Land of Wood, Water and Warriors
The Legend Bob Marley
During the football vacuum between the end of the old and start of the new Championship seasons in Europe, I found myself browsing the web looking for any semblances of football around the Globe to feed my addiction. In doing so, I discovered the FIFA Gold Cup tournament which is the regional international competition for North, Central America and the Caribbean, taking place in the US. As I scanned the qualifying tables I spotted Jamaica sitting at the top of theirs having won all three of their group games. I followed the competition over the next couple of days to see them eventually beaten 2-0 not surprisingly by the USA on home soil. As my football juices began to flow, It then also came to my attention that the U17 World Cup finals competition was in full swing. To my astonishment, there again was Jamaica being represented by their youths on the international football stage. Although finishing bottom of their group thus failing to qualify for the knockout stages, they showed typical application and fearlessness during respectable losses of 2-1 and 1-0 to Argentina and Japan respectively before an honourable 1-1 draw against France, even after going down to 10 men. When I consider the bumpy, grass-devoid pitches that constitute their football infrastructure where gathering of a couple of hundred locals is a sell-out crowd, such a feat seems almost remarkable. It reminded me of the fantastic achievement by their senior side ‘the Reggae Boys’ alongside their fans who charmed and excited their European hosts with their colourful, rhythmic and noisy banter alongside the romance of their team reaching the World Cup Finals in France. The Jamaican national team has been ranked as high 32nd in the World and are currently (May 2013) 53rd placing them above the likes of South Africa, Scotland, Poland, Hungary...
In the ladies department, the Jamaican Netball team is currently (May 2013) ranked 4th in the World ahead of countries like South Africa and Canada. They have achieved 3rd place spots in three World Championships and a silver medal in the inaugural World Netball Series in 2009.
Then of course their was the famous bob-sleigh team that competed so tenaciously at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary having only encountered icy conditions for the first time in the latter stages of their training regime shortly before competing. The story inevitably inspired the making of the film ‘Cool Runnings’.
With Usain Bolt standing above most others ‘literally’ as the most popular and thrilling athlete on the planet, over shadowing his marginally less talented compatriots Yohan Blake, Warren Weir and Asafah Powell as four of the fastest men on the planet, it strikes me how the small struggling island nation of Jamaica continually punches well above its weight in the Global arena.
When I listen to the lyrics of Jessy J and so many other artist using hybrid Jamaican phrases and consider a term in the English dictionary called 'Jafaican' which refers to street slang spoken by thousands of youths in cities across the UK, it reinforces the incredible impact that an island merely 146 miles long and 51 miles wide, populated by former slaves and only independent since 1962 has made on this planet.
On more than one occasion, I have been asked by persons aware of my heritage, “Where is Jamaica?” On each of these occasions, there was real surprise when I explained it sat within the shadows of the Americas, rather than on the continent of Africa as they had perceived and an even greater shock when I pointed to a small speck on the World map. I found it a little unusual that some individuals have never really looked at an Atlas nor made the link between the West Indies and the Caribbean. However, more recently, it dawned on me why someone might make the assumption that Jamaica is a large Africa country when I consider its global reach and notoriety.
146 Miles Long by 51 Miles Wide
146 miles long (East to West) and 51 miles wide, the small Caribbean island nation of Jamaica is an unexpected mixture of diverse landscapes. With a rugged mountainous spine running its length peaking at approx. 7,500 ft in the Eastern Blue Mountain range, the island does give the effect of somewhere larger than its dimensions suggest. Winding along its coastal perimeter certainly multiplies 146 miles several fold as does circling up and down its interior mountain roads.
With rain laden winds approaching from the North East, a wetter climate is found to the North which is generally lusher and predominantly the location of its main beach resorts with the exception of Negril on its Western tip. The James Bond-like scenery of the North Eastern parish of Portland where the mist covered densely forested blue mountains drop steeply towards a turquoise sea, the drier savannah like southern coastal plain with its swampy tip in the southern parish of St. Elizabeth, the spectacular rounded limestone hills of the Cockpit country through to the bauxite rich red dirt of its central parish of Manchester supports its description of an entire continent condensed into one small island.
‘Land of wood and water’ is the loose translation of its name derived from the language of its original indigenous Amerindian Arawak and Taino population that were generally exterminated or died from illnesses contracted from their foreign colonial invaders. The name refers to its fertile terrain where cascading rivers and streams prevail its steep forested slopes.
Having been under Spanish occupation originally many place names are left in place such as Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Oracabessa, Port Antonio, Anotto Bay and Savana-La-Mar. The more recent British colonial rule left its stamp with names synonymous with the UK.
With a strong cultural identity evolved from a colourful and feisty history, ‘Out of many one people’ is the motto of its proud people whose population of approx. 2.7 million are mainly concentrated around its coastal plains. Interestingly, after the US and Canada, Jamaica is the most populous English speaking country in the Americas. Although predominantly of African descent, a significant proportion of other ethnicities and mixes are notable. After the abolition of slavery, many migrant workers were employed on the sugar plantations who went on to settle on the island. A quarter of the population live in the hustle-bustle of the capital Kingston where modern offices and shopping malls are contrasted by corrugated tin structures of makeshift commercial premises and residences. The surrounding suburbs of St. Andrews spreads into the encircling foothills providing a Beverly Hills type sanctuary to its more well off citizens.
Other notable urban areas include its original capital Spanish Town and May Pen a few miles to the west of Kingston on the islands largest coastal plain, the resort town of Montego Bay on its North West coast and the centrally located town of Mandeville which grew out of the once flourishing bauxite mining industry that surrounds it. Located 2000 feet above sea level, Mandeville is a favourite choice for returning ex-pats seeking a cooler climate. The countryside and hills are peppered with numerous small communities. Brightly coloured seemingly remote houses fronted by immaculately manicured gardens are a familiar site alongside its winding mountain roads.
Life in Jamaica moves at a typical tropical-heat induced pace yet with a raw underlying vibrancy that is the island's unique persona. The colourful and engaging local patios dialect has proven be one of the most captivating tongues around the globe that has radiated to all corners of the planet via the island’s famous World musical genre – Reggae. Economically it falls under the developing World umbrella with the stark extremes of shanty town poverty prominent against the well groomed gated abodes of the well-to-do and exclusive tourist areas. Despite its relatively restrictive financial capability, Jamaica strives to be an independent, self-sufficient society and has maintained an unbroken stable democratic political structure since it's independence. With an established police force, small army, National Airline, modern banking and finance network, regulated commerce, agriculture and industry, nationalised health and education, university, island wide Electricity and ‘clean’ water supply alongside the eradication of common tropical diseases, it as a small nation and not simply a tourist destination.
I have heard visitors describe Jamaica as like nowhere else they have ever visited where a roller coaster of extremes tingle your every emotion. Jamaica effectively wears its heart on its sleeves where its good and bad attributes are harshly and unashamedly exposed for all to experience. Beyond the confines of its resorts, Jamaica the country and the reality of its day-to-day life takes over. Certainly there are those around the hotel perimeter who try to make a living from stray holidaymakers with offers of goods, services or simply begging. However the further away from the hotel gates one gets the less tourist-centric it becomes until visitors encounter the real Jamaica. As in any other country, being prepared for and embracing the local culture will achieve a positive response to which a whole-hearted warmth, generosity and ‘respect’ will be returned. While the bustle of local life can be very raucous with direct opinions shared openly and vocally, those who participate will realise and enjoy conversation that is clever in humour, charming, Worldly in knowledge and bound by an earthy realism. The more faint-hearted who simply seek a quiet getaway can of course enjoy the trappings of the hotel complex and their numerous organised excursions.
Its people are enterprising, hardy, resourceful and ambitious by nature and possess a self-assured confidence that can be disarming. If you ask a local “Do you know where I can?” or “Is it possible to?” the answer will inevitably be “Yes”. Be aware, Jamaicans think on their feet and can quickly find a solution to any request often with a fee at the end of it. Their demeanour and seductive language can be both charming and persuasive in equal measures and difficult to ignore. Yet, their confident and somewhat direct approaches can seem intimidating and imposing to those carrying preconceived views of the island's reputation. It is this personal litmus test that I feel ignites some people's love/hate first impression of real Jamaica. The determination and fearlessness inherent in the island’s people is often portrayed negatively in Western press and media which tends to focus on its less desirable ghetto problems. Unfortunately and ironically, the success of the criminal fraternity in establishing a ruthless notoriety has provided the 'ammunition' for magnified tabloid headlines and sensationalism.
Jamaica does have social problems, political irregularities and proportionally high gun-related fatalities. But a degree of context needs to be applied. Mortality rates are distinctly concentrated in the ghetto districts as a legacy of the island's ghettos having so long been exploited by the International drugs traders. However, the ruthless criminals that have been bred in these environments are not typical of the average Jamaican. As someone once pointed out to me "there are no guns made in Jamaica". Its political and social problems are typical and comparable to any country of similar economic hardship.
With a church seemingly on every corner and Sunday attendance a weekly routine, Jamaican's are predominantly god-fearing, healthy-living and law-abiding people where respectfulness is the norm. The schools offer a good standard of education in a strict environment where discipline and grooming are paramount. It may be surprising for some to know that the use of drugs is strictly illegal and frowned upon generally although it would appear less tightly marshalled around the tourist areas.
There is certainly more to Jamaica and Jamaican's than the stereo types of Rastas, rum and marijuana which is a plant that grows naturally in its fertile environment. Without doubt, in a tough economic environment with high unemployment the most needy citizens survive by hustling, bartering and ultimately begging. Jobs in the service and commercial industries are difficult to come by while manufacturing work is limited and agriculture provides only small profits in the face of multinational companies. However, Jamaicans are optimistic people with an innate self-belief, charisma and unbending ambition that some how they will find a way. In fact, Data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) from 2005 to 2008 revealed that Jamaicans are among the most entrepreneurial in the world. Indeed the level of local entrepreneurship was even higher than that of China or the USA. This underpins a disproportionate impact they create, both good and bad, around the globe.
The names Usain Bolt and Asafah Powell are the most recent amongst numerous other outstanding track and field athletes the island has produced. Shaggy and Sean Paul are more current World renowned stars from a long production line that have followed in the footsteps of Jamaica’s greatest musical icon – Bob Marley. The Rastafarian religious philosophy and its distinguishable dreadlocked hairstyle are both recognisable and replicated across the globe. Even the distinctive black, green and gold Jamaican flag is one of the most recognisable national emblems that has almost assumed fashion statement status.
While negative actions of some of its overseas descendants, often more than a generation removed, are regularly associated back to their Jamaican lineage, the more positive achievements of its offspring are rarely exposed by their adopted countries; Colin Powell, American Statesman and Barrington Irving the youngest ever pilot to fly solo around the World being prime examples. In fact, Jamaica's Global exposure is particularly understated. On a visit to Japan, I ventured into a Tokyo music store and was stunned to see a huge collection of reggae music with Japanese translation being avidly browsed by keen shoppers. I later realised that many Jamaican reggae stars had toured Japan and assumed star status. In fact, I have heard of Japanese attending 'patois' schools in Jamaica. I heard another story of a foreign person working in South Western China and coming across a restaurant advertising 'Jamaican breakfast'. On another assignment he heard some loud reggae music and went to investigate. He discovered the store's female owner had been given some reggae music by a Japanese friend and had fallen in love with it to the extent that she was even selling Rasta artefacts in her shop. The number of times I have watched sporting events around the World and observed in the most obscure places a random Jamaican flag being brandished in the crowd for example during a recent match in Moscow, Russia.
Since its independence and attempts to take control of its own destiny, Jamaica has faced the reality that economically and politically it is at the mercy of more powerful nations. Some harsh lessons were learned in for example Jamaican Bauxite (Aluminium) which is regarded as being amongst the best quality in the World. Its early attempts at legislation to proffer a more reasonable slice of the large revenue being syphoned off by the multinational conglomerates that had controlled its mining, led to those companies at one point opting to switch their key operations to other geographical locations even at the expense of inferior quality. Again, the production of sugar by the major producers has largely been shifted to beet or artificial sweeteners rather than give up their profits to sugar cane growers over which they no longer have complete control. As such, much of Jamaica's cane is processed for the purposes of providing the molasses in brown sugar. Yet, the island's fiercely independent population and deeply held desire to control its own destiny remains intact even if it comes at the acceptance of weakened economic capability.
Its people are without doubt fighters and survivors as its historical legacy dictates and they continue to find solutions to these inequities. Being an incredibly fertile environment, the occurrence of starvation would be a travesty for even the poorest individual. Life expectancy is high and I can point to several members of my own family that have hovered either side of a Century when they eventually passed away. In fact, the ease at which fruits and root vegetables particularly can be grown means that a culture exists where even the most wealthy take pride in growing their own personal food crop in their gardens. This ongoing need for resourcefulness is reinforced seasonally by at least the brush of a hurricane, accompanying flooding and periodic earth tremors that reminds both rich and poor of their personal vulnerability. Getting up, dusting yourself down and finding innovative ways to make a dollar is part and parcel of Jamaican existence. Add the rugged terrain to this mix with a sprinkling of its 'Maroon' legacy and the recipe that produces the Jamaican can be understood.
The Jamaican psyche is an earthy reality mixed with deep personal pride and a competitive streak. With chest held high, words need to be backed by actions to have any credibility. Lack of required tools can be overcome by skill, determination and a little imagination. Uniqueness and Individuality is a strong motivation for Jamaicans as is the right to criticise. There is no more honest or vocal critique of Jamaica than Jamaicans themselves. An innate inner confidence and strength exists in its people that I feel enable Jamaicans to excel disproportionately in the solo achievements of its entertainment and sporting stars. Yet, its strong cultural identity also has the power to galvanise these individual strengths when the pride of the nation is at stake.
Inevitably, this same ruthless determination to succeed and all-consuming self-belief in their chosen path manifests itself in a more sinister form within their criminal fraternity. The poverty stricken shanty town communities around Jamaica's major urban areas have long been targeted by the multinational illegal drug trade and become an ideal breeding ground for gun-slinging gangsters who have made a name for themselves as feared community leaders driven by relatively huge financial incentives. Having so long been a strategically convenient visa-less avenue to the UK and onward, some of the island’s ghetto strongholds have developed a reputation as recruitment zones for these international organisations. A culture developed within these tightly-knit, difficult to police confines where the relative power achieved by the ‘Don’ became the aspiration and clear path to others seeking a way out of their poor existence. With the further motivation of overseas travel to more prosperous horizons in return for performing their duties, many of these individuals simply regarded it as a legitimate career path with no emotional attachment to some of the violent acts required to gain rank, longevity of service and ultimately survival.
In such a small economy indoctrinated by the former colonial impositions of privileges and backhanders, it is apparent that the powerful drugs cartels may also have swayed favour with certain elements of the island’s powerbrokers. The appeasement of key ghetto districts where strong political allegiances have evolved has consequently taken an unusually important centre stage in the election process and party rule. Unfortunately, the dissemblance of such relationships in less prosperous times is proving to be an ugly and soul searching experience where the suppression of past deceits and retention of integrity becomes paramount to survival and continued status.
I have often wondered why Jamaica has evolved into this unique, colourful and boisterous powder-keg of a nation with a beat, voice and personality that has radiated around the Globe. Certainly it was one of the original destinations to which slaves were transported and with a likely degree of ignorance to African ethnicity, there may have been little selectivity in relation to the culture/nature of the peoples from which they were selected. It appears slaves were derived mainly from West African ethnicity consisting of Akan (e.g. Ashanti), Bantu, Igbo, Fon, Kongo, Yoruba, Efik and Moko people. During its original Spanish occupation it is suggested that Africans and Europeans populated the island in equal numbers where slaves were more herders, hunters etc...
In 1655, the British captured the island during which the approx. 8,500 Africans fought alongside their Spanish governors. Its eventual British rulers then faced a continual undercurrent of rebellion from the African population that had dispersing alongside the few remaining indigenous Arawaks and Taino into the rugged interior, setting up independent settlements referred to as the ‘Maroons’. They were the first free African's in the New World and remained a continual thorn in their British occupier’s side by conducting frequent raids on their plantations, plundering stock, freeing slaves and killing militiamen. Forces were sent into the interior on numerous occasions to track them down only to be repelled by ambushes often from above as the skilful Maroons hid invisibly and silently in the trees. Aside from loss of life, on each occasion the British trackers also lost arms and ammunition, strengthening the Maroon's capability. The colonial governors sent for larger military reinforcements with the aim of finally capturing the guerilla organisation but were yet again forced back while losing more weaponry to their foe. With the reality that each raid resulted in not only the loss of more men but as worryingly their weapons, effectively making the Maroons an ever more dangerous threat; the British were forced into the strategic decision of forming a peace treaty. This arms length relationship was maintained with occasional conflicts like the 1831 slave rebellion led by a man called Sam Sharpe who was executed and became a national hero.
In 1838 the Emancipation of slavery took place and most of the former slaves became peasant small farmers. Inevitably a struggle for land rights ensued which led to another key historical event, the 'Morant Bay' rebellion. Two leaders of the rebellion, George William Gordon and Paul Bogle took their places as national heroes through their executions by their British rulers.
With sugar cane's continued decline, local small scale production by peasant farmers diversified into other crops like wood, coffee and bananas which became the island's new commercial income. Over the next 100 years, the former slave population began to assume greater involvement in the island's general governance and another national hero Marcus Garvey became a leading activist for independence and the uplifting of African people across the globe.
Of course there was also the Caribbean pirate era during which the town of Port Royal sitting at the tip of the peninsula sheltering Kingston harbour effectively became their capital. At its peak of debauchery and sin, It was suggested to be the wealthiest place in the World and probably the first place in the New World where transactions took place in cash rather than through bartering. As if by an act of god, its notorious existence was brought to a catastrophic end when two huge earthquakes sent the town to the bottom of the sea. Its surviving inhabitants relocated to mainland where the island's Capital now exists.
The fact is that Jamaica’s first free African ancestors have existed for over 300 years. Has this provided the legacy of independence, determination, bravery and ability to overcome the odds which is embedded in the islands DNA? Deriving from prime African stock and having evolved in the island's remarkably fertile surrounds a breed of people seem to have been created that possess an innate strength that manifests itself physically, mentally and culturally.
Jamaicans are fiercely independent people and the continued democracy and freedom that prevails in Jamaica is much more the will of its individual citizens than its social/political ethos. Jamaicans will protest vigorously en-mass against anything that threatens their freedom and its politicians, acutely aware of the consequences of this sacred right are dictated to and directed by this fundamental entitlement.
Jamaica is a beautiful, vibrant and ambitious nation whose enduring determination and ambition means that it will always punch above its seemingly small weight. Experience its true charm and you will be smitten forever.
- Jamaica\'s National Heroes - Jamaica Information
- Jamaican Maroons
- Glossary | Speak Jamaican
- BBC NEWS | Americas | Ms Dynamite and the Maroons
- Pieces of the Past: Famous Jamaican Scientists
- Top5 Jamaica | Jamaican Companies (General Listings)
- Jamaica Gleaner News Online
- Jamaica Observer: Jamaican News Online
- Mockingbird Hill
- The Reggae Boyz
- Gentleman - German reggae star
- Machaco Reggae Songstress from Japan | Jamaipanese
- MINMI - Japanese reggae and dancehall singer-songwriter
- Rudeboy Reggae: Reggae Around the World
- Jamaican Jokes - Dem Cyan Tes Wi