Skip Nav


National Flag Of Jamaica

Amerindian Presence In Jamaica

The Amerindian presence in Jamaica, whether in the past or maybe even in the present in some form, is not a subject that has received widespread attention. After all, Jamaica, like Haiti, is usually depicted as one of the most culturally African countries of the Caribbean, and thus the subject of an Amerindian presence seems, at the very least, to be counterintuitive if not altogether suspicious.

Moreover, one needs to define what one means by presence, i.e.: An archaeological presence A presence as a symbol of the ancient roots of the post-colonial nation A presence as a heritage evidenced in contemporary material culture and rural households domestic subsistence patterns Or, a presence in the sense of people actually identifying themselves as Amerindian Certainly, the dominant national discourses in Jamaica have not centred on any notion of Amerindian cultural or demographic continuity.

With these dominant discourses instead focusing on either some form of European or Euro-Creole heritage, or, especially since the 1930s, some form of African consciousness as exemplified by the Ras Tafari. Interestingly, even while they sometimes conflate some of the distinctions I signaled concerning presence, there are a number of Websites, and parts of Websites, that discuss the Amerindians of Jamaica.

First, there are those sites dealing Jamaica's national history and national identity, paying some homage to the ancestral roots of the nation. Some of these sites remind us that the national coat of arms of Jamaica features two Arawaks, as seen above (e.g. National Emblems, Jamaica and The Jamaica Pages). There is no discussion or explanation, on these sites, about why a modern society born of European conquest and African slavery would have two Arawaks on its coat of arms.

On the other hand, other sites describe Jamaica as having been "founded" by Arawak Indians, noting also that the Arawaks named it "Xaymaca" and, "left other legacies like Bammy (cassava bread), 'barbecue' meats, [and] words such as hurricane, hammock, tobacco, canoe" (see General Information, Jamaica, by Arlene Laing, 1995-2001).

Similarly, Microsoft's Encarta Online Encyclopedia, under its entry for Jamaica, states: "Members of the Arawak tribe, an important group of the Arawakan linguistic stock of Native North Americans [editor: a bizarre mistake], were the aboriginal inhabitants of Jamaica (the Arawakan word Xaymaca, meaning 'Isle of springs')".

The same entry later adds: "The Arawak quickly died out as a result of harsh treatment and diseases", thus quickly ending the discussion concerning presence. Indeed, other sites describe the Arawaks of Jamaica as little more than a memory, following Spanish conquest.

(Incidentally, for more on this, along with information on the Amerindian population of Jamaica during colonial times, see the article by Veront Satchell in on Jamaica, which states, "estimates for the Taino population at the time of the Spanish arrival in the late 1400s vary widely, with the lowest estimates ranging from 6,000 to 9,000 and the highest from 60,000 to 100,000".)

In his online article, "When Worlds Collided: Native Peoples of the Caribbean and Florida in the Early Colonial Period", Jerald T. Milanich writes that Jamaica's Amerindian population was enslaved and exported to work as pearl divers on Cubagua Island off the Venezuelan coast (a fate that befell many Amerindians in Trinidad in the early years of the 1500s), and were also exported to work as slaves on the newly founded plantations on the mainland of South and Central America.