One of my friends posted the following on his Facebook page the other day in response to a friendly dialogue about the current drought affecting the country:
You know, I never ever liked that land of wood and water slogan. (Even though right now I would beg for rain everyday.) Always thought that it characterized a kind of economic stagnation. Like seriously wood, water and white sand beach is all we can contribute to the world?
This little comment, which he declared as a chip on his shoulder since the fifth grade he finally got rid of, got me thinking about the historical birth of this association between Jamaica and bounteous rivers and streams and forest-clad mountains.
Let’s now retrace the historical echoes of this popular local slogan, “land of wood and water.”
Origin of the Phrase “Land of Wood and Water”
The phrase actually owes its existence to the Tainos, the first inhabitants of Jamaica. They called the land Xaymaca, which literally translated into “land of wood and water,” a phrase coined in recognition of the natural beauty and wonders of Jamaica.
Unfortunately, the Tainos had no form of writing and so left behind no written records of their existence. However, much of our knowledge about them come from evidence of their existence such as pottery remains, refuse heaps called middens, stone implements, wood carvings, and eyewitness accounts from the earliest European visitors to the country, Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards.
Since the Tainos left no written record of their description of Jamaica to substantiate the phrase “land of wood and water” we will have to look elsewhere. Fortunately for us Jamaican history investigators, the echoes of this aspect of our past can be traced to the eyewitness accounts written about Jamaica’s flora and fauna by our first European visitors, the Spanish and the English.
The Coming of the Europeans
Christopher Columbus’ “Enterprise of the Indies”
Driven by the exploration bug, Christopher Columbus embarked on a mission to find a new route to Asia. Calling his plan the “Enterprise of the Indies” his aim was to reach Asia by sailing westward.
But putting his plan into action required major capital investment so for years Columbus proposed his plan to several European sovereigns. He first approached Portugal’s king in 1484 but, after much consideration, the king rejected his proposal on the grounds – and correctly so – that Asia was more than twice as distant as Columbus had presented.
Undeterred and even more convinced that his project held merit, Columbus approached the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. For the next seven years Columbus courted the Spanish sovereigns and in 1492, they consented to fund his expedition at their expense “to discover and acquire lands and mainland in the Ocean Sea.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
His plan however, did not work out as envisioned. He did not discover a new route to Asia but instead discovered a whole new part of the world previously unknown to him and many others. He accomplished this in four voyages:
- Voyage One: August 1492 to March 1493
- Voyage Two: September 1493 to June 1496
- Voyage Three: May 1498 to December 1500
- Voyage Four: May 1502 to December 1504
Columbus’ First Encounter with the “Land of Wood and Water”
It was actually on his second voyage that Columbus “discovered” Jamaica. It was a discovery for him and the Spanish but the island was already occupied by the Tainos. He first learnt about the existence of Jamaica from the Tainos in Cuba, who described it as the source of “the blessed gold,” which grabbed Columbus’ attention to try and locate the island as quickly as possible. He set sail for Jamaica on May 3, 1494 and landed at St. Ann’s Bay on May 5, 1494.
Upon further exploration of Jamaica, Columbus noted the following:
… the fairest island that eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky … all full of valleys and fields and plains.
In time the Spanish referred to Jamaica as the “Garden of the Indies.”
The English’s First Impression of Jamaica as the “Land of Wood and Water”
Columbus’ success in discovering this New World, as it became to be called, drew the envy and ire of other European nations. This became even more so after the Pope made a proclamation that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal.
The English, of course, were not to be left out of getting their share of these new lands and, as long-time enemies of Spain, took an early stance of upsetting the new Spanish settlements, and eventually in the form of Oliver Cromwell’s Western Design, formally taking over Spain’s territories in the Caribbean.
Jamaica was eventually captured by the English on May 11, 1655. The following is an extract from Henry Whistler’s journal of the English conquest of Jamaica. Whistler accompanied the conquering English army to Jamaica in 1655, which was led by Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables. In this extract from his journal, as presented by Eric Williams (1963), Whistler gives his first observations of the natural wonders of the island as well as the Spanish occupation of it:
The 16th Day [May] 1655.— The land is as good as any in the Indies, and very fruitful if it be planted, but these people are a very lazy people, for by their goodwill none will work, nor take the pains to plant cassava to make them bread. But necessity doth move them to it: they do very few of them take care to be rich, for they say they cannot want, for meat they have an abundance, and the hides and tallow will buy them clothes, and that is all they take care for most of them: here are some small plantations sugar, but they spend it most in the island: here is some cotton, both silk and other sorts: but the chiefest commodities are these: Lignum vitae and fastic wood, and hides and tallow, and pork fat tied up and put in gares: and that is not worth a going so far for. The Island as it is naturally the best in all the Indies: it hath a great deal of level ground, and many brave savannas full of cattle, and abundance of brave horses, but they are all wild: and many hogs: and wild fowl an abundance: and many parrots: and monkeys: and plenty of fish: here are abundance of alligators and many large snakes. This ground will bear anything that they can plant on it: the Spaniard doth say that it will bear all sorts of spice, and sugar and indigo, and cotton, and tobacco, and very good grapes: but the Duke of Meden that it did belong to would not suffer them to plant grapes to make wine, for then he did know they would not care for Spain. This Island is bravely watered with fresh rivers: and hath 3 brave harbours in the South Side, and one in the North side: but the midellmust in the South Side is one of the best in the world: in it may ride 500 sail of ships from 50 fathom water to 8: and you may careen by the shore with your guns in 5 fathom water; this harbour is land locked, and the trade wind doth blow into the harbour all day and the land breeze out at night: here are many small Islands and shoals that lie before the harbour’s mouth, but they are plain to be seen. The worst inconvenience of this harbour is that it is 6 miles from the town, but our English doth say that they will remove and build near the water side, for they may build such a town as that is in a small time, for the houses are but one storey high because of the hurricane, for he doth many times come and give them a visit. This is all I can say of this Island, for at present it is poor, but it may be made one of the richest spots in the world; the Spaniard doth call it the Garden of the Indies, but this I will say, the gardeners have been very bad, for here is very little more than that which groweth naturally.
Both the Spanish and the English were struck by the breathtaking beauty of Jamaica’s flora and fauna, and their observations are reminiscent of feedback from many of our modern-day visitors to our country. In fact, one just have to watch the current Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) ads with Usain Bolt, “Once You, Go You Know,” to get a sense of the feeling of wonder that came over these early visitors to our shores. Here’s just one of these ads:
How do you feel about Jamaica as the “Land of Wood and Water”?
Until nex’ time…..
Black, Clinton V. (1983). History of Jamaica. UK: Longman Caribbean Publishing.
Jane, Cecil (1960). The Journal of Christopher Columbus. London: The Hakluyt Society.
Major, R.H. (1992). Christopher Columbus: Four Voyages to the New World (Letters and Selected Documents). New York: Carol Publishing Group.
Williams, Eric (1963). Documents of West Indian History Vol. 1, 1492-1655. Trinidad: PNM Publishing Co. Ltd.