National Gallery: Jamaica

From slavery, sugar and the worst of western colonialism to reggae and Rastafari.

As with many countries that experienced the worst of western colonialism, a visual survey of Jamaica seems to reaffirm the cliché that history is not only written, but is also illustrated, by the ‘victors’ (the term used here ambiguously). Accordingly, much of the early history covered in this month’s picture essay hinges upon what is not shown: the annihilating impact of the Columbian Exchange on the island’s indigenous population; the cruel realities of the lives of those African people abducted and transported to Jamaica to work on European plantations. There is also, of course, the ruinous result of Jamaica’s sugar boom on the teeth and waistlines of its European consumers. In the post-colonial era, the small island has become something of a cultural powerhouse: it is now more famous for exporting reggae than sugar and bananas.


Black Blood

In Schliefer’s painting the Jamaican flag drips red blood and black ink into a Spanish jar showing cracks induced by the pressure of ‘collecting so much misery’. Perhaps the jar was intended to collect gold; after failing to find substantial quantities of the precious metal, Jamaica remained something of a ‘backwater’ military base under the Spanish, who established Sevilla de Nueva, its first permanent European settlement, in 1509.



When Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he was met by the Taíno, the region’s largest indigenous population, who possibly arrived from mainland Venezuela in around AD 800. The Taíno name for the island, Xaymaca (‘land of wood and water’), was adapted by the Spanish. The words barbecue (barbacoa), canoe (kanoa) and tobacco (tabaco) all stem from the Taíno language, which has no writing system and thus no written sources.


Columbian Exchange

Columbus first reached Jamaica on 5 May 1495. On 25 June 1503, during his fourth voyage, he was shipwrecked at St Ann’s Bay, remaining in Jamaica for a year, and was later granted personal possession of the island by the Spanish Crown. This engraving shows an alleged incident from Columbus’ time stranded on Jamaica, in which he impressed the indigenous population by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse on 29 February 1504. Not pictured are the darker aspects of the ‘Columbian Exchange’: slavery, sexual violence and disease, which virtually eradicated the Taíno population.


Grand Designs

Britain acquired Jamaica during Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Western Design’, a plan to wrestle control of the New World from Spain. After Cromwell’s fleet failed to take Hispaniola in 1655, it retreated to Jamaica, which it took as a ‘consolation prize’. Initially, defence of the island relied on privateers and the unofficial sponsorship of pirates who raided Spanish ships. The Treaty of Madrid recognised British possession in 1670.


Stolen from Africa

Where the previous picture shows the minor irritations – languid afternoons and threat of yellow fever – endured by British colonists in Jamaica, this advert shows the reality of the colonial venture. Jamaica was the site of Britain’s deepest engagement in the enslavement of Africans, which rapidly accelerated in the 18th century. By 1800 the number of slaves in Jamaica exceeded 300,000.


Cash Crop

The huge increase in Jamaica’s slave population was motivated by a boom in sugar production. Cotton and tobacco were usurped by sugar, which was first imported from Brazil by Dutch traders. By the 1740s, Jamaica and Saint Domingue (now Haiti) were the world’s biggest sugar producers. With cake, rum, molasses and sweet tea, Europe’s diet (and teeth) were changed forever. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1833), slave labour was replaced by imported ‘paid’ labour. First exported in 1867, by 1890 bananas had become the island’s biggest export.


Marooned Interior

The maroons - escaped slaves cohabiting with the indigenous Taino in the country's mountainous interior - fought a series of guerilla wars against the British in the 18th century. After the Second Maroon War (1795-6), the defeated maroons of northern Trelawney Parish (depicted in this romanticised painting) were deported to Nova Scotia and then Sierra Leone.


Down the Union Jack

Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962 during the postwar wave of decolonisation that swept across Britain’s former territories. Having been a prominent activist against colonial rule, Alexander Bustamante, leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, became the country’s first prime minister. Bustamante had used Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper as a platform to share his anti-colonial views: here the newspaper announces Jamaica’s independence (in the 10 August edition).



First day of issue National Hero stamps, 1970.

Seven Jamaicans have been awarded the Order of National Hero. Five appear here on stamps: Paul Bogle, leader of the Morant Bay rebellion against colonial injustice in 1865; Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League; Norman Manley, statesman and campaigner for universal suffrage; Jamaica’s first PM, Alexander Bustamante; and politician George William Gordon, executed for his involvement at Morant Bay. Not pictured are Nanny of the Maroons,  who escaped slavery to become a leader of maroon resistance, and Samuel Sharpe, leader of the Great Slave Revolt of 1832, which mobilised 60,000 slaves.


Black Messiah

When Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, arrived in Jamaica on 21 April 1966, around 100,000 Rastafari Jamaicans converged at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston to meet him. The Rastafari religion developed in Jamaica in the 1930s following a prophecy by Marcus Garvey regarding a ‘black king’ who would be ‘redeemer’. The coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 was seen as the fulfilment of this prophecy. Rastafari doctrine emphasises the importance of black repatriation to Zion (Africa). Rastafarianism spread globally after the success of arguably its most famous follower, Bob Marley.


Trench Town Rock

The image of Jamaica’s biggest cultural export is spread around the world. Yet even at the height of his fame, Bob Marley was a polarising figure in Jamaica, as the Booker Prize-winning Jamaican author Marlon James told Channel 4 News in 2015: ‘The idea, in 1976, that you would get poor Jamaicans to start thinking for themselves was dangerous. The idea that this guy, with this uncombed hair, speaking terribly, becoming this voice of freedom and black struggle; a lot of Jamaicans were very uncomfortable with that.’