Jamaica has a rich and varied culture, and a very strong sense of self-identity. This island country, located in the Caribbean Sea, is known for many things including its scenic beauty and exotic cuisine. Here’s a bit about the people and culture of Jamaica.
Did you know?
The words potato, tobacco, barbecue, and hurricane have come from the spoken language of the first inhabitants of Jamaica, the Arawaks.
Beautiful beaches, lush foliage, exotic wildlife, clear waters, blue skies, fragrance of poinsettia flowers, rhythm of reggae music, and zest of marijuana, Jamaica is a country that has it all. Situated in the Caribbean Sea, Jamaica is the third-largest country in the Greater Antilles group of islands. Greater Antilles contains four more island nations, which include Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Jamaica is also the fifth-largest country in the whole of Caribbean. The name of the country is said to have been coined by its indigenous Taíno inhabitants. They called the land by the name Xaymaca, meaning ‘Land of Springs’ or ‘Land of Wood and Water’. Jamaica is a relatively young country that achieved independence in 1962. Earlier known as Santiago by the Spanish colonizers, it is now a Commonwealth nation, with Queen Elizabeth II as its current head of state.
Jamaica has a rich mix of people belonging to different races, religions, and even countries, for that matter. Even the so-called indigenous people of Jamaica are said to have migrated to the island from South America. Owing to this, we get a beautiful amalgamation of various cultures and traditions in Jamaica, which has lots of amazing things to offer to the visitors.
Today, more than 2.8 million people reside in Jamaica, but the island was never always inhabited by so many people. Sources tell us that only a few thousand people were sheltered on the island, prior to its discovery by Columbus. These were the indigenous groups of Arawaks and Tainos, who are said to have settled on the island, roughly between 4000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. Christopher Columbus reached Jamaica in 1494, during his second voyage in quest of America. On alighting on the island, he and his crew received a rather warm welcome from the Arawaks and the Tainos, which shows that they were rather friendly towards visitors. However, the two indigenous tribes have now ceased to exist in areas that were once their strongholds.
Currently, majority of the Jamaican population is African. The Europeans brought Africans to Jamaica, mainly for slavery. Some of them fled, and took to the hills and could never be captured again. They are referred to as the Maroons. Since those times the Maroons have developed some traditions that they still follow. Next to Africans, most Jamaicans are multiracial, or of Indian or Chinese origin.
The Europeans (Spanish, Germans, Scottish, Irish, and English) dominate the population of Jamaica, after the Africans. The Chinese, the Indians, the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Jews, and the Scots are also present. However, ask a person living in Jamaica about his/her identity, and he/she will simply reply “I am a Jamaican!” And why not? After all, that’s also what their national motto is, “Out of many, one people”.
There are also a number of Jamaican diasporas in numerous European, Asian, and African countries. However, statistics tell us that the English speaking countries are preferred more by the Jamaicans. Owing to this, some 900,000 Jamaicans reside in the United States, 800,000 in the United Kingdom, and 231,110 in Canada.
English is the official language of Jamaica. It has been spoken nationally for more than 300 years. Also known as Jamaican Standard English, the language is a subtle blend of American and British English, spoken in an Irish accent. The usual practice however, is to use British spellings instead of the American ones.
The de facto national language of Jamaica is Jamaican Patois, also commonly referred to as Jamaican. From the linguistic point of view, Jamaican Patois is a very interesting language. It is a Creole language, which means that it is a combination of two parent languages viz., English and West African. Today, it has about 6.2 million native speakers, which makes it the most widely spoken language in Jamaica.
Added to the two major languages mentioned above, there also exists a ‘created English dialect’ called Iyaric. This is spoken by members of the Rastafari movement, who consider English as a language imposed upon them by the colonizers. So, in order to get rid of colonial English, this new dialect has been created.
Moreover, the Jamaicans are known to make up their own words to suit the topic they are speaking about. So, don’t be too shocked if you hear a new word every now and then.
The lives of the Jamaicans are shaped by their religious beliefs. Owing to the ethnic diversity in Jamaica, there are a number of religions practiced in the country.
The religious beliefs of the Tainos were based on animism. They worshiped both, the forces of nature as well as plants and animals. The God Yúcahu, and his mother, Goddess Atabey were their main deities. Yúcahu was the God of the sea, and also of the vegetable root that they consumed. On the other hand, Atabey was the Goddess of freshwater and fertility. They also believed in zemis or spirits, both good and evil, which were present in nature in several forms. Zemis were worshiped in order to avoid natural calamities.
With the advent of the colonizers, Christianity made its ways into Jamaica. Today, about 80% of the Jamaicans follow Christianity. Every Jamaican settlement, irrespective of its size, has at least one Church. The Sunday mass is considered to be extremely important, and everyone is expected to attend it dressed in a formal attire. The most widespread denomination is the Anglican Church of Jamaica, which has a large Roman Catholic following. It is followed by a number of smaller Protestant churches.
A major highlight of Jamaican religion is Rastafari, a unique religious movement that originated on the island in 1920s and 30s. It is a very interesting blend of Old Testament Christian faith, mystic beliefs, and African fundamentalist ideology. The Rastafarians or the Rastas, as they are simply called, keep long hair with matted dreadlocks, make spiritual use of marijuana, and completely reject the western society. Today, the awareness for Rastafari movement is increasing throughout the world through the spreading influences of the Reggae music. However, only one to two per cent of Jamaican citizens identify themselves as Rastafarians.
Other religions practices in Jamaica include Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Bahá’í faith, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Beliefs and Customs
The people of Jamaica have several indigenous customs and beliefs. Most of them are related to the birth and the death rites of a person. Furthermore, while most of these customs are widespread and are practiced even by the Jamaicans who reside overseas, there are some others, which are practiced only in some parts of the country.
One of the most common birth rite in Jamaica, pertains to the burying of the umbilical cord of a newborn. Usually a tree, called “navel-string tree” or “baby’s tree”, is planted at the burial spot, so that the baby always remains connected to his/her place of birth. This custom seems to be deeply rooted in the Jamaican sentiment of returning to their homeland and striving for their people.
Similarly, Nine Night is one of the important Jamaican funeral ceremonies, wherein for the first eight nights, the friends and relatives of the deceased assemble together at his/her home, and sing, dance, and drink all night. On the ninth night, however, only farewell songs are sung. The room of the deceased is rearranged, so that his/her spirit does not recognize it and return. A last meal is served to the spirit of the deceased, and is kept under the silk-cotton tree, which is believed to be the hiding place of the spirits.
A traditional Jamaican marriage calls for big celebrations, lavish preparations, and heavy expenses. It is a complete family affair, where both families meet formally before the wedding. Friends and relatives begin sending presents long before the “big day”. The most common gift is that of eggs, to be used for making the wedding cake. The ceremony itself is fairly short, and ends with the cutting of the cake.
Obeah is a belief that pertains to witchcraft and black magic. It is believed to be serving the purpose of both, saving lives and/or wreaking havoc on the enemy. Though the practice has been outlawed in Jamaica long ago, prosecutions are rare, and it is still common in the rural areas, where Obeah-men are held in high esteem.
Jamaican traditions help in defining the culture of their society. They are the ritualistic acts carried out over a specific period of time or at a specific event, and are fundamental to their beliefs.
The earliest evidences of Jamaican art come from the prehistoric times. This is the art of the Taino inhabitants that comes in the form of drawings, engravings, and paintings on rock surfaces and cave walls. This rock art of the Tainos depicts, other than their mythological stories, themes related to their daily lives such as hunting scenes, their religious practices, their perceptions of nature, and so on. Other than these, we also have evidences of numerous stone and ironwood figurines and masks, supposedly related to their belief in the zemis.
During the colonial period, art seems to have suffered a major setback as most of the African people were traded as slaves. Even if the Jamaican artists created works of art at this time, they were either suppressed or considered as primitive, and hence not worthy of attention or completely ignored. Until the middle of the 20th century, what can be called an out-and-out Jamaican art movement was not born. It was a revolution rather than a movement. People from all classes came together and created powerful works of art that conveyed very strong social and political messages.
Today, the National Gallery of Jamaica, situated in Kingston, houses some of the finest works of art in the entire Caribbean region. Added to this, there are also a number of private art galleries giving exposure to famous as well as upcoming artists. The Jamaica School of Art that was set up in 1950, became a nexus between the Jamaican art movement and the Jamaican masses. The school, later got assimilated into the Kingston Cultural Training Centre, which also teaches dance, drama, and music, other than the tangible arts.
Dance and music form an integral part of Jamaican culture. Reggae is the most popular genre of music. Bob Marley, a Rastafarian and a reggae artist, is regarded the most popular Jamaican ever. He is the one who brought the Rastafari movement and the Jamaican music to the world audience. Other singers such as Sly Dunbar, Shaggy, Melody Makers, Shabba Ranks, Black Uhuru, and Robby Shakespeare have won Grammy Awards in the Reggae category. Moreover, more than 30 different varieties of Jamaican dances have been identified till date, and most of them are an excellent integration of European and African elements.
Literature, Theater, and Films
Oral tradition has a long history in Jamaica, beginning with the folktales told by the Jamaican slaves during the colonial era. Later than that, Thomas MacDermot, a Jamaican novelist, poet, and a journalist was the first ever internationally recognized Jamaican literary figure. In fact, he is credited for promoting Jamaican literature on the world platform. Apart from him, the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Claude McKay, and Louis Simpson are all noted authors who come from Jamaica.
On the other hand, as far as theater is concerned, Louise Bennett, Andrew Salkey, and Mikey Smith made significant contributions to patois plays. Jamaica also holds an annual film event called “The Reggae Film Festival” in Kingston, every year in the month of February.
The attire of Jamaica is a remarkable fusion of African and European fashions. The cultural diversity is reflected in the way they dress up. Notably enough, though the Jamaican clothing bears strong influences of various cultures that have come together on the island, their unique native essence is not lost.
The Jamaican women traditionally wear a skirt, a top, and a headscarf. Men wear western clothes with short sleeves. Clothes are often very brightly colored, and due to hot weather conditions, heavy clothing is avoided. Cotton is a preferred fabric.
The Rastafarian attire is also very popular in Jamaica. They make clothes out of natural fibers. Moreover, their clothes are always colored red, yellow, and green, their sacred colors. According to the Rastafarians, Red signifies the blood of the black people, Yellow stands for the gold that was stolen from Africa, and Green symbolizes the lost African lands. They also wear a hat, known as tam, in order to cover their dreadlocks. The hat also bears their sacred colors.
Much like its culture, the cuisine of Jamaica is also a wonderful blend of varied influences, spices, flavors, and cooking methods. Jamaican dishes are very hot and spicy. The use of strong spices and various aromatic herbs in the recipes have made Jamaican dishes very popular throughout the world. Their national dish is Ackee and Saltfish. The spicy jerk pork and jerk chicken are also favorites.
Some Jamaicans, especially the Rastafarians, prefer vegetarian dishes which are also equally famous. Fruits and vegetables form the main ingredients of many recipes. Spices unique to Jamaica such as jerk are used. Their national drink is Jamaican rum. Blue mountain coffee and hibiscus tea are also served.
Jamaican food is available overseas, especially in areas having significant Jamaican diasporas. The Jamaican taste is also savored by various international communities. There are numerous Jamaican restaurants in the United Kingdom, Canada, and North America.
Jamaican culture thus, is a synthesis of influences from everywhere. While some of them were brought by the people who came to inhabit the island, some others were developed indigenously. Today, the Jamaicans celebrate British, West African, Indian, and Chinese holidays as well as festivals. But, there are also some other native Jamaican festivals that started off in honor of the history and culture of the island. The art forms are a versatile mix of their ancestral artistic styles and those of their colonial masters. Their reggae beats have been influencing audiences the world over.
Jamaican culture is spreading, and it is being liked and accepted by people across the globe. With large-scale migrations of the Jamaicans for work, their diasporas outside Jamaica are expanding. The largest Jamaican community outside Jamaica, resides in the New York City. There are also quite big communities in Boston, London, and Toronto. Nevertheless, the island itself will always remain a tourist’s paradise. The beaches, the food, the music, and the people will continue to spread their merry spirit, and in a way contribute to make the world a better place.