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Culture & Heritage

No where else on earth will you find a culture as dynamic as the one visitors encounter in Jamaica. Its people are a mixture of the many ethnicities that have landed on the island's shores over the past several centuries. Weathering enslavement and oppression, the Jamaicans are survivors, and their past is full of fascinating stories just waiting to be told.

Cultural Heritage

Whether they are the descendants of the colonists or recent immigrants from the Middle East, people of all nationalities live and work together in Jamaica. Cultures have been mingling on Jamaica's shores for hundreds of years. And while this mixture inspires pride, it is also the source of Jamaicans' characteristically brassy banter that, to an outsider, might seem inappropriate at times. The Taíno, who inhabited the island long before European discovery, also left behind a cultural history.

Most Jamaicans are always willing to talk about subjects most find uncomfortable, peppering their speech with terms such as Browning, Redman, Coolie, Whitey, Blacka or Miss Chin. It is not uncommon to find people of all ethnic backgrounds on Jamaica, and the islanders are comfortable with their outward racial differences because they know this is part of what makes their culture unique.

But locals don't always take themselves so seriously. For proof, look at the famous sportsmen who made up the Jamaican bobsled team. Taking losses in stride, this team of rag tag athletes from a snowless island nation has continued to work hard. They were also the subject of the movie,"Cool Runnings," depicting the year the Jamaican team captured the hearts worldwide as the underdogs in the Olympic games.

Language is another way in which Jamaica demonstrates its melded culture. Although Jamaica's official language is English, many of its residents speak with their own linguistic style. There are even differences from village to village. The main ingredients of Jamaica's language stew are Spanish, African, English, including Irish, British and American idioms, and even Rastafarian. On Jamaica you might hear your shoes referred to with the Spanish word,"zapatos," and you might talk about where to"nyam," an African word meaning"eat." However, you may also hear terms you're more familiar with, like"cool" and"Irie." The language also has roots in slavery, as the slaves found ways to combine the language of their owners with their own African tongues.

Jamaican culture is also richly flavored by its cuisine. The aromatic spices of the Caribbean have allowed the island's kitchens to create one of the most unusual fusions of flavors in the world. Most popular on the menu is jerk, a marinade that can be added to almost anything, but usually meat. The spicy sauce includes many of the island's native ingredients. Seafood is also prevalent on the island, but most truly Jamaican dishes, which intimidate most visitors, include cow foot stew and goat's head soups.


Spirituality takes many forms in Jamaica, but all are reflected in the local culture. The Guinness Book of World Records determined Jamaica to have the most churches per square mile of any place on the planet. The island hosts many different Christian denominations, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Presbyterians. But the religious are not only Christians: Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Bahai's, and Rastafarians call Jamaica home.

Rastafari is the most prominent non-Christian religion on the island. It came into prominence as a grass-roots religion in the 1930s and was promoted as an alternative to white-oriented religions. Rastafarians worship the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, or Ras Tafari. Rastafarians also believe in reincarnation and that males should not cut or comb their hair or beards. The emphasis of the belief is on nurturing the inner spirit in each person, which has affected the language with its addition of"I" as a prefix for many words. Marijuana may also be used by Rastafarians as a sacrament and a meditational aid. It is an evolving religion and culture, and not every member believes in all of these things. Its popularity, however, has spread to many other countries in the region and around the world.

The Arts, Music, and Dance

Jamaicans also take pride in their artistic style. Influenced by the island's unique culture as well as European, American, and African art forms, islanders have mastered a style all their own. The nation has produced many famous artists including sculptor and painter Edna Manley, painter Albert Huie and the self-taught artist Kapo.

Of course, Jamaicans are also known for their willingness to dance. Dances found on Jamaica fuse the styles of Europeans and Africans into a unique form. Some of the local dances are the"jonkonnu," a dance practiced by slaves at Christmas time,"bruckins," from the period after emancipation, and the newer"ska." European dances like the maypole and quadrille are performed with"mento" music, while African dances like the"gerreh,""dinki-mini," and"ettu" were turned into commentaries on plantation living. New dances crop up constantly, but these older styles are the basis for new moves. Dance halls are the best places to find new styles, but the traditional dances of Jamaican culture are kept alive by organizations such as the National Dance Theater Company.

And of course, where would dancers be if it weren't for music, The most popular form of Jamaican music is reggae, which has a sound is so easy to enjoy that it has gained popularity throughout the world. Many reggae musicians have grown to international fame, most notably Bob Marley, who worked with and influenced many other local musicians before his death in 1981. The popularity of this genre has continued to this day. Dancehall, a variation of reggae, is also growing in popularity.

Reggae may be the most well-known style of music, but there are many more. Jamaican folk music has come from many sources over the years. The most notiable influence on many of the sounds found here is Africa, in celebrations of birth, death, and harvesting. However, the different types of music performed now fall into three groups: dance, religious, and work and entertainment.

Dance music is the most popular type throughout the islands and is performed with traditional dances to celebrate special events and holidays. On such occasions, the dancers and their costumes are as important as the musical accompaniment.

Religious music has been influenced by the various smaller religions popular on the island, most commonly Kumina, Pocomania, and Rastafari. These songs are generally accompanied by drumming and chanting. Songs can also include singing and other musical instruments. They are generally performed at all-night vigils and services.

Music has also historically been performed for work and entertainment. Work songs are an aspect of the tradition rooted in the culture of slavery, when songs were used to pass messages and gossip, though they also helped ease the work of the slaves. Songs of this type followed a traditional African call and response format. However, games are also sung, and children often gather in circles to sing and clap. Games are generally very physically demanding, so there are rarely instruments in these songs.

Other musical forms that are growing in popularity on the island include jazz, rocksteady, and ska. Classical music has a small audience among some of the islanders, and gospel is popular across the island. The Eastern Caribbean musical styles of Soca and Calypso are also being adopted by the islanders. From painting to dance to music, the Jamaican people have so much to offer the world. Once you leave, you'll never lose the lasting influence of Jamaica's multifaceted culture.


The first known inhabitants of Jamaica were the Tainos, an Arawak-speaking tribe that traveled throughout the Caribbean after leaving South America. The Tainos left very little evidence of their time time on the island, but their influence was profound. The Tainos' Arawak name for the island was “Xaymaca,” which means “land of wood and water.” This was later written phonetically by Spanish explorers, who substituted a J for the X at the beginning of the word.

This was not the only name given to the island. During Columbus' second voyage to the Caribbean in 1494, he “discovered” Jamaica and named it for a saint, the way he named many other islands. In this case, St. Jago, but only the Arawak name of Xaymaca stuck to this beautiful island.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tainos farmed and fished and were even the creators of the hammock. Unlike many other islands in the area, they were never at war with the Carib tribes that peppered the region. After the arrival of the Spanish, Jamaica’s history was no longer as peaceful; the Tainos’ new enemy was the Spanish, who began enslaving the natives around the time they established their first settlement in 1510.

This settlement was Sevilla Nueva, “New Seville.” By the late 16th century, the Tainos had been almost completely wiped out, whether from the hard farm labor, European disease or by their own hand—committing suicide to escape slavery. There were almost none left, and many Africans were imported to replace the Tainos as slaves.

British Colonialism

Later many settlers moved to Villa de la Vega, “City on the Plains,” now called Spanish Town. Spanish Town became the center for the Spanish colonists and was often attacked by the British. In both 1596 and 1643, the British sacked Spanish Town, and in 1655 captured it after failing an assault on Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It took five years to defeat the Spanish, who eventually fled to Cuba.

However, before fleeing, the Spanish freed and armed their slaves. Most of these freed slaves ran to the interior of the island and formed the Maroons, a group which still exists today. The Maroons waged guerrilla war against the British colonists and are respected for their ability to defeat the British in battles throughout the early colonial period.

The British encouraged new settlers to come to the island through gifts of land, and soon the economy was booming through the business of the vast sugarcane plantations. Jamaica was the world’s largest producer of sugar, yielding 22 percent of the world’s supply during the 1700s. Sugarcane wasn’t the only cash crop grown on the islands, the British also produced cocoa and coffee plants for trade. However, many Africans were brought into slavery to help the British rise to this caliber of economic power on the island.

Slaves were treated poorly, especially after the American colonies split from England and the French Revolution, when feelings of freedom were stronger than before. In fact, Jamaica had more slave revolts than any other West Indian island. With frequent resistance and uprisings, anti-slavery feelings grew in Britain especially after the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, in which 20,000 slaves killed planters and ruined crops. The British owners convinced them to lay down their revolt with promises of abolition, which were never kept. Afterward, 400 slaves were hung, and many more were whipped.

Freeing the Slaves

In 1834, after several more slave revolts, the British made into law the Emancipation Act. This act allowed all slaves under the age of 6 to be immediately freed, all other slaves would serve an apprenticeship to learn helpful skills for several years. This was not a pleasing announcement to the many British landowners who relied on slave labor to produce huge cash crops. Planters imported 35,000 indentured servants from India and later China to fill this gap.

In 1830 the mulattoes – or mixed-race people – of the island were allowed political power and began fighting for the poor ex-slaves in the 1860s. Again the American political situation affected Jamaica, and the naval blockade during the American Civil War brought economic strife to the island. The Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 by many blacks was put down aggressively by Jamaica’s Governor Edward Eyre. However, the violence of his response was not well-received in England, and the next series of governors chosen was much more liberal.

The production of sugar was no longer the island’s most useful export by 1838, and the colonists soon realized that bananas and coffee were more economically sound alternatives. However, the biggest hit Jamaica’s economy took was in 1846 with the Sugar Duties Act, which forced Jamaica to compete with other sugar producers in price. The advent of beet sugar in Europe further hurt the island’s sugar trade. Bananas bolstered the island until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Entering the 20th Century

It was just before the Great Depression that Marcus Garvey began his worldwide campaign for black nationalism. Born in Jamaica, he was a publisher and journalist as well as a crusader. He left Jamaica and began to travel the world, championing the Back-to-Africa movement. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association which spread across the Caribbean and on to several other countries. He also founded Jamaica’s first modern political party in 1929, the People’s Political Party. After his death he was declared one of Jamaica’s first national heroes.

During the Great Depression there was another period of civil unrest on the island, and riots were common. A strike in 1938 resulted in a clash between police and workers and ended with several people dead at a West Indies Sugar Company factory. The strike’s leader, Alexander Bustamante founded the first trade union, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. The Union also spawned the creation of a political party, and the People’s National Party (PNP) was founded by lawyer Norman Manley. This, following the work of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and early 1930s, spurred Jamaican nationalism.

During World War II, Jamaica served as an Allied base, however it was the advent of tourism and the first bauxite exports that drove the island to economic success in the 1940s, which in turn helped to stabilize the island’s political situation. 1944 saw Jamaica’s first election with universal adult voting rights, and Bustamante’s Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) won the election. Over time, the JLP adopted a capitalist philosophy while the PNP eventually began leaning toward democratic socialism. The JLP stayed in power until 1955 when the PNP came into power.

Moving to Independence

Jamaica joined the Federation of the West Indies in 1958 but left in 1961 when voters rejected membership and, on Aug. 6, 1962, Jamaica gained independence. Bustamante as a part of the JLP became the island’s first prime minister. This was a period of prosperity for the islands, and foreign investment increased in many industries. The JLP stayed in power until 1972, when Manley’s son Michael Manley came into power as the country's first biracial prime minister. He improved relations with Cuba, set a minimum wage and helped the poorer classes in many ways. However, this help came at a price, and the internationally owned bauxite industry was hit hard with taxes.

The bauxite industry immediately declined, as company owners lowered their production. This caused an economic slump that was made worse by the oil crisis during 1973 and 1974. In an attempt to make the country more self-sufficient, Manley proposed breaking alliances with the United States and allying with socialist Cuba. This angered America, which quickly imposed economic sanctions. The JLP, now led by Edward Seaga, began attacking the PNP’s administration, calling it “communist” but, despite these attacks and the political violence of the time, the PNP won the 1976 elections.

Power switched between the JLP and the PNP during the 1980s, but Manley was forced to resign in 1992 due to failing health. His successor was P.J. Patterson, Jamaica’s first black Prime Minister. Patterson won the 1993 election with a less radical platform than Manley’s had been. There were again riots in 1999 due to a 30 percent tax increase on gasoline, and after three days of rioting, the government repealed the tax. Jamaica now suffers from international debt, a relic from its early days of independence, but its bauxite and tourism trades are flourishing, as well as its dynamic culture. 

Created by http://www.jamaica-guide.info/past.and.present/culture

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