Indo-Jamaican music



Indo-Jamaicans, or Indian Jamaicans are the descendents of migrants and immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who are citizens or nationals of Jamaica. Indians form the second largest racial group in Jamaica after Africans.


Over 140,000 Indians were taken to Jamaica as indentured workers between 1845 and 1917, with around two thirds of them remaining on the island.. The demand for their labour came after the end of slavery in 1830 and the failure to attract workers from Europe. Indian labourers, who had proved their worth in similar conditions in Mauritius were sought by the Jamaican Government, in addition to workers coming from China. Indian workers were actually paid less than the former West African slaves and were firmly at the bottom on the social ladder. The legacy of these social divisions was to linger for many decades.

The Indian Government encouraged indentured labour and recruiting depots were established in Calcutta and Madras although agents were paid significantly less, per recruit, than for a European workers. Most Indians who signed contracts did so in the hope of returning to India with the fruits of their labour, rather than intending to migrate permanently. The Indian Government appointed a Protector of Immigrants in Jamaica, although this office tended to protect the interests of the employers rather than the workers. Although technically the workers had to appear before a magistrate and fully understand their terms and conditions, these were written in English and many workers, signing only with a thumb print, did not comprehend the nature of their service.

Arrival in Jamaica

The first ship carrying workers from India landed at Old Harbour Bay in 1845. It bore 200 men, 28 women under 30 years old and 33 children under 12 years old from various towns and villages in Northern India. The numbers arriving increased to 2,439 three years later, at which point the Indian Government halted the scheme to examine its working. The programme resumed in 1859 and continued until the outbreak of World War I, although by the 1870s stories of the hardships suffered by Indian indentured workers were causing disquiet on the sub continent.

The labourers were given one suit of clothing, agricultural tools and cooking pots on their arrival, divided into groups of 20 or 40 and sent, first by mule cart and in later years on overcrowded freight trains to the plantations in Portland, St. Thomas, St. Mary, Clarendon and Westmoreland. Here they would work for a shilling a day and live in rudimentary barracks, with several families having to share a single room. Two shillings and six pence were deducted from their meagre wages for the rice, flour, dried fish or goat, peas and seasoning which constituted their rations. Children received half rations but the plantation managers were warned to treat the children well, with quarterly medical check ups theoretically provided. The overwhelming majority of the immigrant labourers were Hindu but little provision was made for their faith and cultural practises. Non-Christian unions were not recognised until 1956 and many accepted Christianity.

The conditions of the indenture varied from between one and five years, with the workers being released if they fell ill or bought themselves out of their contract. They were not allowed to leave the plantation without a permit, on pain of fines or even imprisonment. Many of the workers and their families suffered from yaws, hookworm and malaria.

Settlement and repatriation

Although most of the workers originally planned to return to India, the planters lobbied the Government to allow them to stay and defray their settlement costs, largely to save on the costs of returning them to the sub continent. Money and land were used as incentives, with time expired Indians offered 10 or 12 acres of Crown land. Often the land was mountainous and infertile so many chose to take the cash in hand and by 1877 close to £32,000 had been spent by the Jamaican authorities.

The monetary grants were suspended in 1879, with the land grants being halted from 1897 to 1903 and abandoned in 1906 as there was little difference in the costs of repatriating a worker (£15 per person) and offering land grants of £12 per head.

After 1899 male immigrants seeking repatriation were obliged to pay up to one-half of their passage and female immigrants up to one-third. Immigrants were further required to pay for blankets and warm clothing.

Problems in returning

The lack of ships available to repatriate the workers was another factor in many of them staying on. Ships refused to sail if not full, and at othertimes were oversubscribed, leading to some time expired workers being left behind. During World War 1 German submarine warfare and a lack of ships further cut the numbers able to return. The Indian Government did not encourage the return of workers as many were destitute, ill or had lost touch with their own culture.

The final group of Indian indentured immigrants arrived in Jamaica in 1914 and the last repatriates left in 1929 with legal repatriation ending in 1930. After 70 years of indentured labour, over half of 5h3 Indians who arrived in Jamaica between 1845 and 1916 remained and the Indian community on the island developed and strengthened. Many workers left Jamaica to work on the Panama railroad and canal in the 1880s, returning when the work was completed.

The Indian workers tended their own gardens after the work on the plantations was done to supplement their diet. Indian workers, in search of relaxation, also introduced marajuana and the chillum pipe, to Jamaica. Hindu festivals such as Diwali were celebrated although many became Christians over time. Gradually workers left the plantations for Kingston and took jobs that better utilised their existing, and newly learnt skills. The Indian community adopted English as their first language and became jewellers, fishermen, barbers and shopkeepers.

Jamaican Indian culture

Indians have made many contributions to Jamaican culture. Indian jewellery, in the form of intricately wrought gold bangles, are common on Jamaica, with their manufacture and sale going back to the 1860s. Indians established the island's first successful rice mill in the 1890s and dominated the island's vegetable production until the late 1940s.

Forms of Indian dress were adopted by some Jamaicans and can be seen in Jonkonnu processions. Many Christian African-Jamaicans participate alongside Indian-Jamaicans in the Indian inspired cultural celebrations of (Shia Muslims) Hosay and (Hindu) Divali. In the past, every plantation in each parish celebrated Hosay while today it has been rebranded an Indian carnival and is perhaps most well known in Clarendon where it is celebrated each August. Divali, a Hindu festival linked with the reaping of grain, the return of Prince Rama after 14 years in exile, and the victory of good over evil, is celebrated late October to early November on the darkest night of the year. Houses are cleaned and brightly lit and everyone is in high spirits.

Approximately 360,000 Indians live in Jamaica today, maintaining their own cultural organizations and roots but assimilated into the wider community. Traditional Indian foods such as curry goat, roti and callaloo have become part of the national cuisine and are now seen as 'Jamaican'. The influence of the Caste system has largely atrophied and arranged marriages are no longer common. Descendants of the immigrant workers have influenced the fields of farming, medicine, politics and even horse-racing. Names such as Chatani, Chulani, Tewani, Mahtani, Daswani, Vaswani and Chandiram have become synonymous with manufacturing, wholesale, retail and in-bond businesses providing employment for thousands of Jamaicans. Cricketers of an Indian, as opposed to African, background have found success in representing both Jamaica on the domestic scene and the West Indies.

Notable Jamaicans of Indian descent

See also



  • Mansingh, L. and A. "The Indian tradition lives on" in A tapestry of Jamaica ­The best of Skywritings, Air Jamaica's in-flight *magazine. Kingston: Creative Communications Ltd. and Oxford: Macmillan Publishers. p. 364-366,
  • Mansingh, L. and A. Indian heritage in Jamaica in The Jamaica Journal, 10, (2,3,4), 10-19,
  • Parboosingh, I.S. An Indo-Jamaica beginning in The Jamaica Journal, 18, (3), 2-10, 12,
  • Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998) The story of the Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers,
  • Shepherd, V. Transients to citizens ­ The development of a settled East Indian Community in The Jamaica Journal, 18, (3), 17-21.

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