Jamaica - History and Heritage | Travel | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Jamaica - History and Heritage

Jamaica - History and Heritage

smithsonian.com

Jamaica's first inhabitants, the Tainos (also called the Arawaks), were a peaceful people believed to be from South America. It was the Tainos who met Christopher Columbus when he arrived on Jamaica's shores in 1494. Spanish settlements flourished until the 1600s, During the 1650s the Spanish lost Jamaica to the British, who established large and lucrative sugar plantations.

In 1694, Jamaica came under attack by the French, led by Admiral Du Casse. The French far outnumbered their opponents, but were eventually turned back, after losing hundreds of men in the conflict; they were successful in damaging or destroying many sugar estates and plantations on Jamaica, however.

Edward Trelawny became Governor in 1738 and went on to have one of the most well-regarded political careers of the century. He successful negotiated a treaty with the Maroons, who were descendants of former slaves living in Jamaica's hills. There had been ongoing conflict between the Maroons and colonists, which was resolved by Trelawny by granting the Maroons parcels of land, exempting them from taxes and allowing them to govern themselves.

Slave trade between Africa and Jamaica was finally abolished in 1807 and no additional slaves were to be brought to the island after March 1, 1808. Historically, much of Jamaica's success was based on the work of slaves, which led to a great deal of conflict. The Emancipation Act of 1834 moved slaves to an apprentice system that was intended to be a shift in the right direction, although it was rife with problems. Slavery was officially abolished in 1838, at which time many former slaves of African descent scattered to other parts of Jamaica, leaving plantation owners in need of workers; many of those owners turned to China and India as a source of labor.

In the 1930s, two figures, who have since been named National Heroes, began to make waves in Jamaica—Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. Bustamante founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), Jamaica's first trade union, as well as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and went on to be the island's first Prime Minister. Manley was a skilled negotiator, workers' rights advocate and founder of the People's National Party (PNP). It was on August 6, 1962 that Jamaica achieved independence from Britain and for the first time raised its own flag.

The island is the birthplace of Rastafarianism and the movement played a tremendous role in 20th century Jamaica. In the 1930s, the political leader Marcus Garvey, who led the United Negro Improvement Association, encouraged people to "Look to Africa," where he predicted a black king would be crowned, who would serve as a redeemer.  
Soon thereafter, Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia; the word Rastafari comes from Selassie's name at birth, Tafari Makonnen, and the word "Ras," meaning "prince." Although Selassie never considered himself to be God, followers saw him as a savior who would help to return black people to Africa, where they could live in peace in their homeland; followers today are less likely to look for a literal return to Africa.

Rastafarianism took hold in Jamaica and followers like Bob Marley helped to spread the word and popularize the movement. Historically, marijuana has played a role in Rastafarianism, as followers believe that its use can bring them closer to God, although marijuana continues to be illegal in Jamaica. Followers of Rastafarianism, which are estimated to reach one million in number, wear their hair in dreadlocks, avoid meat—especially pork, encourage eating unprocessed foods and avoid alcohol; the religion has a heavy emphasis on personal acceptance of God, respect for nature, and the value of human life.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus