War and Depression

1901-1936: Leadership in the 20th Century Carries the Island Through Trouble

The 1800s ended peacefully and a period of relative quiet continued on Jamaica early into the 20th century. Both the banana and sugar trade were becoming extremely profitable, and the outbreak of WWI in Europe would barely make waves in the Caribbean.


Unfortunately, as peaceful as Jamaica had been, it was not free from the problems brought by mother nature, and in 1907 disaster struck. An earthquake wracked the city of Kingston, with tremors felt in Port Royal and Spanish Town.

Though the earthquake lasted less than 30 seconds, its damage was incredible. Still further damage was caused by fires that sprung up and burned Kingston for four days, all but stopping rescue efforts.

Survivors fled and most spent the night in open spaces. Those in need of medical care overflowed from the public hospital. Many of the dead could not be given proper burials, and were burned or disposed of in trenches just outside the cemetery.

Though looting was soon to follow, the government quickly stopped it by posting guards throughout Kingston. Three American warships came in from Cuba three days after the earthquake, bringing doctors and medical supplies to help the islanders get back on their feet.

Admiral Davis, who led the American troops, also placed marines in position to guard the Consulate and its records. However, he did this without permission from Jamaica's government, and Governor Swettenham requested that the marines be withdrawn. In reply, Admiral Davis withdrew all his troops, and told a ship on its way with a gift of 2000 tons of food for Jamaica - a gift from President Roosevelt - to turn around.

Swettenham later apologized to Davis and resigned his post. Sir Sidney Olivier took over the position and quickly got the disaster under control. After a short court battle, insurance paid enough to rebuild the city. Though the city planners did build for future earthquakes, historians note that they did not expect the city's growth, nor the growth of motor traffic.

The War and Beyond

World War I took Europe by storm, but unlike the battles of the colonial era, Jamaica was only lightly effected by the war. Though a contingent of men left the British West Indies in 1915, they were not required to take part in military service. Britain passed a Conscription Law in 1917, but it was never put into effect.

Criticism of Jamaica's government, led by elected members of the Council, was strong enough that the Colonial Office sent a Commission to examine the situation. The Commission recommended further changes to the island constitution, but these suggestions were rejected on Jamaica.

Marcus Garvey, now a national hero of Jamaica, was returned to the island in 1927 after a prison sentence in the U.S. for fraud. Once back in Jamaica he continued to work toward his goal with the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which he founded. Though not much would come of his career during his lifetime, political leaders later used the unity and racial pride he inspired to lead the people of Jamaica.

Economic Struggles

Bananas and sugar were the two most important exports on Jamaica. Sugar production increased greatly with the institution of newer technology in sugar refining. Despite these industries, many Jamaicans were immigrating from the island in search of nearby work. The U.S. depression in 1929 quickly caused problems in Jamaica.

In the years leading up to this time, banana crops spread throughout the island from their beginnings in Port Antonio. Any size farm could create a profit from banana production, and, unlike sugar, bananas can be harvested year round. Banana shipments also created reliable and regular transport for people and goods from Jamaica to the rest of the world. In 1929 the Jamaica Banana Producers Association came together for protection and support; in 1936 it became a private organization.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of WWI, European beet-sugar was competitive in cost to Jamaican sugar, and the banana industry began declining as well. Migration also came to an end when the depression hit, and many Jamaicans were being returned home. The growing island population couldn't find enough work.

The worsening economic conditions on Jamaica would soon lead to the rise of political leaders as well as labor unions, but this relatively peaceful period in history was also coming to an end.

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