Island country, West Indies, located south of Cuba.
The third largest island in the Caribbean, it is 146 mi (235 km) long
and 35 mi (56 km) wide. Area: 4,244 sq mi (10,991 sq km). Population
(2008 est.): 2,688,000. Capital: Kingston. The population consists
mostly of descendents of African slaves. Languages: English (official),
Jamaican Creole. Religions: Christianity (mainly Protestant; also Roman
Catholic); also Rastafarianism. Currency: Jamaican dollar. Jamaica has
three major regions: the coastal lowlands, which encircle the island and
are heavily cultivated; a limestone plateau, which covers half of the
island; and the interior highlands, with forested mountain ranges,
including the Blue Mountains. Agriculture employs about one-fifth of the
workforce, and the major agricultural export is raw sugar, with molasses
and rum as by-products. Industry focuses on the production of bauxite
and alumina and on the garment industry. Tourism is very important.
Jamaica is a constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses. Its
chief of state is the British monarch, represented by the
governor-general, and its head of government is the prime minister. The
island was settled by Arawak Indians c. 600 ce. It was sighted by
Christopher Columbus in 1494; Spain colonized it in the early 16th
century but neglected it because it lacked gold reserves. Britain gained
control in 1655, and by the end of the 18th century Jamaica had become a
prized colonial possession because of the volume of sugar produced by
slave labourers. Slavery was abolished in the late 1830s, and the
plantation system collapsed. Jamaica gained full internal
self-government in 1959 and became an independent country within the
British Commonwealth in 1962. In the late 20th century the government,
led by Michael Manley, nationalized many businesses.
Official name Jamaica
Form of government constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses
(Senate ; House of Representatives )
Chief of state British Monarch represented by Governor-General
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Jamaican dollar (J$)
Population estimate (2008) 2,688,000
Total area (sq mi) 4,244
Total area (sq km) 10,991
1All seats appointed by Governor-General.
island nation of the West Indies. It is the third largest island in
the Caribbean Sea, after Cuba and Hispaniola. Jamaica is about 146 miles
(235 km) long and varies from 22 to 51 miles (35 to 82 km) wide. It is
situated some 100 miles (160 km) west of Haiti, 90 miles (150 km) south
of Cuba, and 390 miles (630 km) northeast of Cape Gracias a Dios,
Nicaragua, the nearest point on the mainland. The national capital is
Christopher Columbus, who first sighted the island in 1494, called it
Santiago, but the original indigenous name of Jamaica, or Xaymaca, has
persisted. Columbus considered it to be “the fairest isle that eyes have
beheld,” and many travelers still regard it as one of the most beautiful
islands in the Caribbean. The island’s various Spanish, French, and
English place-names are remnants of its colonial history; the great
majority of its people are of African ancestry, the descendants of
slaves brought in by European colonists. Jamaica became independent from
the United Kingdom in 1962 but remains a member of the Commonwealth.
Interior mountains and plateaus cover much of Jamaica’s length, and
nearly half of the island’s surface is more than 1,000 feet (300 metres)
above sea level. The most rugged topography and highest elevations are
in the east, where the Blue Mountains rise to 7,402 feet (2,256 metres)
at Blue Mountain Peak, the island’s highest point. Karst (limestone)
landscapes with ridges, depressions, and sinkholes (“cockpits”)
characterize the hills and plateaus of the John Crow Mountains, the Dry
Harbour Mountains, and Cockpit Country, a region covering 500 square
miles (1,300 square km) in western Jamaica. The Don Figuerero, Santa
Cruz, and May Day mountains are major landforms in the southwest.
Coastal plains largely encircle the island, and the largest alluvial
plains are located in the south.
Drainage and soils
Numerous rivers and streams issue from the central highlands, but many
disappear intermittently into karst sinkholes and caves. Few rivers are
navigable for any great distance, because of their rapid descent from
the mountains. The Rio Minho in central Jamaica is the longest river,
flowing for some 58 miles (93 km) from the Dry Harbour Mountains to
Carlisle Bay. The Black River in the west and the Rio Cobre near
Kingston are each longer than 30 miles (50 km).
More than half of the island’s surface is covered with white
limestone, beneath which are yellow limestone, older metamorphic rocks
(compact rocks formed by heat and pressure), and igneous rocks (formed
by the cooling of molten material). The shallow soils of many upland
areas are particularly susceptible to erosion. Alluvial soils on the
coastal plains chiefly consist of deep loam and clay, and residual clays
cover the valley floors.
The tropical climate is influenced by the sea and the northeast trade
winds, which are dominant throughout the year. Coastal breezes blow
onshore by day and offshore at night. During the winter months, from
December to March, colder winds known locally as “northers” reach the
island from the North American mainland.
The mountains cause variations in temperature according to elevation,
but there is little change from season to season. Temperatures on the
coasts can reach about 90 °F (32 °C), and low temperatures of some 40 °F
(4 °C) have been recorded on the high peaks. Average diurnal
temperatures at Kingston, at sea level, range between 88 °F (31 °C) and
71 °F (22 °C). At Stony Hill, 1,400 feet (427 metres) above sea level,
the maximum and minimum means are only a few degrees cooler.
Rains are seasonal, falling chiefly in October and May, although
thunderstorms can bring heavy showers in the summer months, from June to
September. The average annual rainfall for the entire island is 82
inches (2,100 mm), but regional variations are considerable. The
mountains force the trade winds to deposit more than 130 inches (3,300
mm) per year on the eastern parish of Portland, while little
precipitation occurs on the hot, dry savannas of the south and
southwest. Jamaica has occasionally been struck by hurricanes during the
summer, including those in 1951, 1980, and 1988. Earthquakes have caused
serious damage only twice—in 1692 and 1907.
Plant and animal life
The island is renowned for its diverse ecosystems, including stunted,
elfin forests on the highest peaks, rainforests in the valleys,
savannas, and dry, sandy areas supporting only cacti and other
xerophytic plants. Jamaica’s plant life has changed considerably through
the centuries. The island was completely forested in the 15th century,
except for small agricultural clearings, but European settlers cut down
the great timber trees for building purposes and cleared the plains,
savannas, and mountain slopes for cultivation. They also introduced many
new plants, including sugarcane, bananas, and citrus trees.
Jamaica has few indigenous mammals. Coneys (a type of rodent) were
numerous and prized as food in pre-Columbian times but have since been
reduced by hunting and habitat destruction. The native crocodile may
also be threatened with extinction. Bat species are the most numerous of
the mammals. Mongooses, which feed on rats and snakes, have become
widespread since they were introduced in 1872. The mountain mullet is
the most prevalent freshwater fish, and there are four species of
crayfish. More than 200 bird species have been recorded, including
migratory birds and some two dozen endemic species, such as the
streamertail hummingbird, which is the national bird.
Among the island’s protected areas are the Cockpit Country, Hellshire
(Healthshire) Hills, and Litchfield forest reserves. Jamaica’s first
marine park, covering nearly 6 square miles (15 square km), was
established in Montego Bay in 1992. The following year Blue and John
Crow Mountains National Park was created on roughly 300 square miles
(780 square km) of wilderness that supports thousands of tree and fern
species, rare animals, and insects, such as the Homerus swallowtail, the
Western Hemisphere’s largest butterfly.
During the colonial era some of the island’s African slaves escaped from
large coastal plantations and established independent communities
farther inland. The remaining slaves were emancipated in 1838, at which
time many also left the plantations for the interior—often with the aid
of Nonconformist (non-Anglican) missionaries. Several of those early
communities grew into permanent towns.
Most of the urban centres are located on the coastal plains, where
the main commercial crops are grown. Kingston, the national capital, is
located on the Liguanea Plain on the southeastern coast, between the sea
and the St. Andrew Mountains, which form part of the ranges of the
parish of St. Andrew. Kingston is the commercial, administrative, and
cultural centre of the island and the focus of its transportation
services. Other southern coastal towns include Savanna-la-Mar (in the
southwest), Portmore (just west of Kingston), and Morant Bay (east).
Important centres in the interior are Spanish Town, which is the old
capital 13 miles (21 km) west of Kingston, May Pen, and Mandeville, high
in the Manchester Highlands. Montego Bay is the largest city on the
northern coast; smaller northern towns include St. Ann’s Bay, Port
Maria, Ocho Rios, and Port Antonio. Their fine white-sand beaches and
exquisite mountain scenery make them popular tourist resorts; Ocho Rios
developed particularly rapidly in the late 20th century as a centre for
hotels and cruise ship stopovers.
Ethnicity and language
Spanish colonists had exterminated the aboriginal Arawak Indians by the
time the English invaded the island in 1655. The Spaniards themselves
escaped the island or were expelled shortly afterward. The population of
English settlers remained small, but they brought in vast numbers of
African slaves to work the sugar estates. Today the population consists
predominantly of the black and mulatto descendants of those slaves, with
small groups who trace their ancestry to the United Kingdom, India,
China, Syria, Portugal, and Germany.
English, the official language, is commonly used in towns and among
the more privileged social classes. Jamaican Creole is also widely
spoken. Its vocabulary and grammar are based in English, but its various
dialects derive vocabulary and phrasing from West African languages,
Spanish, and, to a lesser degree, French. The language’s characteristics
include pronouncing the letter combination th as if it were a d or t and
omitting some initial consonant sounds, principally the h; moreover, its
lyrical cadences, intonations, and pronunciations may be unintelligible
for some English-speaking visitors. The Creole languages of Belize,
Grenada, and St. Vincent are similar to that of Jamaica.
Freedom of worship is guaranteed by Jamaica’s constitution. No single
religious group has a majority of adherents, but the majority of
Jamaicans are at least nominally Christian, including roughly two-fifths
in Protestant denominations and one-tenth in the Roman Catholic church.
Evangelical Christian churches have increased in size from the late 20th
century. About one-tenth of the population are Pentecostals (mainly of
the Church of God), and there are lesser numbers of Seventh-day
Adventists and Baptists. Only a small percentage of the total attends
the Anglican church, which, as the Church of England, was the island’s
only established church until 1870. Smaller Protestant denominations
include the Moravians, Disciples of Christ, Society of Friends
(Quakers), and United Church of Christ.
The Jewish community is one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.
Jamaica also has a small Hindu population, a Muslim mosque, and a branch
of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Some syncretic religious movements
base their beliefs on Christianity and West African traditions. The
central feature of the Pocomania sect, for example, is spirit
possession; the Cumina sect has rituals characterized by drumming,
dancing, and spirit possession. Rastafarianism has been an important
religious and cultural movement in Jamaica since the 1950s and has
attracted adherents from the island’s poorest communities, although it
represents only a small proportion of the total population. Rastafarians
believe in the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia and in
the eventual return of his exiled followers to Africa. Rastafarianism
has become internationally known through its associations with reggae
music and some of Jamaica’s most successful musical stars.
The population of Jamaica has grown steadily through the centuries,
despite considerable emigration, and in the 1950s and ’60s a peak in the
birth rate created a baby boom generation. Birth and death rates have
both declined since the 1970s, and by the mid-1990s the fertility rate
averaged about 3 children per woman of childbearing age.
Jamaican workers emigrated to Panama in successive waves: in the
1850s to help build a trans-isthmian railway, in the late 19th century
during the failed French-led effort to build a canal, and in 1904–14
during the successful U.S.-led effort. The nascent banana industry in
Central America drew still more Jamaicans, as did the need for workers
in the sugar and coffee plantations of Cuba. Great numbers have migrated
to Canada and United Kingdom, which registered some 200,000 Jamaicans
during the period 1950–60. The United States attracted more Jamaicans
than all other nations combined during the 19th and 20th centuries, and
the United States and Canada continue to be the primary destination of
Internal migration has also been pronounced, owing to growth in
bauxite mining, the manufacturing sector, and tourism. Between 1969 and
1974, for instance, more than one-fourth of the population changed their
parish of residence. Job opportunities in tourist resorts on the
northern coast and in the Kingston region have attracted many migrants
from rural communities. At the turn of the 21st century, nearly
one-third of the island’s population lived in the Kingston metropolitan
area, and about half lived in urban areas. Jamaica’s population density
is about average for the West Indies.
Jamaica’s economy is mixed but increasingly based on services, notably
tourism and finance. Since independence in 1962, Jamaica has developed
markedly but unevenly. The government controls some key industries, but
there are many foreign-owned companies, especially those controlling
exports (bauxite and aluminum) and tourism, which are Jamaica’s main
sources of foreign exchange. Mining and manufacturing became
increasingly important to the economy in the latter part of the 20th
century; however, the mining sector has been highly vulnerable to
fluctuations in the world market for aluminum. The island experienced a
protracted recession in the 1990s after aluminum prices declined and
many U.S. manufacturers relocated off the island.
Large deposits of bauxite (the ore of aluminum) are found in central
Jamaica. Iron ore, gypsum, and marble are in eastern Jamaica, and clays
occur in the west. Silica sand and limestone are found throughout the
island. Other mineral resources include peat, gravel, and smaller
quantities of lignite, copper, lead, zinc, and phosphates; Jamaica’s
black sands contain some titanium.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Agriculture continues to be one of the bases of the island’s economy,
accounting for about one-tenth of the gross domestic product (GDP) and
one-fifth of the workforce. The two major crops are sugar—with its
byproducts molasses and rum—and bananas. Also important are citrus
fruits, yams, coffee, allspice (pimento), cacao, tobacco, and ginger.
Blue Mountain Coffee, a renowned gourmet brand, is grown on slopes just
below 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) and is processed by a select group of
Jamaican companies; other types of coffee are grown in the lowlands.
Marijuana (ganja) is illegally grown in many areas; however,
U.S.-supported antidrug programs have curtailed its export to North
America and Europe.
Timber production does not meet the country’s needs, and most of the
wood, cork, and paper consumed is imported. The government encourages
afforestation. Fishing is a major enterprise supporting tens of
thousands of people. Pedro Bank, part of the island shelf about 60 miles
(100 km) southwest of Jamaica, is the main fishing area, but some
fishers venture out as far as 300 miles (500 km); trawling has
increasingly damaged Jamaica’s coral reefs.
Mining accounts for less than one-tenth of the GDP and only a tiny
fraction of employment, although Jamaica is one of the world’s main
producers of bauxite and aluminum. Silica sand is exploited and used
locally to make glass containers, while most of Jamaica’s gypsum is
mined for export. Cement is used largely in local construction.
Manufacturing accounts for roughly one-sixth of the GDP and less than
one-tenth of the labour force. The main products are processed foods
(including sugar, rum, and molasses), textiles, and metal products.
Printing, chemicals, and cement and clay products are also notable.
Jamaica imports petroleum for nearly all of its energy needs,
including electric power generation. Hydroelectric resources and the
burning of bagasse (sugarcane residue) generate smaller amounts of
electricity. State-owned generators supply most of the electric power,
and privately owned facilities provide for the major industries.
Finance, tourism, and other services are huge components of the island’s
economy, providing about one-fourth of both the GDP and employment.
Jamaica has attempted to increase its share of the Caribbean region’s
burgeoning service sector by promoting information technologies and data
processing, principally for North American and European companies.
Banking and finance account for nearly half of Jamaica’s service-related
earnings. Commercial banks, some of which are subsidiaries of Canadian,
British, and U.S. banks, dominate the financial sector. Life insurance
companies, building societies, and credit unions also offer savings and
credit services. The central bank is the Bank of Jamaica (founded 1960);
it issues currency (the Jamaican dollar) and credit and promotes
economic development. Several banks and special funding institutions
provide loans for industry, housing, tourism, and agriculture.
Jamaica’s government is burdened by a large foreign debt. The
Jamaican dollar had a relatively stable exchange rate relative to the
U.S. dollar until 1990, when it was floated and radically devalued. In
the late 1990s a crisis in the financial sector obliged the government
to intervene in the operations of several banks and insurance companies.
Trade constitutes about one-fourth of the GDP and employs one-sixth of
the labour force. The principal exports are aluminum and bauxite, which
account for roughly half of export earnings; sugar, bananas, coffee, and
other agricultural products, beverages and tobacco, and chemicals
constitute most of the remainder. The United States is, by far,
Jamaica’s main trading partner. The United Kingdom, Canada, France,
Norway, Germany, and Japan are also important. Jamaica is a
participatory member of several trade organizations, including the
Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom).
Jamaica’s economy relies heavily on tourism, which has become the
country’s largest source of foreign exchange. Most tourists remain on
the island for several days or weeks, although increasing numbers
disembark only briefly from cruise ships at Ocho Rios or Montego Bay.
These and other towns on the northern coast, as well as Kingston, are
the tourist sector’s main bases of activity. Jamaica is famous for its
pleasant climate, fine beaches, and superb scenery, including the waters
of Montego Bay and the majestic Blue Mountains.
Jamaica’s main roads encircle the island, loop into the valleys, and
traverse the mountains via three major north-south routes, and the
Kingston metropolitan area has a major public bus system. In 1988
Hurricane Gilbert severely damaged Jamaica’s railway network,
contributing to the suspension of passenger services in the 1990s. Four
railways transport bauxite from highland mines to coastal refineries and
There are two international airports—Norman Manley, on the Palisadoes
in Kingston, and Donald Sangster at Montego Bay—both of which are named
for former prime ministers. These airports, together with Tinson Pen in
Kingston, also handle domestic flights. Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, and
Negril have major public airstrips, and there are privately owned
airstrips throughout the island. Kingston, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and
Port Antonio are the principal seaports, handling freighters and large
Administration and social conditions
Under the Jamaica (Constitution) Order in Council of 1962, by which the
island achieved independence, Jamaica is a constitutional monarchy with
a parliamentary system of government. Citizens at least 18 years of age
are eligible to vote. Jamaica has had universal suffrage since 1944.
The prime minister, who is head of government, is appointed by the
leading political party from its parliamentary members. The monarch of
the United Kingdom, who is titular head of state, follows the prime
minister’s recommendation in appointing a Jamaican governor-general who
has largely ceremonial powers. The principal policy-making body is the
cabinet, which consists of the prime minister and at least 11 other
The bicameral parliament consists of the House of Representatives and
the Senate. The House has 60 members, who are directly elected. The
speaker and deputy speaker are elected by the House from its members.
The Senate has 21 members, who are appointed by the governor-general—13
in accordance with the advice of the prime minister and eight on the
advice of the leader of the opposition party. Senators are appointed for
the duration of a single parliamentary term. The president and deputy
president of the Senate are elected by its members. General elections
must be held at least once every five years, and the governing party may
choose to hold early elections.
The legal system is based on English common law. The highest court in
the Jamaican legal system is the Court of Appeals. It hears appeals from
the Resident Magistrates’ Court, which includes the Family Courts, the
Kingston Traffic Court, Juvenile Courts, and a division of the Gun
Court; the Court of Appeals also handles appeals from the Supreme Court,
the nation’s highest trial court. The governor-general, on the advice of
a Jamaican Privy Council, may grant clemency in cases involving the
death penalty; occasionally such cases are referred to the Privy Council
of the United Kingdom. According to human rights organizations, the
judicial system is overburdened, with long delays before trials and with
prison conditions characterized by overcrowding, insufficient food
supplies and funding, and occasional brutality.
The island is divided into 14 parishes, two of which are amalgamated
as the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation, generally corresponding to
the Kingston metropolitan area. Parish councils, whose members are
directly elected, administer the other parishes. The capitals of some
parishes have elected mayors. Jamaica is also traditionally divided into
three counties—Cornwall, Middlesex, and Surrey.
The two main political parties are the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and
the People’s National Party (PNP). A third party, the National
Democratic Movement, was founded in 1995 but did not win any legislative
seats in its first contested election (1997). The largest trade unions
are the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (affiliated with the JLP) and
the National Workers’ Union (affiliated with the PNP). There are also
Armed forces and security
Violent crime is a major problem on the island, particularly in poor
urban areas. Violence and fraud have also marred many national and local
elections; however, political violence seemed to diminish in the late
20th century. The Jamaica Constabulary Force is primarily responsible
for internal security; it is supplemented by the Island Special
Constabulary Force (a unit of police reserves) and, in the event of
major disturbances or natural disasters, by the Jamaica Defense Force.
Special police units have occasionally been formed in attempts to reduce
corruption and to control organized crime. The Jamaican police have been
criticized for a high rate of extrajudicial killings, averaging between
100 and 200 annually in the 1980s and ’90s. Jamaica has a death penalty,
but no hangings have taken place since 1988, owing to protracted appeals
to the Privy Council.
Jamaica’s military services (army, coast guard, and air force) enlist
only a few thousand personnel and absorb a small percentage of the GDP;
recruitment is voluntary. The main concern for the armed forces, besides
political and social unrest, is drug trafficking. In 1998 the Jamaican
government signed an agreement allowing U.S. antinarcotics agents to
pursue suspected drug smugglers into Jamaican territorial waters.
Roughly nine-tenths of women and four-fifths of men are literate.
Primary education is free and, in some areas, compulsory between the
ages of 6 and 11. A substantial part of the country’s annual budget
supports the Ministry of Education; however, the island also has private
schools, some of which are run by religious bodies. There has been
increasing emphasis on publicly funded vocational training. Institutions
of higher learning include the College of Agriculture, the University of
Technology (formerly the College of Arts, Science, and Technology), the
University of the West Indies (the main campus of which is at Mona, a
northeastern section of Kingston), and teacher-training colleges.
Health and welfare
There are several public hospitals, including a university hospital, and
various health centres and clinics. Jamaica also has a few private
hospitals. Malaria was historically a major health problem, but the
government has succeeded in eradicating many of the mosquitoes that
carry the disease. Immunization programs have further lowered rates of
mortality and morbidity. Major causes of death include circulatory
diseases and cancer.
The government operates a compulsory insurance program that provides
retirement and other benefits. Government-funded and private
organizations assist children, youths, and women with vocational
training and job placement.
The government has promoted large housing developments in both urban
and rural areas, especially in the impoverished suburbs of St. Andrew
and Kingston, which have large migrant populations. Ghettoes such as
Trench Town (in Kingston) are notorious for their high levels of poverty
and crime; however, they have also become known for the development of
reggae music and other performing arts.
Jamaica’s cultural development has been deeply influenced by British
traditions and a search for roots in folk forms, which are based chiefly
on the colourful, rhythmic intensity of an African heritage.
Family life is central to most Jamaicans, although formal marriages are
less prevalent there than in most other countries. It is common for
three generations to share a home. Many women earn wages, particularly
in households where men are absent, and grandmothers normally take
charge of preschool children. Wealthier Jamaican families usually employ
at least one domestic helper.
The main meal is almost always in the evening, because most people do
not have time to prepare a midday meal and children normally eat at
school. Some families eat together, but television has increasingly
replaced conversation at the dinner table. The exception to this rule is
Sunday, when tradition dictates that even poor families enjoy a large
and sociable brunch or lunch, usually including chicken, fish, yams,
fried plantains, and the ubiquitous rice and peas (rice with black-eyed
peas). One of Jamaica’s most popular foods is jerk (spiced and grilled)
Clothing styles vary. Rastafarians, who account for a tiny part of
the population, typically wear loose-fitting clothing and long
dreadlocks, a hairstyle associated with the Ethiopian emperor Haile
Selassie I in the early 20th century.
Sports and recreation
Cricket, Jamaica’s most popular sport, is played throughout the island,
including at Kingston’s Sabina Park and on makeshift pitches (fields) in
vacant lots and beaches. Jamaica has produced many players for the
regional West Indies team, notably the Panamanian-born George Alphonso
Headley (b. May 30, 1909, Colón, Panama—d. November 30, 1983, Kingston,
Football (soccer), which ranks second in popularity, briefly eclipsed
cricket in 1998 when Jamaica’s national team, the Reggae Boyz, qualified
for the World Cup finals in France. Basketball is probably the
fastest-growing sport in schools and colleges, owing to television
coverage of professional teams from the United States. Other sports,
such as golf, tennis, and diving, have developed in tandem with the
tourism industry but are beyond the financial reach of most Jamaicans.
The island has a distinguished Olympic record in track and field
(athletics), beginning in 1948 with a gold and two silver medals in
London. In Atlanta in 1996 the hurdler Deon Hemmings won Jamaica’s first
gold medal in a women’s event. The island’s heroic, if unsuccessful,
national bobsledding team was wildly popular at the 1988 Winter Games in
Calgary; the team’s unorthodox ways were later depicted in the film Cool
Jamaican independence from Great Britain (August 6, 1962) is
commemorated annually on the first Monday in August. The government
sponsors Festival as part of the independence celebrations. Although it
has much in common with the region’s pre-Lenten Carnivals, Festival is
much wider in scope, including street dancing and parades, arts and
crafts exhibitions, and literary, theatrical, and musical competitions.
More recently Jamaicans also began celebrating Carnival, typically with
costumed parades, bands, and dancing.
The Institute of Jamaica, an early patron and promoter of the arts,
sponsors exhibitions and awards. It administers the Cultural Training
Centre, which includes schools of art, dance, drama, and music, as well
as the National Library, the National Gallery, and a publishing company.
The institute is also the country’s museums authority. The Jamaica
Library Service, Jamaica Archives, National Library, and University of
the West Indies contribute to the promotion of the arts and culture, as
do numerous commercial art galleries.
Local art shows are common, and the visual arts are a vigorous and
productive part of Jamaican life. Several artists, including the
painters Albert Huie and Barrington Watson and the sculptor Edna Manley,
are known internationally.
The poets Claude McKay and Louis Simpson were born in Jamaica, and
the Nobel Prize-winning author Dereck Walcott attended college there.
Jamaican Creole faced decades of disapproval from critics and academics
who favoured standard English, but the Panamanian-born author Andrew
Salkey and poets such as Louise Bennett and Michael Smith have made the
language an intrinsic part of the island’s literary culture, emphasizing
the oral and rhythmic nature of the language.
Jamaican theatre and musical groups are highly active. The National
Dance Company, formed in 1962, has earned international recognition.
Much of the country’s artistic expression finds an outlet in the annual
Festival.In the 1950s and ’60s Ernie Ranglin, Don Drummond, and other
Jamaican musicians developed the ska style, based in part on a Jamaican
dance music called mento. Reggae, in turn, arose from ska, and from the
1970s such renowned performers as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Perry
made it one of the island’s most celebrated international exports.
Dancehall music, which focuses on a rapping, or “toasting,” deejay, also
became popular in the late 20th century. Jamaican musicians release
hundreds of new recordings every year, and huge crowds of enthusiasts
gather at the annual Reggae Sunsplash festival in February.
Press and broadcasting
The Jamaican constitution guarantees freedom of the press. All four of
the island’s daily newspapers—the Jamaica Gleaner, Jamaica Herald,
Jamaica Observer, and Daily Star—are published in Kingston. Numerous
U.S. and other foreign newspapers and magazines are also readily
available. The publicly owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation is the
chief radio and television system. KLAS and Radio Jamaica Limited
provide additional radio programming.
Clinton V. Black
James A. Ferguson
The following history of Jamaica focuses on events from the time of
European contact. For treatments of the island in its regional context,
see West Indies, history of, and Latin America, history of.
The first inhabitants of Jamaica probably came from islands to the east
about 5000 bc or earlier. The Arawak arrived about ad 600 and eventually
settled throughout the island. Their economy, based on fishing and the
production of corn (maize) and cassava, sustained as many as 60,000
people in villages led by caciques (chieftains).
Columbus reached the island in 1494 and spent a year shipwrecked
there in 1503–04. The Spanish crown granted the island to the Columbus
family, but for decades it was something of a backwater, valued chiefly
as a supply base for food and animal hides. In 1509 Juan de Esquivel
founded the first permanent European settlement, the town of Sevilla la
Nueva (New Seville), on the north coast. In 1534 the capital was moved
to Villa de la Vega (later Santiago de la Vega), known today as Spanish
Town. The Spanish enslaved many Arawak people and forced them to labour
in the gold mines and plantations of nearby islands; most died from
European diseases and overwork. By the early 17th century, when
virtually no Arawak remained in the region, the settlers on the island
numbered about 3,000, including a small number of African slaves.
Planters, buccaneers, and slaves
In 1655 a British expedition under Admiral William Penn and General
Robert Venables captured Jamaica and began expelling the Spanish, a task
that was accomplished within five years. However, many of the Spaniards’
escaped slaves had formed communities in the highlands, and increasing
numbers also escaped from British plantations. The former slaves were
called Maroons, a name probably derived from the Spanish word cimarrón,
meaning “wild” or “untamed.” The Maroons adapted to life in the
wilderness by establishing remote, defensible settlements, cultivating
scattered plots of land (notably with plantains and yams), hunting, and
developing herbal medicines; some also intermarried with the few
A slave’s life on Jamaica was brutal and short, owing to high
incidences of tropical and imported diseases and harsh working
conditions; the number of slave deaths was consistently larger than the
number of births. Europeans fared much better but were also susceptible
to tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria. Despite those
conditions, slave traffic and European immigration increased, and the
island’s population grew from a few thousand in the mid-17th century to
about 18,000 in the 1680s, with slaves accounting for more than half of
The British military governor, concerned about the possibility of
Spanish assaults, urged buccaneers to move to Jamaica, and the island’s
ports soon became their safe havens; Port Royal, in particular, gained
notoriety for its great wealth and lawlessness. The buccaneers
relentlessly attacked Spanish Caribbean cities and commerce, thereby
strategically aiding Britain by diverting Spain’s military resources and
threatening its lucrative gold and silver trade. Some of the buccaneers
held royal commissions as privateers but were still largely pirates;
nevertheless, many became part-time merchants or planters.
After the Spanish recognized British claims to Jamaica in the Treaty
of Madrid (1670), British authorities began to suppress the buccaneers;
in 1672 they arrested Sir Henry Morgan following his successful (though
unsanctioned) assault on Panama. However, two years later the crown
appointed him deputy governor of Jamaica, and many of his former
comrades submitted to his authority.
The Royal African Company was formed in 1672 with a monopoly of the
British slave trade, and from that time Jamaica became one of the
world’s busiest slave markets, with a thriving smuggling trade to
Spanish America. African slaves soon outnumbered Europeans 5 to 1.
Jamaica also became one of Britain’s most valuable colonies in terms of
agricultural production, with dozens of processing centres for sugar,
indigo, and cacao, although a plant disease destroyed much of the cacao
crop in 1670–71.
European colonists formed a local legislature as an early step toward
self-government, although its members represented only a small fraction
of the wealthy elite. From 1678 the British-appointed governor
instituted a controversial plan to impose taxes and abolish the
assembly, but the legislature was restored in 1682. The following year
the assembly acquiesced in passing a revenue act. In 1692 an earthquake
devastated the town of Port Royal, destroying and inundating most of its
buildings; survivors of the disaster established Kingston across the
Exports and internal strife
Jamaican sugar production reached its apogee in the 18th century,
dominating the local economy and depending increasingly on the slave
trade as a source of cheap labour. Several of the major plantation
owners lived in England and entrusted their operations to majordomos,
whereas small landowners struggled to make profits in the face of higher
production costs. Many of the latter group diversified into coffee,
cotton, and indigo production, and by the late 18th century coffee
rivaled sugar as an export crop. Meanwhile Jamaica’s slave population
swelled to 300,000, despite mounting civil unrest, the menace of
invasion from France and Spain, and unstable food supplies—notably
during the period 1780–87, when about 15,000 slaves starved to death.
Maroons intermittently used guerrilla tactics against Jamaican
militia and British troops, who had destroyed many Maroon settlements in
1686. Two of the bloodiest periods in the 18th century became known as
the Maroon Wars. Following the first such conflict (1725–39), the
island’s governor granted freedom to the followers of the Maroon warrior
Cudjoe and relinquished control over part of the interior. British
forces decisively won the second war (1795–97), which they waged
relentlessly, burning towns and destroying field crops in their wake.
After the fighting ceased, the government deported some 600 Maroons to
Nova Scotia. In addition, slave revolts occurred in the 18th and early
19th centuries, particularly in 1831–32, when black leaders such as the
Reverend Samuel Sharpe stirred up thousands of followers; however,
British troops quickly put down the rebellion and executed its
organizers. Whites generally blamed missionaries for inciting the
revolt, and, in the weeks that followed, mobs burned several Baptist and
Jamaica’s internal strife was accompanied by external threats. A
large French fleet, with Spanish support, planned to invade Jamaica in
1782, but the British admirals George Rodney and Samuel Hood thwarted
the plan at the Battle of the Saintes off Dominica. In 1806 Admiral Sir
John Duckworth defeated the last French invasion force to threaten the
The British Parliament abolished the transatlantic slave trade in
1807, which increased planters’ costs in Jamaica at a time when the
price of sugar was already dropping. Parliament subsequently approved an
emancipatory act that freed all slaves by 1837. Many former slaves left
the plantations and moved to the nearby hills, where their descendants
still farm small landholdings. The planters received some compensation
(£19 per slave) but generally saw their financial resources and labour
forces dwindle. Parliament removed protective tariffs in 1846, further
reducing the price of Jamaican sugar.
The royal governor, the Jamaican legislature, and Parliament had many
bitter disagreements regarding taxation and government expenditures. In
the late 1830s and ’40s the governors Sir Charles Metcalfe and James
Bruce, 8th earl of Elgin, attempted to improve the economy by bringing
in thousands of plantation workers from India (rather than paying higher
wages to former slaves) and creating the island’s first railway. In
spite of those programs, the plantation system collapsed, leading to
widespread poverty and unemployment. In 1865 impoverished former slaves
rioted in the parish of Morant Bay, killing the chief magistrate and 18
others of European ancestry. The Jamaican assembly, dismayed, ceded its
power to Governor Edward John Eyre, who declared martial law, suppressed
the rioters, and hanged the principal instigator, G.W. Gordon. Many West
Indians applauded Eyre’s actions, but he was recalled to Britain amid
public outcries there.
The crown colony
The Jamaican assembly had effectively voted its own extinction by
yielding power to Eyre, and in 1866 Parliament declared the island a
crown colony. Its newly appointed governor, Sir John Peter Grant,
wielded the only real executive or legislative power. He completely
reorganized the colony, establishing a police force, a reformed judicial
system, medical service, a public works department, and a government
savings bank. He also appointed local magistrates, improved the schools,
and irrigated the fertile but drought-stricken plain between Spanish
Town and Kingston. The British restored representative government by
degrees, allowing 9 elected legislators in 1884 and 14 in 1895.
The economy no longer depended on sugar exports by the latter part of
the 19th century, when Captain A.W. Baker, founder of the organization
that later became the United Fruit Company, started a lucrative banana
trade in Jamaica. Bananas soon became a principal export crop for small
farmers as well as for large estates.
In 1907 a violent earthquake and accompanying fire struck Kingston
and Port Royal, destroying or seriously damaging almost all of their
buildings and killing about 800 people. Kingston’s layout and
architecture were subsequently altered, and Sir Sydney Olivier (later
Lord Olivier) rebuilt its public offices on the finest street of the
city. The economy recovered slowly from the disaster, and unemployment
remained a problem. In the early 20th century thousands of Jamaicans
migrated to help build the Panama Canal or to work on Cuban sugar
Jamaicans proposed further government reforms from the 1920s.
Dissatisfaction with the crown colony system, sharpened by the hardships
of the Great Depression of the 1930s, erupted in widespread rioting in
1938. Jamaicans responded to the crisis by establishing their first
labour unions, linking them to political parties, and increasingly
The constitution of 1944 established a House of Representatives, whose
members were elected by universal suffrage; it also called for a
nominated Legislative Council as an upper house (with limited powers)
and an Executive Council. A two-party pattern soon emerged, and the
constitution was modified in 1953 to allow for elected government
ministers. In 1957 the Executive Council was transformed into a cabinet
under the chairmanship of a premier. Jamaica obtained full internal
self-government two years later.
Jamaica was little affected by World Wars I and II, though many of
its people served overseas in the British armed forces. After World War
II the island profited greatly from the Colonial Development and Welfare
Act and from outside investment. Colonial Development grants financed
the building of the Jamaican branch of the University of the West Indies
(established 1947), which became an important factor in the preparation
for independence. A sugar refinery, citrus processing plants, a cement
factory, and other industrial projects were started. A severe hurricane
in August 1951 temporarily stalled development by devastating crops and
killing about 150 people. The development of the tourist trade and
bauxite (aluminum ore) mining helped increase employment opportunities
on the island.
In 1958 Jamaica became a founding member of the West Indies
Federation, a group of Caribbean islands that formed a unit within the
Commonwealth. Norman Manley, leader of the People’s National Party
(PNP), became premier after the elections of July 1959, but in 1960 the
Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) under Sir Alexander Bustamante pressed for
secession from the federation. A referendum in 1961 supported their
views. The JLP was the overall winner of elections in April 1962, and
Bustamante became premier. In May the federation was dissolved.
The independent nation
On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became independent with full dominion status
within the Commonwealth, and Bustamante assumed the title of prime
minister. The following year it joined the International Monetary Fund
(IMF), and in 1966 Elizabeth II, as queen of Jamaica, paid a state visit
to the nation. During most of 1965 and 1966 Bustamante was ill, and
Donald Sangster acted as prime minister; however, Jamaica continued to
advance on several diplomatic fronts, and in June 1969 it became the
24th member of the Organization of American States.
The first general election since independence was held in February
1967, but it was marred by considerable violence between members of the
opposing political parties. The JLP won 33 seats, and the PNP 20.
Sangster was made prime minister, but he died shortly after taking
office. Hugh Lawson Shearer, leader of the Bustamante Industrial Trade
Union, was then chosen prime minister. In the 1972 election the PNP
obtained its first major victory, and it chose Michael Manley, the
charismatic son of Norman Manley, as prime minister.
Manley had based his winning campaign on the “politics of
participation” and social justice. Once in office he embarked on a
number of social reforms, eliminating censorship and restrictions on
civil liberties. His government also pursued a largely successful
program to reduce illiteracy. Economic problems undermined most of
Manley’s social programs, and Jamaica’s impoverished masses soon
overwhelmed the government with strikes and protests.
During the crucial elections of 1976, the PNP and the opposition JLP
engaged in virtual warfare. After the PNP won heavily, Manley attempted
to strengthen ties with Cuba, perhaps because he lacked confidence in
economic partnerships with the United States. In 1977 the government
assumed majority ownership of the bauxite mines, which up to then had
The continuing economic misery of much of the population and
increasing political violence led to Manley’s defeat in the 1980
election. The new prime minister, Edward Seaga of the JLP, in one of his
first acts in office contended with the widespread destruction caused by
Hurricane Allen that year. Although Seaga had disapproved of the PNP’s
close ties with Cuba, he initially maintained a cordial, albeit aloof,
relationship with Fidel Castro. However, in December 1981 Seaga severed
diplomatic ties with Cuba. Concurrently, relations with the United
States improved, and Jamaica became a major recipient of U.S. aid in the
West Indies. The economy performed well at first but quickly worsened
and continued in a downward trend, despite the boost it received from
low prices on oil imports. In 1986 the PNP won most local elections,
perhaps signaling that the electorate disapproved of Seaga’s policies.
In September 1988 Hurricane Gilbert struck the island, wiping out any
progress toward economic recovery. The PNP won decisive victories in the
elections of February 1989, unseating Seaga and restoring Manley as
David J. Buisseret
James A. Ferguson
Manley endorsed more conservative policies during his second term. He
cooperated closely with the IMF, deregulated the financial sector, and
floated the Jamaican dollar. He retired in March 1992 and was replaced
by Percival J. Patterson, who stabilized the economy through austerity
measures. During the 1990s the PNP retained power, even during an
economic recession, partly because the JLP split in 1995 (creating a
third party, the National Democratic Movement). The PNP’s electoral
victories in 1997 and 2002 marked the first time that a Jamaican party
won four consecutive terms. In March 2006 Patterson appointed PNP member
Portia Simpson Miller prime minister, making her the first woman to
serve in the country’s top post. The PNP’s 18-year control of government
ended, however, when the JLP won a narrow victory in the 2007 general
elections, and Bruce Golding took over the premiership, replacing
Simpson Miller. In general, interparty violence continued to decline
during electoral campaigns, at least partly because of the involvement
of international organizations that support free and fair elections.
Although Jamaica’s economy improved in the early 2000s, it was
hampered by the government’s high indebtedness to local financial
institutions, which limited the loans available to the private sector.
The country also suffered from high crime rates. However, the tourism
industry continued to grow, particularly in northern towns such as Ocho
Rios and Montego Bay.
David J. Buisseret
James A. Ferguson