The History & Culture of Jamaica – Preface

King’s House | Official residence of the governor-general of Jamaica

This series of essays record most of what I know about the island of Jamaica. As part of telling the story of my Jamaican family, I thought it would be helpful to readers to learn more about the history and culture of the country in which those people lived—after all, context is everything. 

Although this series should not be considered a scholarly work, I have been careful with my research and believe this is an accurate record without too many of my biases influencing its accuracy. I say “accuracy” rather than “objectivity” for not much that I have to say about Jamaica is entirely objective. I am as much a product of my time as my ancestors were of theirs, and I bring my life experiences to everything I write. 

I hope you will have as much enjoyment reading these essays as I have had writing them.

National Symbols of Jamaica

Motto: Out of Many One People

National Anthem

Eternal Father, bless our Land,
 Guide us with thy mighty hand,
Keep us free from evil powers,
Be our light through countless hours,
To our leaders, Great Defender,
Grant true wisdom from above,
Justice, truth be ours forever,
 Jamaica, Land we love,
Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica, Land we love.

Teach us true respect for all,
Stir response to duty’s call,
Strengthen us the weak to cherish,
Give us wisdom lest we perish,
 Knowledge send us Heavenly Father,
Grant true wisdom from above,
Justice, truth be ours forever,
Jamaica, Land we love,
 Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica, land we love

Flag of Jamaica

Coat of Arms of Jamaica

Ackee | National fruit of Jamaica

Doctor Bird | National Bird of Jamaica 

Roughbark lignum-vitae | National Flower of Jamaica

Blue Mahoe | National Tree of Jamaica


Jamaica is the third-largest island of the Greater Antilles—an island chain in the West Indies that includes Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico—and the largest English-speaking country in the Caribbean. It is situated 90 miles south of Cuba and about 600 miles from Florida. Jamaica is 146 miles long—from east to west—and 22 to 50 miles wide. The total area of the country is 4,244 sq. miles. Jamaica is about the size of Connecticut, larger than Lebanon, and more than four times the size of Luxembourg.

The Taino: Arawakan speaking indigenous people, were early Jamaicans, having settled on the island several hundred years before its discovery by Europeans. The word, Jamaica, comes from the Arawak word, Xaymaca, which meant land of wood and water. The Tainos gave us words we still use, like hammock, hurricane, tobacco, barbecue and canoe.

Jamaica has a mountainous terrain complemented by sandy beaches, coastal wetlands, central plains, fertile agricultural lands, tropical forests and picturesque waterfalls. Almost half of the land area is 1,000 ft. or more above sea level. Mountain ranges, dominated by 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak, are located in the eastern section of the island. It is the highest point both in Jamaica and the entire West Indies. Lesser mountains extend west across the island.

While the island’s only active volcanic actions are several thermal springs, it is subject to severe earthquakes and hurricanes.

Most of Jamaica’s 120 rivers flow either north or south from the mountains to the Caribbean Sea, which surrounds the island’s 500 miles of coastline. The longest is the Black River, which is 44 miles long. Except for recreational purposes, none are navigable. 

The hurricane season is in late summer through to early autumn,
as outlined in this old rhyme: 

June is too soon;
in July, stand by;
August, come it must;
September a time to remember;
October, it’s all over.

Kingston is the capital and largest city and has a large natural harbour and seaport. Besides, the island has other excellent natural ports and seaports for large cruise ships at Ocho Rios in the parish of St. Ann, Montego Bay in St. James and Falmouth in Trelawny. 

Jamaica is located at 18 degrees north of the equator and has a tropical climate. The mean annual temperature is about 80° F. Still, north-eastern trade winds moderate the extremes of heat and humidity in many areas—because of their reliability, Jamaicans call trade winds “doctor breeze.” Mean annual temperatures in the plateau and mountain areas average 72° F at elevations of 2,950 ft., and are considerably less at higher levels. The average yearly temperature at Blue Mountain Peak is 56° F. Rainfall varies from 130 inches annually in the mountains of the northeast to about 32 inches in the Kingston area. Rainfall is at its highest in May and October.

Blue Mountains

Mineral deposits in Jamaica include bauxite, gypsum, limestone, lead and salt. Jamaica was at one time the largest producer of bauxite in the world. Diversified vegetation can be found throughout the island. Among indigenous trees are cedar, mahoe, mahogany, logwood, rosewood, ebony, palmetto palm, coconut palm, and pimento (allspice). In addition to these native species, introduced varieties—mango, breadfruit, banana, and plantain—have flourished and are widely cultivated. 

Important exports are alumina, bauxite, sugar, rum, coffee, yams, beverages, chemicals, apparel and mineral fuels. And Ganga, as marijuana is known on the island—notwithstanding the fact it is illegal—is a significant contributor to the economy as are services, which account for more than 70 percent of GDP. Remittances from abroad and tourism each account for 30 percent of GDP, while bauxite/alumina exports make up roughly 5 percent of GDP. Not surprisingly then, most of Jamaica’s foreign exchange comes from tourism, remittances and bauxite/alumina. 

Animal life includes several types of birds: parrots, hummingbirds (national bird of Jamaica), cuckoos, and green todies. There are also several species of land reptiles and small mammals. There are, however, no sizeable indigenous land mammals or venomous snakes. Of course, there is the sea with its variety of life, especially around Jamaica’s many coral reefs.

Montego Bay

The majority of Jamaica’s 2.935 million (2018) population is Sub-Saharan African or mixed Sub-Saharan African and European origin. No identifiable descendants of the Taino (Arawak), who occupied the island at the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1494, have survived. Among the established minorities are East Indians, Chinese and Europeans. 

Although English is the official language, most Jamaicans speak a local dialect of English, Jamaican Creole, a patois that incorporates English, African, Spanish, and French elements. This patois is evolving steadily and is spoken with pride by a broad cross-section of Jamaicans. 

Religion has played an influential role in Jamaica. Christianity (mainly Protestant) is the religion of the majority of Jamaicans, and many denominations are represented on the island, including Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, the Church of God, Movarians, Seventh-day Adventists and other Evangelical groups. Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Bahai communities also exist. Some indigenous religions, such as Pocomania and Rastafarianism have also emerged. 

The University of the West Indies, established in 1949, is located at Mona in the parish of St. Andrew. UWI has five faculties and 12 professional schools that offer more than 200 programmes to some 15,000 graduate, undergraduate and continuing studies students. Jamaica also has several vocational and technical schools, teacher-training colleges and a college of arts, science, and technology. 

Cricket, Jamaica’s National Sport

A young man faces a fast bowler with a reputation for wildness;
his only protection a single glove and a pad on his leading leg.
A moment of truth;
a test of manhood akin to medieval jousting.
This is yard cricket! 

Cricket is the passionate pursuit of the maiden over, the century and immortality. 
Cricket is an indispensable element of British Caribbean culture.
More than a sport or a pastime,
it is a unifying force,
a substitute for war,
a national obsession.

Sports have long been an essential element of Jamaican life. The island has produced world boxing champions and a long list of world-class cricketers and Olympic medallists. At the 1994 winter Olympics, the Jamaican four-man bobsled team placed 14th out of the 35 teams participating. This put them ahead of the team from the USA. Moreover, several Jamaican-born athletes have represented other countries, such as Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., and have distinguished themselves.

In our next installment, we will discuss Jamaica’s pre-Columbian era.