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   Sunday, November 23, 2014 

Jamaica Flag Jamaica: Culture and History

Whenever there is the mention of Jamaican Culture these days, people's thoughts seem to turn to Reggae music. Reggae is a refined beat of different music styles, which preceded it. There was a musical form, which was a fusion of calypso and the Cuban rhythm that originated around the turn of the twentieth century and lasted about fifty years. Ska had a very short life span with its beat, which was quicker than the Reggae beat, and its base was not as distinctive. Reggae was pushed by groups such as Toots and the Maytals, Bob Marley and Bunny of the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, John Holt, Byron Lee and Culture just to mention a few.

There are a number of Reggae tunes that convey political, social and religious messages. Some of these messages can be deemed to be revelation knowledge, but it seems as though the majority of people are interested in the beat of the music. It is widely accepted that Robert Nesta Marley, (Bob Marley) has sparked world consciousness by being both a great lyricist and one who has awakened a number of people with reference to racism, oppression and injustice all over the world. Some of these songs have expressions of praise of Jah (God).

Another aspect of Jamaican culture can be traced back to the Arawak Indians who came to Jamaica around 700 A.D. They etched petroglyphs on ceilings and walls of caverns thoughout the island. Today Jamaica, and in particular both Kingston and Ocho Rios are the center of Caribbean art. The wife of the first prime minister of Jamaica, Edna Marley was one of the first people to place a different view of art, different from the European standards set. She was instrumental in encouraging and promoting local artists, and she herself was an eminent sculptress.

English is the official language of Jamaica, but Jamaicans have also developed a dialect, which is a combination of African, Portuguese and Spanish terms, are peppered with Rastafarian slang. The majority of the patois is a mixture of English and derivatives of various West African languages.

Jamaica is a cosmopolitan island consisting of Arawak Indian, Spanish, African, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian and British. It is therefore not surprising that its homegrown cuisine is a fusion of all the above-mentioned ethnic traditions. A delicious Jamaican breakfast would probably consist of saltfish, ackee and plantains. These may be taken along with Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee that is the most flavorsome in the world. Jamaica has become very noteworthy for its different forms of jerked meats, most notably, pork and chicken. Jerk is a process of cooking meats, which is smothered in tongue scorching marinade, and slowly barbecued, under several layers in an open pit over a fire of pimento wood. Traditional meals usually include mannish water and goat, usually curried goat, chicken fricassee; oxtail and beans; stew peas and rice; escoveitch fish; pepperpot soup (a spicy spinach type soup); pumpkin soup; roast yams' banana fritters' salads. Fruits and exotic desserts.

There was a group of Amerindian people called the Arawaks that settled in Jamaica around 700 A.D. These people were quiet and involved themselves in fishing and agriculture. They gave the island the name "Xymaca" because of the woods and waters found thoughout the island. The word actually means "Land of wood and water". Jamaica has about one hundred and twenty rivers, and it is a hilly and in some areas a mountainous terrain.

Christopher Columbus first visited Jamaica in 1494 on his second voyage and landed at Discovery Bay on the north coast near Ocho Rios on May 4, 1494. At the time of his arrival, there were over 100,000 Arawak Amerindians living there. The entire population was wiped out before the end of the sixteenth century. Their deaths were caused by over work, ill treatment and European diseases to which they had no resistance. The Spanish settlers arrived around 1510 and brought sugar cane and slaves from the African west coast. They also raised cattle, small stock and grew staple foods to feed the population and to supply ships on their way to Europe. The Spanish established the first capital at Seville Nueva near St. Ann's Bay in 1509. This place was abandoned in favour of Spanish Town, which is close to the south coast.

The British were repulsed from trying to take Hispaniola and yet this motley group was able to overrun the Spanish. The Maroons were slaves who fled from the Spanish and went into the countryside to what is called "Cockpit Country". The British introduced two new crops in the island. coffee and cocoa. Britain was constantly at war with the French, Dutch or Spanish and was stretched too thinly, thus the assignment of controlling the island was left to the British buccaneers, political refugees and escaped criminals who stopped ships on their way to Europe, with stolen materials, robbed and killed the occupants and enriched themselves and the British government.

Jamaica became a British colony in 1665 and it became the third largest sugar producing country in the world. After the uprising in Haiti led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, it became the second largest.

Meanwhile, slaves when they escaped from their slave masters fled to the "Cockpit Country" to join the Maroons to fight guerrilla war against their new colonial masters, the British. They were eventually granted autonomy in 1739. Descendants of the Maroons still live today on these lands in the parish of Trelawny, the hilly Cockpit Country in western Jamaica and at Moore Town in the hills of Portland on the eastern side of the island. They still maintain their lands and elect governing councils headed by a colonel to administer their affairs. The British brought more slaves and they were barbarously treated in order to get them to become obedient to the British. Slaves were burnt, strangled, tortured and terrorized to force that obedience. These slaves came from the west coast of Africa; the majorities were from the Ashanti, Fanti, Ibo and Yoruba peoples. The slaves rebelled and there were many insurrections especially when their opponents were weakest, namely after the American War of Independence (1775-1781) and the French Revolution (1789). These uprisings were viciously repelled with the utmost cruelty and revulsion. The largest of these rebellions was lead by "Daddy" Sam Sharpe who was a pacifist and an educated lay minister who led a peaceful demonstration. His philosophy was somewhat akin to Mahatma Gandhi, which was for passive resistance. The march got ugly and out of hand and some slaves began to repay evil for evil by razing plantations and killing the plantation owners. The white establishment made false promises, which they had no intentions of keeping, by offering abolition of slavery in return for the slaves laying down their arms. When the slaves kept their end of the bargain, their reward was the hanging of over 400 and several hundreds were shipped away from the island. These actions had a positive effect as it gave the British Parliament the moral strength to abolish slavery on August 1, 1838. When slavery was abolished, the British brought Indians and Chinese as indentured labourers to replace them.

The change and transition from a slave economy to a capitalist economy resulted in great economic chaos. The majority of slaves turned down the wages offered by the plantation owners to seek other avenues of creating their income. Voting, one of the better privileges was still kept only for the plantation owners, family and friends, thus the white plantocracy maintained its political power. Mulattos - a mixed race formed from the fusion of black and white were enfranchised in 1830. There were white liberals and mulattos such like George Gordon, who in 1860s took up the fight of the oppressed.

External activities exacerbated the sad plight of the Jamaican when the U.S. navy blockaded the northern Caribbean during the American Civil War (1861 - 65). This resulted in the cutoff of vital supplies which affected all in Jamaica but more so those trying to enter the new economy. The result was the Morant Bay Rebellion, which was led by Paul Bogle, a black Baptist deacon. The Governor Edward Eyre and his followers used extraordinary force to put down the rebellion with great ferocity. Gordon and Bogle were caught and hung, while hundreds were also executed or flogged and thousands had their homes razed in flames in retribution. The brutality of this suppression engendered some measure of sympathy which resulted in the appointing of less repressive governors.

The Great Depression, which started in 1929 and was still prevalent in the mid 1930s in the Caribbean area, curtailed the recovery efforts in Jamaica. The banana crop, which was prevalent in Jamaica, was curtailed due to the Great Depression, which began in 1929. Meanwhile World War II helped change the economic conditions as the British depended on the Caribbean islands for food and raw materials. Adult suffrage was finally granted to Jamaica in 1944 and virtual autonomy from Britain was obtained in 1947. There was federation of ten of the former British dominated West Indian islands which was created in 1958 and from which Jamaica seceded in 1962 to obtain its independence. This prompted a Prime Minister of one of the federated islands to say, "One from ten leaves zero". This caused the dissolution of the West Indies Federation.

Jamaica sought and obtained its independence and two cousins dominated the politics on the island. Alexander Bustamante who headed up the first trade union on the island and went on to form the Jamaica Labour Party formed one party. His cousin, Norman Manley created the People's National Party.

When the son Michael Manley took over the (PNP) in the 1970s, he started leading the country toward a socialist form of government. He also began to forge closer ties with his neighbour Fidel Castro, and this viewed in the United States in rather poor light. There were decisions made which cause the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States to foment the destabilization of the island. This resulted in both a brain drain and an economic drain on the island as many Jamaicans made the decision to move as far from the land of their birth as they could. This action seemed to result a wave of crime as in the case of "guns versus butter", guns won out. Every election cycle for the office of Prime Minister in Jamaica since then, has seen a great number of deaths and large increase in guns. This increase in guns are usually found in urban areas like Tivoli Gardens and around other urban areas in Kingston, as supporters from the two leading parties, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) shoot and kill each other.

The people of Jamaica have always sought to announce to the government when it was oppressing them, to rise up and rebel. Therefore it was not surprising that in 1999 when the government announced a 30% increase in gasoline taxes, the sugar cane fields in Kingston and Montego Bay were set ablaze. Three days after the announcement was made, the government rescinded the tax.


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