POPULATION: 2.5 million
LANGUAGE: English; Patois (Creole dialect with West African, Spanish, and French elements)
RELIGION: Christianity (Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism); Rastafarianism
The official motto of Jamaica is, "Out of Many People, One People." The motto expresses the fact that Jamaicans include people of African, European, Arabic (Lebanese descendants known as "Syrians"), Chinese, and East Indian descent. If Jamaicans had a second motto, it would be "No problem, Mon." Phrases like this and "No pressure, no problem" reflect the carefree, happy-go-lucky spirit of the Jamaican people.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494 it was inhabited by peaceful Arawak Indians. Under Spanish occupation in the 1500s, the Arawak Indian race died out and African slaves were brought in to work the sugarcane fields. The island remained under Spanish rule until 1655, when it was captured by the British. During the struggle between the Spanish and the British, a number of runaway slaves, known as Maroons, took refuge in the area of the island known as the Cockpit Country. It is still the home of some of their decendants.
Abolition of slavery came in 1833. The decline of the plantations followed, and the former slaves became peasant farmers. After a short period of military rule, Jamaica was organized as a colony with a British-style constitution. On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became an independent member of the Commonwealth (a group of independent countries that were once part of the British Empire).
Following a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century when Jamaica experimented with socialism, the country is now a relatively stable parliamentary democracy. Percival J. Patterson was elected Prime Minister in 1993 in a landslide victory.
Jamaica's population of more than 2.5 million is equally divided between urban and rural dwellers. Jamaicans are mostly descendants of Africans. There are also East Indians, Chinese, Europeans, and Arabs.
Located some 90 miles south of Cuba and more than 450 miles west of Hispaniola, Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean Sea. Since 1870 the capital has been Kingston, now with a population of more than 645,000. It has one of the largest and best natural harbors in the world. The climate is tropical and tourists flock to Jamaica for its beautiful beaches. Jamaica has been called the Island of Springs, and the luxuriance of the vegetation is striking. The island is susceptible to hurricanes. It suffered serious damage during Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 when nearly 25 percent of the population was left homeless and property damage was more than $300 million.
Another popular tourist attraction are the island's more than 800 caves, many of which were homes for early inhabitants.
Jamaicans speak English, but with a distinct flavor. Elements of Elizabethan English can be heard on the island. A jug, for example, is referred to as a "goblet." Also, the "th" sound is substituted with a "d," so that the word "that" becomes "dat," for example.
Although the official language is English, most Jamaicans who live in the rural areas speak a Creole dialect. Patois, as it is called, is influenced mostly by West African languages. It also contains elements of Spanish and French. Perhaps the most famous of the patois words is I-rie (fabulous), which comes from the language of a religious sect called the Rastafarians. Other words, such as putta-putta (mud) come from Africa.
Central to Jamaican folklore are the tales of Anansi (or Anancy) the Spider. The tales were brought to the island by the first slaves. They tell of the mythical Anansi, a spider that sometimes takes the form of a man and uses his wits to outsmart his foes. Anasi is still the subject of many bedtime stories.
Religion is an important part of life for Jamaicans. More than 80 percent are Christian. Most practice Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. The Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Bahai religions are also practiced, as is Rastafarianism.
Nearly one hundred thousand Jamaicans are Rastafarians. Rastafarians are members of a Jamaican messianic (based on the belief in a savior) movement that began in the 1930s. According to Rastafarian belief, the only true God is the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (originally known as Ras Tafari) and Ethiopia is the true holy land. Rastafarians place great emphasis on spirituality and meditation and the individual. The singular being "I" and the plural being "I and I." They also use ganja (marijuana) in their religious rites. Rastafarians are known for wearing their hair in dreadlocks, wearing beards as a sign of a pact with God, and carrying Bibles. Rastafarianism is known outside of Jamaica mainly because its famous believer, the late reggae musician Bob Marley, was an international star.
Jamaicans celebrate their independence on August sixth. For several weeks beforehand, they stage a huge celebration called "Festival!" During this period artists of all types perform, many as part of competitions. School children also are involved in the festivities. This helps foster their sense of national pride and tradition.
Jonkanoo (John Canoe) is a dancing procession held around Christmastime. The origins of this celebration are not clear, but many believe its origins to be in East Africa. Celebrants wearing extravagant costumes dance to the music of drums and cane flutes.
Most other holidays and celebrations are religious ones and include Ash Wednesday (in February), Good Friday, Easter Monday (in March or April), and Christmas (December 25).
Christian sacraments and traditions define the rites of passage for most Jamaicans and are celebrated much the same way as they are in the United States.
Jamaicans tend to be casual, open, and friendly in their relationships. They have a great deal of national pride and are known for their sense of humor.
Living conditions vary greatly between rich and poor. Health care is generally considered good, and the average life expectancy is seventy-six years for women and seventy-two years for men. All Jamaicans are accustomed to dealing with interruptions of electricity, mail, water, and telephone services.
While women are often highly respected, men are seen as the heads of households. Great importance is placed on a man's virility and a woman's fertility. Men and women tend to marry or start living together at an early age. A couple that does not have children soon after marriage is considered unusual.
Everyday wear for Jamaicans is cool and comfortable. Rastafarians have made the colors of the Ethiopian flag—red, green, and gold—popular in clothing. Churchgoers tend to dress very formally on Sundays.
Jamaicans eat foods that are rich in spices. Pimento, or allspice, is native to Jamaica and an important export crop. Other commonly used spices are ginger, nutmeg, and pepper. Cassava (yuca) is a tuber and is widely popular on the island. Bammy is a toasted bread-like wafer made from cassava. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. If not properly prepared, it can be poisonous. Ackee with saltfish is a popular Jamaican snack or breakfast dish.
"Jerking" is a method of spicing and slowly cooking meat to preserve the juices and produce a unique, spicy flavor. The meat is first marinated in a very spicy mixture and then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood.
Many fruits like mangoes, pineapple, papayas, and bananas are eaten fresh or combined in desserts.
For dinner, Jamaicans will typically eat peas and rice accompanied by either chicken or pork. Included in this section is a simple but spicy recipe.
About 98 percent of adult Jamaicans are literate (able to read and write). The law requires children to attend school from age seven to age fifteen. There is one university, the University of the West Indies, near Kingston. The Institute of Jamaica, also in Kingston, has a library and museum of Jamaican history, art, and natural history.
Jamaica's musical heritage includes Mento, which is a form of music and dance with roots in Africa. Also popular is Ska, a soft-style rhythm-and-blues beat. Reggae, however, is most often associated with Jamaica. Bob Marley was its most famous performer and he spread the music worldwide.
Serve over white rice (or rice and peas, if preferred).
In 1964, Marley formed his group, the Wailers. Their first hit was "Simmer Down." Three years later, Marley converted to the Rastafarian religion. Rastafarian themes dominated his work. His first international hit was "Stir It Up." In 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers had their American debut album, Catch a Fire. Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of thirty-six. He was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit. His work influenced countless reggae and pop artists all over the world.
Dance-hall music, also known as DJ music, is an offshoot of reggae and is very popular, as is So-Ca, a combination of soul and calypso.
Paintings and sculptures are abundant in Jamaica. One of the most famous painters is John Dunkley. Edna Manley is renowned for her sculptures. Also renowned for sculpting is Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds, whose work is on display at the National Gallery in Kingston. In literature, Jamaican-born poet, critic, and educator Louis Aston Marantz Simpson won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his At the End of the Open Road .
Approximately 25 percent of Jamaicans work in agriculture. Sugar, tropical fruits, coffee, cacao, and spices are grown for export. Another 25 percent of workers are in finance, real estate, and services. Manufacture and trade each account for a little more than 10 percent. The rest (roughly 30 percent) work in public administration and defense.
Jamaica has recently developed a profitable mining industry. It is among the world's leading producers of bauxite and alumina, which are exported to Canada, Norway, and the United States.
Some Jamaicans make a living as "higglers." These are people who buy inexpensive goods overseas and then sell them for a substantial profit on the sidewalks of Jamaica.
By far, the most popular sport in Jamaica is cricket. Vaguely resembling baseball, the game of cricket dates back to sixteenth century England. A match can go on for days. George Headley was a legendary Jamaican cricket player of the 1930s. Children and adults alike play and watch the sport throughout the island.
Jamaicans have also excelled in track and field, boxing, and basketball. Jamaicans also enjoy all types of water sports.
While Jamaicans are knows for their casual, laid-back attitude, they are passionate about enjoying life. They are not ones to sit and watch television. There are only two television stations on the island. Entertainment and recreation involve listening to live music—usually reggae, getting together with friends, playing sports, or enjoying a day of food and fun at the beach.
Along the tourist areas, Jamaican artisans display their crafts, which include bankras (baskets) and yabbas (clay bowls).
Jamaicans have had their share of racial tensions and class struggles that have disrupted an otherwise unified, peaceful existence. Considered sacred by some, ganja (marijuana) is illegal. The government's actions against its cultivation and use, however, are often seen as superficial.
Bryan, Patrick E. The Jamaican People, 1880– 1902: Race, Class and Social Control . London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1991.
Hurwitz, Samuel J. and Edith F. Jamaica: A Historical Portrait. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Jamaica in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1987.
Jekyl, Walter. Jamaica Song and Story. New York: Dover, 1966.
Senior, Olive. A–Z of Jamaican Heritage . Kingston: Heineman Educational Books, 1983.
Embassy of Jamaica, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.caribbean-online.com/jamaica/embassy/washdc/ , 1998.
Interknowledge Corporation, Tourism. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/jamaica/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide, Jamaica. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/jm/gen.html , 1998.