Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Jamaica Part One

Jamaica was quite a challenge for me.

I guess, like a lot of people I have a certain image in my mind of Jamaica as a homophobic, gangsta's paradise. It was good to learn that there is a lot more to Jamaica than the misconceptions we're fed by the media, although I still find homophobia a cultural difference that is hard to stomach. All the evidence of how LGBT people are treated in this country flies in the face of depictions of a people who are otherwise fun-loving, charitable and politically aware.

My exploration of Jamaican culture centred a lot around the history of this nation. I read a very straight-forward and informative summary called History of Jamaica by Clinton V Black. Starting with the Carib tribes who colonised the island from their original homelands in what is now Venezuela and Guyana.

The word 'cannibal' is a corruption of Carib. The original American tribes were completely devastated by European diseases and the survivors systematically annihilated by the Spanish in, what would now be termed, 'genocide'. Spain's role in the New World was destructive to shocking proportions and, on some deep psychological level, I can't even begin to relate that to the Spanish nation as we know it today.

One thing I learned about Spanish colonisation was that, apart from wiping out the native populations, Spain had much more serious intentions in America than the English and French, who saw their American colonies purely as sources of revenue. The Spanish on the other hand wanted to create a New Spain in America, building magnificant cities such as Panama and La Havana.

The Spanish American 'dream' has roused an interest in me and I'm sure I'll learn more about this in due course. Certainly the societies established by Spain seem to have achieved a level of stability that we don't associate with their British and French counterparts, Jamaica and Haiti.

Of course, both Jamaica and Haiti were colonised by Spain before England and France got in on the action. The English and later, British, colonisers were given a lot of autonomy from the outset, but ultimately Jamaica became a giant plantation for the increasingly popular sugarcane, a labour intensive crop that required a massive African slave population to force a profit out of the land.

Many a coloniser made their wealth in Jamaica through the exploitation of slave labour, so much so that the expression, as rich as a West Indian planter, was common in 17th century parlance.

Interestingly, listening to a Jamaican talk show on Power FM, one caller was demanding that the British government pay reparations to the descendents of Jamaican slaves. Listening to a Jamaican talk show gave me the impression that Jamaicans are a people who are still painfully aware of historical injustice.

Being Irish, that's something I can easily relate to and I think we too, as a people, live with a great awareness of the past and traumatic episodes that have impacted on the national psyche, like the Great Famine, are talked about as if they happened yesterday. I guess this is essentially the inheritance of any post-colonial society.

Knowing a bit more about the history of neighbouring Haiti, it was interesting for me to map events in Jamaica onto what was happening in Haiti at the same time. Despite the fact that they so courageously seized control of their destiny 150 years or so before the Jamaicans, I can't help feeling the Haitians have fared much worse in the past few decades than their neighbours. Certainly Cuba and the Dominican Republic seem to contrast sharply with both nations.

Anyway, enough about history for now! More about food and music in the next post, I promise.
Image by user David G
Other image credits:
Flag courtesy off
Map of Jamaica is copyright free, as is the drawing of an Arawak woman by John Gabriel Stedman
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