It’s no secret that the Caribbean island of Jamaica is often associated with the cannabis plant. From Western misconceptions of Rastafarianism to popular cultural ambassadors like Bob Marley, the small island nation seems inextricably linked to marijuana. But have you ever wondered how that connection originally got made?
It’s not like cannabis is any more native to Jamaica than it is to America or Great Britain. To get a clear picture of Jamaica becoming infamous for cannabis, one must first understand the island’s painful and complicated history.
Jamaica’s History As A Colonized Land
It’s easy to think about colonization and European imperialism as something that happened thousands of years ago—something with little effect on present-day culture or socio-economics. However, that’s far from the truth, especially with regards to Jamaica. The Island didn’t even achieve full independence from British rule until the 1960s.
Before the British controlled Jamaica, it was the Spanish. In 1494, Christopher Columbus became the first European to catch a glimpse of Jamaica’s majestic coastline during his second journey to the Americas, after failing to discover an alternative route to India. It was during this time that the explorer claimed the island for Spain.
In 1509, The Spaniards began colonizing Jamaica in earnest, establishing the settlement of New Seville. Spanish settlers brought with them diseases that the indigenous Taíno population had no immunity to. Those who didn’t die from illness were either forced into slavery or fled to the island’s more defendable jungle interior. Since so many of the native peoples were ravaged by European diseases, the Spanish began importing West African slaves to keep up with labor demands.
The British Invasion Of Jamaica
Around a century after the Spanish established their colony in Jamaica, the British invaded the island. During the Anglo-Spanish War, Oliver Cromwell set out to maim Spain by attacking their colonies in the West Indies. While this effort, known as the Western Design, was ultimately a failure on behalf of the British, England’s forces did manage to conquer the island of Jamaica.
The Spanish made multiple unsuccessful attempts to recapture the island throughout the 17th century, which led British colonizers to make deals with naval mercenaries to attack Spanish ships throughout the Caribbean, establishing a culture of piracy on Jamaica.
For the next 200 years, Jamaica would prove to be an extremely profitable conquest to the British Empire—mainly in the form of exported sugar. The large island plantations where sugar cane was harvested and processed were worked primarily by slaves. Some native Taíno, but a large majority of these slaves were imported from Africa.
In 1834, the British Empire outlawed the practice of slavery. This was devastating for sugar plantation owners whose entire economic model revolved around chattel slavery. In order to circumvent the new law and maintain their labor force, plantation owners imported “indentured servants” from India.
Indian laborers brought cannabis with them, or Ganja as they called it in Hindi, and taught the now freed African Slaves how to prepare the plant for spiritual or medicinal purposes. At its core, Jamaica’s cannabis culture is built directly on this exchange between the two subjects.
Jamaica, Cannabis, Rastafari, Bob Marley, And Western Misconceptions
In America, we have a mostly surface-level understanding of Jamaican culture that’s based primarily on stereotypes. You know what I’m talking about—dreadlocks, rasta caps, reggae music, and, of course, lots of cannabis smoke. In actuality, only around 1% of the island’s population identifies as Rastafarian, and your idea of what that means may not be entirely accurate.
Contrary to what you might hear at the frat house adorned with Bob Marley posters and psychedelic tapestries, Rastafari isn’t just a religion for weed. In fact, many practitioners don’t consider it to be a religion at all.
The movement was born in the 1930s as a direct response to the horrors of chattel slavery and the racial inequities that continued after slavery’s abolishment. It’s an afro-centric movement/religion heavily influenced by the works of Marcus Garvey and other black nationalist organizations. Yes, it’s true that smoking cannabis is seen as a consciousness-expanding sacrament to many rastas, it’s far from being the defining characteristic of the movement.
Most people who aren’t from Jamaica were first exposed to the concept of Rastafari through the lens of musician Bob Marley. Before the singer died tragically young, he became an icon of the Rasta social movement, though he’s remembered more for his love of marijuana than for his advocacy for democratic social reforms or Pan-Africanism advocacy.
Perhaps it’s easier for white Americans and Brits who just want to enjoy the reggae music to fixate on the cannabis, instead of confronting uncomfortable truths about imperialism, racism, and inequality.