Jamaican History: An Inspiring Tale of Triumphal Resilience

Many people immediately think of pristine beaches, lux resorts, and Bob Marley when Jamaica comes to mind. But the country is more than golden sands, fruity cocktails, and “I Shot the Sheriff.” Known colloquially by locals as the “Rock,” “Jamrock,” “Jamdown,” and, in Jamaican Patois, “Jamdung,” the tiny island nation is rooted in a dynamic and fascinating history.  

Xaymaca: The Ancient World

  Anthropologists theorize that humans first inhabited the Caribbean island as far back as 4,000 BC. Around 600 AD, the “redware people” — named after their pottery — had established communities. By 800 AD, the Arawak people — also known as Taino and Yamaye — had arrived from South America. They called the land Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water” or “land of springs.”  

Colonial Times and the Rise of Rastafarianism

  In early 1494, Christopher Columbus landed on the coast of Xaymaca during his second trip to the West Indies.  It is told that the Cubans directed the explorer to “the land of blessed gold” located 90 miles south; perhaps the Cubans fed Columbus fibs to shoo him off their shores, or it was a translation miscommunication. Whichever the case, Columbus didn’t find gold, he landed on the island and claimed the land for Spain. As with much of the New World, soon after Spanish settlers arrived, bringing with them European diseases which decimated the native population.   In those early days, Spaniards used the island as a supply base for mainland raids, and settlers didn’t establish communities until about 1509. Towns were small, rudimentary settlements, and the Spanish Crown paid little attention to the Caribbean outpost and offered very little material support. As a result, colonial governors quarreled with local church officials, and pirates exploited the tensions. The stage was set for a British invasion.   On May 10, 1655, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables launched a successful attack on Xaymaca. Outgunned, the Spanish freed their slaves, surrendered to the British, and fled to Cuba. The newly freed slaves, known as Maroons, moved to the mountains and established sustenance farms far away from the colonialists.  Maroon communities still exist in the mountains of Jamaica today.   Under early British rule, Port Royal on the south coast of the island emerged as the island’s main metropolis. Known as “the wealthiest and wickedest city in the world,” it ran on prostitution and pirating. Gold, money, and jewels flooded the streets, and buccaneers reigned supreme. But the raillery and mayhem abruptly ended on June 7, 1692, when a devastating earthquake destroyed Port Royal.   Outside of Port Royal, British colonialists were more diligent than their Spanish predecessors and established plantations that grew tobacco, indigo, and cocoa, and sugar.  When the sugar boom hit, it catapulted the island’s economy into the stratosphere.   Like the Spanish, the British used African slaves as free labor. Rebellions were a common occurrence, and slaves regularly escaped to Maroon communities in the mountains. In 1739, the Maroons started fighting back and launching raids on colonial towns and plantations. After a year of intense conflicts, the British and Maroons signed a treaty. The former gave the latter land and freemen status. In exchange, the Maroons agreed to return runaway slaves.   Thanks to the tireless fight of the African slaves, in conjunction with the humanitarian work of Quakers, on January 1, 1808, legislators ratified an abolition bill outlawing the slave trade. But it didn’t free people already in bondage. Full emancipation came in 1838.   The time between 1838 and 1929 was marked by both colonial prosperity and inequality. By 1930, the island nation was careening towards a crisis. The move toward political parity moved at glacial speeds; sugar prices plummeted, and the population rose. Conditions brewed a volatile stew, and riots broke out in 1938.   But the conflict gave birth to reform and Rastafarianism. An Abrahamic religion based on a unique interpretation of the Bible, Rastafarianism is a decentralized belief system that preaches Jah — aka God — resides in every human. Its rise contributed to increased political involvement of Jamaica’s African population, which ultimately led to the country’s independence on August 6, 1962.  

 “Jamrock” Today: Thriving Through Obstacles

  Today, the “Rock” is the third-most populous English-speaking country in the Americas with nearly 3-million people. Though an independent nation, it remains part of the British Commonwealth. Tourism is the nation’s leading industry, and over 4-million visitors flock to its idyllic shores and resplendent resorts every year.   But “Jamrock” is more than an all-inclusive hotspot. It’s a country teeming with resilient citizens who’ve created a distinctive culture that embraces its tumultuous past, elevates its ancestral traditions, and continues to overcome obstacles.   When Britain ruled the Caribbean island, its provincial motto was “Indus uterque serviet uni,” meaning “both Indies will serve one.” Today, the motto is “out of many, one people.” And it’s that spirit of unity that infuses modern “Jamdown.” So if you’re feeling the love — or need some — go to Jamaica to feel all right!

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