Scraps of Jersey history: The true Jerseyman and formation of today’s society

St. Brelade's Bay, Jersey

Once upon a time Jersey wasn’t an island; it was part of Europe and was either surrounded or completely covered by the great Forest of Scissy, the remains of which can still be seen in St. Ouen’s Bay at a very low tide. Then during the following thousands of years and due to different sea levels during various Ice Ages Jersey detached from England and then from the mainland of France. This separation from the continent will determine the character of this little piece of land isolated from the rest of Europe by the natural features of the environment.

So where does the true Jerseyman come from? Well, the opinion is still divided between the partisans of Norman heritage theory and those who claim that the Bretons are their only true ancestors. Anyway, the first traces of human occupation were found in La Cotte à la Chèvre and La Cotte de St. Brelade which are places of a great archaeological importance. Then, after the dissapearance of the cavemen, Jersey experienced two main waves of immigration.

The first to land on Jersey’s shores about 7000BC were Iberians, a race of small, swarthy tillers of the soil that lived in mud huts and buried their dead in massive stone tombs (dolmens). Next to arrive were the Gauls, tall and fair-haired warriors, who made Iberians in Jersey their slaves. And finally, last but not least and probably the most important invaders, the pirating Vikings or Normans as they were called, ravaged the coasts of France and England, including the Channel Isles on their way, setting fire to the houses, murdering local inhabitants and breaking into their sacred places.

To secure peace with such aggressive invadors in 911 the Treaty of Clair-sur-Epte was signed between the French king, Charles the Simple, and the pirate chief Rollo who was bought off to keep the peace with that part of France we now know as Normandy. Then, in Rollo’s son’s time, the Channel Islands were added to the Duchy and that’s how from 933 to 1204 Jersey came under Norman rule.

The Normans soon became devout Christians and law-conscious landowners. They also dropped their Scandinavian language in favour of French. The results of this bilingual heritage are still present in the names of certain places in Jersey: the coastal ones kept their Norse names –  L’Etac or L’Etaqueral from stakh (a high rock), the inland ones retained their French designations such as La Garenne (rabbit warren) or Maufant (bad mud). Another interesting inheritance from the Normans is La Clameur de Haro – a custom that was still used in the second half of the 20th century when a Jerseyman wanted to stop somebody from doing harm to his property or to himself until a court can decide the case. The victim would fall down on his knees, bareheaded, in the presence of two bareheaded witnesses and cry out: Haro! Haro! Haro! À l’aide mon Prince, on me fait tort! (Haro! Haro! Haro! To my aid, my Prince, I am being done wrong!). The agressor was supposed to stop at once from what he was doing until a court of law pronouced a judgement.

From the 16th century Jersey became home for Huguenots escaping persecution by the Catholic rulers of France, then at the end of the 18th century for the refugees from the French Revolution, but most importantly from the 1850s came the Bretons, hard-working people, resistant to fatigue, happy with minimum amenities and as opposed to the Normans small and dark.

The most pervasive was the immigration from the U.K. which started and grew stronger from the 1820s. With a regular steamship service Jersey, considered as a tax haven, become even more attractive and easily accesible.  The new immigrants brought with them their customs, language and currency and so in 1834 livres tournois were replaced by pounds and shillings and 66 years later English ousted French as the official language.

Jersey Fields

And finally, since the end of 1970s the immigrants from Portugal strenghtened the ranks of Jersey society and left their stamp on its present shape. Initially the Portuguese, coming to Jersey only for the season, replaced the Breton farm workers, but very soon they started settling in the island and take up jobs in different sectors of industry.

Today Jersey society constitutes a mixture of cultures. Beside the true Jerseymen, descendants of Iberians, Gauls, Normans and Bretons, members of various nationalities put down roots in the island bringing a variety of customs  and traditions from different countries across the globe: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Kenya, South Africa and many others, which certainly makes Jersey an interesting, multicultural and cosmpolitan place.

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