May 23, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – The People, Part II

Tacky’s War

As provided for by the treaties of 1739 that ended the First Maroon War, the Maroons were instrumental in putting down the most serious slave rebellion in Jamaica’s history, Tacky’s Rebellion of 1760. In fact, it was a Maroon marksman, Davy, who shot Tacky, the leader of the revolt, and cut off Tacky’s head to guarantee payment of the bounty. Historian Edward Long in his 1774 History of Jamaica wrote:

Whether we consider the extent and secrecy of its plan, the multitude of the conspirators, and the difficulty of opposing its eruptions in such a variety of places at once,” this revolt was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.”

Long tells us about a time in 1760 when fifteen hundred slaves staged an uprising in Jamaica, which began in the parish of St. Mary’s and continued in other parishes for about 18 months. The uprising was really a series of revolts that have been grouped under the title of Tacky’s Rebellion.

The leader, Tacky, was an Ashanti slave overseer on the Frontier plantation, who some believe to have been a chief in his Ghana homeland before being transported to Jamaica.

The rebels killed over 60 white people and destroyed thousands of pounds worth of property.  Over five hundred male and female slaves died during the revolt. Some were killed in battle while others were executed by the British in retaliation for the uprising and still others committed suicide. Another 500 were transported from the island to serve as slaves in British Honduras, Central America.  Colonists valued the total cost to the island at £250,000.

The Second Maroon War broke out in 1795. Many claimed the Maroons were encouraged by French agents and inspired by the formation of a black republic in Haiti. The public flogging of two Maroons convicted of stealing pigs from a white planter is, however, considered the casus belli that set off the conflict. Maroon efforts to incite slaves to revolt were mostly unsuccessful—slaves had developed a dislike for the Maroons, some of whom made a living hunting down and capturing runaway slaves for the government. Maroons had also fought on the side of planters in slave revolts.

After fierce fighting, the British forced the Maroons back into the Cockpit Country, a 500-square-mile area in northwest Jamaica, which provided natural defenses for Maroons communities.

The Cockpit Country, also known as “The Land of Look Behind,” is part of Jamaica’s great White Limestone plateau and has typical karst topography, with conical and hemispherical hills covered with scrubby trees, rising hundreds of feet above sinkholes, giving the area its name, “cockpits.”

The name “The Land of Look Behind” refers to the custom of British soldiers—fearing ambush from Maroons—always looking over their shoulders as they passed through the area.

For about five months, they mounted raids on plantations where they seized food from the slaves’ provision grounds. They killed European residents they encountered and ambushed government troops as well.

The Jamaican Legislature obtained a pack of hunting dogs from Cuba and used them to track down the Maroons.

After a few months of fighting, the Maroons surrendered. The British offered peace terms that would allow the Maroons to remain at liberty, but only to those who surrendered by a certain date.

Due to a misunderstanding of the terms of the treaty (some blame British duplicity) not many surrendered before the stipulated date, which placed their fate in the hands of members of the Legislature, who then decreed the Maroons be deported.

The British transported nearly 600 Trelawny Maroons, including men women and children, to Nova Scotia.

They landed in Halifax in July 1796 where they stayed for about four years. At first they lived in tents and barracks on the Citadel’s grounds and on other Crown-owned property. Later, the Crown granted them lands at Preston, Nova Scotia and they subsequently moved there.

In time, though, the Maroons became disenchanted. They had difficulty adapting to the harsh climate and unpalatable food of Nova Scotia and resented government attempts to convert them to Christianity and use them as cheap labourers. They also resented Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia Sir John Wentworth’s attempt to impose ‘civility’ on them .

Growing dissatisfaction eventually led nearly all the Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia to accept an offer from the Sierra Leone Company to resettle in a new British colony in Africa. In August 1800, 500 Maroons sailed for Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown. They were part of a group of 1,100 free black settlers, the majority of whom were former slaves of the American colonies who had been freed by the British during the American Revolution and forced to relocate to Nova Scotia after the British defeat.

Back in Jamaica, Maroons continued as a semi-autonomous agrarian nation living alongside the British colonists in relative peace. The treaties of 1739 reinforced Maroon cultural differences between them and the colonial slave and free-black population. Through these treaties, they became a legally free people with a unique Jamaican identity and with deeded territories held in common.

Between 1739 and the general emancipation of slaves in 1834, Maroon distinctiveness was further emphasized by them being used by the British as a sort of police force to track down and capture runaways and to put down slave rebellions. Even as late as 1865, Maroons played what had become their traditional role by helping the government to put down the Morant Bay peasant rebellion led by Paul Bogle.

Over the years, Maroons fought on the side of the British in several foreign wars, including expeditions in the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, numerous campaigns against the Spaniards in the Caribbean, wars against the Ashanti in Africa and in both World Wars.

Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons is now a national heroine of Jamaica with the title, The Right Excellent Nanny. Also, Nanny’s portrait graces the Jamaican $500 bank note. It is safe to say, I think, that Nanny is the single most influential force in Maroon identity.

May 22, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – The People, Part I

Arudimentary understanding of Jamaica cannot be reached without, at least, some basic knowledge of the island’s people. Jamaica’s coat of arms speaks of its people by its depiction of a Taíno couple and with Jamaica’s motto: Out of many, one people.

The Taíno and Spanish were the earliest settlers of Jamaica or, at least, the earliest about which I have much to say. Unfortunately, these people left little or no mark on the ethnology of the island. Memory of them lives on through a few words that have been absorbed into the language, and by place names and artefacts. As well, Taíno genes live on—at least to a small degree—in the DNA of some modern Jamaicans.

The descendants of a third group, however, have survived to this day and have contributed to the rich tapestry of Jamaican history and culture. These are the Jamaican Maroons.

There are many written accounts about the Maroons of those early days, but only a few seem reliable enough for my use. Much is duplication and some accounts contradict others with myth woven in with fact. I have tried, therefore, to sift through over a hundred accounts looking for common threads that seem reliable, and the following is a summary of the story of the Jamaican Maroons, at least as I see it.

The original Maroons were African slaves who had escaped from the Spaniards and formed communities in mountainous regions. Taíno who survived the genocide of Spanish rule were also members of these communities. I notice that Maroons sometimes gave their leaders the title of “captain.” And I find it interesting that this was common practice among indigenous Taíno and Carib people on other Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico and Trinidad.

Taíno helped the earliest Maroons adapt to Jamaica, its food sources and natural medicines and to navigate its rough mountainous interior. For example, they taught Maroons how to “jerk” pork, weave hammocks, how to carve canoes out of cottonwood trees and how to properly prepare cassava  before consumption, as improper preparation can leave enough residual cyanide to cause serious illnesses.

The Spaniards called their escaped slaves, cimarrón, their word for “wild”. That term was anglicized to Maroon and became the general word used to refer to any African escapee who was part of one of the independent settlements throughout the Americas. The term can also apply to their descendants.

Maroon communities formed virtually everywhere African slavery was practiced. The ones we are interested in here are the Jamaican Maroons, but for brevity we’ll use the simpler term, Maroon(s).

While Maroon communities initially were spread over a large area of Jamaica’s mountainous interior, the two most influential groups were the Leeward and the Windward Maroons who, over time, became concentrated in five main towns: Accompong, Trelawny Town, Charles Town, Scott’s Hall and Nanny Town (now at a nearby location and called Moore Town).

Maroon numbers were significantly augmented when the Spaniards armed and freed their slaves before abandoning the island after the English conquest. These established strongholds under the leadership of former “Spanish Negros” Juan Lubolo (aka Juan de Bolas) and Juan de Serras.

Lubolo’s group settled at Lluidas Vale in northern Saint Catherine parish at the site of one of the few Taíno villages located in the interior. Juan de Serras established his community farther west. Juan Lubolo, as Spanish prospects dimmed, struck a bargain with the English and received a land grant. In return he helped defeat the Spanish. In 1663, however, Lubolo was ambushed by Juan de Serras and killed. After his death, Lubolo’s followers seemed to have merged with the general population and submitted to English rule.

Jamaican Maroon captain Leonard Parkinson

Jamaican Maroon, Leonard Parkinson | Nova Scotia Archives

The former “Spanish Negroes” led by Juan de Serras continued to evade capture by the English and became outlaws with a price on their heads. They were known to launch attacks at night and set fire to cultivated fields, steal livestock and kidnap women.

In 1670s, some died out and others fled to Cuba, while still others joined with African survivors of a shipwreck on the easternmost part of the island and formed the nucleus of what became known as the Windward Maroons of St. George Parish (now Portland) high in the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica. Later these Windward Maroons,  augmented by large numbers of other escaped slaves, would be led by Captain Quao—and, of course, there was “Queen” Nanny.

I can find no credible evidence that Nanny was ever actually a chief or a leader in battle, but she was definitely an inspiration and her influence was considerable. Her power seemed to stem from her being an Obeah (Obi) priestess. Some say she was a survivor of a shipwreck, while others contend that she had escaped from a plantation. Take your pick. What seems certain, though, is that she stiffened and focussed the resistance of the Windward Maroons culturally, politically and militarily.

The other main group became known as the Leeward Maroons (aka Trelawny Town Maroons). In Spanish times, they were led by Naquan and later by his sons Captain Cudjoe (alias Kojo) and his brothers from their base in the northwest. We’ll hear more about these later.

Many Maroons were descendants of warlike African peoples, especially the Ashanti. Other African warriors of the Akim, Fante, Mandingo and Angola people were also among them.

The English used “Coromanti” or “Kromanti” or other similar word to identify these early Jamaicans. Originally they used the term to refer only to Ashanti individuals, but over time the term became a catchall for any African from what is modern-day Ghana in West Africa. Contrary to common belief, the word was never the name of an African tribe as such, but derived from the name of an African fort, Fort Cormantin, situated in Kormantin, Ghana. The fort was built by the English between 1638 and 1645 to house slaves that were to be transported to the Americas, but was captured by the Dutch in 1665 and renamed Fort Amsterdam.

There exists a language in Jamaica known as “Kromanti,” which some say is similar in sound to Akan languages of Ghana. It is distinct from Jamaican Creole, but similar to the creole of Suriname. Kromanti was a language of everyday communication amongst the Maroons and others in remote communities until early in the 20th century.  Now, however, it is used almost exclusively as a religious and ceremonial language by Maroons in places like Moore Town in eastern Jamaica. Some older residents also know the language and may use it at times.

The Akan people of Ghana (Ashanti, for example) frequently name their children after the day of the week on which they were born. For example, the following day names have been recorded: Monday, Cudjoe; Tuesday, Cubbenah; Wednesday, Quaco; Thursday, Quao; Friday, Cuffee; Saturday, Quamin; Sunday, Quashee. These names occur often among Jamaicans of earlier times.

It may be useful to understand why, at least in part, so many Ashanti were sent to Jamaica. The Fante people of Ghana supported the British against the Dutch who were aligned with the Ashanti, traditional enemies of the Fante. So, to please their Fante allies, the British sent Ashanti prisoners taken in battle to British America and the West Indies as slaves, and Jamaica seemed to get a lot of them.

Maroon communities included those who were skilled in woodcraft, experts at camouflage and those who were trained as warriors. They avoided open fights against the English army and local militia. Instead, they perfected the art of ambush. In 1663, the English offered the Maroons land and freedom if they surrendered to authorities. Maroons ignored the offer, however, and continued to wage a series of expensive and vexatious guerrilla campaigns against the British.

Maroon village-Jamaica-Royal Geographical SocietyMaroons in Nanny Town | H. H. Johnson c. 1908
(Royal Geographical Society)

In 1690, slaves in northern Clarendon Parish in central Jamaica rebelled and escaped to nearby forests. They were mainly from among the Akan people of Ghana, probably Ashanti, and included former warriors.

Some of the new runaways formed settlements in Clarendon while others joined with Maroons of the Cockpit Country who were under the leadership of Cudjoe.

According to oral tradition, Cudjoe’s father, Naquan, was a chief in his Ghana homeland before being captured in the 1640s and sold into slavery in Spanish Jamaica. Soon after, Naquan instigated a revolt and led his tribesmen into the mountainous interior later called the Cockpit Country.

The Clarendon rebellion and ensuing hostilities led directly to outright war in 1729. We know this as the First Maroon War.

Leading the Maroons from their western bases were Captain Cudjoe and his brothers, Accompong and Johnny. The Windward Maroons in the east were led by Quao and Cuffee, and supported by Nanny.

After suffering several early setbacks the tide began to turn in favour of the British. Employing Mosquito Coast Indians from Central America, tracking dogs and companies of freed Africans, the British wore down the Maroons. They captured and razed Nanny Town—the home of Nanny and one of the main strongholds of the Windward Maroons—and they systematically destroyed the Maroons’ provision grounds.

Finally, after decades of hostilities, the British sought out the old but undefeated warrior, Cudjoe, and concluded a treaty of peace in March 1739. Three months later, Quao signed a similar treaty on behalf of the Windward Maroons of the Blue Mountains.

Thus ended, at least for awhile, hostilities between the Maroons and the colonists that had been ongoing since 1655. Slave rebellions, however, continued unabated, except now the slaves would not be helped or so easily welcomed into Maroon communities.

By terms of the 1739 treaties, Maroons maintained self-government and their freedom in allotted areas in Trelawny Town and other settlements in the Cockpit Country and the Blue Mountains. In return, the Maroons could no longer accept runaway slaves, instead they had to help recapture them for a reward. Maroons were obligated also to help authorities suppress local uprisings and foreign invasions. In essence, they became bounty hunters and militia men.

May 20, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – English Conquest

On May 10, 1655, an English fleet of 38 ships and 8,000 men anchored in Caguaya Bay, the landing place for Villa de la Vega, the capital of Santiago. The Spanish colony, thinly populated and weakly defended, was no match for so large an invasion force.  

Santiago is, of course, the West Indian island we know as Jamaica. Caguaya Bay, as it was known to the Taíno and Spanish, was renamed Cagway Bay (Port Royal) by the English in 1655.

The English had intended to secure a base of operations in the Spanish West Indies from which to strike at the Spanish Main and weaken Roman Catholic influence in the New World.

The Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell was given to believe the Spanish colony of Hispaniola was weakly defended and could be taken easily.

Cromwell appointed Robert Venables general commander of land forces and appointed as commander of the naval force General-at-Sea William Penn, father of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. While both were experienced and competent officers, neither was given overall command of the expedition and this would prove unwise.

Admiral William Penn (1621-1670)
Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621–1670 | by Sir Peter Lely

A fleet of eighteen warships and twenty transport vessels set sail from Portsmouth on Christmas Day of 1654, arriving at Barbados a month later, where a significant number of additional troops were recruited. Their numbers were impressive on paper, but the recruits were untrained and lacked military discipline. Furthermore, supplies were already running low and friction was developing between the joint commanders Penn and Venables. By the way, among those accompanying General Venables’s forces was a young Welshman named Henry Morgan. I’ll have more to say about that young man later in this story.

Morale suffered when troops were ordered not to plunder Spanish settlements because the authorities wished to capture them intact for later English colonisation.

On April 13, 1655, the fleet arrived off Santo Domingo, the main settlement on Hispaniola. Weather prevented them landing close to the town, however, and the English were forced to land some twenty-five miles west of Santo Domingo, a three-day march away.

By this time, any hopes of surprising the Spanish were dashed. And the colonists had time to reinforce their defences and prepare for the impending assault.

The expedition was not at all well equipped for the terrain—water bottles had not been provided, for example—and the English suffered greatly from heat and lack of fresh water. Many fell ill, including General Venables. When they did eventually reach Santo Domingo, they were ambushed and almost routed before General Venables ordered a withdrawal.

The Englishmen tried to recover on shore for about a week; many of them were sick—as was General Venables—and most were without shelter or adequate supplies.

On April 24, Venables led a second land assault on Santo Domingo, with Penn’s fleet bombarding the town from the sea. Another Spanish ambush, however, ended the land attack. The expedition was a dismal failure and its commanders agreed to abandon any further attempt on Hispaniola.

Penn and Venables needed somehow to salvage the situation—and, I suppose, their reputations as military or naval commanders. There was, they knew, the neighbouring island of Jamaica, which they expected  to be an easier target. Jamaica had by that time declined to a point that it was a relatively insignificant Spanish provisioning base. But they needed to give the Lord Protector a “consolation prize,” and Jamaica would fit the bill.

The English captured control of Jamaica easily, with the exception of a considerable area on its north side to which the Spanish governor with most of the Spanish planters and their slaves retired and waged a costly guerilla war against the invaders.


Jamaica, as central base from which the English could launch attacks on Spanish trade routes and treasure ships, presented too much of a danger to Spain to allow it to be abandoned. So, from 1655 to 1660, Spanish forces led by Governor Don Cristobal Arnaldo Ysassi made a number of unsuccessful attempts to recapture the island. Small bands of Spanish soldiers landed from time to time to reinforce Yssasi. These men came from Havana, San Domingo and Porto Rico and were joined by Spanish refugees from Jamaica who had fled earlier to Santiago de Cuba.

The most important battle ever fought on Jamaican soil took place at Rio Neuvo in June 1658 when the English commander and new governor Colonel Edward D’Oyley defeated a large force under Ysassi’s command.

The English killed more than 300 Spaniards and captured great quantities of food and arms. Ysassi withdrew to the hillsides and jungles on the north side of the island with the survivors of his invasion force. He continued to wage guerilla warfare for several months, however, by 1660 the Spaniards had had enough. Ysassi, with his remaining supporters, fled to Cuba by canoe.

Here’s how historian Brig. General E.A. Cruikshank describer those last days:

After enduring an extremity of hardship, hunger, and privation, Yssasi’s worst forebodings were fulfilled. On the 26th of February, 1660, Lieut.-Colonel Tyson with a party of only eighty men, guided over the mountains by some of these negroes, surprised his camp at Rio Hoja, near Moneague, killed his chief lieutenant and fifty others, took a few prisoners, and dispersed the rest of his men beyond recall. The English leader reported that Yssasi ‘ran so nimbly as to save himself from being taken.’

“Negotiations were begun for a treaty of surrender, but failed. A boat bringing supplies from Cuba was captured in the bay of Ocho Rios, making further resistance all but hopeless. Two large canoes were fashioned out of cottonwood logs, sails were improvised from hunters’ sheets, Yssasi embarked with his remaining adherents at the little harbour, which has ever since been known as Runaway Bay, and safely crossed the hundred miles of tranquil water that separated him from Cuba. Spanish dominion over any part of Jamaica had come to an end. Some hundreds of impoverished fugitives found an asylum at Bayano, Santiago, and Trinidad, where they obtained lands and continued for the next ten years to cherish hopes of regaining their lost possessions, and form fruitless plans for that object.”

In 1670, under the Treaty of Madrid, Spain officially ceded control of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to England.

It is interesting to note that prior to the English conquest, Jamaica was the property of Don Pedro Colon, Marquis of Jamaica, 7th descendant of Christopher Columbus—the property rights of Columbus’s family pertaining to Jamaica having been recognized in 1508.

This, I gather, is why the Inquisition (Inquisición española) was never fully enforced in Jamaica. And, as a result, when the English captured the island in 1655, there where considerable numbers of Jews—known variously as “Portugals,” “sephardim,” and “marranos”—already settled in the Island. Many, perhaps most, were conversos who converted to Catholicism under threat. And there were those who continued to practice Judaism in secret.

King Charles II of England | Peter Lely - Collection of Euston Hall, Suffolk

The English welcomed the Jews and considered them an integral part of the colony. The Jews were granted citizenship by Oliver Cromwell and this was confirmed in 1660 by King Charles II. Citizenship was important to the Jews for it entitled them to own property. (Note that in those times many Jews living in Europe were never granted citizenship there.) And perhaps most important of all, under English rule, Jamaican Jews were able to practice their religion openly.

Before fleeing the island, the Spaniards armed and freed their slaves, after terrifying them with stories about the “man-eating English.” The slaves they left behind were expected to continue the guerrilla war against the English until the Spanish could return and recapture the island. These freed slaves joined other runaway slaves in the mountains and became the semi-autonomous nation we know as Maroons.

Penn and Venables left Jamaica soon after its capture, returning separately to England. Because both officers had left Jamaica without orders, they were relieved of their commands and immediately committed to the Tower of London. Venables was released after a brief stay, on condition he surrender his general’s commission and his command in Ireland. Penn was also released and retired to his estate in Ireland.

It is important to remember that in those days many English people were convinced that Spain was a cruel and merciless enemy. Oliver Cromwell proclaimed this very notion in his speech to Parliament on  September 17, 1656. “Abroad, our great enemy is the Spaniard,” he said. To him, conflict with Spain was a just and holy war. Cromwell intended to make Jamaica England’s base of operations against the Spaniards, both by land and sea.

Meanwhile, the English forces remaining on Jamaica were suffering from a shortage of supplies and low morale. Many were ill from dysentery and fevers. Famine threatened.

Despite these difficulties, the new masters of Jamaica set about consolidating their victory. In the weeks following the conquest, priority became defence against recapture. Construction of Passage Fort, also known as Fort Cromwell, began at the tip of the sand spit, separating what is now called Kingston Harbour from the Caribbean Sea. From that location, the fort could control all access to the harbour through its narrow entrance.

Soon a small community, known as The Point or Cagway Bay, would grew up around the fort. The name of the town would be changed to Port Royal and the fort would be renamed Fort Charles in 1660 in honour of the restoration of Charles II and the English monarchy.

Soldiers were encouraged to cultivate plots of land, which would be allotted for them, and the small naval squadron stationed there would keep busy by capturing and bringing into port valuable prizes. Thus began England’s—and later the United Kingdom’s—300-year rule of Jamaica

May 19, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – Spanish Rule

Spanish Town
An 1825 engraving of Spanish Town’s colonial offices

OOn his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of Jamaica on May 4, 1494. He “officially” landed at a place near today’s St. Ann’s Bay, about half way along the north coast of the island. Columbus named his landing place Santa Gloria and claimed the island—he called it, St. Jago (Santiago)—for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Many believe that the Spaniards landed first at a place they named Puerto Seco (Dry Harbour), which is about 14 miles west of the town of St. Ann’s Bay. As its name suggests, Puerto Seco has no permanent rivers flowing into it so, as a result, Columbus continued eastward along the coast in search of much-needed fresh water.

  Second voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1493–1496 | Credit: Keith Pickering

It is said that Christopher Columbus “discovered” Jamaica but, of course, by the time he arrived, Jamaica (then called Xaymaca) had long been home to the Taíno people. He did, though, truly discover it from a European perspective.

It is obvious that there was continual interaction—likely trade and war—between the inhabitants of the four islands of the Greater Antilles, which are quite closely grouped. Cuba, for example, is only about 90 miles from Jamaica’s north shore. Not surprisingly, therefore, Columbus heard of Jamaica when he was exploring Cuba.

Christopher Columbus
Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo
  (Metropolitan Museum. New York)

Cubans apparently described Jamaica as “the land of blessed gold,” raising expectations among the Spaniards whose voyages of discovery were first and foremost expeditions to find precious metals. Columbus and his followers must have been terribly disappointed when they discovered eventually there was precious little if any gold to be found in Jamaica.

The Indians Columbus encountered were hostile—perhaps news of earlier Taíno-European contact had already reached Jamaica from, say, Hispaniola, where the Spanish had already tried to establish a colony. The unfriendly reception and his objective of locating the mainland, sent Columbus back to sea on May 13, 1494 when he set sail for Cuba. He explored the south coast of Cuba and nearby islands before returning to Hispaniola on August 20.

Columbus returned to Jamaica briefly in 1502 while on his way to Honduras in Central America. Then, nearly a year later and after surviving damaging storms at sea, his remaining ships were hit by another storm off the coast of Cuba. With his remaining two ships leaking badly and the last of the ships’ boats already lost, Columbus beached his sinking vessels at St. Anne’s Bay on June 25, 1503. And, since he had not yet established a colony on Jamaica, his party was stranded.

One of Columbus’s captains, Diego Mendez, secured a canoe from a Taíno chief and sailed it to the Spanish settlement at Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola.  Once there, Mendez was detained for about seven months by the governor who refused use of a caravel to rescue Columbus and his men. Moreover, when the governor finally allowed Mendez into Santo Domingo, there were no ships available for the rescue.

fig2Columbus apparently had an uncomfortable stay at St. Ann’s Bay—at one point starvation threatened. Somehow, however, he was able to obtain provisions from the hostile Jamaican Taíno. One story tells us how he impressed the Taíno by accurately predicting a lunar eclipse using astronomy tables he had with him. After this amazing (to the Taíno) feat, they became more helpful. During his stay, Columbus also had to put down a mutiny among his men.

Finally, Mendez was able to charter a caravel at Santo Domingo, and sail it to Jamaica. He arrived at St. Ann’s Bay on June 29, 1504 and rescued the expedition.

Under Spanish rule, the combined Taíno and Carib population in the West Indies fell from more than 3.5-million to a few thousand by the end of 16th century. This catastrophic mortality rate was due in major part their exposure to European diseases, against which indigenous people lacked immunity. Many also committed suicide rather than submit to enslavement.

Today a few survivors (many of mixed race) live on in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Guyana, with smaller numbers in some of the Lesser Antilles, Suriname and French Guiana. Arawakan-speaking groups are also widespread in other parts of South America.

I’ve read that in 2003 Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, reported that 61.1 per cent of those surveyed (800 randomly selected Puerto Ricans) had mitochondrial (maternal) DNA of indigenous origin.

I’ve read also that one of the last Taíno caciques of Hispaniola’s colonial period led 600 followers to north-eastern Hispaniola where they married Spaniards and Africans, and whose descendants retain indigenous traits. And, in the 1950s, researchers found high percentages of the blood types that are predominant in Amerindians.

As well, in the 1970s, dental surveys established that 33 out of 74 villagers in Hispaniola retained shovel-shaped incisors, the teeth characteristic of American Indians and Asians. And a more recent nationwide genetic study established that 15–18 per cent of Dominicans had Amerindian markers in their mitochondrial DNA, testifying to the continued presence of Taíno genes.

The first Spanish settlement in Jamaica—they called Jamaica Santiago—was not established until 1509. Santiago was made a colony of the Spanish West Indies and was within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The colony’s first town, Seville la Nueva, was located near St. Ann’s Bay and was quite substantial with a fort, a castle and a church.

Jamaica, as Santiago, was governed by Juan de Esquivel. Because of nearby swamps, however, the Seville la Nueva location proved unhealthy. As a result, the Spanish abandoned it in 1534 and moved to Villa de la Vega—now Spanish Town—on the south side of the island.

From the earliest times of their occupation of Jamaica, the Spaniards enslaved the island’s Taíno, and so ill-treated and overworked them that by the end of 16th century they were extinct, at least, as regards their culture. Ill-treatment at the hands of the Spaniards included the hunting down and murder of these hapless and defenseless people for entertainment and “sport.”  It is conceivable, though, that, as in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, Taíno DNA lives on in some Jamaicans, especially in those who are descendants of the Maroons.

Blacks in Early America

Black Africans had sailed with Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. These earliest black immigrants to the Americas were natives of Spain and Portugal called Ladinos. They included Pedro Alonso Niño, a navigator, who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the New World.

Black colonists helped Nicolás de Ovando form one of the earliest Spanish settlements on Hispaniola in 1502. Nuflo de Olano, a black slave, was part of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's expedition that first sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Hernán Cortés had blacks with him when he conquered Mexico. Other blacks accompanied Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.

Between 1502 and 1518, Castile also shipped hundreds of Ladinos to the Americas as slaves, primarily to work as miners, but some were also used in Jamaica as labourers.

By 1611 Jamaica had a population of 558 black slaves and 107 free blacks.

Spaniards of the New World disliked doing manual labour. They had, after all, migrated to the Americas to become Conquistadors, not farmers. So before long many who had come to Jamaica left for the mainland when the discovery of gold, silver and precious stones promised an easier path to the wealth they sought.

The Spaniards who remained on the island feared that any free peasantry that might be established would never work for pay when such an abundance of food and wood for shelter was readily available for little effort. Only slave labour, the Spaniards concluded, would assure the economic viability of the colony.

Even though indigenous peoples in the Spanish colonies were legally exempted from slavery, the colonists were able to compel the Taínos to work for them under the systems of encomienda and repartimiento.

Soon, however, the Taíno population was so diminished it could no longer fill the need for forced labour and the Spaniards began importing African slaves from Europe. By 1518, the Spaniards had shipped hundreds of Spanish-born Africans to Jamaica to work as labourers.

In 1518, the demand for slaves having become so great, Charles I of Spain allowed the transportation of slaves directly from Africa to the Spanish colonies in the New World. Thus the slave trade began in earnest.

Even with slave labour, however, the Spanish colony of Jamaica was never truly successful. In the early days, its main purpose was that of a supply base for manpower, horses, arms and provisions to help in the conquest of Cuba and the mainland. Later, as its influence diminished, Jamaica acted as a staging and transfer point for the transportation of African slaves to other colonies, and as a provider of fresh provisions to passing ships.

The Jamaican economy was based on agriculture. Spanish colonists grew traditional tropical crops, including cotton, tobacco, indigo, bananas and citrus—they had brought several varieties of citrus from Spain and banana and plantain from the Canary Islands. They had also introduced cattle, horses and pigs and operated livestock ranches called hatos. Foodstuff, hides and lard were among the colony’s chief exports.

Under Spanish rule, Jamaica was, for the most part, self-governing. A governor appointed by Spain and a non-elected council (cabildo) ruled the island. The church also played an important role in colonial affairs. Unfortunately, after Jamaica was given to the Columbus family as a personal estate in 1540, they did little to develop it and so there was never a large population and the colony never flourished. Roads were poor, and the capital, Villa de la Vega, was the only town of any size, though there were several smaller settlements across the island.

As the years passed, a combination of emigration of Europeans to the mainland in search of gold, neglect by Spain and internal strife between the governor and church authorities further weakened the colony. Meanwhile, Spain so neglected land-based defenses in favour of providing more warships to protect its treasure convoys, colonists had to provide their own protection from attack by French and English ships that defied Spain’s trade monopoly.

In 1555, the Jamaican colonists had to fight off two French ships. In 1596, Sir Anthony Shirley, an English adventurer, raided the island. Other raids followed in 1603, 1640 and 1643.

Each raid further demoralized the colony. And, as European nations took a greater interest in the Americas, they begun to understand the strategic importance of Jamaica, which lies near the geographic centre of the Caribbean. It was only a matter of time before the English or the French would attempt to take and hold the island.

May 17, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – Pre-Colombian Era

People had lived in the New World for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were the descendants of North Asian tribes who crossed Beringia, a land bridge which connected Asia to North America when sea levels were lower. North Asians crossed what is now the Bering Strait into Alaska.


Over the past two-million years, our climate has been influenced by artic ice sheets formed during the Ice Ages. And, as glaciers formed, much of the world's water became trapped in the ice.

As a result, the levels of the oceans were as much as 100–150 metres lower than today’s levels, revealing the floor of the Bering Sea and creating a land bridge across the un-glaciated area called Beringia. Glaciers never formed in Beringia because the climate was too dry.

At the height of the last Ice Age, human beings entered Beringia from the Siberian steppes and, over time, crossed into the Americas.

Most of Beringia became submerged by water when the last Ice Age ended. Parts of it, however, can still be found in Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon.

There seems to be wide agreement that the earliest of these migrations via Beringia took place at least 13,500 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. There also exists evidence that suggests people migrated into the Americas much earlier, perhaps as early as 40,000 years ago, and that some might have arrived via the Pacific Ocean, populating coastal areas of the two continents. And, although this remains a minority view, new technology does seem to support it.

From Alaska, new arrivals travelled south through the Mackenzie Valley and through what is now Canada’s Northwest Territories and British Columbia before spreading out across North and Central America and, finally, crossing the isthmus of Central America into South America.

These early migrants diversified into hundreds of culturally distinct tribes and nations. And, throughout this process, advanced civilizations rose and fell. When the Europeans arrived in 1492, the great Maya civilization was in decline, but the Aztec and Inca were still expanding. These nations of the Americas did not see themselves as one people. And only later would their European conquerors give the area its unifying name “America” and identify its inhabitants as “Indians.” Thus we have the all-encompassing term for the people, “Amerindians.”

The particular Amerindians we are interested in here are those who settled in the West Indies and especially those who inhabited the Greater Antilles, which are the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rica.

Taino village
Taíno village

Prior to 1492, Amerindians had little or no known sustained contact with other parts of the world. They had, however, developed varied and productive agricultural economies. Their lifestyles and belief systems differed widely, and they spoke hundreds of different languages.

While the pre-Columbian era of the Americas continues to be studied and analyzed, it seems safe to say that, before the arrival of Europeans, the Caribbean islands were inhabited by descendants of migratory waves of Amerindians, and particularly those from South America known as “Canoe People.” Canoe People had sailed northward in dugout canoes—some upwards of 100 feet long—from their ancestral home in the Orinoco region of the Guianas and Venezuela.

carving[4]Settlement of the islands probably began as early as 4000 BCE, most likely beginning  with the Ciboney (also spelled Siboney). Later migrations included others from South America, including the the Arawakan-speaking Saladoid and Igneris people and finally the Taíno and Carib. Often these people are referred to using the catch-all term, “Arawak,” which usually refers the Lokono of South America and the Taíno of the Greater Antilles and the most northern of the Lesser Antilles, all of whom spoke Arawakan languages.

Little is known of the Ciboney who were probably the first West Indians, and it is not certain that they ever inhabited Jamaica. Apparently, “Ciboney” is a Taíno word meaning “cave-dweller.”

There are three theories of how the Ciboney entered the West Indies: (1) they came from South America, pre-dating the Taíno who displaced them; (2) they came from Central America; and (3) having reached Florida from South America, they later migrated south to some of the Greater Antilles.

The popular view seems to be that the Ciboney were diverse groups of hunter-gatherers from South America who travelled north from island to island in separate migrations over a long period of time. Some findings also support some Central American origin, especially as regards inhabitants of the extreme west end of Cuba.


Coat of Arms of Jamaica

When the Spanish arrived in the West Indies, the less well organized Ciboney had already been driven by Taíno farmers and fishermen to western Hispaniola (Haiti) and western Cuba—these groups were culturally different from each other. The Ciboney of Cuba, known as Guanahatabey, were hunter-gatherers with a distinct language and culture from the Taíno who were their neighbours.

Within a century of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, the Ciboney culture was considered extinct.

First the Arawakan-speaking Saladoid and Igneris people and finally the Taíno and Carib followed the Ciboney to the islands. The Taíno—a term meaning “good” or “noble” that some early West Indians used to distinguish themselves from their enemies, the Caribs—are the people we’re most interested in.

The Taíno traveled northward, settling throughout the islands and small parts of mainland North America. A group known as the Western Taíno probably arrived in Jamaica in two waves—around 650 AD and 900 AD—and, by the time the Spaniards arrived, the Taíno were considered to be Jamaica’s aboriginal inhabitants. Jamaica was known to the Taíno as “Xaymaca,” which meant “land of wood and water.” And a Taíno couple are depicted on Jamaica’s coat of arms.

At the time of the Norman conquest of England, the Taíno inhabited an area that stretched from southern Brazil to the coast of South America and up through the islands of the West Indies to Florida and the Bahamas. The ecology of the Caribbean, especially in the Greater Antilles, provided plenty of fresh water, fertile soil and an abundance of fish. This, combined with stable populations, permitted the development of a complex political and social structure.

Island Carib

The last group of Amerindians to arrive in the Caribbean were the Carib, a fierce tribe whose name comes from the Arawakan word—and later the Spanish word—for cannibal.

Like the Taíno, the Carib originated in the Orinoco region of the Guianas and Venezuela, but had darker skin and were taller.

The Carib were a warlike people who swept over the Lesser Antilles of the eastern Caribbean leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Their men slaughtered and their women abducted, the Taíno of the Lesser Antilles were assimilated by the more aggressive Carib or disappeared altogether.

By the late 15th century, the Carib migration had reached the Greater Antilles, but the arrival of the Spanish prevented them from making further conquests.

Although they raided Arawak villages in Jamaica, probably from bases in Cuba and Hispaniola, the Carib apparently did not settle permanently on the island.

A short, brown-skinned people with straight black hair, the Taíno had broad faces and flat, wide noses. A class of hereditary chiefs (caciques) ruled three other classes, the lowest being slaves. Conflict between classes was apparently minimal. A matrilineal society, chieftains were succeeded by their eldest sister’s eldest son.

They were known for their fine wood carving and cotton cloths. They cultivated cotton, sweet potatoes, fruits, vegetables, tobacco and manioc (cassava). And these early Jamaicans were especially skilled as artisans and spinners and weavers of cotton—the island supplied cotton hammocks (a Taíno invention) and other cotton cloth to Cuba and Hispaniola. Their wood and stone carvings were well shaped and beautifully finished.

Generally believed to have been a peaceful people, the Taíno enjoyed dancing, singing and playing a ceremonial ball game (batos), perhaps as a substitute for warfare and as an outlet for competition between villages.

They believed that when they died, their souls went to a place of peace and plenty called “coyaba”—a place where there were no hurricanes, droughts or sickness, and where they spent their time feasting and dancing. They are known to have buried their dead in caves, placing the head and certain bones of their departed in pottery bowls.

At their peak, an estimated 100,000 Taíno lived on Jamaica. They divided the island into provinces, each of which were ruled by a cacique. The Taíno lived in large villages governed by sub-chiefs. Related families lived together in large thatch houses. They were a seagoing people and built their villages close to the coast or near rivers. For transportation, the Taíno hollowed out the trunks of cedar and silk cotton trees, crafting canoes that held from one to fifty or more persons.

The Taíno were the first natives of the Americas encountered by Christopher Columbus. At first, they welcomed the Europeans for they were pleased to learn that the strange pale-skinned visitors abhorred cannibalism, and they hoped the Spaniards would be useful allies against the man-eating Island Caribs. Little did these early Jamaicans know that the arrival of these “allies” were the beginning of the end for them.

May 16, 2015

Jamaican History and Culture – Background

This next series of essays record most of what I know about the island of Jamaica. The series is part of my The Times of My Life, A Private Narrative project, which is the history of my family and my early life in Jamaica, West Indies. 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.

jamflagMotto: "Out of Many One People."

National Anthem

Eternal Father, bless our Land,
Guide us with they 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.

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.

To start, I’ll tell you a bit about my connection with Jamaica.

I was born in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica and lived at various times at St. Andrew, Port Royal, Montego Bay, Port Maria and St. Ann's Bay. I also spent summer vacations at Discovery Bay (then called, Dry Harbour). I went to school at St. Andrew and Kingston, attending Holy Cross School and Campion Hall—when it was a prep school and before it became the high school, Campion College—and, finally, St. George’s College.

I left the island in 1955, returning only once in 1976. But, as they used to say, my navel cord is buried in Jamaica. I still crave the island’s food and thrill to the sound of its music. And, although I have spent more years abroad than I did on the island, Jamaica will always remain a special place to me.

Branches of my family lived continuously in Jamaica for well over 200 hundred years. Families I’m related to either by blood or marriage include: Campbell, Reynolds, Stephenson, Ramsey, Brandon, Binns, Brown, Hire-Miller, Nash, Pratt, Koth, Vaz, Croswell, Facey and many more. With notable exceptions they were, I believe, good people who took pride in their contribution to the island, and especially to areas like St. Ann's Bay, Brown's Town, Discovery Bay, Falmouth and Montego Bay.

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

Jamaica is the third largest island of the Greater Antilles (an island chain in the West Indies that includes the nations of 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.

Taino (Arawak)

The Taino were the first 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. Its mountain ranges are dominated by 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak located in the eastern section of the island. Blue Mountain Peak is the highest point both in Jamaica and the entire West Indies. Other lesser mountains extend west across the island. The island’s only active volcanic action are several thermal springs. The island, though, 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 Black River which is 44 miles long. Except for recreational purposes, none are navigable. 

Kingston is the capital and largest city and has a large natural harbour and seaport. In addition, the island has other excellent natural harbours 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, but 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 annual 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.

Hurricanes – 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.

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 per cent of GDP. Remittances from abroad and tourism each account for 30 per cent of GDP, while bauxite/alumina exports make up roughly 5 per cent 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 large indigenous land mammals or venomous snakes. And, of course, there is the sea with its variety of life, especially around Jamaica’s many coral reefs.

The majority of Jamaica’s 2,930,050 (July 2014 est.) population is of 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.


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.

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 a number of vocational and technical schools, teacher-training colleges and a college of arts, science, and technology.

Sports have long been an important 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—and ahead of the team from the USA. Moreover, several Jamaican-born athletes, have represented other countries such as Canada, U.S, and the U.K. and have distinguished themselves.

May 15, 2015

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl-3276

This Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) lives at the Mountsberg Raptor Centre along with more than a dozen different species of native birds of prey. Most of the residents of the the Douglas G. Cockburn Raptor Centre are non-releasable due to injuries they have sustained and, therefore, are unable to survive in the wild. For these lucky birds, Mountsberg provides a permanent home.

Sometimes called the “tiger owl” because of tiger-like mottled colouring, these owls live throughout North America, from deserts to wetlands and from forests to grasslands. And, though they will sometimes dwell in cities, they prefer wooded areas with nearby fields or other open areas.

They are seen often perched on fence posts or on tree limbs at dusk, usually at the edge of an open area. Their call is a deep, stuttering series of four to five hoots.

Great Horned Owl_RGC6919The Great Horned Owl has a long tuft on each side of its head that looks like ears. It is a heavily-built, barrel-shaped bird with a large head and broad wings and is the largest “eared” owl in Canada, with wingspan measuring 3.3 to 4.8 feet (1 to 1.5 m).

As one might expect, Great Horned Owls are nocturnal and are efficient night hunters that strike from above with their talons.  They possess a digestive system that allows them to swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets of bone, fur and the other unwanted parts of past meals.

Pretty much standing atop the forest food chain, they are unchallenged predators that can prey on birds and mammals larger than itself. They regularly eat raccoons, rabbits, skunks, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons and other owls. They also eat smaller creatures like mice, frogs and voles. They are even known to prey on cats and dogs.

Thanks to a Ray Barlow photography workshop, I was able to take pictures of this magnificent bird while it was out of its enclosure.

Technical: 1/100 sec at f/3.5, ISO 250. Nikon D300 digital SLR with AF-S VR Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G IF-ED mounted on a Manfrotto 055XB tripod with a Black Widow HD Mark 2 Gimbal Head.