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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 [211]; House of Representatives [60])
Chief of state British Monarch represented by Governor-General
Head of government Prime Minister
Capital Kingston
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 Kingston.

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.

The land
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.

Settlement patterns
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.

The people
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.

Demographic trends
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 Jamaican migrants.

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.

The economy
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 ports.

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 cruise liners.

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 ministers.

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 employers’ associations.

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.

Cultural life
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.

Daily life
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) meat.

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, Jamaica).

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 Runnings (1993).

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 arts
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.

Early period
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.

British rule
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 remaining Arawak.

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 total.

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 bay.

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 Methodist chapels.

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 island.

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 plantations.

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 demanding self-determination.

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 been foreign-owned.

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 prime minister.

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



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