1. A dire island.
Historically Jamaica is a strange if not wondrous subject. “Of all the English Caribbean colonies in the seventeenth century,” explains Richard Dunn, “Jamaica was by far the most boisterous and disorderly. It was founded in blood when an undisciplined gang of soldiers seized the island from Spain in 1655, and it quickly became the chief staging ground for buccaneering expeditions against the Spanish Main.” (Dunn 149)
Ned Ward, who traveled to the island in 1697, famously called Jamaica “The Dunghill of the Universe… The Receptacle of Vagabonds, the Sanctuary of Bankrupts, the Close-stool for the Purges of our Prisons, as Hot as Hell, and as wicked as the Devil.” (Ward cited at Parker 5) And this was five years after the demise of Port Royal, notorious pleasure dome and pirate playground.
In our own time, most observers have found Jamaica scarcely less unsatisfactory, although Ian Fleming adored the place. He drew extensively from his acquaintances and experiences on the island, where he lived during much of the year, for his Bond novels, and named one of his more memorable villains Drax, after a scion of the great seventeenth and eighteenth century sugar dynasties.
A Seascape from Ian Fleming’s Jamaica
Others are harsh. Matthew Parker notes that current GDP per head in Jamaica is half that of Barbados, its Georgian planting rival, and that infant mortality is twice as high. That is just a start. According to Parker,
“Corruption and crime are endemic, and the island has a staggeringly high murder rate that demonstrates scant regard for life and respect over riches and status. If you venture away from the cool of the beach and the safety of the closely guarded tourist resorts, Jamaica seems chaotic, damaged, angry…. ” (Parker 364)
Then again, Parker makes the preposterous claim that the country “is probably the most influential place on earth in terms of modern music.” (Parker 364)
2. Frontier cities in the sun.
Kingston, the capital, reflects the condition of the country itself. A severe earthquake struck the island in 1907, destroying what was left of the early city. Dunn, a less sensationalist and more reliable observer than Parker, notes that “the modern business district is nondescript, shabby, and depressing.” (Dunn 298) As early as 1860, Trollope considered Kingston “the least alluring” city he had ever seen, and “more absolutely without any point of attraction for the stranger than any other.” (Trollope 14)
It was not always so. The city was laid out on empty land in 1692, following the destruction of Port Royal by an earlier catastrophic earthquake that plunged it beneath the ocean. That place had grown like topsy since its own foundation in 1655 to become the biggest city in British North America, bigger at the time of its demise than Boston, Bridgetown or Philadelphia, which, with its plan of squares and gridded streets, incidentally may have served as a model for the layout of Kingston. (Dunn 297)
Eighteenth century Kingston probably was a pretty little city of about a quarter the area of Philadelphia. Contemporaneous prints depict delicate structures of relatively low scale in ordered rows on reasonably wide arcaded streets. Illustrated maps depict houses furnished with verandas, tall windows and louvered balconies designed to lure the breeze, admit the light and beat the heat. According to Dunn, they “express the development of a Georgian architectural style in Jamaica” that is reflected in structures that do survive outside of Kingston itself, including a government quadrangle in Spanish Town, “several streets of elegant (though rapidly decaying) town houses in Falmouth,” and a number of big houses on the old plantations. (Dunn 298-99)
Island builders had created a Creole architecture. Again citing Dunn, “Jamaican Georgian buildings are not blind copies of English models. The classical components of the English Georgian style are carefully modulated to achieve coolness and comfort in a hot climate.” (Dunn 299)
Richard Ligon had led the way on Barbados before 1650, if more in theory than in fact. Plantation houses like Drax Hall and St. Nicholas Abbey built on the island later in the century ignore their climate and would not be out of place along the Scottish borders. The Drax seat in particular looks hot and hulking in disregard of Ligon’s artful plans for structures equipped with raised foundations, ventiducts and crossing wings sited to shade one another from the hot sun at different times of day.
3. Pirate paradise.
Port Royal had been different. Its great harbor had quickly become the fulcrum of privateering and piracy, supposedly directed against the Spanish Main, but if a captain lacked letters of marque or hit the wrong target nobody much cared. The city itself was cramped and unsanitary, a medieval jumble of narrow, winding streets. They divided improvised rows of structures built high to cluster at the tip of a slender sand spit where the unstable town quivered.
No gardens, no grassy squares, not even trees in Port Royal; those things did not produce profit, and anyway there would have been neither room nor earth enough for them to flourish. The city lacked even wood or water, which its residents had to purchase from the mainland.
It must have been fabulous. This “Sodom of the Indies” was an “incongruous medley of buccaneers, soldiers, merchants, whores, negroes, craftsmen, Jews, planters, and Quakers.” (Dunn 147, 184) No place in the empire other than Rhode Island tolerated such chaotic cultural diversity: The intolerant inevitably interpreted its welcome demise as an act of god.
“The people took little physical exercise beyond wenching and drinking.” (Dunn 185) A certain John Starr kept twenty-one white and two black whores at the biggest brothel; other potential pastimes included bear baiting and cockfighting, idling in the coffee houses, and most of all drinking to excess at the Black Dogg, Catt & Fiddle, Sign of Bacchus and some hundred other taverns. (Dunn 183, 185; Parker 176, 176n)
It was an extreme business; after all, shiploads of pirates continually made port. This was a “gaudy, boozy, uninhibited place” requiring two courthouses and jails, a ducking stool and a stocks. Maniacal buccaneers spent as much as L750 on a night’s wild ride and ‘gave’ away draughts of beer and wine to reluctant passersby at gunpoint, or merely sprayed them with booze. (Dunn 184-85)
Wharves bristled from three sides of the city; those soldiers garrisoned four forts to protect the aquatic approaches and a breastwork mounting artillery that could sweep the ten mile trek across the dune to the city. “Port Royal,” according to Dunn, “must have been the most heavily fortified place in English America.” (Dunn 181) All this ordnance served a practical purpose, for the city had its serious as well as sordid side.
“Port Royal was a sailors’ dive, but much more besides. It was a handsome, wealthy, and surprisingly cosmopolitan place--altogether a colorful little city.” (Dunn 178) Rents rivaled London, and visitors admired the galleried Exchange, a sort of tropical Doric structure built of stone. Port Royal supported bakers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, cabinetmakers, carpenters, coopers, fishermen, glaziers, glovers, joiners, pewterers, pimps, porters, shoemakers, tanners, tavern keepers, victuallers and more. Demand was great and wages were high, by some accounts three times what a comparable tradesman earned in London. Many of the artisans in Port Royal owned slaves and employed servants. (Dunn 182, 184)
“But the big money in town,” as Dunn explains, “was made by the merchants who fenced the loot and prize goods carried into town by the buccaneers and privateers and who also serviced the sugar planters.” Port Royal merchants bought their sugar and rum, and sold them everything from brandy and silk to the massive iron rollers required in the cane mills. (Dunn 184) The planters in turn kept houses in town, and added to its “considerable glitter.” (Dunn 183)
They, or their slaves buying for them, and the lesser sort too could acquire fresh food from three daily markets. (Dunn 185) Aside from tropical fish and fruit, these markets sold food that would have been familiar to the Jamaicans’ contemporaries in England.
The biggest difference was the affordability of attractive foodstuffs to people farther down the social scale. If mortality was high and life was cheap, so was food. Jamaicans high and low, white and black, could find an array of ingredients in the markets, many of them not readily available to Americans today.
Scholars have concluded that slave in Jamaica ate better than their counterparts on Barbados, where virtually the whole tiny island was given over to the cultivation of cane and even subsistence foods consequently required importation. They typically received allotments for growing food and, at least by the nineteenth century also kept livestock, which they could sell along with surplus crops in the markets and purchase other goods with their profits.
Shoppers could find beef and lamb, if considered inferior to English cuts, but also game, superior fowls, pork--feral and domesticated--and salad greens along with the esteemed meat of the tortoise. Bakers hawked cheesecake, custard and tarts; the preserved foods beloved of the early modern English appeared as well, including anchovies, capers and olives. (Dunn 184)
For those without a kitchen or cook, taverns charged a mere shilling and six for dinner, but the best bargain may have been booze, especially within the brothels. A quart of fortified Madeira cost a shilling; stronger stuff was dispensed for a little more, including rum punch and brandy. (Dunn 185)
As in Barbados, grandees entertained lavishly at home. Planters and privateers, whose interests clashed, competed with merchants for power and show. Visiting in 1688, John Taylor reported that they “live here to the Hight of Splendor, in full ease and plenty, being sumptuously arrayed, and attended on, and served by their Negroe slaves…. ” Taylor, cited in Dunn 183, 183n46) The planters won, but mostly by default, when the pleasure dome slid beneath the sea.
4. Out of many, one, at least in theory.
The Arawak, or Taino, already inhabited Jamaica when the Spanish arrived and summarily enslaved them. Spanish rule in turn was supplanted by those undisciplined English freebooters before the island was invaded, but not held, by France, and all this before the end of the seventeenth century. By the beginning of the eighteenth, planters from Barbados had brought their sugar culture and, with it, thousands of slaves from Africa. Attempts by Cromwell to transplant the faithful from frigid New England, however, failed; they traded with the island so knew too much about its fierce mortality and dire morality.
Unlike Barbados, Jamaica wrested profit from products in addition to sugar; cotton and indigo, ginger, cattle, cocoa and, eventually, coffee.
With the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, indentured servants, including a few shiploads from Germany but mostly Chinese and Indians, came to Jamaica, many lured by lies, to supplement the understandably unwilling manumitted workforce. (Benghiat 19) More immigrants arrived from the Indian subcontinent after the Second World War. From all this we might expect a varied and hybrid Jamaican cuisine, but true to the perverse nature of the island we do not really get one. None of this is to argue that Jamaican food is not interesting or good, just to observe that it is hardly unique to the island.
Not much is native to Jamaican food, and not much has appeared in print about it. In her compelling and comprehensive compilation of Caribbean Recipes “Old & New,” for example, LaurelAnn Morley includes only nine recipes from Jamaica, and three of them are variations on jerk. We might expect this scenario from tiny, deforested and relatively stable Barbados, which across the centuries knew only British rule, but populous Jamaica has had other masters, its people are both various and chaotic and, as Caribbean islands go, it is both large and topographically diverse. Jamaica is over twenty-six times the size of Barbados, and features deep valleys, high jungled mountains, bamboo forest, savannah and swamp. While Barbados has no river, over a hundred of them splice the landscape of Jamaica. (No Peace 19; Cargill 47-48)
In its west
“is the Cockpit Country: an extraordinary agglomeration of densely bushed limestone pits connected by paths hardly broader than your foot. A nightmare campaign ground for a company of regular soldiers, but great country for guerillas--as the runaway Maroons found in the early eighteenth century.” (Cargill 48)
Unlike Barbados, a relatively isolated, and therefore relatively secure, outpost east of the even tinier Leewards, Jamaica squats beneath Cuba athwart the trade routes that connect the entire archipelago. All of this ought in theory to have produced a creative and varied cuisine.
On closer inspection, however, the uniformity of traditional Jamaican cooking is not so strange. Only small numbers of Arawak ever appear to have inhabited the island, and Spain never developed the great economic and demographic potential of its colony. They did, however, leave European livestock on Jamaica before building settlements, and then brought with them banana and plantain, cane, citrus, coconut, date palms, figs, grapes, pomegranate and tamarind.
The English, however, had managed after a protracted insurgency to exterminate or expel their rivals by 1700, so their influence vanished with them. The French did not tarry; they raided and stole but did not plant. A few refugees from the revolution in St. Domingue reached Jamaica after 1800, and Norma Benghiat for one speculates that they “may have given’ Jamaica “beef soup with its bunch of vegetables known as ‘leggins’ (possibly from legumes)” but that would seem a stretch. The number of Haitians in Jamaica was small, and the ‘leggins’ in the soup are not identifiably French. (Benghiat 18, 43-44)
The Germans in Jamaica own a sad and stranger tale. Some 570 impoverished men, women and children arrived under indenture in 1834, lured by false tales of prosperity. They were “dispersed all over Jamaica” to the remotest plantations with the poorest land, where work was hard. (Orizio 85) Like German ex-patriots everywhere they might have been expected to assimilate, but their numbers dwindled and by 1839 they had congregated in a hardscrabble enclave called Seaford Town. One of them mourned at the time that “[w]e have no contact with other people, we are on our own and far away from everything.” They did not even have a priest. A century later some three hundred ‘Germans’ remained in Seaford Town; still no priest. (Orizio 81, 83)
By the year 2000, only about fifty ‘real Germans’ remained; the others were “a mixture.” (Orizio 92) Over the centuries some intermingled with black Jamaicans but the Germans generally remained suspicious of their countrymen on the island; most seem to have stuck to themselves and their poverty before dying off or fleeing to Canada by the late twentieth century. They are a ‘lost white tribe’ bewildered no less by visits to Germany than by their own plight in Jamaica, and have left no discernable mark on the island in matters culinary or otherwise.
5. A predominant quartet… or pair… or not?
Discernable in the food of Jamaica today, however, are the marked impact of two cultures, British and African, and the lesser influence of two more, Indian and Chinese. A century after the literal collapse of Port Royal, white Jamaica, though only around ten percent of the island population, still ate much like the English ate, with an exception.
The excesses of the islanders astonished the English. In 1802, Lady Maria Nugent traveled out to Jamaica from England with her husband, the newly appointed governor. She exclaimed that “such eating and drinking I never saw!” Planters offered their guests “loads of all sorts of high, rich, and seasoned things, and really gallons of wine and mixed liquors as they drink.” Diners gorged themselves “as if they had never eaten before” on “hot and cold meat, stews and fries, hot and cold fish pickled and plain, peppers, ginger sweetmeats, acid fruit, sweet jellies…. ” She is describing breakfast, and at least one of the guests sat down to a second one after all this. The monied classes in Georgian Britain hardly were abstemious, but the islanders topped them all. Their gluttony, remarked Lady Nugent, “was all as astonishing as it was disgusting” (Nugent 78)
This was no isolated bacchanal. It was standard breakfast “in the Creole style.” Lady Nugent reports that it was the “delight” of one host “to stuff his guests, and I should think it would be quite a triumph to him, to hear of a fever or apoplexy, in consequence of his good cheer.” The particular breakfast that incited this conclusion had included cassava cakes, “chocolate, coffee, tea, fruits of all sorts, pigeon pies, hams, tongues, rounds of beef &c.” She “only wonder[ed] there was no turtle,” that apotheosis of extravagance. (Nugent 77)
Things, of course, were considerably different--that is, worse--for the slaves, but perhaps not if they managed to escape captivity, and considerable numbers of them did manage to do so on Jamaica. This was in no small measure due to the geography of the island. (Dunn 261-62, 262n63) Runaways had established Maroon settlements outside of Spanish control on the rugged north side at least as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. (No Peace 362)
After their arrival in 1655, the “English could neither conquer nor tame the Maroons. Some of the Spanish Negroes came to terms…. But other Maroons refused… and they remained totally independent, a state within a state.” (Dunn 242) Not that the Maroons were rebels, let alone freedom fighters. In general, “these people isolated themselves and caused little trouble after 1670. Sometimes they even helped the English track down fugitive plantation slaves.” (Dunn 242)
Starting in 1685, however, some of the Maroons engaged in at least three years of guerilla warfare against the English, in response to the attempts of planters to encroach on the outlaw settlements. (No Peace 181) During the eighteenth century, Jamaica sustained two substantial maroon settlements, at least for a time. Cudjoe’s Town in the impenetrable Cockpit Country dates from about 1690; by then it numbered at least 500 inhabitants. It was named for the leader of the settlement, a “pragmatist” careful to steer clear of the white planters and merchants. (Parker 248) Zora Neale Hurston hunted boar with the Maroons of Accompong in the Cockpit Country during the 1930s and their descendants still live there, “isolated from the rest of the island.” (Hurston; Dunn 38)
The other concentration was more militant and, consequently, less fortunate. Its base in the high mountains outside Kingston was called Nanny Town after a woman with a reputation for catching bullets in her anus and farting them back at the British. (Parker 249) By the end of the 1720s, thousands of Maroons lived in and around Nanny Town. They farmed a considerable acreage, maintained a “network of spies” for monitoring British troop movements and held a significant arsenal of firearms.
These Maroons not only ambushed patrols sent to attack them but also staged raids on the big plantations to abduct slave women and livestock. They attracted too much attention and caused too much harm to be ignored like their more cautious counterparts under the disciplined Cudjoe, and after a series of stalemated engagements called, logically enough, the Maroon wars, British gunners manhandled artillery into the mountains and destroyed Nanny’s Town. Many of the survivors managed to elude capture and reach the Cockpit Country or establish new outlaw enclaves. As the nineteenth century rolled on, Maroon settlements proliferated in areas of extreme terrain outside of British control.
All of which brings us to the most famous of Jamaican foods, jerk. The preparation, originally for pork or perhaps boar but now applied to just about any meat or poultry and sometimes even fish, has been around for a long time, and numerous sources attribute it to the Maroons by way of the Arawak boucan. Norma Benghiat contradicts herself by first ascribing the method to the Arawak and later in the same book to the Maroons. No written source corroborates the notion that Maroons developed jerk, but then they hardly had the luxury of books or manuscripts, and crediting them with the origin of jerk is as credible a creation myth as any.
Lady Nugent includes a recipe for jerked boar in her Journal from 1802, and M. G. Lewis describes it but not by name in 1834. He ate “barbecued pig” that was one of “the best and richest dishes that I ever tasted… which was dressed in the true Maroon fashion.” It was
“placed on a barbecue, through whose interstices the steam can ascend, filled with peppers and spices of the highest flavour, wrapped in plantain leaves and then buried in a hole filled with hot stones by whose vapour it is baked, no particle of juice being thus suffered to evaporate.” (Lewis cited at Benghiat 99)
Trollope ate jerked pork on Jamaica 25 years later, and the latter day Maroons jerked the boar that they hunted with Hurston in 1939. The epicenter of jerk on Jamaica today traditionally is considered to be Boston Bay outside of Port Antonio, another old Maroon settlement.
Modern jerk seasoning mixes show considerable variation, as we might expect, and typically include allspice, searing chilies, cinnamon, nutmeg, scallion and sometimes garlic, dark rum and thyme, these last singly or in combination, in varying proportion. Some recipes specify minced cinnamon leaf or, failing that, bay instead of the cinnamon itself. It is all good.
Little other than jerk is peculiar to Jamaica. Saltfish with ackee is characteristic of the island, but only for the ackee (introduced by the English) and not the ubiquitous cod. ‘Peas,’ beans to the British and Americans, and rice is a staple on the island as it is everywhere else in the Caribbean, including Louisiana, frequently considered its northernmost reach. Peas and rice is something of a national dish in Jamaica, and also is the standard accompaniment to jerked meat. Curries proliferate, but Jamaican versions look almost indistinguishable from the simple preparations of the British Raj, except that in common with Jamaican stewpots generally, they may include a splash of soy.
Pepperpot, a Jamaican specialty, has Guyanese antecedents, and the recipe in Caroline Sullivan’s manuscript of 1897 is indistinguishable from them, but as it has since evolved the Jamaican variation adds bitter greens to make a soupier pepperpot than the stewy original.
Sullivan’s lovely compilation, published “as they were written and given to John Kenneth McKenzie Pringle, C. B. E., under the title A Collection of 19th Century Jamaican Cookery and Herbal Recipes, does not, however, include instructions for jerking meat despite her desire “to introduce to new-comers to Jamaica our own native methods of cooking our own products.” (Sullivan 15) Perhaps jerk was so well known on both sides of the Atlantic that she felt no need to include it. We cannot tell, but Sullivan has omitted any recipes for “dressing beef , sheep-mutton, pork or poultry” (there is lots of goat and are five recipes for turtle) because she assumes that her reader already knows what to do with them. (Sullivan 15)
‘Chinese’ dishes in Jamaican cookbooks tend to western hybrids like chop suey, and Norma Benghiat explains that while Chinese restaurants proliferate in Jamaica, “the food is considered Chinese and not Jamaican.” (Benghiat 20) In her delightfully strange Merry Go Round of Recipes from Jamaica, published to coincide with the island’s independence in 1962, Leila Brandon includes eleven pages of ‘Chinese Cooking’ that include no inherently Jamaican elements but do for some reason feature a quintessentially English chicken fricassee augmented with Scotch bonnets and tomatoes, recipes for duck sauced with red wine or l’orange, coq au vin and chicken Espagnole. Chicken with barbecue sauce is particularly unChinese and hardly even Caribbean with its seasonings of ketchup, mustard, tarragon and Worcestershire. It might be found anywhere.
Elsewhere in the kitchen things are much the same, except that the lineage of most preparations is recognizably British. Sullivan alludes to this predominant influence on Jamaican cooks in another of her disclaimers, that she has made “no attempt to cope with the many excellent works that at present exist on English and other cookery.” (Sullivan 15)
As for specific preparations associated with Jamaica, “Soloman Gundy,” a salad based on pickled fish, appears throughout the Caribbean and, in both etymological and culinary terms, is recognizably a derivative of the more complex and lavish salamagundies beloved of Georgian swells in Britain. Stamp & Go is unique only in its lovely name; saltcod fritters proliferate not only in the Indies but also all along coastal New England, and if you remove the first ‘t’ from a Jamaican patty and substitute the ‘s,’ you have the traditional handpies of Cornwall. Rich fruitcakes and Christmas pudding, recognizably derived from British recipes, differ in their frequent use of burnt sugar, and of more sugar in general, but these foods too appear all around the islands.
Despite her disclaimer, Sullivan does include a recipe for pork--designed to replicate an English squab pie in the tropics. It is a “Devonshire dish prepared with Apples, re-arranged with cho-chos [mirliton or chayote]” and lime as well as the pork. (Sullivan 18) Another reflection of the longing for British foodways is an “Imitation Strawberries and Cream” made with bananas, jam and egg whites rather than the real thing. (Sullivan 38)
Finally, the British tradition of the Sunday roast lives on in a in both Barbados and Jamaica, and despite its cost beef is the favored joint. Like the fricassee, however, chili and tomato supplement the traditional black pepper and thyme; mixed together, these ingredients stuff incisions in the meat rather than coat its perimeter before roasting.
The unique cast of Jamaican history has not extended far into the kitchens of the island, and the origin of the food that they produce shares a common thread extending outwards from a big and rainy island in the North Sea.
Norma Benghiat, Traditional Jamaican Cookery (Reading, England 1985)
Leila Brandon, A Merry Go Round of Recipes from Jamaica (Kingston, Jamaica 1962)
Carl & Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace Beyond the Line:
The English in the Caribbean 1624-1690 (New York 1972)
Morris Cargill (ed.), Ian Fleming Inrtoduces Jamaica
Frank Cundall (ed.), Lady Nugent’s Journal (London 1939)
Richard Dunn, Sugar and slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies (New York 1972)
Riccardo Orizio, Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten (London 2000)
Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption,
Empire and War (London 2011)
John Pringle, A Collection of 19th Century Jamaican Cookery and Herbal Recipes (Kingston, Jamaica 1893)
Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main