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Rape. Murder. Incest. Serial killers. Civil wars. Atomic bombs. Concentration Camps. Internment Camps. Prisoner of war. Capital punishment. Domestic abuse. Hate crimes. Natural disasters. Poverty. Suicides. Corruption. All of these things are awful problems that our world has encountered. But one very important problem is not listed. That problem is slavery. Slavery was, and is, one of the worst things our world has ever had to face and deal with, yet it is not talked about like rape and murder are. We avoid talking about slavery, why? We do not want to admit that it existed, that we made a huge mistake? People are in denial? I am not quite such why slavery has not been talked about more or why more people do not know more about slavery. I believe it is time to change that.

I chose to write my reggae paper on how Jamaican slavery influenced, and is reflected in, reggae music. I decided to research this topic because I find it intriguing. Slavery, in my mind, is the most awful existence a person can experience. I do not think I will ever be able to fully comprehend how one human being could treat a fellow human being with such disregard. Every country has had some interaction with slavery, whether in the past or present. It is unbelievable that few people truly understand how prevalent and awful slavery was and still is.

My paper will guide you through the history of Jamaican slavery, while inserting popular reggae music which I feel exemplifies the point I am trying to make: the history or Jamaica has affected reggae music. My paper describes the Transatlantic Journey, British rule in Jamaica, and what happened to the Jamaican people once they were emancipated. I feel that the lyrics I have chosen to incorporate into my paper are prime examples of how such popular reggae artists, such as Bob Marley and Burning Spear, were influenced by the oppression of their people.

How Could Something As Awful As Slavery Have Begun…

Before I conducted my research, I was troubled over the fact that something as awful as slavery could be justified and executed. I could not comprehend how something of this magnitude could ever be carried out. It was a race destroying itself. I came to understand that slavery, just like every other awful thing that goes on in this world, was concealed as something else. If the British had said "we want to take all the African people and turn them into slaves", slavery never would have been. But did the British say this?; of course not. They instead concealed slavery as an international business deal between themselves(Europe), and Africa. Africans were convinced by the British to export their raw materials, such as hides, copper, gold, gum, ivory, and their people(not knowing what they were getting themselves into), in exchange for manufactured goods, such as iron and cloth(Thornton, pg.44). Once the cycle began, it could not be stopped.

Walter Rodney, an advocate for the abolition of the slave trade, thought that commerce between Europe and Africa was the first and decisive step in the underdevelopment of Africa(Thornton, pg.43). Africa was forced into what can be called a "colonial" trade(to use a European term) by Europe(Thornton, pg.43). While Europe was reaping the benefits from their trade agreement with Africa, Africa itself was suffering immensely. There was a major loss in the country, due to so many of its people being shipped off to other parts of the world to work as slaves. An increase in warfare and related military damage, adversely affected judicial systems, an increase in inequality among Africans, and damaged sex ratios(there was a major decrease in the number of men due to the slave trade) Rodney believed, could all be attributed to the unjust trade agreement between Europe and Africa(Thornton, pg.73).

If one were to examine the connections among the number of slaves being traded, the growth of plantations, and the increase in the British industry during the third quarter of the 18th century, one would see evidence that indicates a relationship between the three. As the number of slaves being transported by the British increased, so did the size of the sugarcane plantations and, therefore, the British economy(Solow & Engerman, pg.105). This is an example of how money can drive people to do unbelievable and awful things. Because the British were prospering from the Africans misery, they increased the amount of slave trading. From 1701-1807, British traders carried approximately 2.5-3.7 million slaves from Africa to various parts of North America(Solow & Engerman, pg.105). 3/4 of a million of these slaves were brought to Jamaica(American Slavery, pg.22).

Transatlantic Journey/ Middle Passage

Jamaican slavery began with the Middle Passage, or the Transatlantic journey. During this 16th century trip, British expeditions brought Africans to Jamaica(Unger & Reimers, pg.17). The purpose of the British expeditions was for the British to make money. The British did so by shipping as many slaves as they could from Africa to Jamaica, where the African people would be sold off to sugarcane plantations(Unger & Reimers, pg.17). Bob Marley’s Redemption Song vividly tells how awful the slave trade was and how uprooted the Africans were:

Old pirates yes they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I from the bottom less pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the almighty

We forward in this generation triumphantly

All I ever had is songs of freedom

Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom

Cause all I ever had redemption songs, redemption songs(The Words of Bob Marley)

The ships used to take slaves from Africa to Jamaica were extremely large. The slaves were held in lower quarters, called holds. The ceilings in these holds ranged anywhere from 5-6 ft.(Unger & Reimers, pg.19). There were 2 platforms placed in the holds for the slaves to sleep on. These platforms only allowed for about 20 inches of headspace(Unger & Reimers, pg.19). Therefore, the slaves could not sit up or move around. They were also shackled on the wrists and ankles in groups of six to the person next to them(Unger & Reimers, pg.19). The floors of the holds were bare, unfinished wood and the slaves elbows would be worn to the born from rubbing against the wood(Unger & Reimers, pg.18). Men and women were separated(Thornton, pg.154). This shows how little the sailors cared for the slaves; they did not allow the slaves any companionship from their wives, mothers, or sisters. By breaking down families, the British broke down the spirits of the slaves.

The British sailors had two different methods for transporting the slaves. The first method was called loose packing. This was the idea that by taking less slaves aboard and, therefore, allowing the slaves more room and somewhat better conditions, the death rate would be decreased and more slaves could be sold in Jamaica(Unger & Reimers, pg.19). The second method for transporting the slaves to Jamaica was called tight packing. This was the idea that the more slaves that could be put on a ship the better. Even though more slaves would die using this method as opposed to loose packing, it was cheaper than making more trips from Africa to Jamaica(Unger & Reimers, pg.19). As time went on the tight packing method became more prevalent. This shows just how cruel the British sailors were and how the African people were not even considered human beings.

There were, of course, problems on the ships due to the unbelievably disgusting treatment of the African people. Mutinies were something that sailors and crew had to worry about.

I’m not gonna give it up

I’m not goin’

I’m not gonna give it up

I’m not goin’

I will be fighting

I’ve got to be fighting

I will be fighting

Till Africa and Africans are free(Peter Tosh Lyrics)

Mutinies were most common when all the slaves aboard were from the same African tribe(Unger & Reimers, pg.21). The most common tribes that would attempt a mutiny were warlike tribes from the Gold Coast(Unger & Reimers, pg.21). Mutinies would usually take place near the coast because Africans gained a sense of hope if they could see land(Unger & Reimers, pg.21). From 1750-1788 the frequency with which mutinies occurred increased because merchants were trying to save money and, therefore, decreased the size of their crew(Unger & Reimers, pg.22). Most mutinies were maintained by the crews, but when they were not, the mutinies were still usually unsuccessful because the African’s did not have the ability to navigate the seas(Unger & Reimers, pg.24). The Africans viewed the white man’s ability to navigate the seas as "white man’s magic"(Unger & Reimers, pg.24).

Fights also broke out among the slaves. Because the slaves slept head to toe(Thornton, pg.154), people often spilt the latrines on each other during the night(Unger & Reimers, pg.27). This was not done on purpose, but it was too dark in the holds to see where people were located and it was also hard to move because everyone was shackled together. There were also slaves who tried to commit suicide. They would attempt this by drowning themselves or by starving themselves(Unger & Reimers, pg.26).

Conditions on the ships were so appalling and incredibly disgusting, that I had to stop reading on several occasions. Doctors and crew members would hardly go under the deck because of the stench permeating the area. The odors arose from dead bodies, excretions, and vomit due to sea sickness(Thornton, pg.157).

Not only did the slaves endure physical harm during the Transatlantic Voyage, but they were also psychologically damaged forever(Thornton, pg.161).

Mama Africa

How are you doing Mama, Mama Africa

Long time me no see you Mama

They took me away from you Mama

Long before I was born

They took me away from you Mama

Long before I came on in(Peter Tosh Lyrics)

The African people were uprooted from the only home they had ever known, taken on long journeys while enduring the worst conditions imaginable, separated from family and friends, saw many fellow Africans die, were themselves brought to the brink of death, all while suffering from extreme deprivation in every facet of their life(Thornton, pg.161). I am absolutely amazed that these unfortunate African people were able to carry on during the Middle Passage.

I always knew that slavery was an awful event in the history of the world, but I never knew the hideous details. I think it is amazing how little most people know about slavery when it has been such a huge part of every country’s history. It blows my mind that a species can self-destruct like we did during the centuries that slavery existed. I thought that nothing could be worse than the slave’s transatlantic voyage. The slaves thought that they were being taken to their death, so anything would be better than death, right? Wrong, a life of slavery was the worst life imaginable.

British Rule In Jamaica

The British conquered Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and ruled in Jamaica until August 1, 1834. During this time, Jamaica’s southern coast was converted into plantations because the land was so fertile(Walvin, pg.169). Jamaica’s chief crop was sugarcane. During the years of British rule, more than 10 million tons of sugarcane emerged from the island(Walvin, pg.73). This explains why the black population during these years increased from 50,000 to more than 1 million(Walvin, pg.73). During the 18th century, Jamaica came to dominate the sugar industry(Walvin, pg.74). This process happened rather quickly, with the massive influx of slaves from Jamaica. This can be seen by the fact that in the mid 18th century, half of the plantation owners had around 500 acres, but by 1774, the medium-sized plantations had around 600 acres and about 200 slaves(Walvin, pg.74). The massive increase in the amount of slaves can also be seen by looking at old Jamaican maps. A map of 1671 named 146 plantations, while a map made 13 years later named 690 plantations(Walvin, pg.70). In 1775, each sugar plantation owned about 240 slaves(Walvin, pg.71). That is a staggering figure. The ratio of slaves to landowners was about 50:1(Walvin, pg.73). Some reports say that the black population more than doubled that of the white landowners(Irwin, pg.187).

No one, including the white landowners, doubted that their slaves were the integral part of the economy of the island(Walvin, pg.73). In 1718, William Wood said: "The labour of negroes is the principal foundation of riches from the plantations". While the bulk of the work on the plantations was done by the slaves, the white landowners took credit for the bountiful crops and benefited from the money that the crops brought in. The owners and slaves lived drastically different lives. While the slaves existed on a scarce and basic diet, their owners ate lavishly. The slaves housing was extremely primitive, while their owners houses were of great material comfort. There was also a physical distant from where the slaves dwelled to where the owners lived(Walvin, 72). The following quote shows how great the life of a landowner really was: "the afternoon thus passes in drinking and smoking, but quite often on is so drunk that he cannot return home. Our gentleman found this life extremely pleasant". It is crazy that someone could live such a lavish, fun lifestyle while people an acre away were living the lowest level of existence possible.

They’ve been celebrating all these days

They’ve been celebrating all these days

So what about the slavery days?

So what about the slavery days?(Burning Spear)

Death among slaves was not uncommon. This may have been due in part, to the fact that the number one task of all landowners was to break in their slaves(Walvin, pg.71). Slaves quickly became aware of the punishments they would receive if they did not do as they were told. One punishment that I found so shocking was a form of severe torture. A slave would be nailed to the ground with crooked sticks in every limb and fire would be applied to their body slowly, so as to inflict an enormous amount of pain(Irwin, pg.195).

Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey

So they want us to think stupid

So they want us to feel stupid

That’s how they want us to be(Burning Spear).

How was this done? With what else, but violence.

Because of the dangerous work that slaves participated in, such as working machinery that they were not skilled enough to be working, almost all of the deaths between 1688 and 1690 were because of accidents on the job(Thornton, 163). The most major cause of death, though, was disease. One out of every three African slaves died within their first three years in Jamaica because they were being exposed to things that had never been exposed to before, such as small pox(Walvin, pg.75). Slaves were dying in large numbers, and usually affecting those around them as they died. This was due to the interaction of diseases from Europe, Africa, and the Americas(Walvin, pg.136).

In most countries with slavery, the number of men greatly outweighed the number of women, but this was not the case in Jamaica, where there were more women than men(Walvin, pg.120). Women were an important ingredient of slavery because while female slaves could, and were expected to, do all the heavy manual labor that the men could do, the women slaves could also serve as servants, cooks, or maids in the landowners home, be a breeder with their fellow slaves(thus producing more slaves free of charge), and these women could provide sexual services to their master(Walvin, pg.119). So not only did the women slaves have to do the work of a slave, but they were being sexually exploited on a day to day basis.

When I think of a slave, I think of a person who works in the fields. While this was the most common form of slavery, and the form that marked the institution of slavery, it was not the only form. Some slaves worked in towns, on the rivers or sea, or in skilled professions(Walvin, pg.71). As the institution of slavery became more developed, a demand for skilled workers increased(Walvin, pg.72). While plantations could be run without skilled workers, the production of sugar, rum, tobacco, and rice could not be carried out without skilled workers.

As time went on, people became more aware of the horrors of slavery. When the first reformed Parliament was elected in 1832 under the government of Lord Grey, support black freedom became great and both the Houses of the Parliament favored freedom(Walvin, pg.307). Therefore, the slaves were legally freed on August 1,1834. Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up illustrates how sick and tired the African people were:

We’re sick and tired of you ism and skism game

Die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name,

Lord we know when we understand

Almighty God is a living man

You can fool some people sometimes

But you can’t fool all the people all the time

So now we see the light

We gonna stand up for our right(The Words of Bob Marley).

It turned out to only be partial freedom. All people under the age of 6 and over the age of 70 were freed, but everyone else became "apprentices", which meant they had to work for their former owners for the next 6 years(Walvin, pg.307).

When you sign that peace treaty

I told you it wouldn’t worky worky

When you sign that peace treaty

I told them it could not worky worky(Peter Tosh Lyrics)

Even though their freedom was only partial, the emancipated slaves celebrated their newfound freedom. And once the missionaries found apprenticeships to be brutal and exploitative, this too was ended. On July 31,1838, the emancipated slaves no longer had to be apprentices(Walvin, pg.307).

So you live on my island

You own all my rights

I want you to know

Give me what is mine

If this is a musical war

I decided to fight(Burning Spear).

The free black people celebrated in churches. One common ritual was for the people to conduct mock funerals, to lay slavery to rest(Walvin, pg.308). One verse the congregation sang was:

Now, Slavery, we lay thy vile form in the dust, And buried for ever there let it remain: And rotted, and covered with infamy’s rust, Be every man-whip, and fetter and chain.


Even though the black people were now "free", their lives were not great. They had few skills or education, so getting a prosperous job was virtually impossible. Freed slaves could work for their former owners, but many wanted to leave the plantations. Those who tried to farm on their own, found it very costly, now that they did not have landowners to pay for everything(Walvin, pg.326). One of the biggest problems after slavery was outlawed was the fact that blacks were still greatly discriminated against by everyone else on the island. Freedom was not all it was cracked up to be. Bob Marley’s Chant Down Babylon explains how the African people knew and understood what the British were really trying to do:

Men see their dreams and aspirationsv

Crumble in front of their face

And all their wicked intentions to be

Destroy the human race

Music you’re, music you’re the key

Talk to who, please talk to me

Bring the voice of the Rastaman

Communicating to everyone(The Words of Bob Marley).

The British also wanted to make it appear that they freed the slaves out of the goodness of their hearts. This was, obviously, not the case at all. There were other, less noble and less honest reasons for freeing the slaves. I think Lord Palmerston said it best when he said:

Let no man imagine that those treaties for the suppression of the slave trade are valuable only as being calculated to promote the great interests of humanity, and as tending to rid mankind of a foul and detestable crime. Such was indeed their great object and their chief merit. But in this case as in many others, virtue carries its own reward; and if the nations of the world could extirpate this abominable traffic, and if the vast population of Africa could by that means be left free to betake themselves to peaceful and innocent trade, the greatest commercial benefit would accrue, not to England only, but to every civilized nation which engages in maritime commerce. These slave trade treaties therefore are indirectly treaties for the encouragement of commerce(Walvin, pg.330).

So it can be seen that the British did not care about helping the slaves. They only cared about helping themselves.

It’s the system, the system, the system

Any nation without their roots

Is like trees without their root

Any nation without their roots

Is like the trees without their root(Burning Spear).

How did the black people in Jamaica deal with such an awful life? Through music. Music is a form of communication that everyone, of every race, economic class, and ethnic background, can participate in and listen to music.. Through music, the black people of Jamaica felt happiness and hope. Music also served as a form of communication among the blacks of Jamaica and was a way for the slaves to ridicule their hideous owners.

The slaves loved music from the beginning of slavery and they participated in music in many ways, from singing to chanting to using man-made instruments. When Monk Lewis visited his land in Jamaica, he was astounded by the music of the slaves:

Their music consisted of nothing but Gambys(Eboe drums), shaky-shekies, and kitty-katties; the latter is nothing but a flat piece of board with two sticks, the former is a bladder with a parcel of pebbles in it. But the principal part of the music to which they dance is vocal; one girl generally singing two lines by herself, and being answered by the chorus… the singing began about six o’clock, and lasted without a moment’s pause till two in the morning; and such a noise never did hear till then.(Walvin, pg.157)

As this quote illustrates, music and dance dominated the social lives of the slaves(Walvin, pg.159). Slaves would not just sing in their free time, but also while they worked(Walvin, pg.159). Their singing would follow the pattern by which they were working. The music helped the slaves continue in their grueling work. The songs that slaves sang during their work often reflected the sadness of their lives:

If me want to go in a Ebo

Me can’t go there!

Since dem tief me from a Guinea,

Me can’t go there!(Walvin, pg.160).

This song shows how limited and controlled the lives of the slaves were.

The slave owners felt threatened by the slaves music because it served as a form of communication among them(Walvin, pg.162). The slave owners could not understand the slaves’ lyrics. The slave owners were so threatened by the slaves music, that they wrote laws prohibiting it. The laws said that it was unlawful to allow slaves to assemble and play music(Walvin, pg.162). The slave owners justification for these laws were: "These restrictions proceeded from the experience that rebellions had often been concerted at dances and nightly meetings of slaves from different plantations"(Walvin, pg.162). It seems the slave owners were always able to justify everything. All it required was a weak argument such as this one, because who was going to argue with the owners, their slaves? I think not.

Because of the awful way the slave owners treated the slaves, the slaves used their music to ridicule their masters.

New-come buckra(whiteman)

He get sick,

He tak fever,

He be die

He be die(Walvin, pg.152).

When the slaves sang these songs, the joke was on the slave owners. They could not understand the slaves, and did not know they were being made fun of.

I believe that slave songs and chants influenced what today we call reggae music. I think this can be proven by the lyrics of reggae music. Much of reggae music focuses on the oppression of the Jamaican people. Their fighting and suffering is often what is being sung about.


The history of Jamaica is not a pleasant, pretty, or idealistic one. It is gruesome, sad, and cruel. While I was astounded, depressed, and at times sickened while reading about it, I think that it is important for people to not forget the history of Jamaica. We all need to remember what happened in Jamaica from 1655-1834, because we need to make sure that nothing as awful as Jamaican slavery ever happens again.

It is also important for us to realize that reggae music is more than just a beat or rhythm; the lyrics are extremely powerful and meaningful. They are filled with sorrow, pride, and hope. Reggae music is different for everyone. It can be seen as a reawakened African art form or a danceable Caribbean rhythm. The reason reggae music appeals to so many different people is that is satisfies the many needs that people have(O’Brien & Chen, pg.6).

Before writing this paper, I thought of reggae music as music that was fun to listen to when hanging out with my friends, when having a good time. Now I think of reggae music as a form of verbal history. I pay attention to the lyrics of the songs because I now know that the artists are trying to tell me something. When I listen to reggae music, I feel strong. I use reggae music as a way to feel empowered. If the slaves of Jamaica overcame all that they did, I can do anything. That, I believe, is the message of reggae music.