As Usain Bolt set a new Olympic record in the final of the 100m sprint while his friend and main rival Yohan Blake came a respectable second, Jamaica got themselves some gift to celebrate 50 years of independence.
It was on 6 August 1962 that Jamaica became and independent state with its own constitution and its own flag which aims to tell the people of the world that “the sun shineth, the land is green and the people are strong and creative”. Strong and creative the people are indeed, as it is quite remarkable that an island of only 2.7 million people has made and continues to make a global impact, whether it is in sports, music, politics, or the arts.
In pre-colonial times Jamaica was populated by Arawak and Taino people who called their native homeland Xaymaca. With the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494 the island became a Spanish colony under the name of Santiago. Most of the native population died due to exposure to European diseases. In 1565 the British claimed the island as their colony and gave it the name Jamaica. Due to presence of valuable resources Jamaica was considered one of the most valuable colonial must-haves in the world and African slaves where forced in to work on the island’s sugar, cocoa and coffee plantations. In the 18th century black slaves outnumbered whites by a ratio of 20 to 1 and slave uprisings were by no means uncommon. Escaped slaves, known as Maroons, established communities in the mountainous terrain of the interior and had been able to defend them successfully against British attacks.
After slavery was abolished in 1838 Jamaica remained to be plagued by riots and uprisings while slave labour was replaced by cheap workers from India, China, Lebanon, Scotland, Ireland and Germany up until the 20th century. Jamaica gained a degree of local control in the 1940 and became a member of the Federation of West-Indies until becoming fully independent in 1962. While the first years as a independent state were prosperous, economic deterioration from the early seventies onwards lead to civil unrest and mass exodus to countries like the US and Canada after entry into Great Britain had become restricted.
Jamaica’s global impact is considered most notable in the world of sports and music. In the last 75 years the country has won 42 Commonwealth Golds, 14 World Championship Golds and 13 Olympic Gold medals in athletics alone. Jamaica brought reggae, dub, ska and dancehall to the world and produced the first and perhaps only global superstar from the developing world, Bob Marley. Jamaica has not only made its mark in music and sports. Political leader and publisher Marcus Garvey had a profound impact on the global black emancipation movement with his advocacy of black nationalism and pan-africanism. Jamaica is also the birth place of the Rastafari movement, an afro-centrist spiritual movement with over a million followers world wide. In literature several Jamaican prose-writers, poets and dramatists have made their mark in English-language literature like playwright Aston Cooke, writer and journalist Leone Ross, literary scholar Carolyn Cooper and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
With yardie-behaviour, homophobia, misogyny- despite a female prime minister- and a history of violence Jamaica does not always get a good press. No culture is without faults and no nation’s history is squeaky clean. Despite the murkier side to its identity Jamaica and the diaspora can be more than proud of what the nation has achieved and what impact I has made in the last 50 years. Happy 50 years independence JA, and keep up the bass.