Once, people came from Jamaica to the UK in search of a better life; now all the migration is in the other direction. But some settlers are finding Britain hard to shrug off

Emma Brooker
Saturday 16 September 1995 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


IN 1954, Eric Robinson boarded a banana boat in Kingston harbour with 500 other hopeful young Jamaicans, and weathered a stormy three-week passage to Liverpool in search of "opportunity". Aged 25, with an engineering qualification stuffed in his suit pocket and his chest puffed up with hope, Robinson had left behind his girlfriend and their baby daughter in order to take part, as a British subject, in the rebuilding of the motherland. "People said: 'Britain needs labour,' " remembers Robinson, who had seen the job advertisements placed in the Jamaican press by London Transport and the National Health Service. "These were great opportunities, and I was just following the others, part of a mass migration."

Today, Robinson laughs at his optimism. "If I'd had the return fare I would have come straight back," he says. "Liverpool was on the slave route for Africans being taken to the West Indies. You'd have thought they would be used to seeing black people, but there were these heavy prejudices. The Liverpool 8 area was the only place that would easily accommodate us, and the conditions were very poor. We were treated like pigs, all crammed into one room. I felt very homesick."

It soon became clear that the "opportunity" which had lured Robinson and his compatriots from the Caribbean was largely chimerical. "There were jobs at the labour exchange, but when you went asking, there were no jobs for you," he explains. "I wanted an engineering job of the type I used to do in Jamaica, but a black man was not allowed to work in that field. All you could get were the menial, labouring jobs. I took one in the end because I was not prepared to go for the free money."

Eventually, Robinson did get a suitable job, as a British Rail engineer in Widnes, and his family joined him there. "They checked with the people in Widnes to see if they would work with me. Fortunately for me they accepted me. They were a bit clannish initially, but I brought them round and we became good friends."

A stern, warm character of imposing height, Robinson went on to play a leading role in the Jamaica Merseyside Association, forging relationships with the local police and raising funds to build a community centre. "It did get better because we made it better," he reflects. But no improvement could disguise the fact that Britain was, essentially, a disappointment to him.

Like many Jamaicans who arrived in Britain in the Fifties and early Sixties, he had planned to stay for five years, save enough money to buy a plot of land in Jamaica and return to build a home for his family. In fact, it took him 40 years, but last year he finally realised his dream and, leaving his daughter and grandchildren in Britain, returned with his wife to live in his birthplace, Yallahs, in south-east Jamaica.

HE WAS not alone. Immigration from Jamaica accounts for the great majority of Britain's 900,000-strong Caribbean community, but it has not been the continuing stream that some people still imagine. An average of 20,000 Jamaicans migrated each year to the UK in the mid-Fifties and early Sixties, but that flood has long since become a trickle. In 1994, a mere 300 Jamaicans emigrated to the UK. The trickle of immigrants in the opposite direction, by contrast, is beginning to become a flood. Last year, around 3,000 British nationals of Jamaican origin or ancestry emigrated to Jamaica.

This is the most dramatic realisation to date of a trend that has been gathering pace for most of the Nineties (with an average rate of emigration of around 1,000 a year). As more and more former immigrants - like Eric Robinson - reach retirement or receive redundancy payments, so the rate of return has accelerated. There are currently some 20,000 Jamaican residents drawing British pensions - bringing in an annual revenue of pounds 45m. And there are growing numbers of young people - some born in Jamaica, but most born and raised in Britain - joining the westward migration.

The British government seems unconcerned at losing these citizens; Jamaica is only too delighted to profit from our complacency. Returnees (a misleading but persistent term that embraces British-born descendants of Jamaican immigrants as well as returning first-generation immigrants), enriched by highly favourable exchange rates, have revived the island's building industry, often constructing lavish ideal homes for themselves. Indeed, they are now Jamaica's third biggest source of desperately needed foreign currency.

The Jamaicans who migrated to the UK in the Fifties were mainly working class. Not so the returnees. The older generation now have their savings and pensions, while the younger generation are emphatically middle-class: professionals, managers, small entrepreneurs. "People who were born in the UK or left here as small children are beginning to see the future in Jamaica," says Don Bryce, head of the Returning Residents Facilitation Unit.

The RRFU was created by the Jamaican government in 1993, the same year that import duties on cars and household appliances were waived. Bryce denies that the government is actively recruiting returnees, but it clearly sees the benefits of attracting skilled and professional people to the country. Derrick Heaven, Jamaica's High Commissioner in London, has toured British cities lecturing on relocating to Jamaica, and the RRFU keeps the CVs of would-be returnees on a database for Jamaican companies. As a result, thousands of educated, productive young people are now happily contributing to society in Jamaica rather than Britain.

Yet despite the Jamaican government's efforts to make them feel welcome, the passage "home" to the Caribbean for first, second and third generation Jamaicans has not been invariably smooth. British nationality may have its drawbacks, but it cannot easily be shrugged off.

THE TOWN of Yallahs is half an hour east of Kingston. The route takes you past Jamaica's biggest Rastafarian settlement, through a village called Poor Man's Corner and past a network of red saline ponds - coloured, according to legend, with the blood of drowned slaves. The roadside is littered with the husks of old cars and buses; beside them, skeletal goats graze on twigs. When the rain comes it swells the Yallahs River to a boiling torrent which washes the road into the sea.

On this harsh stretch of coast, Eric Robinson's newly renovated house and well-tended garden signal an affluence that marks him out immediately as someone who has spent time working in "foreign". Robinson now owns a farm in the hills which employs up to 12 local people. He looks back on his four decades in England with pride - "I served my sentence," he says - but he is delighted to be back in Jamaica. Surrounded by friends, new and old, he seems relaxed and animated, as if in the prime of life again. One of his great joys is to marshal locals into fund-raising activities - for a new county fire station, for example. "At the time of leaving England, I'd had enough," he says. "I wanted to get on to the next stage. I feel happier now. I can help other people less fortunate than myself." Yet there have been disappointments. After years of dreaming achingly of home, on returning to Jamaica he has found himself treated in some ways once again as an outsider. "In England initially when I wanted to buy something, I used to send a white person to the shop to get it for me. He'd get it at a reasonable price. Here I send a Jamaican who has always lived here. Otherwise they take one look at me and think, 'You've travelled, you've had plenty, we want what you've got,' and they'll charge me excess."

This experience is widely shared. No matter how "returnees" described themselves when they were in Britain - as British, as Jamaican or as Afro- Caribbean - once they set foot in Jamaica, they are, like it or not, English.

Brinette Rose, an Englishwoman in her early thirties who settled on the island with her husband David in 1993, was born in Coventry and had never left Britain at all until she visited Jamaica at the age of 25. None the less, "It was only in Jamaica that people started calling me English," she says. "At first I felt insulted, but now I feel there's a lot of things I learnt in Britain to be proud of."

The Roses have joined the growing community of black British expats who have settled among the wealthy Jamaicans of Mandeville, an affluent town perched high in the island's cool interior. Wet and temperate, smart and snobby, this town has been a favourite haunt of British colonials since they first seized the island from the Spanish in 1655. Today, seven-bedroomed mansions with swimming-pools and garages peep out from the tropical foliage cloaking Mandeville's circle of residential hills, along with more modest but still desirable dwellings such as the Roses'. It is easy to see why it is known as the Cheltenham of Jamaica. The Roses met 10 years ago, in the 7-11 store on west London's Harrow Road. Their own parents had migrated to Britain with a view to improving their standard of living, but Brinette and David decided - five years ago, to be precise - that moving to Jamaica would give them a quality of life incomparably better than anything that they and their three daughters had or could realistically hope for in the UK.

For several years they barely saw each other as they worked for up to 15 hours a day to earn money to make the move. Brinette worked as a care assistant for the local authority; David combined up to three jobs, working as an engineer for Leyland Daf, a minicab driver and a night-time delivery driver. Finally the day came when they could leave their council flat - on a notorious, drug-afflicted west London estate - for the last time, and for the past two years they have been in Mandeville. David is running a small farm. They are, by any standards, well off.

"I felt that we were working very hard in Britain and not getting very much in return," says Brinette. "Put it this way: as black people in Britain, we couldn't go and live in the countryside. It doesn't seem to work. But out here we fit in." Except that, in some ways, they don't. One reason for the Roses' prosperity - and for that of many other returnees - is the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar which took place in 1991. This left many Jamaicans struggling to afford basic supplies. It also meant that the cost of the Roses' Jamaican mortgage fell - from pounds 20,000 to about pounds 4,000 - and they have now paid most of it off in sterling. One pound currently buys around 52 Jamaican dollars (compared with 12 before devaluation); many Jamaicans earn as little as JA$800 per week.

The fact that they have reaped the benefits of what to other Jamaicans spelt financial ruin has meant that families like the Roses are viewed by some as pariahs. The result is an unfortunate siege mentality: like rich white British families ill-at-ease with their poorer, black neighbours (who, they suspect, resent them), they view many ordinary Jamaicans with fear and suspicion.

"I don't trust any Jamaicans," says Brinette.

"Coming to Jamaica has made you a racist," her husband teases.

Brinette protests: "I'm wary because the dollar is devalued against the pound: they look at you and think, 50 to one. The rumour goes round that the English have a lot of money. Some people despise you for that."

Two years ago, a number of returning residents were the targets of a spate of burglaries and attacks. Today, the doors and windows of Brinette's house are covered by metal security grilles, and a dog named Rambo guards the yard. "We don't have a gun yet," says Brinette, "but I want to get one."

MANY RETURNEES feel such insecurities, but most consider that being viewed with initial wariness is a small price to pay for the good life that Jamaica can offer - and, in any case, is preferable to being treated as outsiders in the place where they grew up. Wayne and Lorraine Thompson are two who subscribe to this view. Three years ago, they gave up well- paid jobs in telecommunications and law respectively and sold their lovingly restored Victorian house in Brixton Hill to move to Mandeville and set up a greengrocer's - a novelty on an island where most food shopping is done in street markets.

Lorraine, now 37, was born in Lambeth, south London, where her parents settled in the Fifties; Wayne moved to Britain as a child to join his parents in Brixton. "The only problem I had in Britain was the system of management," says Wayne. "I had all the right qualifications, but I was passed over for promotion so many times. The attitude was that you were never going to be as good as a white man. But I bided my time. I knew I was going to come over here."

According to John Small, a former assistant director of social services with Hackney Council who now runs the International Returning Residents Association in Kingston, the Thompsons are typical of the new wave of younger Britons now migrating to Jamaica. "Increasingly we are seeing young professionals from Britain who, even after having been through school and university there, still don't feel a sense of belonging," says Small, who spent 30 years in Britain before moving to Jamaica five years ago. "One minute people feel settled and fine, then suddenly the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police announces that 90 per cent of all muggings are by black youths. These things make people feel unwelcome. If you have an alternative, you get out.

"Britain is storing up a lot of problems at the moment," he warns. "If you're losing your young black professionals, what are you going to be left with? Working-class blacks who constitute a pile at the bottom and are likely to present some phenomenal problems."

For the Thompsons, the education of their three children was a major incentive for moving. "Local authorities were making a lot of cutbacks, and we were worried," says Lorraine. "We thought of sending them to a private school in England, then we realised that for the equivalent of a term's fees we could put two of them through a very good school over here. We thought they'd have a better chance here, and I felt they needed black input into their lives."

Having watched their children blossom at school in Jamaica, Wayne and Lorraine now see their decision to "return" as the best they have ever made. "Our friends in England were surprised when we moved here," says Lorraine, "but since then a lot of them have been out here to visit us and really liked it. We have lots of friends who would love to be able to come here, even for a year."

The Thompsons love the island's physical beauty and spend most weekends exploring the coast, rivers and hills. Above all, though, they prefer the easy pace of life. " 'No problem': that's Jamaica's slogan," explains Wayne, "and we were caught by that. We said, let's take life down a few steps and relax a little."

Not everyone finds the adjustment so easy. When 42-year-old Derek O'Connor's parents migrated to Britain, shortly after he was born, their journey was driven by straightforward financial need. His journey "back" was a more open-ended spiritual quest: a search for "home" - embarking on which required him to accept a sharp drop in income.

In the echoing dining-room of the Kariba guest-house that O'Connor has opened since his return five years ago, a group of Germans is eating breakfast in silence as he scolds his cook in the adjoining kitchen. The cook, a tall, doleful young man in a uniform which is several sizes too small, has put condensed milk in their tea and no jam on their table. "How many times do I have to tell you, you have got to use your initiative?" O'Connor rages. "That's the trouble with running a business in Jamaica," he adds. "It's impossible to find the staff."

O'Connor left Jamaica to join his parents in London when he was seven; 24 years passed before he returned for a short visit - and discovered a well of childhood memories in the recesses of his mind. "I was captivated. I always knew something was lacking, but I couldn't identify it. I never felt totally at home in England. But once I came back to Jamaica I felt, yes, now the pieces are fitting together. Smelling the sea and the earth, the flood of memories came back."

Even so, making the transition - from working as an electronics engineer on weapons systems for Nato to running a guest-house and farming a smallholding in a developing country - has not been easy for O'Connor. Thoughtful and sensitive, he is also an impatient and exacting man, sometimes jarringly at odds with his new home. "At first," he laughs, "I only needed to stand somewhere, not even say a word, and people would come up and say, 'How long you been back?'

"As much as I wanted to come out here, it was far easier for me to move around on different postings in Europe than it was to come to Jamaica. I realised that I and the Jamaicans are not akin to each other."

Sadly, he seems to be right: most mornings, at about 6 o'clock, O'Connor drives to the nearby village of Long Gully, where he has a 12-acre farm in a rich crease of land bounded by wooded slopes. He has transformed this farm into a tropical orchard: shoals of blue butterflies flutter between avocado, grapefruit, papaya and banana trees. A rambling passion fruit vine, bulbous with fruit, arches over plantings of coffee and hot pepper bushes. The soil is so fertile that it seems to be in danger of choking on itself. But O'Connor seems edgy and fretful, snatching at the tendrils snagging at his legs, snapping off the heads of rogue papaya plants. "I'm gone for two days and it's out of control," he laments. Then a rustling behind him disturbs a woodpecker and O'Connor spins round. "Elmore!" he shrieks. "Elmore!" He thinks he has caught one of his farm workers pilfering fruit.

A man emerges sheepishly from the most thickly planted area, accompanied by a teenage boy. Both say that they have turned up for work. "So where are your tools?" O'Connor wants to know. He berates the pair fiercely before jumping into his car. "It's impossible," he growls. "I've had to sack so many workers, there's nobody in the village left to hire." O'Connor departs in a screech of tyres, leaving the two villagers standing empty- handed by the road, glowering after him with the kind of looks which Jamaicans have been bestowing upon English settlers for centuries.

"MANY RESIDENTS who have returned have expressed to us a feeling of alienation, a feeling of some hostility directed towards them," concedes John Small. "There's a certain amount of feeling, you've left and have done well and have returned to show off your wealth, and there's an aversion to that among Jamaicans. Perhaps there's some petty jealousy in there as well."

Whatever the reason, there are some returnees for whom the Jamaican dream becomes a nightmare. Most years, about 15 families decide that they are unable to adjust to Jamaica, and make the return journey to Britain. "These are people who go there and expect a little England," says Mark Lobban, 34-year-old chairman of the new British-based Organisation of Returnees and Associates of Jamaica (ORAJ). "They put themselves under a lot of stress."

Not all the stresses have been self-induced, however. Jamaica is a young country with a developing economy, and it is impossible not to feel the lack of safety nets. National health and social security do not exist, and some also miss the confidence that they are used to feeling in financial institutions. At least 300 returnees are still unable to withdraw savings which they deposited, lured by advertisements in overseas publications, in the Blaise Trust and Merchant Bank, a national investment bank that folded earlier this year. After lengthy negotiations, it now looks as though they will eventually get 90 per cent of their money back, but the crash has left many returnees feeling insecure and resentful. Some feel that they have had scant public sympathy, with Jamaicans suggesting that they had too much money for their own good in the first place. Others argue that the government should have clamped down on Blaise at an earlier stage.

Aleith Lennox, now aged 47, went to England in 1972 and worked as a secretary and book ledger clerk. By 1980 she had saved enough money to start investing in second-hand car parts, and she soon developed a thriving business importing these to Jamaica. "Through trading, I made enough money to buy a large house in Jamaica. I sold the house in 1990 and moved into a rented home. I put everything into Blaise, and I was going to draw the interest every three months and live on that. But Blaise put fire under me tail."

Lennox had more than JA$2m in Blaise. Now she survives only by borrowing from friends and family. "I feel too ashamed to tell people, so everyone thinks I've got a bag of money. But I can't buy food, can't pay rent, I've got an eviction hanging over my head."

Like many of the returnees burnt by the fiasco, she feels that, in some hard to define way, her status as a "foreigner" has contributed to her misfortune - and that a government eager for returnees' hard-earned foreign currency has not rated the protection of their interests as a priority. However, the flow of new immigrants - and currency - shows no signs of abating, perhaps because material security is only a small part of the "quality of life" that returnees seek from Jamaica.

"Jamaica is a developing country," says Mark Lobban. "You've got to give and take a little. You've got to relax. People have to remember that Jamaica got along just fine without them. They have to prove that they have something to contribute. Then they start to integrate."

MOST RETURNEES are able to do this, especially the younger ones. Staffordshire- born Diana Wilson epitomises the positive side of the story. Her move has been almost entirely painless, partly because her "return", at the age of 27, was not complicated by any concept of homecoming. "Although my parents came from here, they never talked about it. Jamaica was as foreign to me as anywhere else in the world. I had no concept of the place and I didn't know anybody here. I didn't even come for a preliminary visit.

"I was working for a big city firm in London," she explains, seated behind the expensive- looking desk of her executive office at the top of one of the smartest new towers in uptown Kingston. "I didn't experience any discrimination working in the City. I just saw a lot of people who were going to burn out before their 30th birthdays, and that was one thing that I was determined not to do. I came here out of a sense of adventure."

A slight, immaculate figure who has clearly landed on her feet, Wilson looks like a young Mistress of the Universe as she gazes out of her window across the city. "Career-wise, Jamaica has a lot of women in senior positions, particularly in the financial sector."

Such statements, like the returnee phenomenon as a whole, encourage comparisons with Britain that are generally far from favourable, but Wilson is not interested in such negative thoughts. Now head of the legal department at the Citizens National Bank, she has slipped comfortably into Kingston's upper-middle-class social scene and is determined to enjoy it to the full. She goes scuba-diving at weekends, has started a collection of Jamaican art and helps to run a theatre company. "I'm about to take off on a three- week vacation to the eastern Caribbean," she adds. "If I see an island there that I like, I'll most probably go and work there. I don't identify with any one place. If anything I regard myself as a citizen of the world." !

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