Privateers and Profiteers: Illicit Commerce as a Social Mobility Strategy in Jamaica
Anne M. Galvin, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Abstract: The Caribbean region has a rich history of piracy often personified by the ruthless Captain Morgan. By the 17th Century, Morgan had been Knighted “Sir Henry Morgan” and appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. British exploitation colonies quickly became localities where populations excluded from social status by birth in Europe could reinvent themselves, gaining status through wealth rather than lineage. Morgan parlayed the riches he accumulated as a privateer into land ownership and, eventually, political influence in the colony. In this research, I argue that there are continuities between the acceptance of social mobility through wealth accumulation during the era of high seas piracy and contemporary strategies poorer Jamaicans utilize in order to gain social mobility.
I examine two contemporary “profiteers” in particular, one a “ghetto youth” who used his wits and social connections to become a prominent record producer and then a politician. The other figure is a dancehall music fashion model who became a singer and then a “taste making” boutique owner/ female “role model.” Each of these figures has utilized a combination of licit and illicit economic behavior in order to improve their social standing and influence. By examining these piratical social and economic behaviors in relation to the history of the region, I will demonstrate that the economic culture of the colonial era in the Caribbean has historically underpinned contemporary entrepreneurial forms of social mobility. Such strategies have allowed current members of the Jamaican working-class to circumvent the creole meritocracy put in place to maintain the status distinction between educated and uneducated populations. The Caribbean, therefore, continues to be a unique space of social and economic mobility despite efforts to maintain rigid status differences grounded in the continuing influence of hierarchical social organization originally imposed and maintained by the British.