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February 5, 2004

1849 Gold Rush influences Afro-Caribbean migration

mapThe major turning point in Afro-Caribbean migration patterns actually was the 1849 California Gold Rush.

According to Lara Putnam, Pitt assistant professor of history, the gold rush spurred Eastern seaboard Americans and Europeans to flock to California, which had been annexed from Mexico only months earlier following the Mexican War (1846-1848). The quickest and safest way to get to the “gold-lined streets” of California at that time was not across North America, still unsettled territory between the Mississippi River and the west coast, but through the Central American isthmus, said Putnam, whose specialty is transnational migration and Latin American and Atlantic history.

The gold rush eventually led to direct U.S. influence and, in some cases, economic and political control in the region, especially in Panama, where a half-century later the United States would build and own a canal.

“But the gold rush had a major influence on the pattern of migration for British West Indians, especially Jamaicans, moving to Central America,” she said.

The stage was set for this migration a generation earlier, in 1831, when slavery was banned in Jamaica and a government-mandated seven-year apprenticeship was installed whereby former slaves, most of whom worked in Jamaica’s chief industry of sugar exports, were to make the transition to a free society.

The former slaves were to get help in adjusting to freedom, while sugar plantation owners learned to adjust to having to pay their former slaves, Putnam said. “It was intended to be a transition period and, frankly, on almost all accounts it didn’t work.” Moreover, it had devastating economic consequences, she said.

In the aftermath of emancipation, Jamaican plantation owners were unwilling to pay living wages, and many former slaves left their plantations in favor of becoming farmers in the mountains, Putnam said. Former slaves would perhaps supplement their income by part-time plantation work, but they refused to be resident laborers under the control of the plantation owners.

“As a result, the sugar industry almost completely collapses in Jamaica and, as it does, the general economy and a whole range of related industries that were dependent on the sugar industry — for instance artisans who made barrels to ship sugar — also collapses,” Putnam said.

By the late-1840s and into the 1850s, unemployment in Jamaica was rampant, she added.

In 1849, two months before gold was discovered in California, a New York-based company signed an agreement with the government of Colombia to build a railroad bi-secting Panama, which at that time was a Colombian province, Putnam said.

The expectation was that the railroad would expedite commercial transport from the population-heavy and agriculturally rich Pacific coast of Central America to its chief markets in the Caribbean, the U.S. eastern seaboard and Europe.

The Panama Railroad Co. planned to build a railroad for freight, and suddenly found itself with a flood of people in need of transportation, Putnam said. As a result, the company tried to build the railroad as quickly as possible and began to recruit more labor outside sparsely populated Panama.

“When construction of the railroad was completed, two things happen: The Panama Railroad Co. stock shoots through the roof and becomes overnight the single most valuable stock on the New York Stock Exchange,” Putnam said. On the other hand, the local economy, which depended on travelers taking at least three days to cross the country while supporting eateries, boarding houses and local guides during their treks, went into a depression. “Now you could do the trip in three hours,” she said.

The success of the Panama railroad led to expanding U.S. investment in Central America, especially after the Civil War, Putnam said. Other railroads were being built, primarily by American companies using migrant labor, from the central highlands to the Atlantic coast port cities in Costa Rica and Colombian, for example.

“One famous story is that of Minor Keith, a ne’re-do-well from San Francisco,” Putnam recounted. “In 1871, in exchange for completing a railroad in Costa Rica, he gets concessions from the government for large parcels of land, and he stumbles on the possibility of planting bananas there. History credits him with the idea, but it’s more likely it was his Jamaican workers who brought the idea from Jamaica.”

Keith’s company created a banana boom in Costa Rica, which spread to other Central American countries. By the 1880s, the banana industry was well-established in Jamaica. A Nantucket sea captain, Lorenzo Baker, began shipping Jamaican bananas to Boston.

Keith and Baker merged their companies in the 1890s to form the United Fruit Company, which today sells the popular Chiquita bananas.

Another wave of Jamaican and Caribbean migration to Panama came in the 1880s as a result of a French company’s attempt to build a canal across Panama. The attempt ultimately failed, but preceded U.S. efforts to build the Panama Canal in the last decade of the 19th century.

“In recruiting labor for their canal, the French brought tens of thousands of Jamaicans, and many others from the French islands, like Martinique, and the other Lesser Antilles,” Putnam said.

“And so you have increasing ties of people traveling back and forth from the Caribbean islands to Panama, largely to work on the canal but also on the banana plantations, and by now in the cities and towns that had emerged. It would not be uncommon to have a mother in Jamaica, a brother in Cuba, a father in Nicaragua, and stay in touch with all of them.”

The overall effect of this transnational migrant trend was a reinforcement of culture, Putnam said. Historically, shipping lines, trade lines and other ties had linked Jamaica with the Caribbean coastlines of Central America. Much of that trade, at least until the 1820s, was in contraband slaves, who were mostly Africans, African Americans and Afro-Jamaicans, she noted.

Spanish was still the official language. “But, by the second half of the 19th century, as workers on different projects migrated to the Central American isthmus, English became the lingua franca (the common language for commercial dealings) of the entire region,” she said.

Also, a growing economic dynamism from the Caribbean spread as far away as New Orleans and Boston, continuing until the end of World War I, she said.

By 1920, some 80,000 black Caribbean migrants lived in the United States. But in 1921, migrant immigration was outlawed. By the 1930s, the worldwide Depression and racist immigration laws in Nicaragua, Cuba and Panama, which began deporting British West Indians, also truncated movement in the region, Putnam said.

“One Afro-Caribbean Pana-manian writer called those incredibly lean years filled with isolation and poverty, ‘the years the locusts ate,’” she said.

By the 1950s a different trend in Caribbean migration emerged. “There is no longer the kind of economic opportunity around the area,” Putnam said. “Rather there’s migration either to the United States or Great Britain,” a condition that more or less continues today.

“There are two points about this that are relevant to today: One is that people today talk about transnational migrant communities, such as in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as if that is a new big deal. The message of the history of this region is that it is not so new,” Putnam said.

“The other point is that transnationalism is not necessarily eternal. It depends on humane immigration entry and exit laws. The transnational world can be easily fractured, it’s fragile, and sometimes the economic consequences are terribly tragic.”

—Peter Hart

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