Jamaica - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Jamaica: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Jamaica, island country, situated in the Caribbean Sea south of Cuba. With its lush mountains and pristine beaches, the island is known for its beautiful natural surroundings and is a popular tourist destination. Jamaica became a British colony in 1670. During the 18th century, planters began importing African slaves to work on the sugar plantations. Today the island’s culture and customs blend its British and African roots. Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962 and maintains a strong two-party political system. The island is named after the Native American word Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.”


Jamaica is the third largest island of the Greater Antilles of the West Indies. The island has a maximum length, from east to west, of 235 km (146 mi); the maximum width is approximately 80 km (about 50 mi). The total area of the country is 10,991 sq km (4,244 sq mi). Kingston is the capital and largest city of Jamaica and also a large commercial seaport.

The terrain is mountainous, except for several tracts of lowlands in the southern coastal area. The principal range, situated in the eastern section of the island, is the Blue Mountains, of which Blue Mountain Peak (2,256 m/7,402 ft) is the highest point on the island. A series of lesser mountains, with many transverse spurs, extends generally west to the extremity of the island, surmounting an extensive plateau. The coastline, 1,022 km (635 mi) long, is irregular, particularly in the south, and the island has a number of excellent natural harbors, including those at Kingston, Saint Ann’s Bay, Montego Bay, and Port Maria.

Thermal springs occur in various areas. No other volcanic phenomena are apparent, but the island is subject to severe earthquakes. Many small unnavigable rivers traverse the island.

Climate in Jamaica

Tropical climatic conditions prevail in the coastal lowlands of Jamaica. The mean annual temperature in this region is 27°C (80°F). Northeastern trade winds frequently moderate the extremes of heat and humidity. Mean annual temperatures in the plateau and mountain areas average 22°C (72°F) at elevations of 900 m (3,000 ft), and are considerably less at higher levels. Annual precipitation is characterized by wide regional variations. More than 5,100 mm (more than 200 in) of rain are deposited annually in the mountains of the northeast; in the vicinity of Kingston the annual average is 810 mm (32 in). The months of maximum precipitation are May, June, October, and November. The island is subject to hurricanes in late summer and early autumn.

Natural Resources of Jamaica

The bauxite deposits in the central section of the island are among the richest in the world. Other mineral deposits in Jamaica include gypsum, lead, and salt. Rich soils are found on the coastal plains.

Plants and Animals in Jamaica

Jamaica has a high degree of biodiversity. Three thousand species of plants grow on the island, and about one-quarter of them are found nowhere else on Earth. More than 200 species of flowering plants have been classified. Among indigenous trees are cedar, mahoe, mahogany, logwood, rosewood, ebony, palmetto palm, coconut palm, and pimento (allspice). Introduced varieties, such as the mango, breadfruit, banana, and plantain, also flourish on the island and are widely cultivated.

The Jamaican animal life, as that of the West Indies generally, includes highly diversified birdlife. Parrots, hummingbirds, cuckoos, and green todies are especially abundant. No large indigenous quadrupeds or venomous reptiles exist.

Environmental Issues in Jamaica

The absence of a clear environmental policy combined with a steadily growing population has brought about an inevitable ecological deterioration of the island. Soil degradation and water shortages are common. Coastal waters are polluted by industrial waste, sewage, and oil spills. Automobile traffic in Kingston causes significant air pollution. Safe drinking water is generally available, although access to sanitation is still low.

Jamaica’s biodiversity has suffered with environmental deterioration. Natural habitats are threatened by rapid deforestation. Government policy encourages conversion of “idle” land into fields and pasture. Once completely forested, about 31 percent of Jamaica’s surface was forested in 2005. The deforestation rate at 0.1 percent per year during 1990–2005 was high, pushing the remaining stands of trees into small mountain enclaves. In the late 1980s the country began to work with nongovernmental and foreign-aid organizations to consolidate potential protected areas into national parks.


Jamaica is a multiracial society, with a population primarily of African or mixed African-European origin. Many people are descended from slaves brought to the island between the 17th and 19th centuries. Among the established minorities are East Indians, Europeans, and Chinese.

The population of Jamaica (2009 estimate) was 2,825,928, giving the country an overall population density of 261 persons per sq km (676 per sq mi). The annual rate of population increase, formerly high, declined to 0.76 percent by 2009. Emigration, primarily to the United States, Britain, and Latin America, has been substantial.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities of Jamaica

Jamaica is divided into 14 parishes. Of these, 12 parishes are administered by popularly elected councils, and the remaining parishes are administered by elected commissions.

The population of greater Kingston in 2001 was 577,623 and the population of Spanish Town was 131,060. In 2005, 52 percent of the population lived in urban areas.

Language and Religion in Jamaica

English is the official language, although many Jamaicans speak a local dialect of English that incorporates African, Spanish, and French elements. Among the Christian majority, the Church of God, Baptists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostalists, and Roman Catholics predominate. Several well-established Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities exist. A number of popular sects, such as Pocomania and Rastafarianism, are a significant and famous feature of the national religious life.

Education in Jamaica

School attendance by children between the ages of 6 and 11 is nearly universal, and 84 percent of all 12- to 18-year-olds attend secondary institutions. In 2005 the enrollment in primary schools was 326,400.

A major institution of higher learning for the entire Caribbean region is the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus (1948), located at Kingston. Jamaica also has a number of vocational and technical schools, teacher-training colleges, and a college of arts, science, and technology.

Culture of Jamaica

The position of Jamaica as a dependency of Britain for more than 300 years is reflected in both language and customs. However, Jamaica also has a rich tradition of Africa-derived popular culture. This tradition appears strongly in music and dance. Reggae, a distinct style of Jamaican music, much of it highly political, is popular throughout the island. This music and its well-known performers, especially the late singer Bob Marley, have achieved enormous international success. Calypso and soca (soul-calypso) music, both also of Caribbean origin, are popular as well. See also Caribbean Literature.


Since its independence in 1962, Jamaica has worked to diversify its economy. Traditionally agricultural, the economy now includes strong mining, manufacturing, and tourism sectors. In the early 2000s, however, the Jamaican economy became stagnant due to the effects of a worldwide economic slowdown, especially in the United States. Jamaica also suffers from high unemployment.

Annual budget figures for 2007 showed about $7.27 billion in revenues and $7.12 billion in expenditures. In 2007 Jamaica’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $11.43 billion, or about $4,271.80 per capita. These GDP numbers are substantial underestimates because they do not include the illegal drug trade, including the production and sale of marijuana and the transport of cocaine grown in South America to other regions. Marijuana, or ganja as the islanders call it, brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Tourism of Jamaica

Tourism is vital to the Jamaican economy and provides a large portion of foreign-exchange earnings. In 2007, 1.7 million people visited the island, contributing $1.9 billion to the economy. The peak tourist season in Jamaica is December through April.

Agriculture of Jamaica

Some 18 percent of the total Jamaican labor force is engaged in agricultural production. The chief crop is sugarcane; the harvest in 2007 was 2 million metric tons. Other leading agricultural products are bananas, citrus fruits, tobacco, cacao, coffee, coconuts, corn, sweet potatoes, hay, peppers, ginger, mangoes, potatoes, and arrowroot. Jamaica grows nearly the entire world supply of allspice. In 2007 the livestock population included 430,000 cattle, 440,000 goats, and 85,000 pigs.

Mining and Manufacturing in Jamaica

The bauxite and alumina (enriched bauxite ore) industries are a mainstay of the Jamaican economy. In 2007 annual production of bauxite amounted to 14.6 million metric tons.

Beginning in the 1950s manufacturing became an increasingly important part of the Jamaican economy. Although it declined in the 1990s, it still accounts for 13 percent of gross domestic product. The government has granted concessions, such as duty-free importation and tax-relief programs, to further industrialization. Along with established food and beverage industries, the country manufactures products such as printed fabrics, clothing, footwear, paints, agricultural machinery, cement, transistor radios, and fertilizers. A petroleum refinery in Kingston produces fuel sufficient to meet about half the national demand.

Banking and Foreign Trade in Jamaica

The unit of currency is the Jamaican dollar, consisting of 100 cents (69 dollars equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Bank of Jamaica, established in 1960, is the central bank and bank of issue. Several commercial banks are also in operation.

Among the chief exports are alumina, bauxite, sugar, rum, clothing, and coffee, and all exports were valued at $2.2 billion in 2007. Leading purchasers are the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and Japan. Food and animal products, chemicals, textiles, machinery, and petroleum are major imports; the value of all imports amounted to $6.3 billion. Chief sources are the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, Japan, Venezuela, and Canada.

Transportation and Communications in Jamaica

In 2004 Jamaica had 20,996 km (13,046 mi) of roads; of these, about one-fourth were paved. Most of the railways in Jamaica are privately owned and used to transport bauxite. Numerous international airlines and Air Jamaica serve the island, and internal flights are provided by Trans-Jamaican Airlines.

Jamaica has two broadcasting companies, one public and one privately owned. In 1998 the country had 766 radio receivers and 187television sets for every 1,000 residents. In 2005 there were 129 telephone mainlines per 1,000 people.

Labor in Jamaica

In 2007 the employed labor force exceeded 1.2 million. However, Jamaica suffers from high unemployment; in 2007 the country’s unemployment rate was 9.4 percent. Many people are employed in seasonal work such as those who work on sugar plantations or in tourist facilities.

The main trade unions included the National Workers’ Union of Jamaica (NWU) and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). Each union was closely identified with one of the two main political parties: the NWU with the People’s National Party and the BITU with the Jamaica Labour Party.


The Jamaican constitution, promulgated in 1962, established a parliamentary system of government patterned after that of Britain. The prime minister is the head of the government. Jamaica recognizes the British monarch as its own monarch and head of state. The monarch is represented by the governor-general, who is appointed on the advice of the prime minister.

Executive of Jamaica

Executive power in Jamaica is vested in a cabinet. The cabinet consists of 17 ministers and is headed by the prime minister. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party and is appointed from the House of Representatives by the governor-general. The prime minister chooses the ministers of the cabinet.

Legislature of Jamaica

Legislative authority is vested in the bicameral Parliament. The 60 members of the House of Representatives are popularly elected to terms of up to five years. The governor-general appoints the 21 members of the Senate, 13 in accordance with suggestions by the prime minister, and the remaining 8 on the advice of the leader of the opposition party.

Judiciary in Jamaica

The legal and judicial system is based on English common law and practice. The judicature comprises the supreme court, a court of appeals, resident magistrates’ courts, petty sessional courts, and other courts.

Political Parties of Jamaica

Jamaica has two main political parties: the People’s National Party (PNP), which is socialist in orientation, and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which supports free enterprise in a mixed economy. Minor parties include the National Democratic Movement, Natural Law Party, and United People’s Party.


Members of the Arawak tribe, an important group of the Arawakan linguistic stock of Native North Americans, were the aboriginal inhabitants of Jamaica (the Arawakan word Xaymaca, meaning “isle of springs”). Christopher Columbus sighted the island during his second voyage, and it became a Spanish colony in 1509. Saint Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town), the first settlement and, for the ensuing 350 years, the capital, was founded about 1523. Colonization was slow under Spanish rule. The Arawak quickly died out as a result of harsh treatment and diseases. African slaves were imported to overcome the resultant labor shortage.

British Colony in Jamaica

Jamaica was captured by an English naval force under Sir William Penn in 1655. The island was formally transferred to England in 1670 under the provisions of the Treaty of Madrid. During the final decades of the 17th century, growing numbers of English immigrants arrived; the sugar, cacao, and other agricultural and forest industries were rapidly expanded; and the consequent demand for plantation labor led to large-scale importation of black slaves. Jamaica soon became one of the principal slave-trading centers in the world. In 1692 an earthquake destroyed Port Royal, the chief Jamaican slave market, and Kingston was established nearby shortly thereafter. By parliamentary legislation passed in 1833, slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834. The act made available $30 million as compensation to the owners of the nearly 310,000 liberated slaves.

Large numbers of the freed blacks abandoned the plantations following emancipation and took possession of unoccupied lands in the interior, gravely disrupting the economy. Labor shortages, bankrupt plantations, and declining trade resulted in a protracted economic crisis. Oppressive taxation, discriminatory acts by the courts, and land-exclusion measures ultimately caused widespread unrest among the blacks. In 1865 an insurrection occurred at Port Morant. Imposing martial law, the government speedily quelled the uprising and inflicted brutal reprisals. Jamaica was made a crown colony, thus losing the large degree of self-government it had enjoyed since the late 17th century. Representative government was partly restored in 1884.

Creation of the Two-Party System

During the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, growing bananas for export to the United States became very important, but the resulting economic recovery did not provide enough jobs to employ Jamaica’s rapidly growing population. Thousands of Jamaicans left the country to seek employment elsewhere. However, the economic boom and the possibility of finding jobs abroad ended with the world depression in the 1930s, and many migrant Jamaicans returned to the island. The resulting increase in the Jamaican labor force combined with the depression to create great hardships, culminating in an outbreak of riots in 1938.

That same year saw the beginnings of Jamaica’s two-party system. Norman Manley, a lawyer, founded the moderately leftist People’s National Party (PNP). His cousin Alexander Bustamante, a businessman with considerable political flair and personal popularity, formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, and it served as the basis for the moderately conservative Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), which he founded in 1943.

Britain responded to the riots of 1938 by allocating funds for economic development and gradually extending self-government to the Jamaican people. A new constitution in 1944 provided for election of members of the House of Representatives. In the 1950s bauxite mining and tourism became major industries, but high unemployment continued.


Jamaica was one of the British colonies that, on January 3, 1958, was united in the Federation of the West Indies. Disagreement over the role Jamaica would play led to the breakup of the federation, and on August 6, 1962, the island gained independence. The JLP won the elections of 1962, and Bustamante became prime minister. In 1967 he retired and was succeeded by Hugh Lawson Shearer. In 1968 Jamaica was a founding member of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA).

Elections in 1972 brought the PNP to power under Michael N. Manley, a labor leader who promised economic growth. His leftist policies and open friendship with Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro, however, polarized the population. When he proved unable to revitalize the economy, Manley was voted out in 1980 following a turbulent election campaign that left about 800 Jamaicans dead, mainly as a result of clashes between political gangs. Election-related violence remained a part of Jamaica’s political scene into the 1990s.

Edward Seaga of the JLP, a former finance minister, then formed a government. Repudiating socialism, he severed relations with Cuba, established close ties with the United States, and tried hard to attract foreign capital. However, weak prices for Jamaica’s mineral exports impeded economic recovery.

The PNP won a large parliamentary majority in 1989, returning Manley to power. He introduced moderate free-market policies before resigning in 1992 because of poor health. P. J. Patterson succeeded him as prime minister and PNP leader. The PNP maintained its majority in the House in the 1993, 1997, and 2002 elections. Patterson continued as prime minister, and he worked to improve the country’s economy and lower its high murder rate. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan, the strongest hurricane to hit the island in decades, caused widespread destruction.

In March 2006 Patterson retired and Portia Simpson Miller was elected to replace him and lead the PNP. She became the first female prime minister in Jamaica’s history. In September 2007 Bruce Golding of the JLP narrowly defeated Simpson Miller in a tight general election. The JLP unseated the PNP after the latter’s 18 consecutive years in power.

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