Rasta Route’s Backpacker Guide to Jamaica’s Crazy Culture

Jamaican Culture60
Reading Time: 11 minutes

After discovery by Western Society, Jamaica and its culture have always been an ethnically diverse mix.

Original Taino Indians enslaved by the Spanish, who were overthrown by the British, who trafficked kidnapped Africans to Jamaica to be enslaved and work on the plantations, but the slaves ran away to the hills to invent Jerk Pork and were replaced by management with Indian and Chinese migrant labor.

This is the blend of strikingly different cultures that meshed and combined to form Jamaica into what it is today, but probably the part of Jamaica that often goes undiscovered by tourists is the local culture.

For visitors that want to get closer to the local community to learn about our Jamaican way of life, the most economical and rewarding way to see it all and gain local perspective is by avoiding the passive experience of superficial tourist resort routines.


The people of Jamaica are incredibly inviting and kind, and we love bringing new tourists into our country!

Many Jamaican people are very generous and warm. Returning this warmth and friendliness is a great way to show them you appreciate their country.

Chances are, you will be approached at one point or another during your travels in Jamaica for money. Do not feel pressured into giving money. A strong “I’m alright” and walking away is usually the best advice for instances such as this.

This also applies in the infamous straw markets. The European method of just walking away does not work well. You will generally need to engage with someone in order to get away from them.

That being said, if you befriend or encounter one of the many wonderful Jamaican people and you wish to give a friendly gift, that is perfectly acceptable and welcome. Just exercise common sense when it comes to money.

Cultural respect is far more important. You are guests on their island. Please know also that when speaking to the elderly you should say, “Yes ma’am.” or “Yes, sir“.

Jamaicans appreciate it when you say “Good Morning” or “Good Evening/Night” when you enter a room. “Good Night” is used here both as a greeting and goodbye.

Despite global belief, not everyone in Jamaica has dreadlocks and a majority of citizens do not smoke marijuana, in fact , Jamaican marijuana legalization happened only beginning in 2015. Despite its laid-back image, Jamaica is mainly a conservative, religious place and many Jamaicans are uncomfortable with the country’s Rasta reputation.

Under the new Jamaican marijuana law, if you’re a tourist with a medical marijuana recommendation, you can purchase and possess up to two ounces of marijuana.

But keep your intuition on full alert and always watch the vibe. People see you as a rich foreigner, and they want your cash.

Everybody who helps you expects a tip. They’re not just being friendly- they want your money.

Jamaican marijuana- the legendary old school Jamaican Sativa, sometimes called “Lamb’s Bread.”

Don’t go out on the beach or street and try to procure ganja. If someone walks up to you on the beach or on the street and offers you marijuana, don’t get involved.

Rastas comprise less than 1% of Jamaica’s population, and most but not all Rastafari inhale ganja for religious and meditative purposes.

Many Jamaican non-Rastas smoke cannabis too – mostly for recreational purposes – but consumption of weed is traditionally seen as “low class”, scandalous and taboo by more privileged and proper society.

Rasta Routes Authentic Cultural Travel helps visitors experience Jamaica’s rich cultural heritage and authentic everyday life for themselves – dance, music, livity and cuisine – in their purest and unpackaged forms.

Learn why Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, and thousands of other Jamaicans are so internationally famous for being at the top of their class in both good and bad endeavors.

Jamaicans strive hard to be and have the best, to beat the odds, that’s just simply what we do!

Come see our churches, historic sites and museums, learn about the Maroons, slavery and emancipation, visit colonial forts and a pirate city – maybe volunteer as a Rasta Routes Volunteer Guest and work with a local community project to help out and get a better understanding of Jamaica’s social, economic and historical cultural heritage!

According to historians, Taino (Arawak) Indians were the original inhabitants of Jamaica, until 1494 when the peak of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains were sighted by Christopher Columbus.

After Spanish then British conquest of the island, the Arawaks were practically extinct due to disease and slavery. Taino legacy carries on however, mainly in language – they left behind common words like hammock, barbecue, tobacco, canoe and even hurricane too!

Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain after landing here in 1494 at Dry Harbour, now called Discovery Bay.

In 1655 the British took over the last Spanish fort in Jamaica & the Spanish colonists fled leaving a large number of African slaves. Rather than be re-enslaved by the English, they escaped into the hilly, mountainous regions of the island, joining those who had previously escaped from the Spanish to live with the Taínos.

These runaway slaves became known as the Jamaican Maroons & sucessfully fought the British Redcoats during the 18th century. During the long years of slavery Maroons established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, maintaining their freedom and independence for generations.



Throughout Jamaica’s history, the island placed strategically in the middle of natural shipping lanes has been under both Spanish and British occupation.

Jamaica was the 1st shipping port that slave traders would dock after leaving Africa on the long and difficult Middle Passage voyage.

Popular urban legend in Jamaica claims that slave traders would use this 1st opportunity back on land to offload the most resistant and troublesome of their cargo here in Jamaica – potentially African chiefs, warriors and warlords – before sailing north again with less rebellious captives on hopefully a more peaceful journey to the other Caribbean islands and North America!

True or not, Jamaican slaves suffered, resisted and rebelled against the harsh conditions of forced labor – burning plantations, running off into the hills to form the Maroons and even creating the Pat’wa (Patois) language as a encrypted way of communicating with other slaves right under the nose of colonial oppression.

After Emancipation and the end of slavery, Chinese, Jewish and Indian migrants were brought to Jamaica as indentured workers, bringing new ideas, curry and possibly Cannabis from the Far East!

All these willing and unwilling ethnic and cultural contributions resulted in a Jamaican diversity that affects our food, language, music, dance, religion, customs, traditions and social norms.

As we say in our Jamaican National Motto written in 1962 after we gained independence from Great Britain – “Out of Many, One People”!


In 1494, Columbus and his Spanish conquistadors westernized the island’s native Taino name of “Yamaye” into “Xaymaca”, a word originally meaning “land of wood and water” or “land of many springs“.


In 1962, after many uprisings and revolts, Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to gain independence from the United Kingdom, yet chose to remain a member of the British Commonwealth and with Queen Elizabeth II as our ultimate monarch, even if only just on paper.

Jamaica’s history of stubborn rebellion against authority, as demonstrated by the Slaves, Maroons and Port Royal buccaneer pirates, and the forming of pro African religious movements like Bedwardism, Garveyism and later Rastafari, all carry the Jamaican cultural tradition that Bob Marley calls “resisting against the system“.

The people of Jamaica are very proud yet warm hearted, helpful and kind, positive and vibrant with a love for life. Fifty-three percent of the population lives in urban areas like Kingston, Portmore, Spanish Town and Montego Bay (MoBay).

Our population is 90% black from the descendants of African slaves, 1% East Indian from the descendants of indentured laborers, 7% mixed race type ancestry, with a few Whites, Middle Easterners, Chinese and Jews.

Jewish indentured servants slowly became merchants after 1st helping to establish the sugar production industry and over time, the East Indians and Chinese who filled the labor gap left the escaped and freed by slaves would finish their indenture contracts and either start small businesses or join Jamaica’s professional working class.

Regardless of racial, national or ethnical background, the major ethnic division in Jamaica is based on shade of skin color, ranging between fair skinned, brown and black, with individuals judged by society along a spectrum of shades and physical features.

Jamaica was an European slave colony for over 400 years, between 1494 and 1962, a period marked by conflict between white absentee owners at the top of the social pyramid, African laborers at the bottom, with local overseers and merchants in the middle class.

Jamaica’s heavy reliance on slavery soon resulted in blacks (Africans) outnumbering whites (Europeans) by a ratio of almost 20 to 1. Even though England had outlawed the importation of slaves, some were still smuggled into the colonies.

In plantation systems, manual labor was done by outdoor African slaves, while whites managed and owned the facilities – often fathering children with black female slaves.

As “brownmulatto offspring gained education and privileges, they began to occupy indoor middle-level positions, and be distrusted by the black field slaves.

After independence, Jamaica’s social pyramid morphed into a threesome of rich white plantation owners and industrialists, brown civil servants, merchants and small farmers, and landless laborers – usually with darker skin.

During the global Great Depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s, thousands of rural, homeless and unemployed Jamaican black laborers moved to Kingston the capitol city in search of work.

Jamaica’s newly urban poor, were now for the 1st time living “next door” to Kingston’s white and brown-skinned political, merchant, and professional upper classes!

Black skin was associated back then with being “uneducated“, “lazy,” and “dishonest” – a lingering result of colonial divide-and-conquer propaganda – with knowledge of the role and importance of African symbols and culture subverted and ranked at the bottom of Jamaica’s social ladder.

Back then and still today, acquiring the lifestyle, speech and material possessions of US and European culture have been the ultimate markers of success for “proper” Jamaicans, with the majority of national wealth being owned by a small number of light-skinned or white families and Jamaicans of Chinese and Middle Eastern heritage.

Blacks then and for a time were limited to manual labor, skilled trades and owning small to medium-sized businesses.

Today, Black Jamaicans work in all types of jobs, own all types and sizes of businesses, and occupy the highest political and professional positions.

Jamaicans of Chinese descent work and own businesses mainly in wholesale and retail and wholesale activities, and East Indians have excelled in professional and commercial activities.

While race has played a defining role in Jamaica’s social class divisions, the pattern is undergoing significant change, with increased socioeconomic integration of Blacks and increased availability of educational opportunities!

Jamaica is an independent island nation and part of the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as titular ruler and a governor general who “oversees” on her behalf.

Our currency is the Jamaican dollar, JMD

The Jamaican flag has three main colors, Black, Green and Gold – one of only three national flags that do not share any colors of the American flag! The black represents our people, struggle and hardship; green for our island’s natural bounty and our hope; and the gold, our world famous sunshine!

Jamaica offers religious freedom with no official religion, and voluntary military service.

Traditionally, a Jamaican woman’s place is in the home, in a society where most leadership positions are held by men and women work mainly in domestic labor, retail and banking, education, administration and in micro-business ventures.

Many Jamaican families are lead by women, with mothers responsible for raising children and supporting the family economically, traditionally in domestic, secretarial, clerical, teaching and micro-business (hustling).

A typical Jamaican family could be a grandmother, her daughter and the daughter’s children from current and previous male partners.

Jamaican fathers may be a regular part of the family or he may visit and live with them for periods of time – sometimes because of working overseas or because of having more than one family – or may he may be completely absent and unknown.

Many families include children of relatives who may live in other cities or countries.

Jamaican concept of family extends to unrelated member of the household, with children of the poor often shifted to another family member with better housing or financial resources.

Western-style monogamous marriage is the legal and socially preferred way to go, but many younger and less financially stable Jamaicans cohabitate in common-law unions, with traditional weddings postponed until economic stability can be achieved.

In a few more traditional Jamaican communities and families, the approval of parents and close relatives could be needed for courtship and marriage.

Jamaican parenting is all about discipline until the child leaves home or becomes a parent, with all family members – especially grandparents – having some responsibility for child care.

Good manners and proper courtesy are important in Jamaican society – children are not expected to “backtalk” or disagree with elders, men open doors for women and women give males the best of any food.

Chores and errands start around age five or six, with poor parents of every skin tone emphasizing to their children daily that the single most important route out of poverty is education and a degree.

Jamaican children are “pushed” to be the best by the entire family and sometime by even small communities.

Higher education is considered essential to an individual’s progress and success, with almost every Jamaican parent psychically urging their child to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Christianity is overwhelmingly the largest religion in Jamaica with Anglican (Episcopal), Catholic, Baptist, Adventist and Church of God found all over the nation.

Jamaica holds the Guinness world record for being the country with the most churches per square km, and many old colonial churches, cathedrals and small synagogues have been carefully maintained and restored.

The Anglican (Episcopal) church was the church of the British ruling class and is still now the church of Jamaican privilege. Other religions practiced in Jamaica include Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and the Bahá’í Faith.


Elements of African spirituality remain and commingle with Christian beliefs into some unique and dubious religious healing and protection practices, like Obeah, that some Jamaicans secretly turn to for good fortune in time of trouble, or for revenge on another during anger.

Similarly, many Jamaicans don’t use modern medicine techniques to treat their physical ailments either.

Instead, they focus on the healing power of food and nature, combining a mix of traditional herbal and folk healing practices, especially in lower economic classes where access to consistent medical care is limited, resulting in most illnesses being treated holistically.

If traditional healing and old family remedies don’t work, a doctor or clinic may be consulted.

Jamaica is home to the fastest sprinters on the planet – another trait attributed to the power of food and nature.

Many Jamaicans are convinced that it is our traditional dietary staples of yams and other ground provisions that helps us produce our Usain Bolt’s, Johan Blake’s and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s!

Jamaica was the 1st tropical country to enter Winter Olympics, gaining global respect and recognition even after coming dead last with our 1998 Bobsled team that inspired the “Cool Runnings” movie – a fact still the source of pride and inspiration in Jamaica today.

Football is the most popular local sport, played on the streets and in the back of classrooms, though the success of Jamaica’s “Reggae Boyz” national team is – how shall we say – just around the corner…

Jamaicans eat very large breakfasts, tiny lunches and huge dinners. They eat foods that are indigenous to their country, which includes bananas, seafood, coffee, goat and jerk.


Jerk is a type of marinating sauce native to Jamaica and the Maroons, with jerk chicken and pork being the most common type of street food.

Other meat types can range from curried goat meat – usually served ceremoniously as the main course at parties, weddings and funerals – to salted fish, turkey necks, cow tails and pig feet.

During slavery, Jamaican plantation owners would take the best of food and supplies for themselves and white staff, sending the worst of what was left outside to the slaves – animal feet, heads, tongues and internal organs – as a result these delicacies have become a part of Jamaica’s food culture!

Rice is ubiquitous in Jamaican mainstream diet along with “ground provisions” like yams, potatoes and green bananas.

Jamaica’s national dish is Ackee and Saltfish but you will have to try it for yourself, as there is not a good way how to describe it!


Dance has always been important to Jamaica – from African inspired colonial slave dances, to fast moved dances for ska music and slower paced ones for rocksteady.

Some of today’s Reggae and Dancehall music creates its own dance, like moves based on the lyrics of the song – like “Signal the Plane”, other dance moves simulate sexual acts or expertise – like “Daggering”.


The 1st of many theaters was built in 1682, featuring performances by professional companies and amateur groups.

After slavery, Jamaicans began combining music, humor, and dance into public theater, eventually becoming the most popular theatrical form – the Jamaican Pantomime – started in the 1940’s as a blend of English pantomime with Jamaican storytelling and drama!

Jamaicans have a long history in literature and writing, birthing authors and playwrights like Claude McKay, Louise Bennett and Andrew Salkey.

James Bond was even born in Jamaica, when Ian Fleming wrote his famous series of 007 books while living at his dream home, “Goldeneye”, in St. Mary, Jamaica.

Jamaican has a growing film industry with many talented film makers but there is a lack of funds and resources. “The Reggae Film Festival” is the industry’s premier annual event and takes place each February in Kingston.

Well known movies including “Third World Cop”, “The Harder They Come”, “Dancehall Queen”, “Countryman” and “Shottas”, while some newer made in Jamaica releases are “Smile Orange”, “Real Ghetto Youths”, “Wah Do Dem”, and “Concrete Jungle”.

The challenge faced by Jamaican films with Pat’wa language scripts and sound-tracks, is that they require sub-titles for export to almost any international market, limiting potential audiences and exposure.

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