People and Culture


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Jamaica's national motto, "Out of many, one people," reflects the tolerance and appreciation for diversity promulgated from an institutional level. Meanwhile individuals and communities comprising Jamaica's myriad ethnic groups keep old prejudices and stereotypes very much alive, usually without the slightest hint of malice but still with names that are considered derogatory in other parts of the world. "Coolie" is the term generally used to refer to East Indians, or those of Indian descent, "Chiney" for those of East Asian descent, and "Syrian" for anyone of Middle Eastern descent. If you find yourself the victim of this kind of stereotyping, try not to be offended. Ethnic divisions and cultural prejudices in Jamaica are a result of a history steeped in confrontation and oppression. Rarely, if ever, do these prejudices lead to conflict or violence. While racism is still very much a baffling reality in a country with such an overwhelming black majority, Jamaica's African heritage is celebrated in popular music enjoyed across social and economic classes.


Race in Jamaican society is and has been of utmost importance in maintaining the strict class structure historically, while in contemporary society everything boils down to money. Nonetheless, complexion and ethnic background still often form the basis of an individual's perception of self and place in society. While the island has an overwhelming black majority, other minority groups play an important, even dominant role in the local economy. Chinese and Indians who were brought to the island as indentured labor following the abolition of slavery became and remain prominent members of society as shopkeepers and traders, even in the smaller communities. Lebanese-Jamaicans have also played a significant role in business as well as in national politics. White Jamaicans still own some of the most beautiful and expansive estates. The British established the precedent of "complexionism" by putting lighter-skinned, or "brown," Jamaicans--often their own errant progeny--in managerial positions, a self-perpetuating phenomenon that continues today in the nepotism that pervades the political and economic elite. The Maroons, who initially put up fierce resistance to the British colonial government and forced a treaty giving them autonomy and freedom from slavery long before abolition, have been an important source of pride for Jamaicans, even while the issue of their collaboration with the British in suppressing slave rebellions remains something of a cultural taboo.


Jamaica holds the Guinness Book World Record for most churches per capita. Virtually every religion and denomination on earth is represented on the island, with churches everywhere you turn. A common sight on weekends is large tents set up across the countryside for the open-air services preferred by the evangelical denominations. Only those churches that are unique to Jamaica or have played an important role in the country's history have been described, with listings in the destination chapters for those of historical or architectural significance.


Born as a distinctly Jamaican fusion between Christian and African beliefs during the Great Revival of 1860\1861, Revival today is composed of two different branches: Pukkumina (Pocomania or Poco) and Revival Zion, the former being further toward the African end of the merged spectrum, the latter incorporating more obviously Christian beliefs and practices. Revivalists wear colorful robes and turbans during energetic ceremonies, during which trance-like states are reached with drumming, singing, and a wheeling dance that is said to induce possession by spirits. Revival has its roots in the Native Baptist and Myal movements that lie at the margins of Jamaica's more prominent Anglican and Baptist churches. Baptist churches were early venues for the emergence of what would become known as the Revival faith. Morant Bay rebellion leader Paul Bogle's church in Stony Gut was one such Native Baptist church, where elements of African worship were incorporated into more typical Baptist practice. Today Revival is closely associated with the Pentecostal denomination and practitioners will generally attend one of the established churches in addition to observing Revival practices.

Core to Revival philosophy is the inseparability of the spirit and physical worlds. It is based on this belief that Revivalists can be possessed and influenced by ancestral spirits. Revivalists reinterpreted the Christian theme of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, placing emphasis on the last, which manifests as the "Messenger" attending services and possessing believers.

Baptist Church

Significant in Jamaica for its role in fomenting abolitionist sentiment and fueling revolt, the Baptist church was first brought to the island by a freed American slave, Reverend George Liele, in 1738. Liele was baptized in Savannah, Georgia, before receiving a preacher's license and being ordained a minister. He brought his ministerial prowess to Jamaica, where he attracted large numbers of converts with his abolitionist sentiment that would prove indispensable in firstly attracting followers and ultimately in bringing about emancipation with the help of the British Baptist Mission, which arrived on the island in 1814. After emancipation the Baptist Church was instrumental in organizing the free villages that allowed the former slaves a new start after leaving the plantation and the church was also important in promoting education among the former slaves. Three of Jamaica's seven national heroes were Baptists, including rebellion leaders Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle. Today Baptists remain one of Jamaica's strongest religious groups following their separation from the British Baptists in 1842.


Brought to the island by indentured Indians, Hinduism is still practiced but maintains an extremely low profile within tight-knit and economically stable Indian communities. There is a temple on Maxfield Avenue in Kingston that holds regular service on Sundays.


The first Jews arrived in Jamaica early in the colonial period during the Spanish inquisition, when they were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and found refuge in Jamaica--in spite of not being officially allowed in the Spanish colonies. Many of these Jews outwardly converted to Catholicism while continuing to practice their own religion in secret. When the British arrived in 1655 to capture the island from the Spanish, they were aided by the Jews, who were subsequently free to practice their religion openly after the conquest. Sephardic Jews of Spanish, Portuguese, and North African descent were the first arrivals, followed in the 1770s by Ashkenazi who left Germany and Eastern Europe.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Brought to Jamaica in 1972, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the official state church of Ethiopia. Following Haile Selassie's visit to the island in 1966, he instructed the establishment of a church in Kingston in an attempt to legitimize the Rastafarians with a bona fide institution. Many Rastafarians were drawn to the church, even while it does not recognize Selassie as a divine person beyond his own affiliation with the church and the divinity that would convey.


Essentially the Jamaican version of Voodoo, Obeah plays an important role in Jamaica, evoking fear even among those who don't believe in it. The mysticism and use of natural concoctions that help bridge the physical and spiritual worlds has similar African roots as the Santeria or Voodoo found in neighboring Cuba and Haiti. While there are few who practice Obeah as priests or worshippers, its casual practice is a widespread phenomenon evidenced by markings and charms strewn about many Jamaican homes.


The name of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I prior to his coronation was Ras Tafari, Ras meaning Prince, and Tafari Makonnen his given name at birth. When Leonard Howell, a Jamaican follower of Marcus Garvey, saw Ras Tafari Makonnen crowned His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I on November 2, 1930, he viewed the coronation as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, more so given the emperor's title, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Tribe of Judah. The original prophecy that foretold of a black man rising in the East is attributed to black nationalist and Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey, who had written a play performed in support of his movement in the United States, from which the now-famous line, "look to the East for the crowning of a black king" was supposedly gleaned. It is interesting to note that Garvey never viewed Selassie as a god or claimed his coronation a fulfillment of prophecy at any point during his turbulent life, but this did not stop Leonard Howell from making the proclamation, which fell upon eager ears among his own followers in rural Jamaica and sparked a global movement that continues to grow today.

Leonard Howell chose an opportune time to proclaim Selassie's divinity. Disillusionment by the masses of blacks descended from slaves was high in the 1920s and 1930s, fueling Jamaica's labor movement and the establishment of the two political parties. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s gave blacks in the United States a confidence that was exported to the Caribbean in the form of bold ideas that came to a people that never really forgot Africa. Thanks to the important role Jamaica's Maroons played in preserving African belief systems, and the persistence of Revivalist and Obeah religious practices even within the many Christian denominations that were established on the island, select segments of the Jamaican population were well primed for the proposition that the divine had manifested in an African king. Nevertheless, these select segments were predominantly poor blacks, essentially social outcasts seen as the dregs of society. Dreadlocks, as the hairstyle became known to the chagrin of many adherents who scorn the fear and criminality the term "dread" implies, predates the Rasta movement and was effectively a natural occurrence for those who neglected to use a comb. With the conversion to the Rastafarian philosophy among many up-and-coming reggae musicians during the 1960s and 1970s, the faith gained traction in Jamaica, and as the island's music became an increasingly important export, Rasta soon became almost synonymous with reggae, and the philosophy spread around the world.

The Rastafarian movement can be traced directly to the recognition of the divinity of Selassie upon his coronation in 1930, but most Rastafarians assert their faith is far more ancient, going back at least to the Nazarenes mentioned in the Old Testament from whence they derive their aversion to razors and scissors, as well as to the eating of flesh. King Selassie has become the head of the movement by default as the most recent manifestation of divinity on earth, despite his own disagreement with being viewed as a god. But the line is traced straight back to the divine theocracy of the Old Testament, Selassie himself said to be the 225th descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarians essentially claim the Hebrew lineage as their own and have reinterpreted the Old Testament by identifying Africans as the Israelites of modern times, having been enslaved just like the Jews in Babylon. In effect, Rastafarians espouse a natural lifestyle free of the contamination and corruption of modern society. Repatriation to Africa, whether spiritual or physical, forms a central theme.

Along the movement's course of development, charismatic leaders carved out the many "houses," or denominations, that can be found today across the island, including the Nyabinghi, Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Nyabinghi invoke the warrior spirit of the African empress Iyabinghi; drum ceremonies that last for days around important dates are a central feature.

The Bobo Ashanti, or Bobo Shanti, is a group based at Bobo Hill in Nine Mile just east of Kingston along the coast. The Bobo live a ritualized lifestyle away from society, putting emphasis on the teaching of Marcus Garvey and founder Prince Emmanuel. Themes of self-reliance and self-confidence are central to the Bobo philosophy. The group has gained as converts many contemporary dancehall reggae musicians including Sizzla and Capleton.

Perhaps the most international house of Rastafari is the Twelve Tribes of Israel, founded by the late Vernon Carrington, known by his brethren as Brother Gad. Members of the Twelve Tribes are found across the world with the denomination having crossed social and economic barriers more than other houses, perhaps due to its Christian lean. The Twelve Tribes of Israel embraces Christianity and views Haile Selassie I as representing the spirit of Christ.

Another important force within the Rastafarian movement has been that of Abuna, or Rasta priest Ascento Fox, who has made strong inroads in society by establishing churches in Kingston, London, and New York. These churches are used as a base for maintaining a presence in the community and providing an alternative for convicts in the prison systems, where the group does a lot of work.

Rastafarians in Jamaica and "in foreign" (abroad) are viewed with a combination of respect and fear to this day. Many Rasta colloquialisms have become everyday parlance in Jamaican society as reggae music grew to a global force recognized and appreciated far beyond the Caribbean, with phrases like "one love," "blessed," and "irie" used commonly even by those who don't claim the faith as their own. Use of marijuana, or ganja, has been legitimized to some degree in society at large thanks to the important role it plays for Rastas as a sacrament, even while the ubiquitous herb remains officially prohibited.


In Jamaica, free speech is held as one of the foremost tenets of society. Nevertheless, using the wrong language in the wrong place can cause scorn, embarrassment, or even murder, and knowing how to speak under given circumstances defines a Jamaican's identity and the reveals the layers of a highly classist society. Language use ranges from thick patois to the most eloquent of the Queen's English and generally suggests to which tier of society the speaker belongs. Nevertheless, those raised in Jamaica to speak an impeccable form of English will often flip in mid-conversation to outwardly unintelligible patois. The rich flavor of Jamaica's language is the most apparent expression of feverish pride based on a 400-year struggle that spanned the country's anti-slavery, black power, and independence movements. The rise of the island as a cultural hotspot owes not disparagingly to the influence of Indians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jews, and Chinese, and a remaining smattering of the old white plantocracy.


Uncommitted sexual relationships are commonplace in Jamaica, for both men and women, and particularly among those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. It takes little more than a visit to a nightclub to understand that women and men are quite comfortable flirting and flaunting their sexuality in a lighthearted game played out on a daily basis. The exchange of money is very common in relationships, where a man will often support or "mind" his mistress by giving her money and buying her things. This regular occurrence offers no disincentive for a woman to keep a number of such suitors, just as it relieves the man of any need to keep the fact that he's married with kids a secret from his mistresses.

Prostitution, although it is illegal, is widespread in Jamaica and most conspicuous in tourist areas. In Negril especially, and to a lesser extent in Ocho Rios, prostitution is heavily solicited to tourists. It is quite common for Jamaican men and women to maintain a handful of steady relationships with repeat visitors who live abroad and support their romantic interest by sending regular money wires.