The island of Jamaica, perhaps more than any one place, is linked to cannabis in the public consciousness. Where did this start? How exactly did cannabis first arrive in Jamaica and the Caribbean? How did Rastafarian culture come to adopt cannabis? How popular is cannabis in Jamaica, really? Fewer people know these details behind the history.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno people, Jamaica was colonized by the Spanish starting in 1494, when Christopher Columbus conquered the island for the Spanish crown. What followed for the native inhabitants was a century and a half of brutal forced labor, starvation, and disease. By the time the British captured the island in 1655, with the Spanish empire in decline worldwide, these native inhabitants had been almost wiped out. For European colonizers, this meant the loss of one key source of cheap labor for the island’s highly profitable sugar plantations. Spain formally ceded the island to the English in 1670, and like elsewhere in their empire, the British shipped slaves from West Africa to meet their labor needs. Britain itself abolished the practice in 1810, but it continued in Jamaica until a massive revolt of 60,000 slaves, the largest ever on the island, in 1831. It began as a peaceful strike, to force the plantation owners to pay wages. When the colonizers were unwilling to give up their free labor, the resistance began to escalate, with more than 200 plantations attacked and warehouses full of sugar cane burnt down. The rebellion led to more than a million British pounds worth of damage and it authorities about a month to quell the revolt.
Plantation owners were terrified by the violence and financial consequences. Just one week later, Parliament appointed a committee to look into the abolition of slavery in Jamaica. Emancipation was finally granted in 1838. Unwilling to consider doing any actual labor themselves, and also relatively few in number, the island’s British overlords looked toward their colonies in India for cheap labor to continue their exploitation of the island’s valuable resources, a decision that would change the face of Jamaican culture forever.
Indian laborers, brought over as indentured servants, carried the first cannabis seedlings to Jamaica. They were largely from Calcutta, in Bengal in northeastern India, where the cultivation and consumption of cannabis indica was already a staple of local culture. Once in Jamaica, the practice quickly transcended the boundaries of the small East Indian population to be adopted by the budding Afro-Jamaican culture. The word ganja, the preferred terminology for cannabis in Jamaica, comes from the original Hindi word derived from Sanskrit. If you’ve ever tried Jamaican food, evidence of this cultural exchange is also evident in the spices and flavors of the island’s cuisine, in favorites such as curried goat and jerk chicken.
Before long, cannabis was embraced by Jamaica’s wider working class, becoming ubiquitous in rural areas and in the poorer, black districts of cities. Plantation owners looking to profit off the sale of rum to the working class pushed to outlaw cannabis, and the Jamaican government followed through with prohibition in 1913. Nonetheless, by the 70s, one anthropological study found that between 60 and 70 percent of Jamaicans consumed cannabis on a regular basis. Rastafarianism was first established in Jamaica in the 1930s, based on a prophecy by political leader Marcus Garvey, that told people of African descent worldwide to “look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be your Redeemer." Shortly thereafter, Haile Selassie I was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, and took on a messianic status for Rastafarians, becoming a figure central to the practice.
Since then, Rastafarianism has become increasingly popular in Jamaica. As a movement that sprung up among Jamaica’s black working class, cannabis was already present in the culture. Rastafarians hold “reasoning sessions” in which cannabis is consumed as a meditation aid. Moral questions are discussed, and cannabis is passed clockwise around the circle to inspire contemplation and spiritual exploration. Rastafarians consider cannabis to be part of the Tree of Life discussed in the Bible.
Rastafarian culture, and Jamaican culture in general, found its most famous advocate in Bob Marley, born in Nine Mile, Jamaica, in 1945. He converted to Rastafarianism in 1966, and in the following decade, enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity on a global level that few, if any other musicians have achieved. Since then, the island’s culture as a whole has gained a place in public consciousness everywhere, and with it, people have gained a window into a reverent attitude toward cannabis that views the plant as a path toward spirituality and well-being in general. The culture, and the Jamaican worldview towards cannabis specifically, have struck a chord with people all over the globe, spreading a viewpoint that runs counter to the propaganda and hysteria that has fueled cannabis prohibition in much of the world.