Jamaican Stories

Week 8: African Traditions - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading


Jamaica is an island nation in the Caribbean, to the south of Cuba and to the west of Haiti. Christopher Columbus sighted Jamaica in 1494 but did not land there; in 1503 he was shipwrecked on the north coast of Jamaica. In 1509 Spanish colonists began to arrive in Jamaica; the native Arawak population perished within a hundred years of the beginning of the Spanish occupation of the island. "Xymaca" had been the Arawak name for the island. In 1655 Jamaica was invaded and captured by British forces, and in 1670 Spain ceded its colonies in Jamaica to the British. Jamaica remained a British colony until it won its independence in 1962. Most of the population of Jamaica is of African descent, descended from slaves brought to Jamaica in the 18th century to farm sugarcane.

When the Spanish left Jamaica, they freed many of their slaves, who took up residence in the mountains. These former slaves were called "Maroons" (from the Spanish word "cimmeron," meaning wild). Many runaway slaves fled to the mountains to join the Maroons. Beginning in 1729, the British forces organized regular assaults on these Maroons strongholds in the mountains. In 1739, the Maroons signed a treaty with the British which granted the Maroon communities autonomy from British rule; in return, the Maroons agreed that they would no longer harbor runaway slaves in their communities. This peace lasted only until 1795, when another war broken out between the British and the Maroons.

Meanwhile, uprisings among the slave population continued. In 1831 there was a major uprising (the "Christmas rebellion") which finally compelled the British to begin a process of emancipation. Slavery was eventually abolished in Jamaica in 1838.


Anansi is a trickster figure in west African folk culture, especially in among the Ashanti (Akan) people of Ghana. The slaves who were brought to Jamaica carried the stories of Anansi with them. Anansi is a spider, but he is also a person: when you read the stories about Anansi and Lion and other characters, you will probably find it hard to say just "who" or "what" Anansi and the other animals are. This is a major difference between the Anansi story tradition and the animal fables of Aesop. In Aesop, the animals talk, but they clearly have animal bodies and lead, more or less, animal lives. This is not true of Anansi, who is a true animal person, a spider-man.

As a trickster, Anansi often outwits his opponents - but sometimes the trickster himself gets tricked. (You win some, you lose some!) Like most tricksters, Anansi is not very nice - you can admire his wisdom, but he can also be wicked and cruel. Anansi would really like to be able to get something for nothing: and sometimes he manages to do just that, but other times his lazy habits and greediness get him into really big trouble.

In a famous book called The Trickster (1955), the anthropologist Paul Radin made this general statement about the "trickster" figure in folklore:

Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.

Paul Radin based his ideas on the Native American trickster tradition, especially the folktales of the Winnebago people. The trickster is a central figure in Native American folklore and in many other folklore traditions around the world. You can decide if Radin's description of the trickster applies to the Jamaican stories about Anansi, the spider-man.

Martha Warren Beckwith

The stories you will be reading were collected and published by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1919 and 1921. Beckwith was a student of the anthropologist Franz Boas, whose work on the Native cultures of British Columbia had an enormous influence on modern ethnography (you may have heard of the great African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston; she also studied with Boas). Here are some excerpts from Beckwith's introduction to her collection of Jamaican folklore:

The stories in this collection were taken down from the lips of over sixty negro story-tellers in the remote country districts of Jamaica during two visits to the island, one of six weeks in the summer of 1919, the other of five weeks in the winter of 1921. [...] The original style of the story-telling, which in some instances mingles story, song and dance, is as nearly as possible preserved, although much is necessarily lost in the slow process of dictation. The lively and dramatic action, the change in voice, even the rapid and elliptical vernacular, can not appear on the printed page. But the stories are set down without polish or adornment, as nearly as possible as they were told to me, and hence represent, so far as they go, a true folk art.

In addition to the Anansi stories that Beckwith collected, she also includes Jamaican stories about magic and witchcraft along with Jamaican versions of traditional European folktales (like Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, and many others). There are also sections of Jamaican songs, jokes, and riddles. If you enjoy these Anansi stories, you will find much more to read in the complete online edition of Beckwith's Jamaican stories.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM