In Jamaica, the Spanish mariners found a gentle American Indian people, the Tainos; a peaceful people who had never experienced war. Sadly, under the Spanish settlement, the entire Indian population, perhaps a hundred throusand, died from a combination of forced labor and European infections like the common cold, to which they had no immunity.
The Spaniards never fully colonized Jamaica, although Columbus himself spent nearly a year on the island in 1503. The island was then named “Xaymaca” by the Tainos, meaning “land of wood and water.” The words “hurricane,” “tobacco” and “barbeque” were also derived from their language.
The English captured Jamaica in 1655 and turned the island into one vast sugar plantation, making the planters rich. In England, they used to say, “as rich as a West Indian planter”. To grow the sugar cane, the English brought many more Africans to work as slaves from the west coast of the continent and from present-day Nigeria.
When the English arrived, the Spaniards fled to the neighbouring islands. Their slaves escaped into the mountains and formed their own independent groups, called Maroons. The Maroons were in time joined by other slaves who escaped from the English. For a long time they fought against the English who sought to re-enslave them. So successful were the Maroons, fighting from their fortresses, that the English were forced to sign peace treaties granting the Maroons self-government and ceding to them the mountain lands that they inhabited. The runaways periodically staged rebellions until the treaty in 1739 that gave them a measure of local autonomy they still retain today. Slavery was abolished in 1834.
In the economic chaos that followed emancipation, one event stood out: the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. The uprising was led by a black Baptist deacon named Paul Bogle and was supported by a wealthy Kingston businessman, George William Gordon. Both were executed and are now among Jamaica’s national heroes.
In the years that followed, much of modern Jamaica was forged. Migrants from India and China came as indentured workers for sugar estates and rapidly moved to other occupations. Soon, Jewish settlers came to Jamaica, followed by migrant Arab traders from Palestine.
Mixed marriages created today’s unique racially mixed Jamaican people, and are the basis of Jamaica’s national motto, “Out of Many, One People”. Ambition and aspirations sent many abroad. A Jamaican workforce helped to build the Panama Canal. Others grew cane in Cuba and mahogany in Belize while some early enterprising migrants started communities in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere.
Jamaican people continue to prosper and to give the world men and women of distinction including legendary entertainer Harry Belafonte, basketball player Patrick Ewing, baseball palyer Chalres (Chilli) Davis, Olympic medallist Merlene Ottey, reggae superstar Bob Marley, middleweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, and among the top female polo players in the world Lesley Ann Masterton, and more recently Usain Bolt who took Beijing by storm at the 2008 Olympics. Bolt electrified 90,000 fans at the Bird's Nest, striking not once but thrice with world records.
On August 6, 1962, at a midnight ceremony witnessed by Britain’s Princess Margaret and U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the British Union jack was lowered; the new black, gold and green Jamaican flag was raised, and Jamaica became an independent nation.
Justice Minister Mark Golding described the reforms as “long overdue” on the Caribbean island, where the drug is revered by members of Jamaica’s Rastafari movement and used regularly by many ordinary Jamaicans.
The act makes possession of up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana, or “ganja” as it’s known locally, a petty offense that could result in a roughly $5 ticket but not in an arrest or a criminal record.
Cultivation of five or fewer plants by any household is allowed. And Rastafari adults are now permitted to use marijuana for sacramental purposes for the first time since the homegrown spiritual movement was founded in the 1930s.