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Jamaica is the largest English speaking island in the Caribbean: 600 miles south of Florida and less than two hours by plane from Miami. It is 146 miles long, between 22 to 55 miles wide and has considerable variation in landscape from the coral sands and ironshore cliffs of the shoreline, through coastal wetlands, plains and highlands to the misty peaks of the Blue Mountains. It has a maritime tropical climate.
The warm trade winds that blow by day are called "sea breeze" or "doctor breeze". The average daily temperature varies according to elevation from a high of 86F at sea level to a low of 63F in the mountains. The average annual rainfall ranges from 300 inches on the eastern slopes of the Blue Mountains to 230 inches in some parts of the south coast. During the cooler months, December to March the island sometimes experiences northerners: chill winds and high seas associated with a cold front to the North. July to September are the warmest months, May and October are traditionally the rainy months and there was a time when you could set your clock by the afternoon rain during these months. Currently, the increasingly erratic weather patterns are attributed by some environmentalists to deforestation and global warming. The hurricane season is demarcated by the cautionary rhyme:
June too soon
August come it must
October all over
The language of Jamaica is English though you may sometimes find this difficult to believe. Students of dialect maintain that the patois varies from parish to parish and even from yard to yard. Jamaica Talk is a synthesis of several influences: Old English and nautical terms such as "breadkind" and "catch to"; Spanish as in "shampata" from, zapatos (shoes); Irish dialect as in "nyampse" (a fool); African as in "duppy" (a ghost) or "nyam" (to eat), and American slang such as "cool" elaborated as "cool runnings" or "diss" as in disrespect. Rastafarian "I-dren" (brethren) have their own language and one word that you will hear frequently is "Irie" meaning good, happy, pleasant or high. The traditional Rasta greeting "Peace and Love" is giving way to "Respect due". Dance-hall, Jamaica's latest musical phenomenon, has its own ever evolving language. Though influenced by American "rappers", much of it is entirely indigenous, for example "Browning" which describes any light-skinned girl; to "big-up" a person means to praise or advertise them, and "flex" meaning behaviour or deportment.
The original inhabitants of Jamaica are believed to be the Arawaks who came from South America 2500 years ago. They called it Xaymaca which meant "land of wood and water." The Spaniards who succeeded them wrote this phonetically, and substituted J for X. Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1492 and claimed it for Spain. The Spaniards were disappointed that there was no gold and did little to develop the island. A few settlers cultivated cane and raised livestock. The gentle Arawaks were eliminated by overwork, brutality and European diseases. Many of them killed their children and drank poison rather than submit to slavery under the Spaniards. Africans were imported to replace them.
In 1655 a British expedition failed to conquer Santo Domingo but took Jamaica as a consolation prize. When the Spaniards fled the island they freed their African slaves who took to the hills and formed the nucleus of the Maroons. The early British colonists lived under constant threat of attack from the Spanish, the French, and freebooting pirates, hence the island is ringed with ancient forts. The latter part of the seventeenth century was the age of the buccaneers. Because England was perennially at war with France or Spain and the Royal Navy could not patrol the entire Caribbean, the Crown issued Letters of Marque to ship's captains, authorizing the capture and plunder of enemy vessels. Thus the pirates became "buccaneers" and graduated to become "privateers". One former buccaneer, Henry Morgan, actually became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1674.
During the eighteenth century, British landowners made vast fortunes out of sugar and great numbers of African slaves were imported to work on the plantations. After a long campaign spearheaded by non-conformist missionaries in Jamaica and Liberal politicians in England, the slaves received their freedom towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Jamaica remained a British Colony with a governor until granted Independence in 1962. Major legacies of the British are: the parliamentary system, the judicial system, and the game of "cricket, lovely cricket."