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A Brief History of Jamaica

Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica on May 6, 1494 in search of gold which he never found. He claimed the island for the King and Queen of Spain. This ushered in a period of Spanish settlement which lasted from 1509 to 1655.

The Spanish established ranches on the southern plains, and were responsible for the introduction of cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, cats and dogs. They also introduced the important economic crops sugar cane, bananas and citrus.

In 1513, the first African slaves arrived to work as hunters and herders of wild horses, cattle and pigs, and in the small sugar mills which the Spaniards had established. Many slaves fled to the mountains that lined the center of the island, forming their own settlements which last to this day. These former slaves, referred to as ‘maroons’, resided mainly in the parishes of Portland and Trelawny. They also fought viciously against the English settlers in two Great Maroon Wars
Slavery conditions in Jamaica were among the harshest in the New World. This led to many brutal slave revolts, which were crushed with equal brutality. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery continued for another 30 years before being fully abolished on August 1, 1838.

After emancipation, many of the ex-slaves left the plantations and moved into the hills. The sugar estates needed labor, so Chinese and Indians came as indentured laborers to replace ex-slaves.

Beginning in the past century or so, many Jamaicans have gone overseas in search of opportunities. To Panama, for the building of the Panama Canal. To the USA, for farm work and work on military bases. To the UK, to fight in World War II, and to rebuild the country after the war.

In the 21st century, it is estimated that there are as many Jamaicans living abroad as there are in Jamaica. North American culture and values, accessed mainly through cable and the internet, impact our island relentlessly. Yet we manage to maintain our national identity, and our sports, culture and music ensure that Jamaica is known worldwide.


Jamaican have come from around the globe, bringing with them the cooking techniques, flavors, spices and recipes of their homelands and blending them with the bountiful harvest of this tropical island. The result is some of the most flavorful cuisine in the Caribbean.

The first Europeans on the island were Spanish. Many Spanish Jews also arrived here during Spanish rule, contributing dishes such as escovitch fish, a vinegary concoction that’s found on many home style menus.

In 1655, the Spanish lost Jamaica to England. That century, English influences developed the Jamaican patties, a turnover filled with spicy meat that’s a favorite lunch snack with locals. A patty is more equivalent to a meat pie or even a quesadilla or calzone.

A century later, Chinese and East Indian influences made their way to Jamaica, when indentured laborers who replaced slaves after emancipation brought their own culinary talents. Today, curried dishes grace nearly every Jamaican menu, using local meats such as goat, chicken and seafood.

Here’s a look at the many dishes that fill Jamaican menus. Some of these are seen in tourist restaurants, while others are primarily home-cooked dishes, sometimes made for special holidays and events. Also see our recipes.

Menu Items

Ackee and saltfish - The national breakfast dish is ackee and saltfish. Ackee is cooked and looks (and tastes) much like scrambled eggs. You won’t find ackee for sale in the United States because it is poisonous until it’s ripe.

Bammy - This fried bread is made from cassava flour and is served with fried fish.

Blue drawers - See Duckanoo, below.

Bulla - A spicy bun.

Bun - A favorite Easter dish, bun is a spicy bread eaten with cheese.

Christmas cake (Black Cake or Fruit cake) - Visit a Jamaican home near the holiday season and, along with a glass of sorrel, you’ll be served Jamaican Christmas cake. This delicious confection includes raisins, cinnamon, cherries and, in some cases, prunes.

Coco bread - Ah, a warm, buttered piece of coco bread and a sandy beach… no one could ask for much more than that. This heavenly bread is best right out of the oven.

Corn pone - Cornmeal gives this pudding its name. It’s made with coconut, sugar and spices.

Cowcod soup - Another one of those infamous Jamaican aphrodisiacs, cowcod soup is usually sold at roadside stands and includes bananas, pepper and white rum.

Curried goat - You just don’t get any more Jamaican than curried goat. Look for it on any traditional island menu. It’s especially popular at festivals and parties.

Cut cake - This sweet cake is made with diced coconut and ginger toffee.

Duckanoo - The recipe for duckanoo was brought from Africa. This delicious dessert is made with cornmeal, coconut, spices and brown sugar, all of which are tied up in a banana leaf (hence its other names, Blue Drawers and Tie-A-Leaf) and slowly cooked in boiling water.

Escovitch - Escovitch is a style of cooking using vinegar, onions and spices brought to Jamaica by the Spanish Jews. In Jamaican grocery stores you can also find bottled escovitch sauce to make the preparation easier.

Escovitch fish - A contribution by the Spanish Jews who lived on the island nearly 500 years ago, this fried fish marinated with vinegar is a spicy way to enjoy the local catch.

Festival - This bread is frequently served with jerk and is similar to hush puppies.

Fish tea - This spicy soup looks and tastes much better than it sounds. Like a fish bouillon, this broth captures the taste of the sea. Watch out for fish bones when you eat this popular favorite.

Fritters - These deep-fried breads usually contain codfish or conch and are served as an appetizer.

Gizzada - A coconut tart.

Grater cake - Another confection made from grated coconut and sugar; usually pink and white.

Hard dough, or hard dough bread - Brought to Jamaica by the Chinese, hard dough bread has become a staple in homes today.

Ital food - Nope, it’s not Italian food but Ital (eye-tal). This is the food of the Rastafarians, a vegetarian cuisine that does not make use of salt. Look for the red, green and gold Rasta colors on dining establishments as a clue to locating Ital eateries, which are often quite small.

Jerk - The most popular dish in Jamaica is jerk. The main ingredient : pork, chicken or fish : is marinated with a fiery mixture of spices, including Scotch bonnet, a pepper that makes a jalapeño taste like a marshmallow, pimento or allspice, nutmeg and thyme. It’s all served up with even more hot sauce, rice and peas, and the wonderful festival bread (see above). Jerk is one of the ultimate Jamaican dishes, dating back to the island’s earliest days. The practice of cooking the meat over the flame was started by the Arawak Indians and then later seasoned up by the Maroons.

Johnny cake - Sometimes called journey cakes (since you could carry them along on your journey), these cakes are actually fried or baked breads. They’re a favorite accompaniment to saltfish.

Mannish water - This spicy soup is reportedly an aphrodisiac (along with many other Jamaican specialties). Mannish water is sometimes called power water, and is made from goats’ heads (some cooks include tripe and feet as well), garlic, scallions, cho-cho, green bananas, Scotch bonnet peppers and spinners. White rum is an optional ingredient. Often, men enjoy mannish water before drinking rum, but this item is a rarity on restaurant menus - it’s usually sold at roadside stands, along with roasted yam.

Matrimony - This dessert is available only near Christmas time. It’s made from purple star apples, which ripen in the winter.

Patties - The patty is to Jamaicans what the hamburger is to Americans. Ask any Jamaican and he’ll tell you his favorite patty stand. This fried pie is filled with either spicy meat or, occasionally, vegetables.

Pepperpot soup - Pepperpot is indeed peppery, although the main ingredient is callaloo, which gives this island favorite its green color. Along with the spinach-like callaloo, the soup includes pig tails or salt pork (sometimes salt beef), coconut milk, okra and plenty of spices.

Pone - A pone is pudding.

Pumpkin soup - Caribbean pumpkins are not large and sweet like their American counterparts, but small and a favorite soup ingredient.

Red peas soup - Another one of Jamaica’s famous soups, this one is made from kidney beans, salted pig tails, beef and vegetables.

Rice and peas - This dish is found on just about every lunch and dinner plate and is sometimes nicknamed the Coat of Arms. It features rice and either peas or beans are cooked in coconut milk and spices (in Jamaica the preferred “pea” is the red kidney bean). “A home without rice and peas and chicken on Sunday is like no home at all,” said Ralph Irvin, an excellent taxi driver who escorted us around the Montego Bay area one memorable trip. “Everyone looks forward to it.”

Rundown - This entrée is pickled fish cooked in a seasoned coconut milk until the fish just falls apart or literally “runs down.”

Solomon gundy - This appetizer, eaten on crackers, is a pâté whose main ingredient is pickled fish.

Spinners - These dumplings are found in soups and stews and take their name from their thin, twisted shape.

Stamp and go - You could call them fast food or appetizers, but “stamp and go” seems much more colorful. Stamp out these little fish fritters in the kitchen, grab some for the road, and go.


These African musical elements formed the basis of Jamaican music as we know it. The one-drop rhythm, which is the defining rhythmic element of reggae music, is distinctly African. The call-and-response style of singing which is so common in West African music is reflected in many genres of Jamaican music, and even forms the basis for toasting which, in turn, forms the basis for rap music. Even the language of African-descended Jamaicans is reflected in Jamaican music, much of which is sung in patois, a Creole language with both African and English linguistic elements.

English and other European influences are also apparent in Jamaican music.
During the colonial era, black slave musicians were expected to play the popular music of Europe for their European masters. Thus, slave bands would perform waltzes, quadrilles and other figure dances, reels, and many other dances and song styles. These song styles remained present and intact in black Jamaican folk music right up until the middle of the 20th century.

The first folklorist to collect and categorize Jamaican folk songs was a man named Walter Jekyll, whose 1904 book Jamaican Song and Story is in the public domain and available to read for free or download as a PDF from Google Books.
Though the book is a bit dated, it's a wealth of information, and the earliest scientifically-collected grouping of Jamaican songs and stories, as well as the elements that made up Jamaican music at that time.

By the late 1940s, mento music arose as a unique style of Jamaican music. Mento is similar to Trinidadian calypso and, indeed, is sometimes referred to as Jamaican calypso, but it is indeed a genre unto itself. It features a fair balance of African and European elements, and is played with acoustic instruments, including banjo, guitar, and the rumba box, which a large-scale bass lamellophone (kind of like a giant mbira which the player sits upon while playing). One of the most fun aspects of mento music is the lyrical content, which frequently features extended bawdy double entendres and political innuendo.

In the early 1960s, ska music took shape. Combining traditional mento with elements of American R&B and boogie-woogie, which was immensely popular in Jamaica at the time, ska was a soulful genre which featured harmony singing, upbeat and danceable rhythms, a horn section, and songs that are frequently about love. The emergence of ska occurred at the same time as the emergence of rude boy culture, wherein impoverished Jamaican youths emulated an old-school American-style gangster aesthetic. Competing gangs of rude boys were hired by sound system operators like Clement ``Coxsone`` Dodd and Lesley Kong to start fights at the street dances of competing sound system operators.

Rocksteady was a short-lived but influential genre of Jamaican music that came about in the middle to late 1960s, which differed from ska with a slowed-down beat and, often, a lack of a horn section. Rocksteady quickly evolved into reggae music.

Reggae music emerged in the late 1960s, and went on to become the genre of music that most people identify with the music of Jamaica. Reggae, particularly roots reggae, was heavily influenced by Rastafarianism, both lyrically and musically, with nyabinghi drumming and socially conscious (and often Pan-African) lyrics re-injecting the music with the distinct sounds of Africa. Dub music is an offshoot of reggae, which features producers remixing reggae songs, usually adding heavy bass lines and re-processed instrumental and vocal tracks. Important figures in reggae music include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee ``Scratch`` Perry.

Dancehall music emerged in the late 1970s as a modernized form of reggae music, which reflected increasingly violent and impoverished conditions in Jamaica. Dancehall, also known as bashment, continues to exist as a modern genre, and usually features a deejay toasting over a riddim, and has been under fire for years, as slack lyrics (lyrics featuring violence and blatant x-rated content) have gone so far as to advocate the killing of homosexuals.

Jamaican music's popularity has spread throughout the world, and manifested in many different ways. It is omnipresent in various ways on pop music charts from around the world. For example, reggae is hugely popular in Africa, where artists like Lucky Dube created their own brand of reggae. Artists such as Matisyahu have created a sub-genre of Jewish reggae that continues to gain popularity. In the mid-1990s, bands like No Doubt and Reel Big Fish revived ska music by combining it with punk rock, making it wildly popular among young people in the U.K. and the U.S. And indeed, every once in awhile, a reggae song becomes a pop hit. Jamaican music is deeply entrenched in the musical culture of the world, and will likely continue to be that way for a long, long time.


It is estimated that nearly 750,000 enslaved persons were brought to Jamaica between 1655 and 1807 (about 200,000 were then sent to the Spanish isles). The slaves came primarily from the west coast of Africa, mostly from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Biafra (now primarily Nigeria).

In addition, many immigrants arrived from elsewhere around the globe. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, workers were brought in from other countries as Jamaica looked for sources of income besides sugar. Workers from Germany, Ireland and Scotland came for a while (and one community, Seaford Town, is filled with descendants of these German settlers). Asian immigrants came from India and China and eventually workers came from what is now Lebanon (although throughout Jamaica they are referred to as “Syrians.”)

Today, 92% of Jamaica’s residents are of Black African descent. East Indians and African-East Indians make up about 3.4% of the population, while Caucasians represent about 3.2%. Chinese and African-Chinese residents compose a little over 1% of the population.

The official language of Jamaica is English, spoken in proper fashion with a uniquely Jamaican accent. But the language of the streets is patois. This musical dialect is a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese, African phrases and a good dose of Jamaican slang. Spoken in a sing-song style, the result is as exotic as any foreign language. Jamaican patois is a fascinating use of the language. With patois, “You get more mileage out of your tongue,” one Jamaican explained to us.
Jamaica’s patois includes words from many different African languages. Most are believed to come from the Twi language and other Gold Coast (not Ghana) languages. Other influences include the language of Mendi, Igbo, Efik, Yoruba, Kongo, Kimbundu, Ewe, Mandinka and, possibly Swahili.
INTERESTING FACT: Patois uses many repeated words, such as bo-bo (silly person) and was-was (wasp). Scholars believe this pattern came from West African speech.

As you wind through communities in the Jamaican countryside, you’ll notice the many churches. (A tour guide recently told us that Jamaica has more churches per capita than any other destination.)
Religion is an important part of Jamaican life. The Church of Jamaica, formerly the Church of England, has the largest following. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists and other groups also have significant memberships.
Jamaica’s best known religion is Rastafarianism, which centers around the divinity of the late Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia.

You’ll see many dreadlocked Rastafarians, usually wearing crocheted tams (a type of hat).
Rastafarianism mandates vegetarianism, a strict code of peace and, the best known facet of the religion, the smoking of ganja or marijuana. The reason for these Rasta traditions? The Bible. Rastafarians take their cue from several Bible verses:

Proverbs 15.17 “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

Leviticus 21.5 “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”

Psalm 104.14 “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”

Today the Rastas are a small sector of the Jamaican population but because of Rastas such as the late Bob Marley, they are symbolic of Jamaica. Rasta men are easily identified by their dreadlocks, or locks, matted waist-length strands that either flow down their back or are held beneath a knitted cap or tam. Rastafarian women generally wear locks as well, along with African clothing and headwraps.

The Rastas, once discriminated against in Jamaican society, typically band together in communities often located outside the town itself. They are strong believers in the importance of natural surroundings and often live in the hills.
Rastas are renowned herbalists, using folk medicine and relying on the land’s bounty of plants to heal many ills. Rastas have the distinction of often speaking in the first person. “We” is substituted with “I and I.” Other useful Rasta words are irie (all’s well), ital (natural, used to describe the diet) and ivine (devine).

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