Winter escapes are always uppermost in Canadians’ minds when the thermometer drops precipitously. One of the more popular destinations is Jamaica, which Canadians equate with a tropical paradise filled with sun and sand.
But what many Canadians would be surprised to learn is that at one time Jamaica was considered a prime candidate for annexation to Canada.
We know today that annexation of Jamaica didn’t occur. However, it wasn’t the only time Canada failed to obtain a tropical island paradise.
In the 19th century, there had been an appeal to the British government by the last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalami, who wanted Hawaii to be placed under Canadian jurisdiction. Before anything could be resolved what she feared had come to pass — Americans living on the Hawaiian Islands exercised gunboat diplomacy and overthrew her monarchy in 1893 to seize the nation for themselves.
During the same period, fear of a similar hostile American takeover was provoking discussions regarding the annexation of Jamaica and the British West Indies to Canada. However, Canada’s aspirations were continually thwarted, although not without a fight.
The British commissioner for the West Indies, Michael Solomon of Jamaica, met in Ottawa on September 19 with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and conveyed the message that if Canada was not prepared to annex Jamaica, the United States would.
He said Jamaicans were willing to organize a representative provincial government if admitted to Canada. Jamaica was then a British Crown colony and had a nine-member Legislative Council with nominal authority to govern — its independence didn’t occur until August 6, 1962.
Macdonald liked the idea and journeyed to London, England, on October 13, 1884, to discuss annexation with the British Colonial Secretary, the 15th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley (related to Frederick Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, the 16th Earl of Derby, who established hockey’s Stanley Cup). The meeting was reported with the comment that “England has no objection to the union ... Derby, in an interview with the commissioner from the West Indies (Solomon), said the home government would acquiesce in the proposal to connect the West Indies with Canada.”
Just a month later on November 11, the Legislative Council of Jamaica rejected a motion proposed by Solomon by an eight to one vote to join Canada.
But that wasn’t the end of the matter. As the years went by, Canadians heavily invested in Jamaica, including spending $1 million (a fortune at the time) to form a street railway company in Kingston, the Caribbean island’s capital. The Canadian Pacific Railway linked Halifax to Jamaica by telegraph line. In 1903, Canada was subsidizing monthly steamship service to Jamaica, paying $15,000 annually. The Jamaican legislature approved its own annual subsidy of $12,500. Furthermore, news reports in Canadian newspapers heralded better postal arrangements between Canada and Jamaica.
“Now that the prospects of reciprocity with the United States are fading,” reported the February 20, 1903, Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram, “the government of Jamaica sees an advantage in promoting trade with Canada which is a large consumer of tropical fruit” and the British handing over to Canada its West Indies colonies.
Canadians were once again enthusiastic about annexation.
In Jamaica, the Kingston-based Gleaner, ran an editorial on July 24, 1907, which claimed the 20th century belonged to Canada (a phrase attributed to then Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier), “and she is conscious of the fact; but it remains to be seen whether she will make sufficient progress in the first quarter of it to enable her to make that bid for colonies which is now her ambition. Whatever their personal preferences, the West Indies dare not for the life of them make a mistake which may bring them to greater poverty, and even ruin.” The same newspaper indicated Canada’s eagerness to be more closely associated with the West Indies, and “if they are to be ceded at all, they must be ceded to her. Now West Indians would certainly prefer Canada to America if Canada offered them commercial advantages nearly ... equal to those offered by the United States.”
The only complaint from the newspaper was that Canada, which then had a population of about 6.5 million people, was not populous enough to offer an advantage to the West Indies. Once the Canada’s population approached 15 or 20 million, then British authority over the West Indies could be transferred to Canada, according to the Gleaner editorial.
The Gleaner mentioned that Canada’s population would soon reach the desired figure since British and West Indian immigrants preferred Canada over the U.S. and Americans were leaving their own country to settle on virgin land offered in the Canadian West.
Still, it was admitted by James H. McDowell, a wealthy merchant from Jamaica when visiting Winnipeg in 1906, that the Americans “already own pretty near all the island.” The geographical position of the two countries was a strong argument against annexation, he added.
“I know that it is something in the nature of a much cherished ambition on the part of those who have a desire for a still larger confederation that Jamaica should be annexed to Canada, but I think the possibility is very remote, and can scarcely be regarded as coming within the range of practical politics.”
This was definitely not what Winnipeggers and Canadians wanted to hear. They probably thought McDowell hadn’t considered the fact that the Hawaiian Islands are thousands of kilometres west of the mainland U.S., so his geographical argument was not valid reason to prevent distant Jamaica from uniting with Canada.
But like Hawaii earlier, the prospect of Jamaica joining Canada has faded from memory. Ties remain strong between the Caribbean nation and Canada due to the immigration here from Jamaica that continues to this day. In the end, we didn’t get our tropical island paradise.
Now, what’s happening with the Turks and Caicos Islands? Do we still have a chance, or have the Americans again beaten us to the punch?
This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2008 edition.