Inhabited by the indigenous Arawak and Taíno peoples, the island came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people died of disease, and the Spanish transplanted African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. Named Santiago, the island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when England conquered it and renamed it Jamaica. Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with its plantation economy highly dependent on slaves forcibly transported from Africa. The British fully emancipated all slaves in 1838, and many freedmen chose to have subsistence farms rather than to work on plantations. Beginning in the 1840s, the British utilized Chinese and Indian indentured labour to work on plantations. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962.
With 2.9 million people, Jamaica is the third-most populous Anglophone country in the Americas, and the fourth-most populous country in the Caribbean. Kingston is the country's capital and largest city, with a population of 937,700. Jamaicans predominately have African ancestry, with significant European, Chinese, Indian, and mixed-race minorities. Due to a high rate of emigration for work since the 1960s, Jamaica has a large diaspora around the world, particularly in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Jamaica is a Commonwealth realm, with Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch and head of state. Her appointed representative in the country is the Governor-General of Jamaica, an office held by Sir Patrick Allen since 2009. Andrew Holness has served as the head of government and Prime Minister of Jamaica from March 2016. Jamaica is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with legislative power vested in the bicameral Parliament of Jamaica, consisting of an appointed Senate and a directly elected House of Representatives.
The indigenous people, the Taíno, called the island Xaymaca in Arawakan, meaning the "Land of Wood and Water" or the "Land of Springs".
Colloquially Jamaicans refer to their home island as the "Rock." Slang names such as "Jamrock", "Jamdown" ("Jamdung" in Jamaican Patois), or briefly "Ja", have derived from this.
The Arawak and Taíno indigenous people, originating in South America, settled on the island between 4000 and 1000 BC. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494, there were more than 200 villages ruled by caciques (chiefs of villages). The south coast of Jamaica was the most populated, especially around the area now known as Old Harbour. The Taino still inhabited Jamaica when the English took control of the island in 1655. The Jamaican National Heritage Trust is attempting to locate and document any evidence of the Taino/Arawak.
Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain after landing there in 1494. His probable landing point was Dry Harbour, called Discovery Bay, St. Ann's Bay was named "Saint Gloria" by Columbus, as the first sighting of the land. One and a half kilometres west of St. Ann's Bay is the site of the first Spanish settlement on the island, Sevilla, which was established in 1509 and abandoned around 1524 because it was deemed unhealthy. The capital was moved to Spanish Town, then called St. Jago de la Vega, around 1534 (at present-day St. Catherine).
Spanish Town has the oldest cathedral of the British colonies in the Caribbean. The Spanish were forcibly evicted by the English at Ocho Rios in St. Ann. In 1655, the English, led by Sir William Penn and General Robert Venables, took over the last Spanish fort in Jamaica. The name of Montego Bay, the capital of the parish of St. James, was derived from the Spanish name manteca bahía (or Bay of Lard), alluding to the lard-making industry based on processing the numerous boars in the area.
The English continued to "import" African slaves as labourers.
In 1660, the population of Jamaica was about 4,500 white and 1,500 black. By the early 1670s, as the English developed sugar cane plantations and "imported" more slaves, black people formed a majority of the population.
The Irish in Jamaica also formed a large part of the island's early population, making up 2 thirds of the white population on the island in the late 17th century, twice that of the English population. They were brought in as indentured labourers and soldiers after the conquest of Jamaica by Cromwells forces in 1655, The majority of Irish were transported by force as political prisoners of war from Ireland as a result of the ongoing Wars of the Three Kingdoms at the time. Migration of large numbers Irish to the island continued into the 18th century.
Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and then forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal, during a period of persecution by the Inquisition. Some Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees went to the Netherlands and England, and from there to Jamaica. Others were part of the Iberian colonisation of the New World, after overtly converting to Catholicism, as only Catholics were allowed in the Spanish colonies. By 1660, Jamaica had become a refuge for Jews in the New World, also attracting those who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal.
An early group of Jews arrived in 1510, soon after the son of Christopher Columbus settled on the island. Primarily working as merchants and traders, the Jewish community was forced to live a clandestine life, calling themselves "Portugals". After the British took over rule of Jamaica, the Jews decided the best defense against Spain's regaining control was to encourage making the colony a base for Caribbean pirates. With the pirates installed in Port Royal, the Spanish would be deterred from attacking. The British leaders agreed with the viability of this strategy to forestall outside aggression.
When the English captured Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish colonists fled after freeing their slaves. The slaves dispersed into the mountains, joining the maroons, those who had previously escaped to live with the Taíno native people. During the centuries of slavery, Maroons established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, where they maintained their freedom and independence for generations. The Jamaican Maroons fought the British during the 18th century. Under treaties of 1738 and 1739, the British agreed to stop trying to round them up in exchange for their leaving the colonial settlements alone, but serving if needed for military actions. Some of the communities were broken up and the British deported Maroons to Nova Scotia and, later, Sierra Leone. The name is still used today by modern Maroon descendants, who have certain rights and autonomy at the community of Accompong.
During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became one of the world's leading sugar-exporting, slave-dependent colonies, producing more than 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 and 1824. After the abolition of the international slave trade in 1807, the British began to "import" indentured servants to supplement the labour pool, as many freedmen resisted working on the plantations. After slavery was abolished, workers recruited from India began arriving in 1845, Chinese workers in 1854, as many freedmen resisted working on the plantations. Many South Asian and Chinese descendants continue to reside in Jamaica today.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Jamaica's dependence on slave labour and a plantation economy had resulted in black people outnumbering white people by a ratio of almost 20 to 1. Although the UK had outlawed the importation of slaves, some were still smuggled in from Spanish colonies and directly. While planning the abolition of slavery, the British Parliament passed laws to improve conditions for slaves. They banned the use of whips in the field and flogging of women; informed planters that slaves were to be allowed religious instruction, and required a free day during each week when slaves could sell their produce, prohibiting Sunday markets to enable slaves to attend church.
The House of Assembly in Jamaica resented and resisted the new laws. Members (then restricted to European-Jamaicans) claimed that the slaves were content and objected to Parliament's interference in island affairs. Slave owners feared possible revolts if conditions were lightened. Following a series of rebellions on the island and changing attitudes in Great Britain, the British government formally abolished slavery by an 1833 act, beginning in 1834, with full emancipation from chattel slavery declared in 1838. The population in 1834 was 371,070, of whom 15,000 were white, 5,000 free black; 40,000 'coloured' or free people of color (mixed race); and 311,070 were slaves.
In the 19th century, the British established a number of botanical gardens. These included the Castleton Botanical Gardens, developed in 1862 to replace the Bath Botanical Gardens (created in 1779) which was subject to flooding. Bath Botanical Gardens was the site for planting breadfruit, brought to Jamaica from the Pacific by Captain William Bligh. It became a staple in island diets. Other gardens were the Cinchona Plantation, founded in 1868, and the Hope Botanical Gardens founded in 1874. In 1872, Kingston was designated as the island's capital.
In 1945, Sir Horace Hector Hearne became Chief Justice and Keeper of the Records in Jamaica. He headed the Supreme Court, Kingston between 1945 and 1950/1951. After Kenya achieved independence, its government appointed him as Chief Justice and he moved there.
Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom. In 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation among the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.
Strong economic growth, averaging approximately 6% per annum, marked the first ten years of independence under conservative Jamaica Labour Party governments; they were led successively by Prime Ministers Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster and Hugh Shearer. The growth was fueled by strong private investments in bauxite/alumina, tourism, the manufacturing industry and, to a lesser extent, the agricultural sector.
The optimism of the first decade was accompanied by a growing sense of inequality among many Afro-Jamaicans, and a concern that the benefits of growth were not being shared by the urban poor. Combined with the effects of a slowdown in the global economy in 1970, the voters elected the PNP (People's National Party) in 1972. They tried to implement more socially equitable policies in education and health, but the economy suffered under their leadership. By 1980, Jamaica's gross national product had declined to some 25% below the 1972 level. Due to rising foreign and local debt, accompanied by large fiscal deficits, the government sought International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing from the United States and others.
Economic deterioration continued into the mid-1980s, exacerbated by a number of factors. The first and third largest alumina producers, Alpart and Alcoa, closed, and there was a significant reduction in production by the second-largest producer, Alcan. Reynolds Jamaica Mines, Ltd. left the Jamaican industry. There was also a decline in tourism, which was important to the economy.
Independence, however widely celebrated in Jamaica, has been questioned in the early 21st century. In 2011, a survey showed that approximately 60% of Jamaicans would prefer to become a British territory again, citing as problems years of social and fiscal mismanagement in the country.
Jamaica is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II serving as the Jamaican monarch. As Elizabeth II is shared as head of state of fifteen other countries and resides mostly in the United Kingdom, she is thus often represented as Queen of Jamaica in Jamaica and abroad by the Governor-General of Jamaica.
The governor-general is nominated by the Prime Minister of Jamaica and the entire Cabinet and appointed by the monarch. All the members of the Cabinet are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister. The monarch and the governor-general serve largely ceremonial roles, apart from their reserve powers for use in certain constitutional crisis situations.
Jamaica's current constitution was drafted in 1962 by a bipartisan joint committee of the Jamaican legislature. It came into force with the Jamaica Independence Act, 1962 of the United Kingdom parliament, which gave Jamaica independence.
The Parliament of Jamaica is bicameral, consisting of the House of Representatives (Lower House) and the Senate (Upper House). Members of the House (known as Members of Parliament or MPs) are directly elected, and the member of the House of Representatives who, in the governor-general's best judgement, is best able to command the confidence of a majority of the members of that House, is appointed by the governor-general to be the prime minister. Senators are nominated jointly by the prime minister and the parliamentary Leader of the Opposition and are then appointed by the governor-general.
Jamaica has traditionally had a two-party system, with power often alternating between the People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The party with current administrative and legislative power is the Jamaica Labour Party, with a one-seat parliamentary majority as of 2016. There are also several minor parties who have yet to gain a seat in parliament; the largest of these is the National Democratic Movement (NDM).
Jamaica is divided into 14 parishes, which are grouped into three historic counties that have no administrative relevance.
The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) is the small but professional military force of Jamaica. The JDF is based on the British military model with similar organisation, training, weapons and traditions. Once chosen, officer candidates are sent to one of several British or Canadian basic officer courses depending on the arm of service. Enlisted soldiers are given basic training at Up Park Camp or JDF Training Depot, Newcastle, both in St. Andrew. As with the British model, NCOs are given several levels of professional training as they rise up the ranks. Additional military schools are available for speciality training in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The JDF is directly descended from the British Army's West India Regiment formed during the colonial era. The West India Regiment was used extensively by the British Empire in policing the empire from 1795 to 1926. Other units in the JDF heritage include the early colonial Jamaica Militia, the Kingston Infantry Volunteers of WWI and reorganised into the Jamaican Infantry Volunteers in World War II. The West Indies Regiment was reformed in 1958 as part of the West Indies Federation, after dissolution of the Federation the JDF was established.
The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) comprises an infantry Regiment and Reserve Corps, an Air Wing, a Coast Guard fleet and a supporting Engineering Unit. The infantry regiment contains the 1st, 2nd and 3rd (National Reserve) battalions. The JDF Air Wing is divided into three flight units, a training unit, a support unit and the JDF Air Wing (National Reserve). The Coast Guard is divided between seagoing crews and support crews who conduct maritime safety and maritime law enforcement as well as defence-related operations.
The role of the support battalion is to provide support to boost numbers in combat and issue competency training in order to allow for the readiness of the force. The 1st Engineer Regiment was formed due to an increased demand for military engineers and their role is to provide engineering services whenever and wherever they are needed. The Headquarters JDF contains the JDF Commander, Command Staff as well as Intelligence, Judge Advocate office, Administrative and Procurement sections.
In recent years the JDF has been called on to assist the nation's police, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), in fighting drug smuggling and a rising crime rate which includes one of the highest murder rates in the world. JDF units actively conduct armed patrols with the JCF in high-crime areas and known gang neighbourhoods. There has been vocal controversy as well as support of this JDF role. In early 2005, an Opposition leader, Edward Seaga, called for the merger of the JDF and JCF. This has not garnered support in either organisation nor among the majority of citizens.
Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean. It lies between latitudes 17° and 19°N, and longitudes 76° and 79°W. Mountains, including the Blue Mountains, dominate the inland. They are surrounded by a narrow coastal plain. Jamaica only has two cities, the first being Kingston, the capital city and centre of business, located on the south coast and the 'second' city being Montego Bay, one of the best known cities in the Caribbean for tourism, located on the north coast. Other towns include Portmore, Spanish Town, Mandeville and the resort towns of Ocho Ríos, Port Antonio and Negril.
Kingston Harbour is the seventh-largest natural harbour in the world, which contributed to the city being designated as the capital in 1872.
Tourist attractions include Dunn's River Falls in St. Ann, YS Falls in St. Elizabeth, the Blue Lagoon in Portland, believed to be the crater of an extinct volcano. Port Royal was the site of a major earthquake in 1692 that helped form the island's Palisadoes.
The climate in Jamaica is tropical, with hot and humid weather, although higher inland regions are more temperate. Some regions on the south coast, such as the Liguanea Plain and the Pedro Plains, are relatively dry rain-shadow areas.
Jamaica lies in the hurricane belt of the Atlantic Ocean and because of this, the island sometimes suffers significant storm damage. Hurricanes Charlie and Gilbert hit Jamaica directly in 1951 and 1988, respectively, causing major damage and many deaths. In the 2000s (decade), hurricanes Ivan, Dean, and Gustav also brought severe weather to the island.
Among the variety of terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems are dry and wet limestone forests, rainforest, riparian woodland, wetlands, caves, rivers, seagrass beds and coral reefs. The authorities have recognised the tremendous significance and potential of the environment and have designated some of the more 'fertile' areas as 'protected'. Among the island's protected areas are the Cockpit Country, Hellshire Hills, and Litchfield forest reserves. In 1992, Jamaica's first marine park, covering nearly 15 square kilometres (5.8 sq mi), was established in Montego Bay. Portland Bight Protected Area was designated in 1999.
The following year Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was created on roughly 300 square miles (780 km2) of wilderness, which supports thousands of tree and fern species and rare animals.
Jamaica's climate is tropical, supporting diverse ecosystems with a wealth of plants and animals.
Jamaica's plant life has changed considerably over the centuries. When the Spanish arrived in 1494, except for small agricultural clearings, the country was deeply forested. The European settlers cut down the great timber trees for building and ships' supplies, and cleared the plains, savannas, and mountain slopes for intense agricultural cultivation. Many new plants were introduced including sugarcane, bananas, and citrus trees.
Areas of heavy rainfall contain stands of bamboo, ferns, ebony, mahogany, and rosewood. Cactus and similar dry-area plants are found along the south and southwest coastal area. Parts of the west and southwest consist of large grasslands, with scattered stands of trees.
The Jamaican animal life, typical of the Caribbean, includes highly diversified wildlife with many endemic species found nowhere else on earth. As with other oceanic islands, land mammals are mostly bats. The only non-bat native mammal extant in Jamaica is the Jamaican hutia, locally known as the coney. Introduced mammals such as wild boar and the small Asian mongoose are also common. Jamaica is also home to about 50 species of reptiles, the largest of which is the American crocodile; however, it is only present within the Black River and a few other areas. Lizards such as anoles, iguanas and snakes such as racers and the Jamaican boa (the largest snake on the island), are common in areas such as the Cockpit Country. None of Jamaica's eight species of native snakes is venomous.
One species of freshwater turtle is native to Jamaica, the Jamaican slider. It is found only on Jamaica, Cat Island, and a few other islands in the Bahamas. In addition, many types of frogs are common on the island, especially treefrogs. Birds are abundant, and make up the bulk of the endemic and native vertebrate species. Beautiful and exotic birds, such as the Jamaican tody and the doctor bird (the national bird), can be found among a large number of others.
Jamaican waters contain considerable resources of fresh-and saltwater fish. The chief varieties of saltwater fish are kingfish, jack, mackerel, whiting, bonito, and tuna. Fish that occasionally enter freshwater and estuarine environments include snook, jewfish, mangrove snapper, and mullets. Fish that spend the majority of their lives in Jamaica's fresh waters include many species of livebearers, killifish, freshwater gobies, the mountain mullet, and the American eel. Tilapia have been introduced from Africa for aquaculture, and are very common.
Insects and other invertebrates are abundant, including the world's largest centipede, the Amazonian giant centipede, and the Homerus swallowtail, the western hemisphere's largest butterfly.
According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, the majority of Jamaicans identify as black.
Much of Jamaica's black population are of African or partially African descent with many being able to trace their origins to West Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. Like many other anglophone Caribbean countries, many Jamaicans with mixed ancestry self-report as black.
Asians form the second largest group and include Indo-Jamaicans and Chinese Jamaicans. Most are descended from indentured workers brought by the British colonial government to fill labour shortages following the abolition of slavery in 1838.
In recent years, immigration has increased, coming mainly from China, Haiti, Cuba, Colombia, and Latin America; 20,000 Latin Americans reside in Jamaica. About 7,000 Americans also reside in Jamaica, as well as many first-generation American, British and Canadians of Jamaican descent.
A study found that the average admixture on the island was 78.3% Sub-Saharan African, 16.0% European, and 5.7% East Asian.
Jamaica is regarded as a bilingual country, with two major languages in use by the population. The official language is Jamaican Standard English (JSE) or Standard Jamaican English (SJE), which is "used in all domains of public life", including the government, the legal system, the media, and education. However, the primary spoken language is an English-based creole called Jamaican Patois (or Patwa). A 2007 survey by the Jamaican Language Unit found that 17.1 percent of the population were monolingual in JSE, 36.5 percent were monolingual in Patois, and 46.4 percent were bilingual, although earlier surveys had pointed to a greater degree of bilinguality (up to 90 percent). The Jamaican education system has only recently begun to offer formal instruction in Patois, while retaining JSE as the "official language of instruction".
Additionally, some Jamaicans speak one or more of Jamaican Sign Language, American Sign Language or the indigenous Jamaican Country Sign Language (Konchri Sain). Both JSL and ASL are rapidly replacing Konchri Sain for a variety of reasons.
Many Jamaicans have emigrated to other countries, especially to the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. In the case of the United States, about 20,000 Jamaicans per year are granted permanent residence. The great number of Jamaicans living abroad has become known as the Jamaican diaspora. There has also been emigration of Jamaicans to Cuba. The scale of emigration has been widespread and similar to other Caribbean entities such as Puerto Rico, Guyana, and The Bahamas. It was estimated in 2004 that up to 2.5 million Jamaicans and Jamaican descendants live abroad.
Jamaicans in the United Kingdom number an estimated 800,000 making them by far the country's largest African-Caribbean group. Large-scale migration from Jamaica to the UK occurred primarily in the 1950s and 1960s (when the country was still under British rule). Jamaican communities exist in most large UK cities. Concentrations of expatriate Jamaicans are quite considerable in numerous cities in the United States, including New York City, Buffalo, the Miami metro area, Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Tampa, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Hartford, Providence and Los Angeles. In Canada, the Jamaican population is centred in Toronto, and there are smaller communities in cities such as Hamilton, Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Ottawa.
When Jamaica gained independence in 1962, the murder rate was 3.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest in the world. By 2009, the rate was 62 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world. Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for many years, according to UN estimates. Some areas of Jamaica, particularly cities such as Kingston, experience high levels of crime and violence. Some Jamaicans are hostile towards LGBT and intersex people, and there have been reported cases of mob attacks against gay people.
However, crime in Jamaica has recently shown a downward trend. There were 1,682 reported murders in 2009 and 1,428 in 2010. Since 2011 the murder rate has continued to fall following the downward trend started in 2010, with increases in police patrols, curfews and more effective anti-gang activities. In 2012, the Ministry of National Security reported a 30 percent decrease in murders.