Land of Reggae, Art, Tropical Breezes and Hurricanes

By Liz Goldner

Jamaica is one of the largest Caribbean islands, originally inhabited by natives known as Arawaks, people who lived in simple communities, based on fishing, hunting, and small scale cultivation of cassava.

When Christopher Columbus arrived at the island, he claimed the land for Spain. But within 70-80 years, plunder, disruption of economic activities, new diseases, and migration decimated the indigenous population. Only a few artifacts of the Arawaks remain.

Disappointed by the absence of gold on the island, the Spanish used Jamaica as a base for supporting the conquest of the Americas, particularly Mexico with its gold and silver. The original Spanish settlement was administered from the Town of Santiago de la Vega, now Spanish Town, and much of the architecture of the original buildings is still evident in the town square.

In 1655, Jamaica was captured by the British expedition led by Admirals Penn and Venables. By this time, the island was of little significance to the Spanish crown, and very little was done to defend it against the British.

After invading the country, the British experimented briefly with indentured European labor, but then turned to large-scale importation of Africans for use as slaves on the sugar plantations. Jamaica quickly became a treasure to the English crown because of the great prosperity it brought to plantation owners, and indirectly to cities such as Liverpool and Bristol, which serviced trade with Jamaica and the West Indies.

Plantation slavery serviced what was known as Triangular trade among England (manufactured goods), Africa (slaves), and the Caribbean (sugar). The plantation dominated economic life in every sense: it occupied the best lands, the laws supported the slave system, and in general all commercial and other economic activity depended on the rhythm of activity of the plantation. Some slaves inevitably ran away from the estates to live in small bands in the mountains as Maroons.

By the close of the 18th century, sugar was losing its economic dominance because of competition from beet sugar as well as rising production costs. In 1838, the slaves were emancipated and the plantations began paying wages to its workers.

After Emancipation, many ex-slaves settled down as small farmers in the mountains, cultivating steep hill slopes far away from the plantations. Others settled on marginal lands in the plains near the plantations on land leased or bought. As production of sugar continued to decline, peasant exports of logwood, coffee, and eventually bananas grew steadily.

The Emancipation movement’s most enduring political institutions are the two major political parties, and the labor unions affiliated to them. The founder of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the Bustamante Industrial Trades Union (BITU), Alexander Bustamante and the founder of the People's National Party (PNP) and the National Workers Union (NWU), Norman Manley have been declared national heroes for their individual and combined efforts in securing political independence from England. The emergence of these parties also facilitated the granting of adult suffrage and self-government in 1944.

The post-war period, 1944 to 1962, heralded major political changes and transformations in economy’s structure. The economy included the export of sugar, bananas and other agricultural commodities, the export of bauxite and alumina, and the tourist industry. These in turn stimulated a vibrant construction industry, as the United States displaced the UK as Jamaica's principal trading partner.

Flag of Jamaica


Jamaica's National Seal

Jamaica was granted political independence in 1962, following the country’s rejection, by referendum, of membership in the Federation of the West Indies. Jamaica was given a Westminister style constitution, with a Governor-general as the representative of the British Crown, and a bicameral Parliament. There is a House of Representatives consisting of elected representatives and a Senate appointed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The government is headed by a Prime Minister, who is required to consult with the Governor General and the Leader of the Opposition on certain matters.

By the end of the 60’s, there were well-established mining, tourism, manufacturing, and construction sectors, alongside the traditional agricultural and distribution sectors. In the 70’s, social reform was established to protect the weakest sections of the population, and to promote the welfare of the poor through subsidized food, housing, education, health, and other important social services. In international affairs, Jamaica opened up relations with many non-capitalist countries, and promoted the solidarity of the Third World in international negotiations with the advanced countries.

The 80’s saw the development of Free Zone manufacturing especially of garments for export to the USA, the gradual recovery of bauxite/alumina production, and the rapid growth of tourism from North America. In the process, the traditional international economic relations, particularly with the USA, were strengthened at the expense of regional relations. The 80’s also saw large volumes of emigrants, primarily to the USA.


English is the native language in Jamaica. But native people have their own special expression for peace. It is “level the vibes.”

Cultural expression expanded greatly in Jamaica in the 1930s and '40s, in conjunction with the movement toward self-government.

The Institute of Jamaica, includes:
• the National Library of Jamaica, which boasts the largest collection of West Indian material in the world;
• a comprehensive network of museums;
• the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica(ACIJ);
• a cultural program for youth, conducted through junior centers;
• the National Gallery of Jamaica, which houses the national collection of art.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture is responsible for:
• the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts, a modern complex comprising the Jamaica Schools of Art, Music, Drama and Dance. It is the only one of its kind in the English Speaking Caribbean.

The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission organizes the cultural activities of the country through training and several annual competitions in the arts. Displays and exhibitions in these areas form part of the annual Independence celebrations. The Jamaican art movement goes back to the early part of the century. Today, many Jamaican artists are internationally acclaimed. Among these are the late Edna Manley (1900-1987), who emerged as a visionary mother of art in Jamaica, and as a teacher and role model to other artists. Other renowned Jamaican artists include Basil Watson and Cecil Baugh. Watson, the founder of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (Kingston) is known for his exceptional murals and special portraits. Baugh, an epitome of true craftsmanship, is known for his work in ceramics and pottery. Exhibitions are held on a regular basis at island's several galleries.


Reggae legend Bob Marley

Jamaica's popular music has achieved world fame through the emergence of reggae, a music form that emerged from traditional indigenous Jamaican music with African and Black American roots. Many reggae artistes have won international fame for original compositions, recordings and performances--notably the late Robert(Bob) Marley. For his cultural contributions, Marley received Jamaica's third highest national honor--the Order of Merit.

Jamaica's folk music is said to have origins in West Africa. Groups include the Jamaica Folk Singers led by Dr. Olive Lewin, the University Singers, the Carifolk Singers and the National Dance Theater Company (NDTC).


Jamaica lies 145 kilometers south of Cuba and 190 kilometers west of Haiti. The country is 235 kilometers long, and it varies from 35 to 82 kilometers wide. With an area of 10,911 square kilometers, Jamaica is the largest island of the Commonwealth Caribbean.

Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, is where soil was collected for Common Ground 191. Angella E. Harvey, Cultural Affairs Specialist at the American Embassy in Kingston, wrote Gary Simpson, founder of Common Ground, explaining that she and her assistant, Bernadette Hutchinson, collected the soil sample from the grounds of Devon House on October 2, 2006. Angella wrote, “Devon House is one of Jamaica’s leading national monuments and a symbol of the cultural diversity that makes this island a unique choice for thousands of visitors. This 125-year-old site, located in the heart of Kingston is an 11-acre property that was built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel.”

Two types of climate are found on Jamaica. An upland tropical climate prevails on the windward side of the mountains. A semiarid climate predominates on the leeward side. Warm trade winds from the east and northeast bring rainfall throughout the year. The average rainfall is 196 centimeters per year.

Temperatures are fairly constant throughout the year, averaging 25 °C to 30 °C in the lowlands and 15 °C to 22 °C at higher elevations. The island receives northeast trade winds, onshore breezes during the day and cooling offshore breezes at night. These are known as the "Doctor Breeze" and the "Undertaker's Breeze."

Jamaica lies in the Atlantic hurricane belt. Powerful hurricanes that have hit the island directly include Hurricane Charlie in 1951 and Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Several other powerful hurricanes have passed near to the island with damaging effects. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept past the island causing heavy damage and a number of deaths. Category 4 Hurricane Dean caused deaths and heavy damage to Jamaica in August 2007.

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