How did the Lebanese come to Jamaica?

How did the Lebanese Come to Jamaica?

Do you know that the Lebanese is one of the groups that came to Jamaica? Why do you think they came here? We mentioned immigrants such as the Indians and Chinese who migrated to Jamaica as indentured laborers. The Lebanese, however, did not. They, like the Jews, landed in Jamaica of their own free will and also, to escape religious persecution.  

We often heard though that it was the Syrians who came here and not the Lebanese or it is used interchangeably. That’s because at the time the area the Lebanese came from (which was Mount Lebanon) was once a part of Syria hence that mix-up. I was actually told I have Syrian in my blood, I guess why that actually mean is Lebanese is a part of my make-up along with African, Indian and European. If many Jamaicans traced their descendants, it will be a diverse type of family that melted into who many of us are today biologically. Culturally, I would say we are more African-rooted than any other culture.

According to research, the Lebanese started coming here towards the end of the nineteenth century.  They heard of the wonders of the new world – streets paved with gold, grand opportunities, a life they could look forward to, providing they worked for it. I guess I could compare that to what I heard as a kid when many made it seemed that the green card or foreign citizenship such as US or UK would bring great fortune. Of course, naturally, many wanted to flee to those new lands as soon as possible to build new lives for themselves and families. That’s why the Lebanese did. 

But why did they choose Jamaica?

Research shows that they are several reasons the Lebanese chose Jamaica.  These include:

  1. The Lebanese saw Britain as a country of freedom and sought protection of the British Flag whenever they could. Since Jamaica was a British colony at the time, they thought Jamaica would be a great choice. 
  2. Jamaica was the first place their ships landed, and they just decided to get off there. Remember people didn’t really know where they were going and may have thought well, I see land, this must be the place to rebuild our lives.
  3. Some landed in Cuba and didn’t like it, so they went to Jamaica. (Sorry Cuba)
  4. The Great Exhibition of 1891 brought them here. This Exhibition was held on the grounds of what we now call Wolmer’s schools and drew over 300,000 visitors from around the world including some from the Middle East. They heard of opportunities in Jamaica and thought their dry goods would sell well here. You can’t blame them for believing that. Kingston was booming at the time – lively market scene, horse-drawn traps, tramcars, people selling their goods and haggling over prices.  

So you see why they chose Jamaica? From there, naturally, they would tell their families and communities back home about this island and instead of seeking new land, their families would migrate here as it had already been tested and proven by those who came before them. Hence, the beginning of chain migration.

How did the Lebanese build their lives here?

Many started out in the banana industry before its decline in the early 20th century. Then peddling as very few had money at first for stores. Then, they followed the Jamaican-Jewish Community and eventually turned to retail, moving from peddlers to store owners. 

It’s interesting how we build ourselves from level to level as human beings. They would start off as peddlars by borrowing money from an established person in their community, purchase a small number of goods, sell from door to door. Then as profit start coming in, they would first get a donkey, a horse, eventually a buggy until they could afford something better. Once they had enough money, they would build a dry goods shop many of which are still located downtown Kingston on West Queen, Orange Street. These were or are some of your favourite stores such as Jospeh’s, Hanna’s, Shoucair’s, Issa’s and so. Of course, they had to learn the language for those who didn’t speak English, often mingling with the Jamaican locals.

They were careful with money and were diligent. This made them successful in business. Fewer and fewer returned to Lebanon, making Jamaican their forever home. With that and with second generations not retaining much of their culture as their first generations did, Lebanese-Jamaicans became more Jamaicanized. Note that World War ll also interrupted them returning to Lebanon for marriage and so. 

What did the Lebanese Contribute to our culture?

Other than the stores and brands we mentioned and even didn’t mention such as Mahfood, Anmar, Azan, Karam, Matalon and so who are big in the  tourism, retail, manufacturing and horse-racing industries, Former Miss Jamaica and Miss World, Lisa-hanna is part-Lebanese. They also introduced that popular flat bread known as Syrian bread to Jamaican cuisine. Former Prime Minister and JLP leader, Edward Seaga was also of Lebanese-descent. There are also several other descendants noted such as Ken Khouri, record producer, Anita Mahfood – dancer, actress, singer, Philip Feanny O.D- most decorated horse trainer in the world, Lady Colin Campbell – author, radio hostess and I am sure more people we haven’t mentioned here. Do you know any or have anything to add to our summary of the Lebanese who came to Jamaica?

Let us know in the comments.  Big up to the Lebanese, a valuable group in our Out of Many, One People!

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