Jamaican culture is deeply entwined within the fibres of its history; and although this little island is a luminary within the Caribbean and the world at large, we are in fact a hugely misunderstood people. The majority of us have very little knowledge of where we are coming from and fewer still have an understanding that our roots go way beyond the boundaries of slavery.
Going back to the very beginning, to our set of indigenous people; the Tainos, who were of South/Central American origin were living on this island for generations before Christopher Columbus (and the Spanish) arrived in 1492. Their cultural development was at its peak when the Spanish stumbled upon them because they had highly complex and organised societies. They referred to themselves as Tainos which meant noble, peace-loving people. It may be said that their generosity ultimately led to their demise as Christopher Columbus noted:
“They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery… [T]hey were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces….They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.”
The Spanish have recorded the very first team sport as played by the Tainos of the Caribbean. This was an Amerindian rubber ball game called batu. According to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places Itinerary, “The first written description of the game, played with two teams and a rubber ball, appeared after Columbus’ first voyage.” Unable to trust their eyes, the Spanish contemplated that the miraculous bouncing of the rubber ball was a result of witchcraft. The Taínos played a non-lethal adaptation of the ball game on a clay court called a batey. Many Taíno villages had a batey that was also a hub for communal congregations.
With the Spanish conquest, our indigenous people began a rapid decline both culturally and numerically and were suddenly plunged towards historical erasure. The various diseases that were introduced into the New World such as small pox, measles, typhus and influenza killed thousands of natives because they had no immunity to these illnesses.
In 1503 the Spanish crown began to grant Encomiendas to soldiers, conquistadors and officials. The Encomienda was a legal system that was established by the Spanish crown to regulate Native labour. Many Tainos died under the harsh treatment of the Encomienda system which put the natives to work in the fields and mines in exchange for protection from other tribes. This practice deviated from their conventional way of life and prevented them from cultivating the crops that had fed them for centuries. Many lost their lives as a result of starvation and an untold number committed suicide to avoid subjugation.
By 1514 an official survey estimated that 40% of Spanish men had taken Taino wives which created a new Mestizo population. Mixed-race (Mestizo) individuals were protected by law from being subjected to the Encomienda system. This knowledge has motivated many native people throughout the Spanish colonies to deliberately seek to dilute their tribal identities and that of their descendants through intermarriages. This was a desperate attempt at protecting future generations from suffering the same fate that they had to endure. Through this move, the Encomienda has weakened the tribal identification and ethnicity which also had an impact on the Encomendados by diminishing the pool of available labour.
Bartolome de las Casas, a priest of Hispaniola and former Encomendero dedicated his life to lobbying against the Encomienda system after seeing the extent to which the native people were abused. After several failed attempts The Laws of Burgos (1512–13) and the New Law of the Indies (1542) failed to be recognized in the face of colonial opposition. Nevertheless the Encomienda system was succeeded by the crown managed Repartimiento and the Hacienda. The Repartimiento was an attempt at abuse and forced labour reduction.
*Picture from Codex Kingsborough showing an encomendero abusing a Native American.
Under the pretence of searching for gold and other precious jewels the vast majority of Spaniards took full advantage of their position to exploit the native population by stealing their land and wealth. As the number of natives rapidly decline so did the hope of finding precious metals and jewels. This facilitated a shift from mining activities to agricultural interest which saw the rise of the Hacienda because land ownership became more lucrative than acquisition of labour force. Throughout the years of oppression and systematic enslavement, a number of Tainos escaped into the hilly mountainous areas of Jamaica (and other islands) forming the first Maroon (Cimarrón) settlements throughout the island. Here, their culture continued to thrive out of the reach of colonial control.
Research has shown that the Tainos were declared to be extinct in Spanish documents as early as the 16th century. However, this could not be further from the truth. One specific case which disproves this claim is the will of Thomas Manning (1710) which specifically mentioned an Indian named ‘Tom’. This ‘Indian’ had to be native as it was not until 1845 that the first set of East Indians arrived in Jamaica under Indentureship. This crucial bit of information suggests that the few remaining Tainos were absorbed into slavery along with the Africans.
Over 600 years after the dramatic collapse of the indigenous society, it is tempting to surmise that the Tainos are indeed extinct. But upon closer examination it is overwhelmingly evident that elements of their endemic culture still endure. Most of what the world consider to be ‘authentic Jamaican’ stems from the culture of the Tainos.
The famous Jamaican Jerk is a Taino tradition that spans millennia. Savouring the flavours of authentic Jamaican Jerk is a genuine gastronomic interpretation of our Jamaican motto ‘Out of Many, One People’. The very method of grilling is a Taino tradition aptly termed ‘barbecoa’ which eventually became Barbecue. The Jamaican style of jerk stems from the Taino method of spicing agouti (rabbit) or iguana with scotch bonnet pepper and all spice (pimento). Many of the fruits and vegetables that Jamaicans enjoy and profit from through agriculture were brought to Yamaye (Jamaica) by the Tainos from the mainland. These include Yuca (cassava), Batata (sweet potato), Maisi (maize, corn). They have passed on invaluable knowledge on how to utilize the endemic fruits, vegetables and animals. These include bitter cassava from which the Tainos taught us how to strain deadly cyanide before use to make bammy. Corn was ground into meal (which made lots of popular Jamaican delicacies like turn-cornmeal, dumplings, pone, dukunoo, pudding etc). Today our Jamaican people enjoy things such as pumpkin, chocho (christophene), beans, peppers, sweet potato, yampie, callaloo and Indian kale (for Taino pepperpot), hog plum, papaya, pineapple, sweetsop, soursop (used to make a popular Sunday drink), custard apple, locust (stinking toe), guinep, guava, naseberry (sapodilla), starapple, and calabash. Our highly prized woods like Mahogany, our national tree the Blue Mahoe, the national flower of the island Lignumvitae and so much more that we should give appreciation to our indigenous Taino people for. Of utmost importance is our tradition of using ‘bush medicine’ for common ailments. The Tainos utilized many of our native herbs in their curative remedies and these have been passed on for centuries. So today when you have an aphrodisiac Irish moss, medicinal strong back, cerasee tea, cold bush, soursop leaf tea (known to cure cancer), sarsaparilla and chainey root, remember that this practice was adopted from our very first Jamaicans.
Taínos spoke a Maipurean language but did not have a written version. Some of the words used by them such as barbacoa(“barbecue”), hamaca (“hammock”), kanoa (“canoe”), tabaco (“tobacco”), yuca, batata (“sweet potato”), and Juracán (“hurricane”) have been incorporated into the Spanish and English languages.
It is necessary to note that the myth of Taino extinction is being taught in much of our history books when in fact, the Tainos continue to live on to this very day. These indigenous people did whatever they could to ensure the survival of their nation in a time when continued existence seemed impossible.
Those that ran away into the hills would eventually be mixed with runaway African slaves from the English plantations forming what we know today as Maroon communities. In these communities most of the Taino culture is still practiced in their everyday lives. The Maroons are in fact known for being masters of Jerk pork and it is futile to deny the mixture of the Maroons with Tainos through their distinct facial structures. It is evident that in our Jamaican society, the Taino genes still stands proud despite the dilution of intermarriages with Africans, Europeans and Indians. Evidence of this is now being recognised universally as distinct Amerindian traits are cropping up amongst our people. These include outward facial appearances such as bone structure as well as ‘shovel teeth’ (a trait synonymous with Amerindians).
Jamaica still to this day honour our first people by immortalizing them on our Coat of Arms and by recognising their contributions to our motto ‘Out of Many, One People’. Our national symbols pay homage to their ancient traditions and culture and today when you see a Jamaican, look closely and you just might see the Amerindian imprints of a past that has left its indelible mark on our people.
*A photograph of Jamaican/Welsh BBC television personality and athlete Colin Ray Jackson CBE, has 7% Jamaican Taíno DNA.
Below is a photograph of Shirley Genus from Savanna-la-Mar; Jamaica. She also displays the prominent bone structure of the Tainos.
*Savanna is from a Taíno word ”sabana” — a flat land/plain