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Out Of Many Cultures The People Who Came
The Arrival Of The Lebanese

1940s: Members of the Lebanese community come out to the Palisadoes airport to meet George Shoucair, who has just arrived from Lebanon. He is the gentleman in the middle with a hat in his hand.

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello


The story of the Lebanese in Jamaica begins towards the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike their fellow immigrants from China and India who had begun arriving in Jamaica in the mid-19th century, the Lebanese did not land on the island as indentured labourers. They, like the Jews that had come centuries before, arrived by their own free will, albeit fleeing religious persecution.

Most of those that fled were Christians who suffered religious persecution at the hands of the Muslim Turks who controlled most of the area under the Ottoman Empire. At the time, that region of the Middle East contained people from an area known as Mount Lebanon which was then part of Syria ­ hence the common confusion between the terms Syrian and Lebanese and why they tend to be used interchangeably. Having heard of the wonders of the New World, a place where the streets were supposedly paved with gold that was there for the taking provided one worked hard enough, many sought to escape as quickly as possible and build new lives for themselves and their families.

There are a few theories put forth as to why Jamaica was chosen as a destination. Nellie Ammar, the daughter of one of the earliest Lebanese immigrants and matriarch of the well-known Ammar retail family, collected stories from many of her relatives and friends prior to her own passing in the late 1990s. In an article for the Jamaica Journal she referenced her father who explained that for many who left the Middle East in the 1860s and 1870s, Britain was seen as the country of freedom. America was still emerging from the throes of its own bloody civil war. Therefore, according to him, the earliest Lebanese/Syrian immigrants seemed to have decided to seek the protection of the British Flag wherever they could and Jamaica fell into that category. He went on to explain that many of those who came later were joining relatives and friends rather than striking out for entirely new territory. This is known as "chain" migration, where prospective immigrants hear success stories and are provided with passage and a job on arrival through family or other social connections. Other descendants of early immigrants told Ammar that their relatives came because Jamaica was where their ships first landed and since many who bought their passages in the Middle East had no clear idea where they were going they simply disembarked. Still others explained that their family members spoke of first landing in Cuba after having left the Middle East and stopping in the French port of Marseilles or some Italian port. They didn't like Cuba and so came across to Jamaica.

In addition, stories recount that many Lebanese/Syrians first heard of Jamaica as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1891. The Exhibition held on the grounds of what is now Wolmer's Schools drew over 300,000 visitors from around the world including some from the Middle East. They spoke of opportunities in Jamaica and soon, middle easterners from Lebanon, and Palestine such as noted Father of Jamaican Tourism, Abe Issa's grandfather and father, decided to journey to Jamaica and try their luck at selling dry goods.

On landing in Kingston, new arrivals in the 1890s often encountered a full harbour and a vibrant market scene. Labourers in distinctive jippi-jappa hats, businessmen in morning coats, and East Indians in dhotis, all haggling over prices. Finely dressed women abounded. Single and double horse-drawn traps recruited passengers while mule-drawn tramcars offered alternate means of transportation. Even though they had to jump over open drains, there was electricity and potable piped water. The city was booming ­ there was good reason to believe that a pedlar would do well (Issa, 1994, p. 5).

Earlier Lebanese/Syrian immigrants seemed to have been active in the banana industry but faced with its decline in the beginning of the 20th century, most turned to buying and selling and eventually to retail, following members of the Jamaican-Jewish community. At first, very few had enough money to buy shops so they turned to peddling (Sherlock and Bennett, 1998, p. 334).


Outside of store on West Queen Street in downtown Kingston, owned by George Edward Seaga, grandfather of Opposition Leader Edward Seaga. George Seaga's family came to Jamaica at the turn of the century, c1900.

A potential pedlar would locate an area, ascertain the possibilities, borrow money from a more established member of the Lebanese/Syrian community, purchase a small amount of goods and sell them door to door. As business improved, the pedlar might expand to add first a donkey to his set-up, and then as it expanded further, a horse and buggy and eventually a motor vehicle. Customers appreciated the convenience of being able to shop from home even though they had limited choice (Sherlock and Bennett, 1998, p. 334). Once the pedlar amassed enough funds, he would open what is called a dry goods shop ­ many of which were and still are located in downtown Kingston on Orange, King, West Queen and Harbour streets: Issa's, Joseph's, Shoucair's, Hanna's, Bardowell's and my family's, G.E. Seaga and Sons.

Many amongst the first wave of immigrants worshipped in the Greek Orthodox Church but found none on arrival in Jamaica and so turned to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches ­ the first of many adaptations that included the learning of a new language, and intermingling with Jamaican society, whose own cultural modes were being formed as different groups ­ the Chinese, Indians, Africans and Europeans struggled to make the island their home. Some Lebanese immigrants, such as those from the village of Schweifat, did speak English as it had been taught in school their region of the Middle East. This certainly made it easier for them to adjust than other immigrants and assisted their assimilation into Jamaican society. Others, especially those later arrivals that landed between the two World Wars to join family members, spoke French so it took them longer to adjust to both the Queen's English and Jamaican English.

As time passed, many Lebanese/Syrians achieved success in business. They were careful with their money and worked hard. Fewer and fewer returned to Lebanon. In fact, many of the second generation Lebanese-Jamaicans did not return to Lebanon to find wives and retain aspects of their culture as had been the custom of some of their parents. World War II interrupted this tradition. Second and third generation Lebanese-Jamaicans therefore became more Jamaicanized.

The Lebanese introduced the popular flat bread known as Syrian bread ­ a staple of their diet ­ to Jamaican cuisine. They gave the island a beauty queen ­ former Miss Jamaica and Miss World, Lisa Hanna-Panton is part Lebanese. Names like Hanna, Mahfood, Issa, Joseph, Ammar, Azan, Shoucair, Karam, Younis, Khouri, Fadil, Feanny, Dabdoub, Matalon and Ziadie are giants of retail, tourism, horse racing, industry and manufacturing. Last but not least, perhaps the most famous Jamaican with Lebanese descent is the Most Hon. Edward Seaga, the country's longest serving Minister of Parliament, current leader of the Jamaica Labour Party and former Prime Minister. His contributions to national, economic, social and cultural development are legion.

Today's Lebanon has been independent for close to 60 years. Between the two world wars, it was a French colony. For some 400 years prior to the 1920s, the land where Lebanon now is fell under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

In 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence, a National Pact was instituted that gave political offices to major religious groups ­ the Christian Maronites, Sunnis Muslims and the Druze.

By the beginning of the 1950s, tensions in Lebanon began to grow as thousands of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Shi'ite Muslims became the largest religious sect. In an attempt to co-ordinate pro-Arab and pro-Western sentiments a brutal civil war broke out between different religious factions in 1975.

Israel invaded in 1978 and 1982, and Syria also intervened militarily. (Syrian troops are still stationed in various parts of the country). In 1990, a cease-fire was declared and by 1992 much of the actual fighting stopped.

Sources: Ammar, N. From Whence they came in The Jamaica Journal. Issa, S. (1994). Mr. Jamaica - Abe Issa. Kingston: publisher, Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998). The story of the Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

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Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
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Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
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Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
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The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
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Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
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A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
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The First 500 years in Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted October 06, 2003.
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