Before I came to Jamaica, I was really only aware that most Jamaicans came originally as slaves from West Africa, although there were some white Jamaicans of British origin who roots can be traced back to those dark days. However, I had no idea of how many other nationalities and ethnicities had come into the mix.
After independence from the British in 1962, Jamaica had a new flag and a new motto: “Out of Many, One People.” In the little less than two years I’ve been here, I’ve come to understand a bit more of the complexities of why they picked that slogan. I won’t attempt to write much on the sensitive subject of racial history and harmony, but a short history statement might be interesting to some:
Taíno Indians, also known as the Arawaks, were the original aboriginal inhabitants of Xamayca until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th Century. Western diseases wiped out the Arawaks, and today all that remains of them are a few genes and some rock paintings. The country remained under Spanish rule until 1655, when it came under British possession, and Jamaica remained as a British colony until its independence fifty years ago. During British rule, ships brought slaves in from Ghana until the early 1800s when political awareness in the UK started to reject the concept of slavery. As it became harder to bring enforced labour from Africa, large numbers of Indian and Chinese workers were brought instead. Later, immigrants from Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon fled the Middle East for a better life in Jamaica in the early 20th century, many of whom were Christians escaping persecution at the hands of Ottoman Muslims. I had no idea that Jamaica was such a melting pot. Interestingly, the pot literally includes a fushion of cuisines too: curried goat from India, Jamaican patties from the UK, callalloo from West Africa, and there’s plenty of Chinese restaurants in Kingston.
So, do I see it as a harmonious blend? I know that many don’t and tell me there’s plenty of racial prejudice and race-based economic disparity to go around. Although I have no doubt that is true, my personal impression has been pretty positive. My Jamaican colleagues at work come in many skin tones and include ethnic European, West African, Indian and Chinese – or a mix of all of the above – much like their American counterparts. Out of Many, One People may be a work in progress, but this is also true everywhere else in the world. We all still need to work on getting along.