On Aug. 6, 1962, Jamaica's national flag made its official debut, marking the Caribbean island's political independence after more than 400 years of successive Spanish and British rule. Christened with the motto "Hardships there are, but the land is green and the sun shineth," the banner features two gold diagonals crisscrossing to form a pair of green triangles at the top and bottom and a pair of black ones on the left and right.
Today the flag conveys a more upbeat message: "The sun shineth, the land is green, and the people are strong and creative." The Jamaica Information Service, a semiautonomous agency of the Jamaican government, explains that "black depicts the strength and creativity of the people; gold, the natural wealth and beauty of sunlight; and green, hope and agricultural resources."
The fact that more than 90 per cent of Jamaicans descend from African slaves makes the colour black an apt symbol for the strength and creativity of the island's inhabitants. National heroes include Granny Nanny, a black rebel leader who fought the British in the First Maroon War of 1720 to 1739; Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and an advocate for black self-government in Africa during the first half of the 20th century; Louise "Miss Lou" Bennett, mother of Jamaican English "dub" poetry; and reggae musician Bob Marley, who won international acclaim for hits such as "No Woman, No Cry," and "One Love."
The gold in the flag conjures images of sandy beaches, vibrant coral reefs, majestic mountains and sparkling waterfalls all basking in the glow of tropical sunlight. Jamaica's natural beauty continues to attract tourists, whose spending accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product as of 2009, according to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. In the past, it has persuaded celebrity visitors like playwright-actor-songwriter Noel Coward, James Bond creator Ian Fleming and film star Errol Flynn to take up full-time residence in the Caribbean paradise.
As the green in the flag suggests, agriculture remains a significant source of livelihood in Jamaica, employing nearly 18 per cent of the country's labour force as of 2008, according to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. When Christopher Columbus arrived at the island and claimed it for Spain in 1494, he found the native Arawak people---whom he misidentified as "Indians," or inhabitants of India---living on cassava, coconuts, pineapples and sweet potatoes. The Spanish established a colony, building sugar plantations that relied on the forced labour of Arawak and imported African slaves. After the British seized Jamaica in 1655, the island's plantations produced cocoa and coffee in addition to sugar. Jamaica's agricultural exports now include bananas, citrus fruits, coffee, condiments, spices and sugar.
Collectively, the colours of the Jamaican flag---as do reggae music and Rastafarianism---testify to the black population's cultural ties to its ancestral homeland of Africa. In 1925, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a flag using the very colours that would later appear on Jamaica's standard. On its website, the ANC explains that for purposes of its own banner, "black symbolises the people, green the fertility of the land, and gold the mineral wealth beneath the soil."
The African countries of Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe also use these three colours in their respective flags. In fact, before Jamaica's current flag received approval, government authorities rejected a proposed pattern of horizontal stripes because it too closely resembled the flag of Tanganyika, a sovereign state that would later merge with Zanzibar to form Tanzania.
Each summer, the colours of the flag become a cause for national celebration. In anticipation of Independence Day on Aug. 6, the country hosts Jamaica Festival, a series of cultural events showcasing art and photography, crafts, dance, drama, literary arts, music and speech. Jamaicans call the festival a "bam bam," after the Toots and the Maytals tune that became the winning National Festival Song in 1966. On Aug. 6, the people take part in an annual parade, waving flags and donning clothes of black, gold and green. Their rallying cry? "Wear yuh colours!"