A caller on a radio show recently wanted to know the size of the Jamaican population at the end of slavery. He has not received a satisfactory response, nor has he been referred to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), which is the main source of this information. STATIN is currently conducting the decennial census, which began on September 12. This census was originally scheduled to take place in 2021.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494, it is estimated that the natives (the Tainos) numbered around 60,000. From 1494 to 1655, the Spanish population did not increase significantly despite inducements to encourage the colonization and even with the slaves from Africa introduced in 1513. The Taino population rapidly declined due to disease, marauding animals, overwork and depression. Thus, when the English attacked Jamaica in May 1655, it is estimated that the island’s population was only around 1,500.
The British, with 8,000 men, take possession of Jamaica with the rout of the Spaniards. The population grew, especially with an increased supply of enslaved Africans from around 1680 as the production of sugar and other agricultural crops increased. People of African origin would be much more numerous than people of European origin. There were also a few free blacks, as well as the Maroons, and a larger group of colored people, descendants of the black-white unions. There were immigrants of Jewish descent seeking refuge from persecution in Europe, notably from Spain and Portugal, and people fleeing the 1804 revolution and other upheavals in Haiti. Many of these Haitian migrants have gone into coffee production.
Taking a census to determine population size goes back millennia, as we know from the Bible. In many places, however, population figures have been largely estimated. The Census Act was passed in Britain in 1800 and the first official census was taken in 1801. The formalization of the census was influenced, it seems, by the writings of Thomas Malthus, clergyman, scholar and economist, which focused on the impact of population on the economy.
With the emancipation of the British West Indies (BWI), the British government ordered that the census should also be taken in these colonies to meet specific development needs. The first census in Jamaica and other BWI territories took place in 1844. Thereafter, where possible, a census has been taken in Jamaica every 10 years. These censuses provided important information needed for development planning.
After emancipation, the already small white population of less than 20,000 dwindled as sugar further lost its economic value and heavily indebted (encumbered) estates were sold or abandoned.
The ethnic mix of the Jamaican population also changed after 1846, as indentured laborers were brought from China and India, and other migrants came from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon).
Jamaica’s population has grown significantly since 1844, as these selected years show:
1844 – 377,433; 1861 – 441,264; 1871 – 506,654; 1891 – 646,300; 1901- 750,000; 1911-831,388; 1921-858.118; 1941-1,237,000; 1951-1,403,000; 1961 – 1,651,067; 1971 -1,869,000; 1981 – 2,132,000; 1991 – 2,365,000; 2001 -2,582,000; 2011 – 2,741,000; 2021 – 2,970,000
Emigration has played an important role in population control as since the 1860s Jamaicans have sought work abroad and many have remained in these countries, establishing the Jamaican diaspora. The birth rate may also have stabilized since the 1960s.
The current population is about eight times larger than it was in 1844. The current census will determine whether Jamaica’s population has crossed the three million mark or whether, with declining birth rates, it has leveled off .
Contributed by Marcia Thomas