There is rhythm in the soul of this Caribbean island. You hear it in the waves gently tumbling on the white, sandy beaches. And in the swaying palm trees as their leaves are played by tropical breezes. And in the whistles of he tree frogs as they talk to each other after sundown.

The music of the island pulses with rhythm, the reggae sound that was born and reared here, but has made a name for itself around the world. There is a lilt to the dialectic patois that is spoken among the islanders.Yes, there is rhythm here . . . and blues.

Pick any name for blue - azure, aquamarine, turquoise, royal - and you can find it in the sea and the sky surrounding the island. There are blues to revel in, to marvel at, to lose yourself with, to wonder how one color can be expressed in so many shades and textures.

Rhythm and blues in Jamaica. And if that were all, it would be enough. But that is just the beginning of the harmonies. Here, on this little Caribbean island, there is an exciting blend of culture, setting, activity and history that is uniquely its own.

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS discovered the island on May 4, 1494, on his second journey to the New World. He called it the "fairest isle that eyes have ever seen." Columbus christened it St. Iago when he claimed it for Spain, but it came to be called after an Arawak word, Xamayca, that meant land of wood and water.

The third largest island in the Caribbean, and the largest English-speaking one, Jamaica is 146 miles long by 51 miles at its widest and has a population of approximately 2.5 million.

History was not especially kind to Jamaica. The Arawak Indians who inhabited the land were a gentle, easy-going people, no match for the fierce Caribs that started raiding from the East before Columbus, or for the grim and greedy Spanish that came after.

The hardships of slave labor, lack of resistance to European disease, and outright killings meant that little more than a hundred years after the first Spanish settlement, the Arawaks were wiped out.

As early as 1517, the Spanish began to bring in slaves from Africa to work the mines and the fields, and the Spanish colony drifted into a quiet life of modest trade and internal disputes. At most, the Spanish population was 1,500.

And if fate was not kind, it was also fickle. Jamaica was captured by the British in 1655 in one of the interesting military bungles of the past. Oliver Cromwell was on the British thrown and had planned a major offensive against Spain in the West Indies.

Cromwell sent a fleet and an army to attack Santo Domingo and capture the island of Hispaniola. Instead the British lost a third of their forces.

Rather than return to England empty-handed, the commanders turned to Jamaica, which they knew would be an easy, if less-desirable, target.

After more bungling, during which the Spanish colonials turned their cattle loose, freed and armed all their slaves, collected all their valuables and left the island unscathed, British rule was established.

It may not have been an auspicious beginning, but the British capitalized on the potential. They found Jamaica ideally suited for sugar plantations _ and for piracy. The infamous Henry Morgan and his buccaneers made Port Royal their headquarters and plundered Spanish and French ships at every opportunity. Port Royal, in fact, gained a reputation as the richest and most wicked city in the Western Hemisphere.

During the next couple of centuries, Jamaica flourished and came to be known as a "jewel in the crown of England." "As wealthy as a Jamaican sugar plantation owner" was the catch phrase of high society.

A case can be made, in fact, that at the time of the American revolution, England looked on her West Indies holdings as the more valuable real estate.

Jamaica remained a part of Britain until 1962, when it was granted independence. Today, though it has its own constitution and government, it remains a member of the British Commonwealth. THIS CHECKERBOARD PAST has shaped the culture and character of Jamaica today. Proud of the various elements that have made it what it is, the country proclaims its theme: "out of many, one." Nationalism is strong. People of African heritage account for 90 percent of the population, but practically every race and every religion are represented.

For such a small island, it has had a large impact, says Raymond Broadie, entertainment and grounds director at Sandals Negril, one of the island's newest resorts, and a student of Jamaican culture and history. "We can sit up straight and say, `We've contributed to the world.' You can find some aspect of Jamaican culture anywhere you go."

The Arawaks contributed such words as tobacco, hammock and hurricane to our language.

Reggae music, with its distinctive beat and colorful lyrics, has gained a strong following in Europe as well as the U.S. "All the elements of our past come together in this music," says Broadie. "The rhythm of Africa, the melodies of Europe, the opposing forces of slavery and plantation owners. Nowhere else could this music be created."

Jamaican cuisine, with it fish and tropical fruits combined with spices and flavors of the island, is popular abroad. Even the Jamaican attitude toward life - "No problem" - is spilling over to other places.

But if you find touches of Jamaican culture in other places, there is nothing quite like sampling the real thing.

JAMAICA IS A LAND of variety and contrasts. You can go hiking in the Blue Mountains. You can climb up the middle of a waterfall at Dunns River Falls. You can visit the Carinosa Gardens and see the lovely arrangements of tropical flowers and observe birds of all kinds of feather. You can discover the fascinating underwater world of colorful fish and intricate coral formations. You can sort through the treasures and the junk at the local crafts markets.

Do all that. But be sure to save just a little time just to sit on a golden stretch of beach and soak up the rhythm and the blues this island is famous for.

*Carma Wadley visited Jamaica as the guest of Sandals Resorts.