Jamaica is a country in the Caribbean, an island nation just 146 miles long and 51 miles wide A former British colony mainly populated by the descendants of African slaves, Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962. Yet by that time, waves of Jamaicans were already moving abroad, to the US, the UK or to Canada. In the UK especially, where 4 per cent of Londoners are of Jamaican descent, the island’s culture has left an indelible impression on British music, language and cuisine.
Jamaica was originally inhabited by the Arawak or Taino indigenous people who moved there from South America some 2,500 years ago; they called the island Xaymaca, which meant ‘land of wood and water’. When Columbus arrived in 1494, he came looking for gold, but found none. However, Jamaica did prove to be an ideal place to cultivate one very lucrative product that originated in India: sugarcane. When the English colonised the island in 1655, they brought in huge numbers of African slaves to work on Jamaica’s sugar estates.
There were many slave rebellions and, even after emancipation in 1838, the exploitative system remained the same. In the 1930s and 40s, Jamaica was impoverished, with violence and rioting common. Economic depression and falling sugar prices contributed to mass unemployment. Between 1948 and 1971 there were waves of emigration. Those that moved to Britain at this time, invited by the government to help rebuild post-war Britain, have been labelled the Windrush Generation after one of the ships that helped carry thousands of Caribbean emigrants across the Atlantic.
RISE OF REGGAE
With independence in 1962, a new Jamaican constitution guaranteed the freedom, rights and privileges of every citizen. But a partisan system of right-wing and left-wing forces on the island, each accusing the other of depending on foreign influence along Cold War lines, was in continual and often violent conflict. In this context, a new music style emerged that was to bring the Jamaican identity to the world. While upbeat in sound, reggae music lyrics incorporated social and political commentary. The island’s lower classes embraced it as a non-violent way to rebel against white oppression and social injustice. The Wailers, a band started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, became its most international proponents. Marley went on to become one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time.
Jamaicans in Britain, where Marley lived in the 1970s, helped bring reggae to the world. But things were not easy for them there: in the late 1970s and early 1980s especially, anti-immigration rhetoric and Britain’s discriminatory housing market led to rioting in deprived inner city areas such as Notting Hill and Brixton in London, St. Paul’s in Bristol and Toxteth in Liverpool. The black community that lived there, the majority of which were British-born children of Caribbean immigrants, were unfairly targeted by the police.
Now in their sixth generation, many British Jamaicans may never have visited Jamaica, or are tourists when they go there. In the capital Kingston, sights include the 19th-century Devon House, the Bob Marley Museum, Hope Royal Botanical Gardens and the National Gallery of Jamaica. The city’s music venues pay homage to a music-centric culture. Local fish like snapper and mackerel, plus shrimp and lobster, are abundant on the island. Roadside ‘jerk shacks’ serve typical Jamaican sides such as rice and peas, roasted yam, and a doughnut-like bread called ‘festival’.
Back in Britain, what has come to be seen as quintessential British music, from garage to grime, drum and bass, jungle and trip-hop, has all been influenced by Jamaican music. In London, the annual Notting Hill Carnival in August is the second biggest street party in the world. Here, the Caribbean community consisting of many British Jamaicans set up food stalls and floats to celebrate a culture that blends African, British and Caribbean heritage.
English is still the official language in Jamaica, commonly used in towns and among the more privileged social classes. Jamaican Creole is also widely spoken. Its vocabulary and grammar are based on English, but its various dialects derive vocabulary and phrasing from West African languages, Spanish, Portuguese and even bits of French and Hindi. The grammatical structure, cadence, intonations, and pronunciation of Creole make it a totally different language amongst Jamaicans.
Rastafarianism, a Jamaican religion famed for its dreadlock hairstyle and for smoking marijuana, also known as ‘ganja’, during spiritual ceremonies, emerged among impoverished and socially disenfranchised Jamaican communities in the 1930s. Rastas did not accept western culture, which they called ‘Babylon’ and believed in a return to Africa or ‘Zion’ as the birthplace of humankind. A reaction against Jamaica’s British colonial culture, it was influenced by black-nationalist figures like Marcus Garvey. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rastafarianism gained respectability within Jamaica and visibility abroad through the popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae musicians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Dreadlocks, originally referred to as a “dreadful” hairstyle by the Eurocentric Jamaican society, emerged in the post-emancipation era as a means for ex-slaves to rebel. Today about one per cent of the Jamaican population are Rastafarian.