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The Island Nation of JAMAICA

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Indepentent Caribbean Nation, member of the Commonwealth


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


Click to enlarge Map of Jamaica
Maps of Jamaica

Land and People

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Jamaica!

Country View River Dunns
(right) River Dunns


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

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

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

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

Discover Jamaica

Jamaican view St. William Grantpark
(right) St. William Grantpark

History and Government

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

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

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

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

Sources: Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia and provided links.


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