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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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