Jamaica – A Caribbean Original

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By: Bob Kenyon

Jamaica is the fourth largest island in the Caribbean, next to Cuba, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Puerto Rico. It is located south of Cuba, southwest of Hispaniola, east of Central America and north of the South American country of Colombia.

The island is 4400 sq. miles with a population of 2.5 million. There are beaches on the coast line and in the middle of the island six mountain ranges running east to west, with heights greater than anything east of the Rocky Mountains.

History of Jamaica

The history of Jamaica is quite apparent as evidenced by the mixture of cultures, food dishes and plantations. The first know occupants of Jamaica were the Arawak, who migrated to the island between 500 and 900 AD, from what is now northern Brazil and Venezuela.

The island was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in May of 1494. The Spanish didn’t settle the island until 1510. The remnants of the original Spanish settlement, New Seville, are sparse, however, we still see the Spanish influence in place names such as Negril, Rio Bueno and Savanna-la-mar.

Following colonization, the Spanish began Christianizing and enslaving the 100,000 Arawaks. Within a few decades the Arawaks were all but eliminated. Many died from diseases introduced by the Spanish. With their local source of slaves destroyed, the first Africans were imported in 1517.

Following occupation by the Spanish, Jamaica became a possession of England in 1655. Jamaica, as well as other Caribbean islands, also became known as the West Indies. Port Royal, located in what is now Kingston harbor, became the home of many buccaneers and privateers, who the English allowed to make war against the Spanish. The most famous of the buccaneers was Captain Henry Morgan, who also became a Governor of the island.

After the end of sanctioned privateering, by England, Port Royal also became the home of several well known pirates. Most notably are William Teach “Blackbeard” and “Calico Jack” Rackham, with his two female pirate partners Mary Read and Anne Bonney. Port Royal ceased being the home to pirate history, on June 7, 1692 when it was washed under the ocean by an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave.

After slavery was abolished, East Indian and Chinese (1849) laborers were brought to continue with the work on the sugar cane estates. After, their contract work was completed, the former Chinese workers opened up small stores and shops, which later grew into larger businesses.

Jamaica also developed its own distinct cultural group, called the “Maroons” . The name comes from Spanish word “cimarron” meaning “wild”, or “savage”. The Maroons have had a long time relationship with Jamaican culture and were also involved in and used to put down local slave revolts.

Jamaica gained full independence, as a member of the British Commonwealth, in August of 1962.

Jamaican Culture

It has been said that there are 3 “R’s” to Jamaica…Rum, Reggae and Rasta. Due to it’s diverse history, Jamaica has an equally diverse modern culture, mixed with accents of its history. This mixture has created very distinct language, religion, food, drink, musical and arts aspects of the country and its people.

Should tourists want to learn more about Jamaica, from its residents, the Jamaican Tourist Board has its Meet The People program. Tourists are matched with local residents that share the same interests.

Languages of Jamaica

The official language of Jamaica in English, with its distinctive Jamaican accent. The language of the streets is Patois. Spoken with a musical dialect, Patois is a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese, African phrases and Jamaican slang. Many believe the Patois repetition of words, such as bo-bo (silly person) is a pattern that came from West African speech tradition.

Religions in Jamaica

Many residents are Rastafarians, the uniquely Jamaican sect that espouses redemption for displaced Africans, through rejection of western influences and identification with the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie Ist. The emperor is considered, by Rastafarians to be the personification of God Jah Ras Tafari.

There are also the Revivalist religions that combine the belief of animism, that spirits can exist independent of human bodies. Many Christian songs are included in their rituals and there are two major cults; Pocomania and Revival Zion.

Kumia, a Jamaican ancestral-spirit cult, is believed to have remained closer to its African roots than others. There is also the Convince cult and all revivalist cults have a strong believe in magic. “Myal” is considered to be good magic and obeah had a reputation for resulting In evil.

Tourists will find many and a wide number of churches in Jamaica and all most exist, however, they may not in every town. The Church of Jamaica (formerly the Church of England) has the largest following. The Baptist Church arrived, with Loyalists from the United States, follow the American War of Independence (1780’s). Slaves from the United States also brought their own brand of Baptist slavery preachers.

With the arrival of the British (1655) the Roman Catholic Church, introduced by the Spanish, went underground until 1792, when Catholics were allowed to practice again.

Jamaican Food and Drink

In Jamaica you will find a blend of rich spicy and exotic dishes, which are mixtures African, Chinese, East Indian and Spanish. There are also many dishes that use seafood, meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit. Some of the more popular dishes include:

  • “Jerk” Meat is distinctly Jamaican and uses either pork, chicken or fish. It is prepared using a mixture of pepper, pimento, nutmeg, cinnamon, possibly garlic, scallions and each cook’s secret ingredients. The seasoned meat is then grilled slowly over coals from hardwood. The origin of “jerk” is unknown, but may have come from indigenous South American language, possibly that of the Arawak.
  • Ackee and salt fish are very popular. The ackee fruit was brought from Africa, along with breadfruit yams and root vegetables, to feed the slaves.
  • Curried goat, which is often served with rice and peas. This dish dates back to 1845, when the first East Indian contract workers arrived.
  • Patties are spicy meat pies, that originated in Haiti, and are often sold as street food.
  • Pepper pot is a peppery combination of salt pork, salt beef, okra, and the island green known as callaloo.
  • Irish moss is a gelatinous extract of seaweed that can be mixed with milk or rum an used as a drink or jelly. It is said to be an aphrodisiac.
  • Mauby is a strong drink made from the eponymous tree and tastes like sarsaparilla.
  • Sea grapes are a small sweet fruit from a shrub found near coastal regions.

Other Jamaican dishes include bammy (flat cassava cake), boiled green bananas, bulla (ginger sweetcake or hard cookie), cow hoof soup, escoveitch (pickled fish, slightly cooked), festival (deep fried sweet cornbread), mannish water (soup of goat meat and vegetables), run dun (sauce made from coconut cream), solomon grundy (pickled spiced herring).

Jamaican’s also use a flowering plant called sorrel to make sweet jams, candles, drinks and wine that are used during the Christmas holidays. During the holidays they may also serve matrimony, which is a desert of orange segments with crushed apple cream.

In respect to beverages, legal drinking age is from 18 years and up. A trip to Jamaica automatically emits images of rum and its varied drinks, which is distilled from molasses, which is a byproduct of the sugar cane industry. Considering Jamaica’s strong connection between sugar cane, sailors and pirates, rum became synonymous with sea faring (i.e. Yo ho ho and bottle of rum).

Tourists will often see Bay Rum (Bay Rhum) in markets, cosmetics counters and free shops. It’s not rum for drinking, rather the origins of Old Spice after shave.

The local beer is called Red Stripe, as well Heneken is brewed locally. The thick Dragon Stout is also available. There are also some interesting Jamaican liqueurs such as soursop, pawpaw (papaya) and pimento.

A bit of food related trivia about Jamaica, relates the famous mutiny on the Bounty, made famous by books and movies. The breadfruit, carried by the HMS Bounty, was bound for Jamaica and other West Indies English islands. It was to be used as an inexpensive, quickly grown source of food for the slaves. The Bounty did not reach the West Indies on its voyage from Tahiti, as there was the famous mutiny on April 28, 1789. The Captain, William Bligh and a cargo of breadfruit, did make a successful voyage in 1793.

Jamaican Music

No trip to the island would be complete without hearing Jamaica’s homegrown sound called Raggae, which was made popular in the 1970’s by the late Bob Marley and his band the Whalers.

Jamaican music, like our other cultural expressions, came into being through the process of time and evolution. With more than 300 years of continuous history, the people have developed a homogeneous community. The fabric of the music is woven of many threads and the sources are varied and many, with European and African influences. However the blend is uniquely Jamaican.

Jamaican music rhythms have been a common denominator in the music of the other islands of the West Indies. Reggae, Jamaica’s popular sound, was developed from the folk-mento forms. And, at that time the United States was warming to rock ‘n roll, which displaced the popular rhythm and blues.

While Jamaica was still under the colonial system in the mid-1950s, the roots of reggae sprouted. Up to that time, the popular music on the island reflected the sounds of Britain and the United States.

Reggae, which came out of ska and rock steady, came through the 1970s. Music and recording became big business and new studios sprang up everywhere, featuring the latest and most sophisticated equipment. Jamaica attracted people from around the globe, who came to record and enjoy the new music, which quickely carved out a niche in the international recording market

Raggae is also closely liked to, Rastafarian music, with its chanting and syncopated drumming and spiritual messages, which seemed then to appeal to the more aggressive males of the depressed areas began to influence both rhythm and lyrics.

Fine Arts in Jamaica

Jamaica has a vibrant arts community with theaters, painting and writing.

Most of the major theater productions take place in Kingston, particularly the 1000 seat Ward Theater. Major theater productions tend to start in Kingston and travel to other locations.

In respect to the art of Jamaica, there is no one way to characterize it, except to say that it reflects the cultural and ethnic development of the country. Slavery, love, family, music and Rastafarianism are often themes.

Jamaican Climate & Weather

Jamaica’s tropical climate lures tourists to the coastal regions, where the mean annual temperature is about 27°C (about 80°F), and northeastern trade winds frequently moderate extremes of heat and humidity. Mean annual temperatures in the plateau and mountain areas average about 22°C (about 72°F) at elevations of about 900 meters (about 3,000 feet) and continue to decrease with elevation.

Annual precipitation varies according to region, with most occurring during May, June, October, and November. More than 5,100 millimeters (more than 200 inches) of rain fall annually in the mountains of the northeast. To the south, near Kingston, the annual average decreases to 810 millimeters (32 inches). Hurricanes threaten the island from late summer to early autumn.

How To Get to Jamaica

Jamaica is served by cruise ships from North America sailing out of Florida, although many of the tourists that go to jamaica go by air. There is air service and connections from international airports worldwide and service between most of the caribbean islands. The national carrier is Air Jamaica Express with service to various cities on the island.

Ya’Gotta Travel can help travelers from the US, Canada and other countries, find flights, hotels, car rentals and adventure in Jamaica or other worldwide destinations.

There are two major international airports on the island of Jamaica. Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport (KIN) in the southeast. Montego Bay’s Donald Sangster International Airport (MBJ) in on the northwest coast. There are other airports located at Boscobel Arpt – Ocho Rios (OCJ), Negril Jamaica Airport (NEG) and Port Antonio Airport (POT).

Local Jamaican Transportation

Cars and buses are the most common form of transport. Following the British tradition, traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. Buses are often crowded; they are numbered, but their timetables are is not always evident. Route cabs are taxis that follow certain local routes. Regular taxis are plentiful, and fares are negotiable.

There are also taxi services which is the easiest mode of travel and can be obtained at any resort. Be sure you agree on the price with the driver before you depart.

You could also rent cars and motorcycles, however, if you are driving, expect the unexpected. Jamaica has an alarming rate of traffic fatalities. Here are some tips for those that plan to drive:

  • Renting a car is expensive
  • Bond, with either a credit card or cash is required
  • The speed limit is 30 mph in town and 50 mph on the highways
  • Drivers must be at least 25 years old and possess a valid driver’s license
  • Strictly limit night driving.
  • If you are caught out on the roads at night, be on the lookout for cars without lights and for abandoned cars that do not have flashing lights.
  • Always watch for pedestrians
  • Don’t assume that cars, or motorcycles have properly functioning brake lights
  • Service stations are open daily, but they accept only cash so plan ahead

You could also experience Jamaica on foot, because the island’s varying terrain presents a full menu of walking and hiking challenges, from gentle beach walks to rolling hill strolls to lung-busting climbs in the mountains.

The Blue Mountains are best known for coffee plantations. It’s hightest elevation is at the “The Peak” (7402 ft.), which is a great guided, early morning trek for viewing the spectacular sunrise!

Jamaicans themselves are walkers. For peaceful walks…head to the countryside or to south coast west of Kingston, but you may want to go with a recognized guide or tour company.

Accommodations In Jamaica

Hotel prices vary greatly by season, soaring to the highest limits from mid-December through mid-April (hitting a real peak the week between Christmas and New Years), and dropping to a low during summer and fall months. Ya’Gotta Travel can help travelers from the US, Canada and other countries, find flights, hotels, car rentals and adventure in Jamaica or other worldwide destinations.

Major Tourist Cities

Montego Bay (MBJ) Known a Mo’bay, Montego Bay is deservedly one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. It is the main tourist gateway airport and is convenient if your destination is, Montego Bay, Negril, Tryall, Runaway Bay and Ocho Rios. You can get also get transportation all the way to Port Antonio.

Over the years it has attracted the rich and the famous, and been the haunt of royalty. The bay offers wonderful beaches and the town has lots to offer. The town of Montego Bay is divided into two distinct areas, the residential and the tourist. The main tourist part of town, paced with vendors, stall, hagglers and hustlers, is east of Sam Sharpe Square nearer the waterfront and most of the main resorts and hotels are to the north.

Today, Montego Bay is Jamaica’s second city with its international airport and modern cruises ship pier that makes it the tourism capital of the north coast. There are several all inclusive luxury resorts, plenty of night life and a number of special weekly events.

Ocho Rios hums with markets, shops, restaurants, and discos. The bay is sheltered by lush garden-like mountains and protected by reefs. Water sports and natural wonders are the attraction here.

From Ocho Rios, tourists can go to Dunns River Falls where a 600-foot waterfall drops to the beach. One of the most photographed and visited waterfalls in the world. Can be extremely crowded as people climb up through a series of “staircase” waterfalls.

Tourists can also drive from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio, which has some of the most spectacular scenery the north coast has to offer. You will pass through small port towns such as Orcabessa whose 19th century buildings are restored. There are several “kodak moments” with breathtaking views of the coastline, bays and hills. Just be careful when driving on your own as the roads are narrow and windy.

Port Antonio was once the river port destination for the banana boats and a sleepy village was a favorite of movie stars and the cradle of modern Jamaican tourism. The twin bays look like a hollywood movie set and was the birthplace of bamboo rafting. Port Antonio is the mecca of the island’s deep-sea fishing and a gateway to the nearby John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges.

Port Antonio is also a main docking port for cruises ships at Jamaica.

Kingston (KIN) is the capital and the commercial, administrative and cultural heart of the island. It is the largest English-speaking city in the Caribbean, has the seventh largest natural harbor in the world, and lies on a wide plain with the sea to the south and the St. Andrew Mountain as its backdrop to the north. Kingston is convenient if your destination is the capital city, the Blue Mountains or Port Antonio.

It was founded in 1692 after an earthquake devastated the capital Port Royal. The survivors moved to what is now Kingston and were able to plan a new city from scratch. It was laid out in a grid pattern, which remains today and makes it very easy to get around, especially in the downtown area.

Kingston became the capital in 1872, and considerable rebuilding was needed after an earthquake and fire on 14 January 1907 that killed almost 1,500 people. It is now a modern, bustling, sprawling city that never seems to sleep. It is the seat of Government, has an international airport, busy port and modern cruise ship facilities as well as a wealth of tourist facilities from accommodation to restaurants and gift shops to galleries.

The town was built on the waterfront but has gradually spread inland over the Liguanea Plains, with new business and shopping districts. New Kingston has emerged as the commercial heart of the capital and with its skyscrapers, is like a mini-Manhattan in New York. A major renewal scheme is underway to revitalize the former downtown area. The downtown area also houses many banking, commercial and government institutions.

While the downtown area close to the waterfront, is the place to explore in Kingston, Tourists should be warned about this area and should particularily avoid it at night. The heart of Kingston is now in New Kingston, a triangular area to the north, largely bordered by Half Way Tree Road, Old Hope Road and Hope Road.

Residential Kingston is a charming mix of old and new, with wonderful traditional gingerbread homes with their elaborate balconies and fretwork, classic eighteenth century Georgian mansions, and modern houses and apartment blocks. It has to be added, however, that while Kingston has many fine old buildings and some hugely expensive new ones, it also has appalling slums, especially in western Kingston.

Special Events

The following are a list of some special events, that will be occurring in Jamaica, during fall and winter:

  • Port Antonio International Marlin Tournament (October)
  • Port Royal Annual Seafood Festival (October)
  • Terra Nova’s Heritage Food Festival (October)
  • Peter Tosh Birthday Celebration (October)
  • JCDC’s Season of Dance (October)
  • Jamerican Film and Music Festival (November)
  • Annual National Exhibition – National Gallery of Jamaica (December – February)
  • Jonkunnu Mento Festival (December)
  • Little Theatre – National Pantomime (December)
  • Accompong – Maroons of Western Jamaica (January)
  • Spring Break-Negril and Montego Bay (March – April)
  • Jamaica Carnival – Kingston, Montego Bay & Ocho Rios (March – April)

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