Location/Culture Reports

Location Report – Jamaica

“The fairest isle that eyes beheld; mountainous . . . all full of valleys and fields and plains”
—Christopher Columbus, on Jamaica in 1494


Setting: Culturally, Jamaica is closer to Africa than to its geographic neighbors in the Caribbean or to the British, who historically governed the island. Slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, the island is known for being a tourist destination and the birthplace of reggae. The stereotype of the partying, resort-filled, happy-go-lucky culture belies a country that is struggling with poverty, environmental degradation, and increasing foreign debt.
Jamaican history begins around A.D. 700 when the island was settled by Arawak Amerindians.
History: Jamaican history begins around A.D. 700 when the island was settled by Arawak Amerindians. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived on the scene in 1494, the native population is believed to have been around 100,000. The Spanish arrived in 1510 and, along with them, arrived sugarcane, slavery and disease. Like Peru and Chile, the Spanish wiped out the native peoples with hard labor and cultural cleansing.
In 1654, the British seized control of Jamaica (basically after failed attempts to overtake Hispaniola) and turned it into a British colony. Years of fighting, insurrection, and continued piracy followed, with new slaves constantly arriving from Africa. Increasing unrest from the enslaved population led to violent uprisings, the worst of which was the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, when an estimated 20,000 slaves were involved in the burning of plantations and murder of plantation owners. A false promise of abolition led to the hanging of 400 slaves. The backlash against these horrific events led the Jamaican parliament finally to abolish slavery in 1834.
Adult suffrage for all Jamaicans was introduced over a century later in 1944, and Jamaica gained full independence within the British Commonwealth in 1962.
Adult suffrage for all Jamaicans was introduced over a century later in 1944, and Jamaica gained full independence within the British Commonwealth in 1962. Deteriorating economic conditions during the 1970s led to recurrent violence and a drop-off in tourism, which rebounded in the 1990s. The country is still struggling with a crowded population, abject poverty, and foreign debt. The government attempted to raise revenue by increasing the gas tax in 1999, which led to riots, arson, and looting. Because 60% of the Jamaican economy comes from tourist-related activities, the government has struggled with reducing political unrest in the country in recent years, since these uprisings reduce tourist visits.
Climate & Nature: Not surprisingly, the climate of Jamaica is tropical, which means it is generally hot and humid. The edge of the island has a fairly flat plateau, which allows for beautiful sandy beaches and ocean water shallow enough to support coral reefs. The interior of the island is mountainous with areas of tropical rainforest. Birding is a popular pastime on the island for tourists, and the island boasts 287 bird species, including 28 endemics. The island faces many environmental issues, including heavy rates of deforestation and coastal waters polluted by industrial waste, sewage, and oil spills. This same pollution also impacts the coral reefs in the area, and many environmental organizations, including Earthwatch, have become involved in research aimed at preserving and protecting these important areas.
The People: There’s a great home-grown webpage about Jamaican culture that includes a fascinating look at the games children play and stories and proverbs.

The majority of the population has been converted to Christianity (61% Protestant, 4% Catholic), but much of the remaining 35% of the population still practices native religious traditions.

The Jamaican economy is heavily dependent on services, which now account for 60% of GDP. The country continues to derive most of its foreign exchange from tourism and other important exports, such as sugar, bananas, rum, coffee, yams, chemicals, and clothing.
Known for its contributions to world music, Jamaica resonates with the sounds of calypso, soca, and reggae.
Known for its contributions to world music, Jamaica resonates with the sounds of calypso, soca, and reggae. The spread of the popularity of reggae is largely due to the life of one man, Bob Marley.

Interesting tidbit: Jamaica and the U.S. have recently entered into a debt for nature agreement. In return for programs and assurances that Jamaica will restore and protect native ecosystems, the U.S. has reduced Jamaica’s debt by nearly $16 million.

For further reading:

Lonely Planet
The Jamaica Observer
Jamaican Culture site
Pictures of Jamaican nature
Coral Reefs