Prof. J. A. George Irish directs the Office of International Programs at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. He was born in Montserrat, a small island in the Caribbean, and immigrated to the United States in 1986. He is former director of the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers. Besides being an expert on barrel shipping, a strong tradition in the Caribbean community where families send food and other goods to their relatives still in the islands, Irish ships barrels himself.
Why did barrel shipping from the U. S. to the Caribbean develop?
Because of growth in population here since 1965, there’s so many more people committed to sending that the shipping industry in the Caribbean community blossomed. In those barrels you could have a variety of things. What the people back home look forward to first of all is food stuff.
What are the most popular items to ship?
One of the things children looked forward to was cornflakes. You’re used to your cereal being flour, corn, rice, arrowroot. So when a barrel came and it had a couple boxes of cornflakes, it was a major delicacy. They looked forward to canned meats like salmon, hams. In that barrel you’d also get clothing, because you used the clothing for tighter packing. Occasionally they would get toys. Or school supplies. Because here you can get a pack of pencils for 99 cents. These things became highly prized commodities because over there you have to pay much more for them.
Which islands are known for barrel shipping?
There are a few that are really known, but it has now become widespread. Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados.
Why barrels instead of boxes?
In the cardboard box, it would be difficult to put too much heavy canned stuff. So you were pretty much limited to clothes, rice, dried food materials. Now the barrel has become more secure because boxes used to burst.
Why ship barrels instead of sending cash?
In terms of the social significance of it, it was not just the remittances and the support for the family. It was the emotional bonding, because that was the only contact people had then. The aspect of family bonding was linked in large measure to any form of remittances, but particularly the barrel.
Are those emotions universal among immigrants from different places?
Usually when people migrate, they migrate from a community or a family that pins its expectations on their travel to the U. S. I’m sure that applies to the Irish, the Greeks. I guess it’s true of all people who travel. It’s a deep-seated commitment. I think it’s more human than ethnic.
Have the items shipped changed over the years?
I just sent one last month. The person I was sending the barrel to, I asked, “What would you like me to put the in the barrel?” And I was shocked when she told me what she wanted. She said toilet paper, paper towels, hangers. No mention of food. But imported toilet paper, toilet tissue and paper towels are so expensive that it’s prohibitive to try to buy them locally. Those and electronics. People would slip in little radios, CDs.
How important is shipping to the local economy in Brooklyn?
Simply from the point of view of the businessman here, we have seen a significant increase in small business activity in the shipping sector. Brooklyn was really the heart of the shipping industry, and that is understandable because Brooklyn has the largest concentration of Caribbean immigrants not just in the U. S., but anywhere in the world. Caribbean people generally regard Brooklyn as headquarters of the Caribbean diaspora.
Don’t all those imports hurt the Caribbean economy?
Every shipment means there is a dent in the local grocery store. Somebody’s getting something from abroad that they don’t need to buy here anymore. It has that kind of economic impact, but I don’t think it’s significant enough to be a threat.