Creating Otherness: US Investors in Jamaica

A group of young Jamaican children standing in front of a building, possibly a schoolhouse.

Submitted by Martha Pastora (’22), Active Learning Program Intern

In the early twentieth century, the fruit industry was important to Jamaica’s economy. The United Fruit Company, a multinational organization that was heavily involved in the banana industry throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, owned many of Jamaica’s fruit plantations. The corporation benefited from cheap labor in the Caribbean and their presence on the island brought a large number of Americans to Jamaica. How did American visitors view the black citizens of Jamaica? To get a glimpse of this issue, I examined a photo album compiled by three New York doctors who worked for the company and traveled to Jamaica between January 11th and 28th, 1904, which is now part of the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

The album preserves photos and notes from S.F. Jones, S. Van Ingen, and A.S. Arnold, who sailed to Jamaica on board the steamship “Beverly” in 1904.

Within the album, the photos are accompanied by lengthy handwritten diary entries from one of the doctors, A. S. Arnold, and these reveal their attitudes toward the islands inhabitants. The doctors, like other important visitors, were given what they called “an obsequious black” who acted as an assistant who took care of them while they stayed in Jamaica. In addition to the assistants provided to them, the US doctors also recorded their impressions of the plantation workers who they came into contact with. The doctors report receiving requests from workers for objects from America, which led the doctors to believe that the Jamaicans admired them. It also led them to believe that black Jamaicans “refused to uphold their accession of dignity,” meaning that they would leave their pride aside when asking for different objects or tips. This may have occurred because the foreign visitors did not comprehend the culture and the poverty that Jamaican citizens lived in and this led them to judge the “beggars,” rather than understanding the economic need that existed in Jamaica among the working class.

The final pages of the album contain many photos without description or commentary, such as this one of three women washing in a stream.

The album allows us to see distinctions that the New York doctors made when referring to the various people they encountered. For example, they addressed white officials as “very courteous Englishmen,” looking down on black workers, sometimes calling them names like “hardheaded blacks” even though they were also officials or other type of worker. Simply put, the feeling of superiority from US investors (or those from other Western countries) led to mistreatment or harsh judgement of black Jamaicans.  For instance, investors complained that “negros were inferior because men and women held them to ask for tips and followed them for blocks.” Little did the Americans know that Jamaicans from the lower socio-economic class normally depended on the tips they got in the streets as helpers to provide for their families. This diary is one of many artifacts in the Latin American and Caribbean special collections that record US economic interests in the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. However, unlike other accounting or archival documents, it also shows the bias that the doctors showed towards local residents.

A Saturday market in Port Antonio, Jamaica. The diary’s comments on these pages focus mainly on the presence of buildings that the tourists recognized, notably a Y.M.C.A.

Plantations often treated their Jamaican workers poorly in the early 1900s. However, the mistreatment of farm laborers is not unique to this decade or just Jamaica. In the twenty-first century, we can see the mistreatment of farmworkers in Florida, who are experiencing the effects of climate change as well as anti-immigrant sentiment and policy. The accessibility of documents such as this album helps us understand the history of such relationships.

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