Jamaica has a rich history owing to the many immigrants that have settled here over the centuries, and has also garnered an impressive collection of historical structures from the great colonial powers of Spain and Britain. Jamaican culture is best observed at festival time, when there is street dancing and funky music, but the locals are laid-back and enjoying Rasta life 24/7.
Prior to Christopher Columbus discovering the island in 1494, the Arawak Indians were here first, though little remains of their culture. The Spanish laid claim to Jamaica first and remained here for a century and a half before being expelled by the British in the mid-1600’s.
Jamaica’s oldest sights can be seen in Spanish Town to the west of Kingston. Located near the Old King’s House, the English built Saint James Cathedral on the site of a razed Spanish chapel, which today is the oldest Anglican Church outside of the UK.
They also constructed a fort in Kingston Harbor (Port Royal) to protect from a possible Spanish attack, which attracted seamen, pirates and prostitutes, becoming a center for trade. An earthquake in 1692 and a hurricane in 1722 destroyed much of the town and it was abandoned in favor of the emerging Kingston. Parts of the old town remain today as a main attraction.
Jamaica would become the largest slave colony in the Caribbean for the British, who set up vast plantations in the verdant interior and brought over waves of West Africans to work them. The island prospered early on, although there were frequent spats with revolting slaves, which eventually led to their emancipation in 1838.
Of the many plantations, Rose Hall is the most famous. Built in 1770, it was one of the largest and is today an important historic site, said to be haunted by the infamous White Witch, Annie. In Montego Bay, the Milk River Baths were also opened up around this time in 1794 near Doctors Cave for their healing waters discovered by an escaped plantation worker.
Jamaica declined in the 1900’s, economically and through natural disasters, while political change was on the horizon by the now majority blacks. Bananas, minerals and other commodities were added as exports, and in 1962 it declared independence from Britain. Twenty years later Bob Marley—Jamaica’s most famous son—dies. His former house in Kingston is a museum and one of the most popular tourist attractions.
Throughout the seventies and eighties, Jamaican politics were dominated by two rival white leaders backed by violent slum gangs prone to fighting. Each had a turn at governing, but it was the socialist ideas of Michael Manley that alienated the US and brought even more economic hardship to the country.
Jamaica has been beset by political anomalies in recent times and the drive for a republic to replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state may come in the near future. The tourist industry is thriving and the continued success of the nation’s athletes at the Olympic Games (especially superstar Usain Bolt) puts the country on a global pedestal.
Jamaicans are warm and friendly for the most part, with a blend of cultures stemming from Africa and the Caribbean. As deeply religious people, the island is teeming with churches, with a protestant majority together with Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths and cult Rastafarianism.
It is generally a casual and relaxed society, away from the mad capital, with regular dancing and parading in the streets for a slew of events. The banging of steel drums, soca and reggae music are ubiquitous, while culture can also be seen in the arts and crafts churned out in busy markets island-wide.
The smoking of ganja (though illegal) is equally obligatory for many locals and life is a beach and most apparent in Montego Bay. The profusion of local seafood, jerk chicken, and Jamaican rum is indelible to boot. Although inherently casual, more formal dress is expected at the posh, all-inclusive beachfront hotels.