Independence lessons for Scotland from Jamaica

Clearly, there are no direct comparisons between the way Jamaica became part of the British Empire and Scotland. Many British businesses and individuals participated in the slave trade and huge profits were brought back. Scotland's participation in that trade has only recently begun to be acknowledged . Nevertheless, Scotland has strong links to Jamaica - both positive and negative. It is important to recognise these.  

A country with a population of under 3 million, Jamaica has a big influence, famous around the world for music, sport and food. Jamaica has serious economic and social issues to contend with, many of which are bound up with its complex history, but it has made remarkable progress on some of these in recent years - such as reducing infant mortality.  

Despite facing huge hurdles, Jamaica has been able to take on the challenges of governing itself. It has built a network of strong international relationships, particularly within the Organization of American States. Jamaica has made impressive progress in reducing uneployment and poverty rates while also tacking its high public debt thanks to the country's "Herculean efforts". 

Looking back at a connected past and forwards to its own independent future, Scotland can learn lessons from Jamaica’s example. 

Links between Scotland and Jamaica

Many people would assume that the country outside of Scotland with the highest percentage of Scottish surnames might be Canada or New Zealand, but it is in fact Jamaica. It has been said that up to 60% of names in the Jamaican telephone directory are Scottish in origin. The most common name is Campbell. 

Glasgow’s first Afro-Caribbean elected representative is SNP Councillor Graham Campbell, who represents Springburn and Robroyston. Councillor Campbell, a cultural producer, musician and dub poet, is a veteran political activist and as part of “Flag-Up Scotland-Jamaica” has worked to build awareness of the links between the two countries.  

As part of its commitment to reparative justice, the University of Glasgow has committed to raising and spending £20m on the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research, which is based jointly in Glasgow and Kingston.

One of the centre’s priorities is working to reduce the rates of diabetes type 2 and other chronic disease, which affects both Scotland and Jamaica. Another is supporting technological transformation of the economy.  This kind of partnership working can be a source of strength for both countries in the future.

Understanding and acknowledging the past 

Many Jamaicans got their names from slave owners and overseers, in Jamaica many were Scots. Some imposed their names; others fathered children with slaves - including some of Jamaica’s most celebrated radicals and anti-slavery campaigners.  But there were others such as the nurse Mary Seacole, whose father was a Scottish soldier stationed in Kingston and whose mother was a landlady.  

Scottish prisoners of war from both the Cromwellian wars and the Jacobite rebellions were exiled to Jamaica, as were some Covenanters. Many of these exiles were indentured servants working alongside slaves of African descent in the sugar plantations. At the end of the eighteenth century, Colonel John Campbell from Inverary left the failed Darien experiment and came to Jamaica where he had a large family, which initiated the spread of the Campbell name all over the island. 

Campaigner Sir Geoffrey Palmer, whose mother was a West Indian woman with the Scots name Lamond, wants Scotland to engage more openly with the legacy of slavery. He said:  "I think a lot of West Indians want to know about their Scottish heritage. Perhaps they can even take some pride in it. For a while, there was a movement towards dropping these names, but I think that would be to lose something real, a real record of our history."

One of Jamaica’s best-known anti-slavery campaigners was Robert Wedderburn. When Robert, whose mother was a slave, traveled to Scotland to visit his father James at Inveresk Lodge, he was turned away with a cracked sixpence. That was part of his journey to radicalism - he later became a prolific speechmaker, writer and protestor. 

Becoming independent

The island of Jamaica was first conquered by Spain in 1509 and then Britain in 1655. The island’s First People, the Taino, were of South American origin. They took refuge in the mountains where over time they were joined by escaped slaves, exiled Jacobites,  and other fugitives. They formed a multi-racial group of rebels called the Maroons. The well-known Jamaican dish ‘jerk chicken’ comes from Maroon cooking techniques of cooking meat in mounds to keep the smoke from giving away their position to British soldiers. 

The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but existing slaves were not freed. Slavery was finally ended in Jamaica in 1838. After that, the plantation system gradually collapsed - leaving much-needed agricultural land abandoned by its owners. 

The Morant Bay rebellion was sparked when a black man was arrested for ‘trespassing’ on a long-abandoned plantation. Its leaders included George William Gordon, the son of a Scottish planter and a slave woman, and Paul Bogle. They were both hanged by the British Governor. Jamaica’s Assembly was abolished and replaced as a Crown Colony where only the Governor had decision-making power. 

By the 1930s, dissatisfaction was growing. The economic depression led to economic hardship and there were riots. At this time, many Jamaicans were prevented from voting by poll tax requirements. Universal suffrage was not brought in until 1940. In the post-war period, the island began to pressure and prepare for self-government under unofficial leader Alexander Bustamante, who became the first Prime Minister. 

Between 1958 and 1962 most of the British-controlled Caribbean was integrated as the new West Indies Federation in an attempt to create a single unified future independent state. The West Indies Federation fell apart when the largest island, Jamaica, withdrew from the federation and declared itself independent in August 1962, closely followed by Trinidad and Tobago.

The Jamaican dollar

Jamaica started a central bank two years before independence. The Bank of Jamaica became the sole issuer of currency for the island and it continued to issue British pounds and shillings. Seven years after independence, in 1969, it moved to the Jamaican dollar. George William Gordon features on the $10 note.

The Jamaican flag

The only national flag apart from that of Scotland that includes the saltire is the flag of Jamaica. As the time of independence in 1962 approached, an initial design for the flag with three vertical stripes in green, black and gold was deemed unsatisfactory. A Presbyterian minister, Rev William McGhie, who had become a friend of the Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante, suggested that the national flag should reflect Jamaica’s status as a Christian country and have a cross in it. At Sir Alexander's request, he drew out the Scottish flag substituting the blue and white of Scotland with the green, black, and gold of Jamaica. This design was accepted and the Jamaican flag has become one of the best-known in the world.

The Jamaican National Dress includes vibrant reds and yellows and a plaid-like design. This red and white chequered costume is often called the bandana costume, which is a mixture of African kente and Scottish tartan. 


The links between Scotland and Jamaica go back a long way. Important figures in Jamaican history such as Robert Wedderburn and George William Gordon should be better known and studied in Scotland, the country which influenced their journeys to radicalism. Scotland is finally beginning to understand and acknowledge the part it played in the story of slavery. 

Jamaica is working to overcome the challenges linked to its complex past. Its people and culture are influential across the world. Jamaica has a wide network of international partnerships and Scotland should look to be part of that. 

As Scotland looks to its own independent future, it will be able to build stronger connections with Jamaica in the future, working together to confront shared issues. Glasgow University is showing the way, with the co-located Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Developmental Research. 

By Jackie Kemp