The People Who Came The Arrival Of The Irish To Jamaica

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Sir Alexander Bustamante, National Hero and first Prime Minister of Jamaica, used to boast that he was 50 per cent Irish, 50 per cent Jamaican and 10 per cent Arawak. Well known for hishumorous nature, charm and charisma, ‘Busta’ as he is affectionately known, was clearly touched by Ireland’s blarney stone he had the gift of gab, so to speak.

Busta is not the only prominent Jamaican to claim Irish heritage. There’s poet Claude McKay, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, one of Jamaica’s foremost historians and former UWI Vice Chancellor, Sir Philip Sherlock, writer John Hearne, and successful horse trainer, Phillip Feanny, whose mother is from County Cork, Ireland. In addition, surnames such as Burke, Collins, Mackey, Murphy and Madden, to name just a few, are common enough. Irish influence is also found in the names of places. There’s St. Andrew’s Irish Town, St. Mary’s Kildare and Clonmel and St. Thomas’ Belfast and Middleton among others.

The Irish arrived in Jamaica over 350 years ago in the mid-1600s at the time of British Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s capture of Jamaica. When British Admirals Penn and Venables failed in their expedition to take Santo Domingo from the Spanish, they turned their attention to Jamaica, not wanting to return to Cromwell empty-handed. With reinforcements from British-held Barbados (many of whom were Irish) they made quick work of dispatching the weak Spanish defence and soon realized that they needed workers to support their new prize. They looked eastward to islands already under British control, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Montserrat, and imported young, mainly male, bonded servants, many of whom were Irish.

In 1641 Ireland’s population stood close to 1.5 million. Following a 1648 battle in Ireland known as the “Siege of Drogheda” in which Irish rebels were brutally subdued, Oliver’s son, Henry, was named Major General in command of English forces in Ireland. Under his jurisdiction, thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies to provide a source of indentured labour. Between 1648 and 1655, over 12,000 political prisoners alone were sent to Barbados. This was the first set to come involuntarily as prior to that the Irish had willingly chosen to subject themselves to terms of indenture for the chance to start a new life in the New World upon completion of their contracts.

Claude McKay

By 1652, Ireland’s population had dwindled to a little over half a million ­ famine, rebellion and forced deportation, all factors.Throughout the early years of the 1650s there was a push to send young men and women to the colonies in what the English believed was a “measure beneficial to the people removed, who might thus be made English and Christians; and a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired the men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls in a country where they had only Maroon women and Negresses to solace them” (Williams, 1932, pp. 10-11). The 13-year war from 1641-1654 had left behind large numbers of widows and deserted wives. In addition, many Irish men, their properties confiscated by Cromwell had no means of making a living. By 1655 some 6,400 Irish had been shipped off when in March all orders to capture “all wanderers, men and women and other such Irish in their possession” were revoked (Williams, pp. 12-13).

The first stop for many of the Irish, Catholic and non-Catholic, was Barbados where they worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break, under the command of an overseer. Shirt and drawers were their only clothes and their homes, cabins made of sticks and plantain leaves (Williams, 1932, p. 42).

Following the 1655 British conquest of Jamaica, Irish labourers were largely sent from Barbados as well as Ireland to get the island up and running under British control. Within a decade, when many Irish had served their terms or indenture, their names begin to appear among the lists of Jamaican planters and settlers (Williams, p. 53).

Book written by Joseph J. Williams in 1932, exploring the origin of the Irish in Jamaica.

It is estimated that somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were shipped from Ireland. One of the last shipments was made in 1841 from Limerick aboard the Robert Kerr. The Gleaner noted of these arrivals: “They landed in Kingston wearing their best clothes and temperance medals,” meaning they did not drink alcohol (as quoted in Mullally, 2003, part 2, pg. 1). The Gleaner also noted of another set of arrivals in 1842: “The Irish are repeatedly intoxicated, drink excessively, are seen emerging from grog shops very dissolute and abandoned and are of very intemperate habits” (as quoted in Mullally, 2003, part 3, p. 2). So the Irish gained a reputation for being something of a mixed blessing ­ saints and sinners.

However, other European immigrants did not seem to fare as well as the Irish in the tropical climate. In the mid-1830s, for example, when the government was particularly concerned about replacement labour for the newly-freed slaves on the sugar and coffee plantations, the over 1,000 Germans and close to 200 Portugese from Madeira, the Azores and Portugal notched a high mortality rate. The idea was to eventually create townships for the European immigrants in the island’s highlands where the temperature was cooler and they would work as small farmers, labourers and artisans on coffee estates and cattle pens. However, this would take time and in order to maintain pre-abolition levels of production, labour was needed in Jamaica’s low-lands where the best land for sugar cultivation was located. Hence the implementation of bounties for European immigrants and the institution of ships like the Robert Kerr, known as “man-traps” and sub-agents who wandered into quiet Irish towns and attracted people with the promise for free passage, high wages and the hope of bettering their lives. The immigration of Europeans never filled the abolition labour gap and so by 1840 the government began to look to the Maltese, the free Negroes in the United States and the Asians. In 1842 laws to break up what had been completed of the townships were passed and the idea of highland colonization was abandoned.


The Jamaican Constabulary is patterned after the Royal Irish Constabulary complete with the red stripe on the pant legs. Various Irish Regiments, the Royal Leinsters, the Earl of Ulsters and the Royal Irish Rifles were at Newcastle. Guinness PC, which originated in Dublin, now owns Red Stripe/D&G, the largest Caribbean brewery. Then there’s Digicell, the cellular phone company, the island’s newest Irish import.Yet, the Irish connection in Jamaica goes beyond the names of people, places and companies. It is found in a shared history of colonial domination and the achievement of independence in the same century. It is found in the experience of mass emigration. It is found in some dance styles: Katherine Dunham, the acknowledged matriarch of Black American dance, once noted the similarity between Maroon dance formations in Accompong and Irish reels. It is found in the field of education ­ many priests and nuns of Irish ancestry have taught generations of Jamaicans. It is found in something as basic as the melodious lilt of Jamaican accents. Yet, perhaps it is most strongly found in Jamaicans’ love of laughter, horse racing, spirits, women and song.

Thanks to Rob Mulally for his help with this piece.

Sources: Williams, J.J. (1932). Whence the “Black Irish” of Jamaica. NY: The Dial Press. Mullally, R. (2003). “One Love’ ­ The Black Irish of Jamaica. on-line. Available at, Senior, C. Robert Kerr emigrants of 1840 ­ Irish ‘slaves’ for Jamaica.

18 thoughts on “The People Who Came The Arrival Of The Irish To Jamaica

  1. Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.


  2. African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime.


  3. The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce.


  4. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry.


  5. Vikings besieged and captured the stronghold of Alt Clut (the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde) and in 1871 took most of the site’s inhabitants, most likely by Olaf the White and Ivar the Boneless, to the Dublin slave markets.


  6. Transportation to the colonies as a criminal or an indentured servant served as punishment for both major and petty crimes in England and Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century.


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