Jamaicans are the largest West Indian immigrant group in Canada and the third largest in the United States, behind Puerto Ricans and Cubans. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 736,513 Americans and 211,720 Canadians claimed Jamaican descent. The majority of Jamaicans in the United States live in New York City and other urban communities of the Northeast, though a significant number also live in Florida. Toronto is by far the preferred destination of Jamaicans in Canada.
The island of Jamaica occupies 4,200 square miles in the Caribbean Sea. Its nearest neighbors are Cuba to the north and Haiti to the east. In 2002, the population was estimated at 2,665,636. The people are 90 percent black, descended from slaves brought to Jamaica by the British during the 17th and 18th centuries. About 61 percent of the population is Protestant and 4 percent Roman Catholic. More than a third of Jamaicans are members of other religious groups, many of which teach African revivalist doctrines. The best-known Afro-Caribbean religion is Rastafarianism, which venerates Haile Selassie, who before becoming emperor of Ethiopia was named Ras Tafari, as a god. It was made internationally famous by the reggae musician Bob Marley in the 1970s, who sang about its belief in the eventual redemption and return of blacks to Africa. Jamaica was inhabited by Arawak peoples until Columbus visited the island in 1494 and brought European diseases that soon wiped out the native population. The island was occupied by Britain in the 1650s, becoming its principal sugar-producing island in the Caribbean. Jamaica won its independence in 1962. Socialist governments throughout the 1970s frequently clashed with the United States and Canada over bauxite mining interests and cold war
ideology, leading to considerable political unrest in Jamaica. During the 1980s, Jamaican politics became more conservative, and relations with the North American mainland improved.
Prior to the 1960s, both the United States and Canada treated immigrants from Caribbean Basin dependencies and countries, in various combinations, as a single immigrant unit known as “West Indians,” making it impossible to determine exactly how many Jamaicans were among them. Before 1965, however, Jamaican immigrants clearly predominated, and English-speaking immigrants generally far outstripped others. Between 1900 and 1924, about 100,000 West Indians immigrated to the United States, many of them from the middle classes. The restrictive Johnson-Reed Act (1924)
and economic depression in the 1930s virtually halted their immigration, but some 40,000 had already established a cultural base in New York City, particularly in Harlem and Brooklyn. About 41,000 West Indians were recruited for war work after 1941, but most returned to their homes after World War II. Isolationist policies of the 1950s and relatively open access to Britain kept immigration to the United States low until passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which shifted the basis of immigration from country of origin to family reunification. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952
had established an annual quota of only 800 for all British territories in the West Indies. When Jamaica became independent, however, the country qualified for increased immigration quotas. Between 1992 and 2002, an average of more than 16,000 Jamaicans immigrated to the United States annually.
Many Jamaicans in both the United States and Canada were well educated and enjoyed greater economic success than other Americans of African descent. Their political influence in the United States was proportionally greater than their numbers would suggest, leading to tension between West Indians generally and African Americans. Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, who came to the United States in 1916, and U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, brought considerable attention to the Jamaican immigrant community during the 20th century.
West Indian immigration to Canada remained small throughout the 20th century. Following restrictive legislation enacted in 1923, it is estimated that only 250 West Indians were admitted during the entire decade of the 1920s. By the mid 1960s, only 25,000 West Indians lived there. Canadian regulations after World War II (1939–45) prohibited most black immigration, and special programs, such as the 1955 domestic workers’ campaign, allowed only a few hundred well-qualified West Indians into the country each year until 1967, when the point system was introduced for determining immigrant qualifications. Jamaica nevertheless maintained the largest source of Caribbean immigrants. Of Canada’s 120,000 Jamaican immigrants in 2001, more than 100,000 came after 1970.
See also West Indian immigration