Jamaica has Obama-fever!
All of last week, during the final days of preparation to the actual arrival of the 44th President of the United States of America (USA) to Jamaican soil on April 8, 2015, Jamaicans were definitely all about Barack Obama. With #POTUS trending in the Jamaican social media world, and the internet memes suggesting an excited Obama who couldn’t wait to come to Jamaica, to the man on the street wishing to see just a glimpse of the man along the designated travel routes in Kingston, everyone couldn’t wait to welcome the President of the United States (POTUS) to Jamaica land we love.
And with reason.
This visit was the second such from a sitting US President, the first being President Ronald Reagan in 1982, and the first for the first black US President, one who has the respect of all Jamaicans (not to mention the majority of the world!). Based on the news clips I’ve seen online, you just have to see the faces of those who actually laid eyes on him. They were absolutely mesmerised by the man! Not to mention when, at the town hall meeting with youth leaders at the University of the West Indies (UWI), he greeted all those in attendance with: “Wah a gwaan Jamaica?” (Just look at their faces! 😀 )
During his visit, which was not designated a state visit due to how short it was, President Obama and Prime Minister Simpson Miller held bilateral discussions on a range of issues of mutual interest on April 9, 2015, including matters pertaining to energy and Jamaica’s Economic Reform Programme (ERP). Jamaica also hosted an encounter between President Obama and the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for discussions on issues on the CARICOM-USA agenda, including security and trade. President Obama, as well as the CARICOM Heads of Government, then left Jamaica on the evening of April 9, for the Summit of the Americas held in Panama City from 10-11 April 2015 (Jamaica Information Service, March 17, 2015) .
So what positive developments can Jamaicans expect from Obama’s recent visit? Well, that remains to be seen. However, the overall anticipation and level of preparation that went into the visit is a great indication of the good relationship the country has had with its northern neighbour over the years as a result of our geographical closeness.
At times, though, both countries have not seen eye-to-eye.
One such thorny issue had to do with the low-lying offshore islets around Jamaica, specifically the Morant and Pedro Cays (pronounced ‘keys’ like the Florida Keys).
Jamaica is not a single island, as many naturally think. Jamaica is in fact an archipelago consisting of a chain of islands, rocks and cays. An archipelago is defined as a group of islands within 100 miles off the coast. Peter Espeut, a local sociologist, environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon, conducted an inventory of Jamaica’s archipelago and found that this comprises 65 rocks, cays and islands.
The Cays in Jamaica
The Morant and Pedro are the main cays in Jamaica. The Morant Cays lie 53km to the south-east of Morant Point and consists of three islets. The Pedro Cays lie 64-80km south of Portland Point and include four islets.
Today the Morant and Pedro Cays are used by fisher folk as commercial fishing bases. In former colonial days, however, the Morant and Pedro Cays were exploited for “guano, the valuable fertilizer derived from the excreta of bats and sea birds” (Senior 2003, pg. 104). However, the Morant and Pedro Cays did not have a clear owner until 1862 and 1863 respectively. According to the Handbook of Jamaica (1886, p. 546):
The Morant Cays and the Pedro Cays were taken possession of on behalf of the British Crown in the years 1862 and 1863, respectively, and it was at first intended that they should be annexed to Jamaica.
The Colonial government eventually decided not to annex the Cays to Jamaica or any other colony but to keep it for the Crown (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
It was, however, subsequently decided not to annex these cays to any colony but to give the Governor of Jamaica power to “deal with” all guano islands or cays within the West Indian Naval Station which were not already dependencies of any British colony and which were, or might be declared to be, subject to British sovereignty.
The Colonial Secretary then gave the Governor of Jamaica the authority to grant leases to take guano from the cays (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
Accordingly letters patent were issued in June, 1864, authorizing the Governor of Jamaica to grant leases of, and licenses to take guano from such islands Leases have under this authority from time to tie been granted by the Governor of Jamaica to different persons at the rate of £51 a year for the Morant Cays, and at the rate of £75 a year for the Pedro Cays. The cays are rented for the purposes of collecting guano, boobies’ eggs, turtle, &c.
Jamaican/American Disputes Concerning Rights to Guano Deposits on Morant and Pedro Cays
So what does all of this have to do with Jamaican/American relations during this time? The fact that the Cays did not have a clear owner meant that anyone could exploit the guano deposits found there. In fact, the Americans were the first to dig for guano on the Cays and, by right of discovery, kept all guano found. According to provisions within the United States Guano Act, passed on August 18, 1856, “whenever any American discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock or cay, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession, and occupies the same, such island, rock or cay may, at the discretion of the President of the United States be considered as appertaining to the USA” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2).
The Act further states however, that “the discoverer is required to satisfy the Department of State that his title is clear and valid” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2), meaning that there were no prior claims to the Cays.
Indeed, although the British Crown did not take official possession of the Cays until 1862 and 1863, the Jamaican Government “had exercised administration over the [Morant] Cays for a hundred years, and it is possible the passing of the Guano Act of the U.S.A may have led to its declaration in 1862, to make assurance doubly sure” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2).
This state of affairs over the valuable guano deposits on the Cays, however, brought the Jamaicans and Americans to blows over who had the right to the guano deposits. In fact, following on the declaration of British ownership of the Cays in 1862 and 1863, the Jamaicans now saw the Americans as interlopers. After complaints made by Jamaicans “that they had been subjected to ‘outrages’ by the crew of an American vessel” (Senior 2003, pg. 104) who were declaring ownership of the guano deposits by right of discovery under the United States Guano Act (1856), the Cays were formally annexed to Jamaica in 1882 (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
…these cays have been formally annexed to the Colony of Jamaica, so as to give the Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave on the 9th of May, 1882, under the authority of those letters patent, issued a Proclamation declaring that the date of annexation should be the 1st of June 1882. For judicial purposes these cays form part of the parish of Kingston.
The following is an advertisement for a guano supplier in the Daily Gleaner for Monday, September 8, 1884, pg. 4:
The guano deposits at these cays were eventually exhausted and replaced with a vibrant trade in boobie eggs and turtles. According to the Handbook of Jamaica (1886, pg. 546) “sea birds arrive at these cays in great numbers during March, and in April the islets are covered with their eggs which are collected and conveyed in schooners to Jamaica” and “later in the summer turtle[s] are caught.”
While this dispute between the Jamaicans and the Americans concerning these Cays did not result in a break down in diplomatic relations, it did cause tensions between Jamaicans and Americans who were removing the guano from the Cays before the official annexation to Jamaica in 1882, with questions arising about the ownership of the cays and how best to protect Jamaica’s interest in them. For instance, in a letter highlighted in the Daily Gleaner for Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2, the letter writer, a Commodore Brown, noted that:
“…in the present legally undefined position of these Cays, which do not form part of the Colony, any persons employed at these places will find difficulty in obtaining effective protection, or redress for any grievance which they may suppose they have sustained at the hands of their employers.”
The questions concerning who owns the Cays were eventually answered when they were both annexed to Jamaica, effective June 1, 1882.
How many of you Jamaican Echoes readers knew about this bit of our history? I definitely did not know about this event in our past so I taught myself something new today!
Until next time…
Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2
Daily Gleaner, Monday, September 8, 1884, pg. 4
Drummond, Nashauna (2008). Jamaica: the Archipelago. Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, January 22, 2008.
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Sinclair, A.C. and Fyfe, Laurence R. (1886) The Handbook of Jamaica for 1886-87. London and Kingston.clair, A.C. and Fyfe, Laurence R. (1886) The Handbook of Jamaica for 1886-87. London and Kingston.