Jamaica, the heart of the Caribbean

Think Jamaica, think Bob Marley, the King of Reggae, cricket, amazing food, oh and, of course, the regulation tourist-brochure sunshine, sand and palm trees.

The island now known as Jamaica was discovered by the Spanish way back in 1494. It was already populated by Arawak Indians, who had arrived from South America by canoe many centuries before. The Spaniards did not pay much attention to their new colony because it did not have any precious metals to exploit, and so the British met little resistance when they took over in 1655.

By the late 1600s Jamaica was developing quite a reputation as a centre for pirates, privateers and other individuals with rather unconventional methods of doing business! The city of Port Royal had made a name for itself as the most wicked city in the world until its destruction by an earthquake in 1692.

Men did not have a monopoly on piracy, though. Some of the most infamous pirate inhabitants of Port Royal were women. Most notable was Anne Bonny, who was involved in many an illegal incident, and only escaped the hangman's noose by taking advantage of her family connections in South Carolina. Not so lucky was her sometime partner in crime Mary Read, another lady buccaneer, who had her neck stretched for her piracy on the high seas.

Never mind the stash, where's the cash?

Although pirates are a thing of the past in the Caribbean, if not in other parts of the world, there is a thriving underworld in Jamaica with its own brutal Mafia, known as the Yardies. With tentacles that reach all around the world, the Yardies are a force to be reckoned with and are a major thorn in the side of drug enforcement agencies, as their main trade is in cocaine and heroin produced in South America. Britain no longer has capital punishment, but Jamaica still has the option of the rope for serious offenders - and it is usually Yardies convicted of cold-blooded killing who receive this penalty.

Although drugs are a major source of income for criminals in Jamaica, just being rich on the island can be dangerous. Many of Bob Marley's close friends and fellow musicians have died in suspicious circumstances - a consequence of being known to be well-off on an island with a great deal of poverty. Popularity and hero status cannot protect against hungry men with guns.

Pilgrims of Marley the hero who want to know more about this musical legend should visit the museum dedicated to his memory in Kingston, the capital city, or the Tuff Gong recording studios where he used to make music. This is also home to the many musical styles to emerge from this rhythmic island like dancehall, reggae and its precursor ska.

"Sing out loud, sing out Montego Bay..."

Although Kingston is the official capital, Montego Bay could be called the tourist capital of the island, and perhaps the most well-known tourist spot in the Caribbean, with a busy airport bringing sun-seekers to the many beaches surrounding the town.

There are more old buildings in Montego Bay than in Kingston. One of the most interesting is Rosehall, whose history reflects the still strongly held belief in the supernatural to be found on the island. A mansion built in 1770 and surrounded by mystery, Rosehall was abandoned after the slave revolt of 1838 and is the site of Jamaica's most popular legend, the White Witch of Rosehall.

According to the story it was the home of Annie Palmer, a woman who indulged in voodoo rites, tortured her slaves and murdered her husbands! It is alleged she was strangled by a slave during the uprising, and her spirit supposedly haunts the building today. There have been many attempts to raise her spirit, but none have proved successful. Still, visit it after dark at your own risk!

Pushing for glory

Sport is an important part of everyday life in Jamaica, and thanks to 300 years of British rule, the most popular sport, with virtually the status of religion, is cricket. Jamaican players play in the once hugely successful West Indies international side. The island has produced one of the highest-scoring batsmen in test cricket, Sir Garfield Sobers, who is a national hero. While some people see cricket as a boring game (or incomprehensible!), Jamaicans turn it into a fun carnival, with spectators wearing outlandish costumes and creating music with trumpets, drums and empty beer cans.

Another sport for which Jamaica has gained worldwide recognition is Olympic bobsleigh. The film Cool Runnings (in Jamaican patois the phrase means everything is OK) tells the remarkable story of the establishment of the national bobsleigh team by two enthusiastic Americans. They saw similarities between the local sport of cart racing, where home-made carts are pushed along by competitors, and the exertion needed in bobsleighing. Jamaica has yet to win a medal, but the team still thrives, a minor miracle in a tropical country that has never seen snow, and a monument to the willingness of Jamaicans to give anything a try.

No picture of Jamaica would be complete without its favourite drink, rum. Distilled cane sugar, rum has for centuries been the preferred drink of sailors, and even now in the British Royal Navy every seaman is entitled to his daily free tot of rum. The main ingredient of cocktails like the Cuba Libre, rum mixes well, and the most popular way for Jamaicans to drink it is as Rum Punch, an exotic mixture of the spirit with honey, herbs and spices, for which there are many secret recipes. But beware, it isn't called "punch" for nothing!

Steve Heighes