We went to do a job, but got stuck: some thoughts on Caribbean migration

I wouldn’t take issue with any particular view of how Jamaicans view the British (or more precisely, the English). Annie Paul, a good social observer living in Jamaica, wrote in The Guardian a couple of years ago about how warmly Jamaica embraced members of the Royal Family, and that this suggested a greater willingness to stay as they are and not go all Republican.


I was glad I came across that article as I searched for ‘What Jamaicans think about the British’. My mind had drifted back some 50 years. Then, views of the British were largely formed out of the experience of their being colonial masters. What most people saw was the ruling classes, or at least those who could be trusted to administer in the Monarch’s name. Most islanders never got to see the other sides of Britain, except those who had had time serving in the military or been on a cargo ship or maybe represented their island in some international sporting event. Mass migration changed that.

Caribbean people got to see the British for what they were. That didn’t stop us carrying still the stereotypes of English people; likewise, they did not drop their stereotypes of us.

Many of those who’d ventured to Britain before the mass migration from the 1950s, had come into the rarified air of higher learning–universities, law schools–and the better aspects of medical facilities as represented by teaching hospitals. So, they carried a view of Britain that was in some ways better, but also worse: it offered insight into a world that was not that common for many Caribbean people, but also pitted the ‘visitors’ into a world that was generally more tolerant for having been places exposed to foreigners for a long period.

Anyway, the arriving Caribbeans had to deal with ‘negative’ facts like whether the British really all had bad teeth, never stopped drinking tea, never bathed or only rarely, all ate fish and chips, etc. The ‘positives’ included the reputation for being welcoming, a general attitude that was not overtly aggressive, fairness, etc.

Many people were not ready to have their stereotypes challenged and also found themselves in situations and locations where the local norm was not necessarily reflective of a wider experience. However, with many people tending to cluster in areas, those circumstances when repeated seemed like the national norm. For example, most people when faced with a large influx of new people tend to be more challenged than if only having to deal with ‘ones or twos’. That goes to the experiences some had because they found themselves ‘isolated’ in rural settings, and were not in the denser and more competitive environment offered by many inner urban areas.


It also took Caribbean people a long time to figure out what they represented to the hosts and what they could offer that was different. I’m not saying that other migrants came with a plan, but if your group comes and fills certain slots it’s hard to convince people that you can do otherwise. So, many unskilled labourers filling jobs in factories and in public services makes it hard to convince people that you have a wider contribution to make. Over time, as talents develop, that picture can and does change. So, the athletic prowess of the region started to come to the fore, and despite years of prejudice, rose to the surface and now seems like a given, and people of Caribbean origin are now so implanted in a range of national sports as to feed the well-known stereotypes about our athleticism.

We still as a group of migrants need to figure out why we’ve not breached other walls, such as in a range of businesses that we know are well stocked with talent in the region. But, little inroads are being made.

Whether Caribbean people like the British a lot is not really a good question. We’ve lived with them a long time and we’ve seen some of their good and some of their bad. They’re the devil we know. We have lots of association and much in common. We’ve also managed to become some of them, so it’s ranging into deep psychological territory if we want to say that ‘our’ British and ‘their’ British are to be liked or not. Tricky, innit?

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)