slave owners) there was a loss of power, privilege and money that reverberated throughout the Americas, whenever emancipation occurred. Slavery allowed the planters to own their labor supply; however, emancipation denied them that privilege of labor ownership. And in contrast, in an emancipated society the planters had to contract the labor they needed, and also, they would have to offer competitive wages to attract labor. However, the mere offering of wages was not enough to compel the African to work on the plantation, a trend planters noticed from the period of apprenticeship (when wages were first introduced) coupled with the trend of the Afro-Jamaican to save their earnings, and the supplementing of their savings from plantation work with the monies earned from selling provision, goods and in performing other tasks. And subsequently, with their savings Afro-Jamaicans purchased small landholdings (6); established their own freeholds and thus, they were among the first migration to leave the sugar plantations...

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