Jamaica - Encounter Culture
Nowhere else on earth will you find a culture as dynamic as that of Jamaica. Its people are a mixture of the many ethnicities that have landed on the island’s shores over the past several centuries. Weathering enslavement and oppression, the Jamaicans are survivors, and their past is full of fascinating stories just waiting to be told. Their national motto is: “Out of Many, One People.”
Whether they are the descendants of the colonists or recent immigrants from the Middle East, people of all nationalities live and work together in Jamaica. Cultures have been mingling on Jamaica’s shores for hundreds of years. And while this mixture inspires pride, it is also the source of Jamaica’s characteristically brassy banter that, to an outsider, might seem inappropriate at times. The Taíno, who inhabited the island long before European discovery, also left behind a cultural history.
Most Jamaicans are always willing to talk about subjects most find uncomfortable, peppering their speech with terms such as ‘browning,’ ‘redman,’ ‘coolie,’ ‘whitey,’ ‘blacka’ or ‘Miss Chin.’ It is not uncommon to find people of all ethnic backgrounds on Jamaica, and the islanders are comfortable with their outward racial differences because they know this is part of what makes their culture unique.
Dig into the island’s past and learn more about its present by reading our guide to Jamaica’s History.
Language is another way in which Jamaica demonstrates its melded culture. Although Jamaica’s official language is English, many of its residents speak with their own linguistic style. There are even differences from village to village. The main ingredients of Jamaica’s language stew are Spanish, African, English (including Irish, British and American idioms), and even Rastafarian. On Jamaica you might hear your shoes referred to with the Spanish word, “zapatos,” and you might talk about where to “nyam,” an African word meaning “eat.” However, you may also hear terms you’re more familiar with, like “cool.” The language also has roots in slavery, as the slaves found ways to combine the language of their owners with their own African tongues.
Click here to get more information about the spoken word in Jamaica.
Traditional wear includes colorful and usually handmade dresses from calico cloth. Calico is generally striped, similar to a plaid. These dresses include tiered skirts, but another important aspect is the head scarf. This scarf is carefully wrapped around the head to keep hair in place. Rastafarian-influenced clothes are of particular interest to tourists and generally include red, green, and gold, which are the colors of the Ethiopian flag. One of the most important aspects of Rastafarian clothing is that it is made from natural fibers. Also important in this attire is the “tam,” a hat that covers the dreadlocks.
You can learn more not only about the island’s traditional clothing style, but also how locals dress today and tips on what you should wear as a visitor by reading our guide to Jamaican Clothing.
Jamaican culture is also richly flavored by its cuisine. The aromatic spices of the Caribbean have allowed the island’s kitchens to create one of the most unusual fusions of flavors in the world. Most popular on the menu is jerk, a marinade that can be added to almost anything, but usually meat. The spicy sauce includes many of the island’s native ingredients. Seafood is also prevalent on the island, but most truly Jamaican dishes, which intimidate most visitors, include cow foot stew and goat’s head soups.
Everything you need to know about the cultural culinary offerings of Jamaica can be learned here.
…not every member believes in all of these things…
Spirituality takes many forms in Jamaica, but all are reflected in the local culture. The Guinness Book of World Records determined Jamaica to have the most churches per square mile of any place on the planet. The island hosts many different Christian denominations, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Presbyterians. But the religious are not only Christians: Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Bahai’s, and Rastafarians all call Jamaica home.
Read more about religions in Jamaica, especially including details about Rastafarianism by clicking here.
Although equally artistic, local crafts fall out of the visual arts category and into one of their own. After all, the indigenous name of the island Xaymaca, means “land of water and wood.” On the island, there are many artisans who create goods of local, natural materials and they do so by hand. You can get your own hands on any number of these goods by visiting a local crafts fair where you will find such items as glazed pottery animals, straw hats made of palm leaves, embroidered linens and batik clothing, and shell jewelry. If the Rastafarian culture is of particular interest to you, you’ll also be able to find wood carvings that are typically made of red hard woods.
Of course, Jamaicans are also known for their willingness to dance. Dances found on Jamaica fuse the styles of Europeans and Africans into a unique form. Some of the local dances are the “jonkonnu,” a dance practiced by slaves at Christmas time, “bruckins,” from the period after emancipation, and the newer “ska.” European dances like the maypole and quadrille are performed with “mento” music, while African dances like the “gerreh,” “dinki-mini,” and “ettu” were turned into commentaries on plantation living. New dances crop up constantly, but these older styles are the basis for new moves. Dance halls are the best places to find new styles, but the traditional dances of Jamaican culture are kept alive by organizations such as the National Dance Theater Company.
Where would dancers be if it weren’t for music, the most popular form of Jamaican music is reggae, which has a sound is so easy to enjoy that it has gained popularity throughout the world. Many reggae musicians have grown to international fame, most notably Bob Marley, who worked with and influenced many other local musicians before his death in 1981. The popularity of this genre has continued to this day. Dancehall, a variation of reggae, is also growing in popularity.
The literary world of Jamaica got its start with folk tales told as a form of oral history that was passed down from generation to generation, often as cautionary tales for youths to hear and heed. What we find in the literary world of Jamaica today, however, is that the local dialect is interwoven with elevated prose to create pieces of written work that is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the world. Like many things that become important to the arts and culture scene of the island, it is discussion of social issues that catapults local literature to the top.
Learn more about the rich culture in Jamaica by reading the detailed articles listed below:
Visit Jamaica is a great resource to learn more about Jamaican culture directly from Jamaicans themselves.
Jamaica has long been a jewel in the Caribbean tourism industry crown, but there’s far more to discover than just beaches and all-inclusive resorts.
A brief history of the island lays the foundation for its rich culture.
While little is known about the early history of the island, it is understood that the indigenous people were Taino, a subgroup of the Arawak Indians. Arawaks were agriculturists who made good-quality textiles and pottery and had named the island Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.”
On 14 May 1494, Christopher Columbus landed on his second American voyage of exploration. He named the island Santiago (Saint-James). However, the name was never adopted and it kept its Arawak name Xaymaca, which later became “Jamaica.”
The Spanish Empire ruled for 152 years, enslaving many of the native people, overworking and harming them to the point that many had perished within fifty years of European arrival. The decimated indigenous were replaced by enslaved Africans.
In 1645 the British took control, and former Spanish slaves refused to surrender, retreating into the blue mountains. The escaped slaves and their descendants, known as the Jamaican Maroons, were the source of much disruption in the colony, raiding plantations and occupying parts of the island’s interior. Imported African slaves would frequently escape to the established Maroon territory, known as Cockpit Country. Over the seventy-six years of British governance, fights between Maroon warriors and the British Army grew increasingly common, along with rebellions by enslaved Blacks.
As World War II came to a close, a sweeping movement of decolonization overtook the world. At this time, the British Government and local politicians began a long transition of converting the Caribbean island from a crown colony into an independent state. Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom. In 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation among the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962. Independence, however widely celebrated in Jamaica, has in more recent years been a topic for discussion. In 2011, a survey done showed that approximately 60% of Jamaicans would push to once again become a British territory; citing years of social and fiscal mismanagement in the country.