If you’re heading for a holiday to the delightful island of Jamaica, luxury hotel accommodation and beach fun are probably on your mind. But for those with an interest, the Caribbean also has a fascinating heritage and a complex and emotive history. While staying in Jamaica, luxury hotel accommodation may sometimes seem at odds with what you will learn about the island’s troubled past, but in fact, everything that happened over the centuries has combined to form the very heart of this vibrant and exotic culture.
Here is a brief taste of how it evolved.
Although we sometimes despair of the state of our modern world, it’s a fact that at times in the past much of the world was constantly at war. Sometimes this had its origin in dynastic conflicts and sometimes in trade. The Spanish originally settled Jamaica and, in the process, almost exterminated the original native population through disease and forced labour. The labour was needed in order to build fortifications and dwelling places to secure the island against other predatory European countries, such as Holland and England, but also to start to exploit the island’s rich potential for agriculture.
Wealth and strategic conflict quickly led England to start attacking Spain’s American possessions including the island, and in 1655 it was finally taken. The commercial exploitation of the island that had begun under the Spanish was picked up and very rapidly expanded by the English.
Having exterminated, perhaps unintentionally, the original Arawak population, the Spaniards began importing (i.e. kidnapping) Africans and bringing them to the island to work as slaves in the plantations. When England took the island, strangely, one of the first large-scale English importations of slaves came not from Africa but from Ireland – though the term ‘forced labour’ may have been more commonly used. However, things rapidly settled into what would become ‘normality’, with the island becoming part of that inhumane but financially very lucrative triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the New World.
As the production of sugar cane and other crops on the island became increasingly large-scale, more and more slaves were required, until by the end of the 17th century, slaves from Africa (or of African descent) outnumbered the European-origin population.
During the 18th century, it is estimated that 700,000 Africans were brought to the island as slaves.
By the 18th century, the predominant governing culture of the island was British and would remain so until independence in 1962. However, throughout those long centuries, the continuing importation of African slaves meant that the island’s real culture became one based upon the merging of the different African traditions the slaves had brought with them. Some of the slaves on the island, living in at best harsh and sometimes horrific conditions, didn’t universally accept their fate. Many ran away, organised themselves and rebelled. Perhaps one of the best-known groups was one known as ‘The Maroons’, who formed independent communities in the mountains and fought several hard campaigns against the island’s authorities and troops.
This is all now ancient history, with slavery having been finally abolished in the British Empire in 1833. However, its legacy is visible to all throughout the modern island of today. To some extent it’s evidenced by the plantation museums, the mansions, the restored slaves’ quarters and so on, yet it’s also very apparent in the people themselves, who have a rich and varied culture and a strong grasp on their personal heritage.
For the modern traveller arriving in Jamaica, luxury hotel accommodation and fabulous beaches are their first taste of this stunning destination, but in just a short time, it’s easy to get a true taste of the depth of history that lies just beneath the surface.