Learn more about Jamaica

JAMAICA. The national motto of Jamaica is "Out of many, one people." In the early 19th century, however, the people of this Caribbean island were divided by color and class. Most were black slaves--treated more as property than as human beings. In fact, until slavery was abolished in 1838, Jamaica served as the chief slave market of America. The transformation of the country into a multiracial society with considerable social and political harmony, therefore, is a remarkable achievement.

Land and People

Jamaica is a mountainous island of 4,244 square miles (10,991 square kilometers). The Blue Mountains in the east, composed in part of ancient volcanic rock, contain the island's tallest peak at 7,402 feet (2,256 meters). The northern slopes of the Blue Mountains and the nearby John Crow Mountains are a completely uninhabited wilderness. Another unpopulated region is the Cockpit Country in the center of the island. A roadless jumble of limestone pinnacles and glades, the region is riddled with spectacular caves. In the west and along the coasts are savannas, plains, and scattered trees. Most Jamaicans live on the coastal plains.

The climate is tropical, with temperatures higher along the coasts and cooler in the mountains. Rainfall, too, varies with region. Northeastern Jamaica receives more than 100 inches (250 centimeters) of rainfall annually--making it one of the wettest regions in the world. Most of the country experiences severe fluctuations of drought and flood. Little rain falls on the hot, dry southern and southwestern plains. The average annual temperature at Kingston, the capital, is 79o F (26o C).

For centuries Jamaicans have exploited their island for mahogany and other cabinet woods, leaving little of the natural rain forest still standing. Erosion of the hill slopes is one serious consequence of this exploitation. But there is still a rich flora of native orchids and ferns. Throughout the year the many species of tropical and subtropical plants produce a changing spectacle of colors. Among the plants are the vivid red poinciana, the yellow poui, and the blue lignum vitae, which is Jamaica's national tree. There are four major botanical gardens. Jamaica has more than 200 species of birds, including a beautiful hummingbird--known locally as the "doctor bird"--which is the national bird. Also abundant are bats, mongooses, frogs, lizards, and crocodiles. There are no venomous snakes on the island.

During the 18th century, more than 600,000 blacks were brought in to work on the sugar, coffee, and other plantations. Today the population of the country consists mainly of the black and mulatto descendants of those slaves. There are also minorities of East Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, Syrian, Lebanese, and European ancestry, all with full and unqualified Jamaican citizenship. More than half of the Jamaican population lives in urban areas.

The official language of Jamaica is English, but many people speak a popular and expressive Creole dialect. Originally developed as a means of communication between slaves, it contains elements from African languages as well as from English, French, and Spanish. Education is theoretically free, but illiteracy is still a problem. Near Kingston, the capital and chief port, is the main campus of the University of the West Indies and a technical college.

A religious people, Jamaicans enjoy complete freedom of worship. Many Christian denominations are represented--the majority belonging to the Church of God--and there are small groups of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Two cults, Kumina (Revival) and Rastafarianism, have African links and are native to Jamaica. Rastafarians use ganja, a potent form of marijuana, as a sacrament and have special rules of dress, diet, and work. Jamaicans have developed a vibrant national culture, notably represented in such fields as reggae music, drama, and the visual arts and in the sport of cricket.


About one fourth of the people depend upon agriculture for a living. Half the cultivated area is controlled by about 1,000 large estates, while the other half is divided into 185,000 small farms. The larger farms mainly produce sugarcane, citrus fruits, coffee, bananas, pimentos, and cattle--often for export. The small farms grow a variety of crops and raise goats and pigs for subsistence and for local markets.

Jamaica depends on tourism. A string of beautiful resorts extends all along the north coast. Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are towns with many large hotels, but there are also simpler types of accommodations set in small coves and secluded bay areas. Among the popular attractions are water sports and game fishing.

Five international aluminum companies mine deposits of bauxite on the central limestone plateaus; three of them also process the ore into alumina. The aluminum industry causes environmental pollution, but it is also vital to the national economy. Among the top five producers of bauxite and alumina in the world, Jamaica derives essential foreign exchange from the industry. Workers in the bauxite industry are among the highest paid in the country.

The Kingston metropolitan area dominates the country commercially and industrially (see Kingston). Spanish Town (the capital from 1534 to 1872), May Pen, and Mandeville are smaller industrial and commercial centers. Jamaica has a good road network. Public transport is mainly by minibus. Air Jamaica links the country with other Caribbean islands, the United States, Canada, and Europe.

History and Government

When Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1494, the island was inhabited by the gentle Arawak people. During 150 years of Spanish rule, the Arawaks were virtually exterminated, and African slaves were brought to the island. A British force invaded successfully in 1655, and Jamaica remained a British colony until 1962. The slave trade expanded during the 18th century.

Slavery was abolished by stages in the 1830s, and between 1839 and 1844 indentured laborers from India were brought in to replace the blacks, many of whom moved to the new free settlements that had developed in the hills. In 1865 there was an uprising, which the British governor Edward John Eyre repressed so severely that he was recalled and put on trial. In the 1930s Sir Alexander Bustamante--who later led the country to independence--was prominent in a vigorous labor movement. He founded the Jamaica Labour party, while his cousin Norman Washington Manley formed the People's National party.

Jamaica is a parliamentary democracy, with a lower house elected by universal suffrage and an appointed senate. It belongs to the Commonwealth, and the head of state is the governor-general, who is appointed by the monarch of England. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives.

In the late 1970s Jamaica moved toward closer ties with Cuba under Michael Manley, who was prime minister from 1972 to 1980. Under Manley the country was brought to the verge of economic collapse. After 1980 ties with the United States were strengthened with the election of the conservative Edward Seaga. During his term there were problems of overpopulation, limited resources, and inequitable distribution of land and wealth. Manley was again elected prime minister in 1989. A devastating hurricane in September 1988 caused widespread damage. Percival Patterson of the People's National party became prime minister in 1993. Population (1995 estimate), 2,520,000.

L. Alan Eyre

Another View (Part 2)

The Land Jamaica has an area of 4,411 square miles or 11,424 square kilometers. The island is 146 miles (235 km) long with widths varying between 22 (35 km) and 58 (93 km) miles. She is the third largest of the Caribbean islands and the largest of the English speaking islands.

Jamaica is a very mountainous country. Almost half of the island is above 1,000 feet (305m). Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point, is 7,402 feet (2,256m) above sea level. The annual average rainfall is 78 inches (198 cm). Because of the effects of the mountains, rainfall is fairly evenly distributed. Some hilly areas get nearly 300 inches (762 cm) a year while parts of the western plains get as little as 30 inches (76.2cm).

The annual average temperature is 27 degrees Celsius. The hottest months are in the summer, and the winter months (December to March) are appreciably cooler. Areas of high altitude are also much cooler. For example, the Blue Mountain Peak has an average annual temperature of 13 degrees Celsius. The tides around the coast hardly vary. The difference between high and low tide is never more than 16 inches (41cm).

Jamaica has about 120 rivers, most of which flow to the coast from the central mountain ranges. Those on the north side tend to be shorter and swifter than those on the south side.

Jamaica is blessed with several mineral springs, four of which are developed with facilities for bathing and/or accommodation. One is attached to the San Souci Lido Hotel and three are public, Bath in St. Thomas, Milk River in Clarendon and Rockfort in St. Andrew.

History and People

The first Jamaicans were the aboriginal Taino Indians. Christopher Columbus found them living here when he came. Soon after the Spaniards settled on the island, the Tainos were all killed or died out from overwork and European diseases to which they had no immunity. Africans were imported to work as slaves on the plantations. Cattle and other small animals were the main livestock, while tobacco and staple foods were the main crops. The staple foods provided food for the population as well as supplies for passing ships. The word Jamaica comes from an Arawak word Xaymaca, meaning "Land of wood and water".

Although the Tainos of Jamaica have all died out, they have left several words in the English Language. Among them: hammock, tobacco, potato, hurricane, maize, barbecue, cannibal and canoe.

Christopher Columbus first came to Jamaica on May 4, 1494 while on his second voyage to the "new" world. This great explorer landed at Discovery Bay on the north coast near the resort town of Ocho Rios.

Columbus once spent a whole year in St. Ann's Bay. It was during his fourth voyage n 1503 when he stopped here because his ships were worm eaten. A full year passed before help arrived and he was able to repair his ships. This is the longest time he ever spent in any one place on any of his voyages.

Jamaica's first town built by the Spanish in 1509 was "Sevilla Neuva", or New Seville near St. Ann's Bay on the island north coast. In 1534 the Spaniards, having abandoned Seville for health reasons, founded Spanish Town on the south coast and made it the island's capital. Seville Nueva now lies beneath the earth in St. Ann. Archaeological excavations are now being made of this Spanish settlement.

Jamaica became a British colony in 1655 when the English captured in from the Spaniards. The English turned the island into one vast sugar plantation which made them rich. In England they used to say 'rich as a West Indian planter' to mean the richest person around.

To grow the sugarcane, the English brought many more Africans to work as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the West Coast of Africa. The majority were from the Fanti and Ashanti tribes. Others from the Ibo and Yoruba tribes came from what is now present day Nigeria.

When the slaves were freed in 1838, most of them deserted the plantations and settled down the hills to cultivate their own small plots of land. They founded a peasantry which is today regarded as the "backbone" of Jamaica.

After slavery was abolished, the English brought in Chinese and later East Indians as indentured labourers to work on the plantations.

The Jews are among the oldest residents of Jamaica. Some Jewish families have been here from the time of the earliest Spanish settlements. Although very small in number, the Jewish community has been very influential in government and commerce.

When the English took over Jamaica, the Spaniards fled to neighbouring islands and their slaves escaped into the mountains and formed their own independent groups called the Maroons.

The Maroons were in time joined by many other slaves who escaped from the English. For a long time, they fought against the English who sought to re-enslave them. So successful were the Maroons, fighting guerrilla style from their mountain fortresses, that the English were forced to sign peace treaties with them, granting them self government and the mountain lands which they inhabited. Today, descendants of the Maroons still live in the hilly Cockpit Country of western Jamaica (Accompong) and Moore Town in the hills of Portland (eastern Jamaica). They still maintain their lands and elect governing councils headed by colonels to administer their affairs. Maroons, however, are fully integrated into the Jamaican society and share the rights and responsibilities of Jamaican citizenship.

Over ninety percent of the Jamaican population is of African descent. There has been much intermarriage among the races over the centuries and this is reflected in the diverse physical appearance of Jamaicans, and in their unique culture. The African heritage is still very strong. It is seen in the foods Jamaicans grow and eat (e.g. yam); in some religious practices; in music and dance; in folk tales, proverbs and aspects of the language.

The official language of Jamaica is English. However, the majority of population speak a Jamaican Creole called patois, which is a mixture of English and African forms, and words adopted from foreign sources. This is a mixture of English and African forms and words from all over. The Jamaican Creole has been studied by many scholars. There is even a Dictionary of Jamaican English published by Cambridge University Press.

Jamaica has a population of 2.5 million. Kingston, the capital city, is the most densely populated with 750,000 persons. In the Northern Hemisphere, Kingston is the largest English speaking city south of Miami.

The majority of the population is Christian with small Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Bahai communities. The older established churches are Anglican (Episcopalian), Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Adventists, Moravian and United Church (Presbyterian) and Congregational). The Pentecostals also have a large number of adherents. Many Jamaicans are members of indigenous religious groups e.g. Pocomania, Revivalism and Rastafari. Rastafari is a religious sect which believes in the divinity of Haile Sealassie, the late Emperor of Ethiopia.

Government and Politics

On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became an independent country after more than 300 years of British rule. She remains a part of Commonwealth of Nations. The Queen of English is titular head of state, and is represented by the Governor General who is a Jamaican.

The Prime Minister is head of Government. Jamaica has a bicameral parliament based on the Westminster model, where there is a lower house (The House of Representatives) whose members are elected under universal adult suffrage, and an upper house (The Senate) whose members are appointed by the Governor General. The majority of Senate members are appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the others on the recommendation of the Leader of the Opposition. Parliament is made up of a majority party which forms the Government, and minority parties which form the Opposition.

Jamaica has two main political parties: The People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). A third political party, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) was launched in 1995. The term of governance is five years, but the Prime Minister can call an election at any time within the term. The minimum voting age is 18.

The island is divided into 3 counties and 14 parishes. Each parish has a capital town which is the centre of local Government administration. Jamaica has many post-secondary institutions. These include:

  • The University of the West Indies

  • University of Technology, Jamaica

  • Passley Gardens Agricultural College

  • Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts

  • Several teacher training colleges

  • Community Colleges

There are also many specialist educational institutions island-wide. Jamaica has a good public library system with libraries maintained in most towns. Bookmobiles take books to small villages. The National Library of Jamaica is at the institute of Jamaica in Kingston. The National Library at the institute of Jamaica is the best repository of West Indian historical documents in the world. The herbarium there has over 55,000 specimens of West Indian plants. The National Archives are in Spanish Town. All the country's public records are kept there.

Jamaica has produced many international sportsmen and women especially in cricket, athletics, boxing, football and tennis. Jamaicans are a sports-loving people. The most popular spectator sports are cricket, track and field, football (soccer) and boxing. Also popular are golf, tennis, basketball, net ball, polo, swimming and water sports.

Every year, an annual island wide festival is held to celebrate the anniversary of Independence. Festival brings together the best in Jamaican art, craft and the performing arts. The finals of the events are held island wide and provide much colour and spectacle. On Independence Day, the first Monday in August, there is a grand gala in Kingston.

The National Dance Theatre Company and the Jamaican Folk Singers are undoubtedly two of the best-known theatrical performing groups.

An annual theatrical event is the Jamaican Pantomine. It is a colourful musical and is very popular with Jamaicans. The Pantomime plays for approximately four months at different theatres, after opening on December 26 (Boxing Day) at the Ward Theatre in Kingston.

Jamaica has three daily newspapers: "The Gleaner", "The Observer", "The Star", several weekly newspapers and other publications. There are eight radio stations - RJR which has acquired the (JBC) with the new name being Super Supreme radio, which broadcast on both the AM and FM bands, Hot 102 FM, KLAS FM, IRIE FM, Love FM, Power 106 - and 2 televison stations, Super Supreme TV - originally (JBC TV) and CVM TV.

The Economy

The most important areas of the economy are tourism, agriculture, bauxite mining and manufacturing. The main agricultural export crops are: sugar, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa, coconut, pimento (allspice) and root crops (e.g. yams). Jamaica exports flowers and foliage plants. Much has also been achieved in fresh water fish and shrimp farming, the growing of mushrooms, strawberries and oyster farming. Numerous tropical tubers, vegetables, flowers and exotic fruits are cultivated in accordance with tradition. Blue Mountain Coffee if the most prized and expensive in the world and is used chiefly for blending with less aromatic beans worldwide. It si grown only in a small area on the slopes of the Blue Mountains. Jamaica also produces excellent mid-mountain and lowland coffee.

Jamaica is one of the world's major producers of bauxite and alumina, from which aluminum is made. Aluminum is not actually made in Jamaica, as the ore is shipped to smelters in the USA, Canada, Norway and other countries. Of all the minerals in Jamaica, alabaster and limestone. There are also significant deposits of agate.

Tourism is Jamaica's largest earner of foreign exchange and there are over 1 million visitors per year. Jamaica offers year round tourism in Kingston, Montego Bay, Runaway Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril, Port Antonio and Mandeville and The Southwest Coast.

There are a number of hotels, large and small, varying from high rises to hotels in elegant old world style and small modern hotels marketed under the umbrella title of "Inns of Jamaica". There are also guest houses and different types of villas and apartments. All offer modern conveniences and excellent service. They are inspected regularly before licences are issued or are renewed. Approved properties offer good value for money.

Jamaica has many fine restaurants which offer a variety of dining styles in Jamaica, America, Continental, East Indian, Chinese and Italian cuisine's, among others.

There is a wide variety of attractions and entertainment events year round and Jamaica abounds in fine beaches and scenic beauty.

There are numerous recreational opportunities. Facilities for tennis, golf, equestrian sports and water sports of all sorts are excellent.

The Jamaica Tourist Board is head quartered in Kingston and maintains offices both locally and overseas.

Cruise shipping plays a major part in the tourist industry and Jamaica is a popular port of call. There are cruise ship ports in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Port Antonio and Kingston. Jamaica also offers excellent shopping opportunities ranging from art and craft goods, duty free items and leisure and evening wear.

Natural History

A little bird called the Jamaican tody makes its nest, not in a tree, but in a hole in the ground. The tody is also known as the robin redbreast (not to be confused with the Robin Redbreast of England). This particular tody is found only in Jamaica, and is one of the many endemic species found here.

Jamaica has a few harmless snakes found mostly in remote areas such as the Cockpit country. The breadfruit was brought to Jamaica from Tahiti in 1793 by Captain Bligh. The first time he attempted to bring the plants into the island, his crew took over the shop and put him off on a deserted island. The film "Mutiny on the Bounty" was based on this event.

The mongoose was introduced to the island from India to kill the snakes in the canefields. Drivers will sometimes see them running across the road.

Jamaica is famous for its woods - mahogany, blue mahoe (the national free), satinwood, cottonwood, cedar, spanish elm and others. These woods are used in the manufacturing of beautiful furniture and fine craft items.

The national flower is the Lignum Vitae which means "Tree of Life". In the old days, Lignum Vitae was used widely as a medicine. The wood is extremely heavy and hard and has been used to make ships' propellers and policemen's batons. Today it is prized by furniture manufacturers and sculptors.

Jamaica has over 200 native species of orchids and hundreds of imported varieties and hybrids. As a result, there are orchid shows especially in the spring and fall. Jamaica now exports orchids.

Ackee and salt fish is the "national dish". The ackee was first brought from Africa on a slave ship. Ackee, though cooked and used as a vegetable, is a fruit. It is Jamaica's national fruit. Jamaica has many exotic fruits - many types of mangoes, star apple, sweet sop, sour sop, custard apple, rose apple, sweet-cup, otaheiti apple, jack fruit, guinep, tamarind and naseberry, among others. When in season, all are available at roadside stalls. The pineapple was introduced to Hawaii from Jamaica.

The coconut is the world's most useful tree. Every part of the tree, as well as its fruit, is used by man. The trees can bee seen along Jamaica's coastline and on working plantations, some of which offer regularly sightseeing tours. The Giant Swallow Tail butterfly is found only in Jamaica. It has a wingspan of up to six inches (0.2m). It is believed to be the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. A Jamaican butterfly called the 'Zebra' has an interesting habit. Every evening, large swarms roost on the same tree or branch. This is a most unusual habit in the butterfly world. The 'Zebra' is striped black and yellow.

Jamaica has over 500 species of true ferns. Some are enormous tree ferns while others are so small they can hardly be seen with the naked eye.

Pimento (also called Allspice) is indigenous to Jamaica. We therefore supply most of the spice on the world market. The spice comes from the dry berry. Pimento oil is extracted from the leaves. A delicious liqueur is made from the ripe berries.

Over 252 species of birds are found here. Off these, 24 are found nowhere else. These include the national bird, the Streamer-tailed Hummingbird or Doctor Bird. Four varieties of Hummingbirds are found here. Among them are the Doctor Bird and the Bee Hummingbird, one of the smallest birds in the world.

The bamboo is the tallest member of the grass family. It originated in Asia, but many varieties are now found in Jamaica. Bamboo Avenue is an attraction close to the island's southwest coast where the feathery tops form a canopy over more than three miles of road.

Bats (locally called 'rat bats') live in vast colonies in caves. Some feed on insects, some on fish, and some on fruit. Twenty-five species are found in Jamaica.

The island's lizards are all harmless. Many can change colour to suit their surroundings - a protective strategy. Jamaica's largest lizard is the iguana which can grow to over 6 feet long. Though now rare in Jamaica, iguanas can be seen at the Hope Children's Zoo in Kingston.

A group of whistling frogs found in Jamaica do not go through the tadpole stage as do most frogs. Their eggs are laid under stones and hatch out into little frogs.

Jamaica has about 50 species of coral, in addition to a wide variety of beautiful sponges and seaweed. Some of Jamaica's corals are found nowhere else.

When Jamaican fireflies flash their lights, it means they are courting each other. Each species has a different flash and the females have a different signal from the males. They are known locally as blinkies or peenie-wallies.

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