When Columbus landed on Jamaica in 1494 it was inhabited by peaceful Taíno Indians living in over 200 villages, most of them on the south coast, especially around what is now Old Harbour. Under Spanish occupation, which began in 1509, the race faced harsh slavery and virtual extinction. Most died but some escaped into the mountains. Gradually African slaves were brought in to provide the labour force. In 1655 an English expeditionary force landed at Passage Fort and met with little resistance other than that offered by a small group of Spanish settlers and a larger number of African slaves who took refuge in the mountains, co-existing with the remaining Taínos. The Spaniards abandoned the island after about five years, but the slaves and their descendants, who became known as Maroons, waged war against the new colonists for 80 years until the 1730s although there was another brief rebellion in 1795. Some of their descendants still live in the Cockpit Country, where the Leeward Maroons hid, and around Nanny Town where the Windward Maroons hid.

After a short period of military rule, the colony was adopted with an English-type constitution and a Legislative Council. The great sugar estates were planted in the early days of English occupation when Jamaica also became the haunt of buccaneers and slave traders. In 1833 slave emancipation was declared and modern Jamaica was born. The framework for Jamaica's modern political system was laid in the 1930s. Norman W Manley formed the People's National Party (PNP) in 1938 and his cousin, Sir Alexander Bustamante, formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1944. These two parties had their roots in rival trade unions and have dominated Jamaican politics since universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1944. In 1958, Jamaica joined the West Indies Federation but withdrew following a national referendum on the issue in 1961. On 6 August 1962, Jamaica became an independent Commonwealth member.

After 23 years as leader of the PNP, eight of them as Prime Minister in the 1970s and three as Prime Minister from 1989, Michael Manley, son of the party's founder, retired in March 1992 because of ill health. During Manley's first two terms in office between 1972 and 1980 he endorsed socialist policies at home and encouraged South-South relations abroad. He antagonized the USA by developing close economic and political links with Cuba. Manley's government focused on state-led income distribution to the poorer classes at the expense of private sector support and increased productivity. Failure to deliver economic stability and growth led to his defeat in the 1980 elections. The conservative Edward Seaga (JLP), held office for the next nine years. By 1989 however, Manley's political thinking had changed dramatically and he was re-elected with policies advocating the free market. He was succeeded by the Party Chairman, former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister P J Patterson. Patterson promised to maintain Manley's policies and to deepen the restructuring of the economy.

General elections were held early, on 30 March 1993, and the incumbent PNP was returned for a second term. Despite a landslide victory, the elections were marred by violence that led to 11 deaths, malpractices and a turnout of only 58%. The JLP boycotted parliament for four months while it demanded electoral reform and an inquiry into the election day events. It also refused to contest by-elections. Concessions were made by the Government, including a reorganization of the police force and the postponement of local government elections pending electoral reform. The reform drafted by the Electoral Advisory Committee was completed in time for general elections in December 1997.

The 1997 elections gave the PNP a third consecutive term in office. When he was sworn into office, Prime Minister PJ Patterson promised that it would be the last time that the Government would swear allegiance to the British monarchy. The PNP proposes an executive president but the JLP advocates a ceremonial president with a Prime Minister.

The 2002 general elections resulted in the ruling PNP winning 35 seats and the JLP 25. Massive expenditures on infrastructure projects, involving island-wide road repairs and construction in the months leading up to the elections, secured victory in a keenly contested poll. The other minor parties made insignificant showings, receiving less than 1% of the vote in each case. Politically motivated violence was considerably reduced and the elections were judged well run and markedly free from corruption. In 2005 PJ Patterson stood down as leader of the PNP and the party elected its first female leader, who became Prime Minister, Mrs Portia Simpson-Miller. Elections were due in 2007, with the incumbent party seeking its fifth consecutive victory. Both parties fielded new leaders and many new legislative candidates.


Once one of the more prosperous islands in the West Indies, Jamaica went into recession in 1973 and output declined steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s. At the core of Jamaica's economic difficulties lay the collapse of the vital bauxite-mining and alumina-refining industries. Jamaica is the world's third-largest producer of bauxite after Australia and Guinea, but despite rising production of bauxite and alumina, earnings have slumped because of lower prices.

Manufacturing and mining contribute over 28.5% to GDP, while agriculture accounts for only 7%. Garments exported to the USA and other miscellaneous manufactured articles have seen considerable decline due to competition from Mexico and other NAFTA member states, and from imports due to market liberalization. Sugar is the main crop, and most important export after bauxite and alumina, but production costs are high and the industry insolvent. Other export crops include bananas, coffee, cocoa and citrus fruits. Jamaica is famous for its Blue Mountain coffee, first produced in 1757, which commands a high premium in the world market.

Tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner, contributing about 18% of GDP. The island recorded its best tourism year ever in 2005 with just over 2.6 million combined stopover and cruise arrivals. Remittances from Jamaicans abroad remain the largest source of foreign exchange income, with over US$3.3 billion transferred privately to Jamaica through remittance companies, commercial banks and building societies during 2001-05. The support, whether in cash, clothing, food or cars, is a significant source of welfare income, especially for those in the lower economic and social strata.

The Government turned to the IMF for support in 1976 and was a regular customer until 1995. In compliance with IMF agreements, the Government reduced domestic demand commensurate with the fall in export earnings, by devaluing the currency and reducing the size of its fiscal deficits. Jamaica rescheduled its debt to creditor governments and foreign commercial banks. Some debt forgiveness was granted. The foreign exchange market was deregulated, and interest rates and credit ceilings kept high to reduce consumption, close the trade gap and rebuild foreign reserves.

Debt servicing remains a heavy burden, with external debt amounting to 60% of GDP. The worldwide recession in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks had an adverse effect on the Jamaican economy and even though it recovered partially in 2003-04, there are still long-term problems. The floating exchange rate puts a heavy burden on the budget because of the government's debt servicing obligations and economic growth has been stifled. It was hoped that the construction boom and subsequent revenue from the 2007 Cricket World Cup would help revenues, but the forthcoming elections in 2007 meant that any further investments were in limbo.


Jamaica lies some 145 km south of Cuba and a little over 160 km west of Haiti. With an area of 10,992 sq km, it is the third-largest island in the Greater Antilles. It is 235 km from east to west and 82 km from north to south at its widest, bounded by the Caribbean. Like other West Indian islands, it is an outcrop of a submerged mountain range. It is crossed by a spectacular range of mountains which rises to 2256 m at Blue Mountain Peak in the east and descends towards the west, with a series of spurs and forested gullies running north and south. The luxuriance of the vegetation is striking. Tropical beaches surround the island. The best are on the north and west coasts, though there are some good bathing places on the south coast too.


With a population 2.5 million, the island is a fascinating blend of cultures from colonial Britain, African slavery and immigrants from China, India and the Middle East. Reggae and Rastafariansim have become synonymous with Jamaica, and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh are just two of the greats to have been born here. Over 90% of Jamaicans are of West African descent. Because of this, Ashanti words still figure very largely in the local dialect (patois). There are also Chinese, East Indians and Christian Arabs as well as those of British descent and other European minorities. There is considerable poverty on the island, which has created social problems and some tension, although Jamaicans are naturally friendly, easy-going and international in their outlook (more people of Jamaican origin live outside Jamaica than inside).

The predominant religion is Protestantism, but there is also a Roman Catholic community, as well as followers of the Church of God, Baptists, Anglicans, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Methodists and others. The Jewish, Moslem, Hindu and Bahai religions are also practised. Jamaicans are a very religious people and it is said that Jamaica has more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. To a small degree, early adaptations of the Christian faith, Revival and Pocomania, survive, but the most obvious local minority sect is Rastafarianism .

Flora and fauna

The 'land of wood and water' is a botanist's paradise. There are reported to be about 3000 species of flowering plants, 827 of which are not found anywhere else. There are over 550 varieties of fern, 300 of which can be found in
Fern Gully
. There are many orchids, bougainvillea, hibiscus and other tropical flowers. Tropical hardwoods like cedar and mahogany, palms, balsa and many other trees, besides those that are cultivated, can be seen. Cultivation, however, is putting much of Jamaica's plant life at risk. Having been almost entirely forested, an estimated 6% of the land is virgin forest. A great many species are endangered.

This is also a land of hummingbirds and butterflies . Sea cows and the Pedro seal are found in the island's waters, although fewer than 100 sea cows, or manatee, survive. There are crocodiles, but no large wild mammals apart from the hutia, or coney (an endangered species), the mongoose (considered a pest since it eats chickens) and, in the mountains, wild boar. There are, however, lots of bats, with 25 species recorded. Most live in caves or woods and eat fruit and insects, but there is a fish-eating bat which can sometimes be seen swooping over the water in Kingston Harbour. The Jamaican iguana (
Cyclura collei
) was thought to have died out in the 1960s, but in 1990 a small group was found to be surviving in the Hellshire Hills. There are 5 species of snakes, all harmless and rare, the largest of which is the yellow snake (the Jamaican boa), which can grow up to 3 m.

Good sites for birdwatching are given in the text; the 3 main areas are the
Cockpit Country
, the
Blue Mountains
Marshall's Pen
. The national bird is the red-billed streamertail hummingbird (
Trochilus polytmus
), also known as the doctor bird or swallow tail hummingbird. The male has a long, sweeping tail much longer than its body, and is one of Jamaica's endemic species. Other endemic birds are the yellow-billed parrot and the black-billed parrot, found in the Cockpit Country or Hope Zoo. There are 25 species and 21 subspecies of endemic land birds which are found nowhere else. A good place to see Jamaica's birds is the
Rocklands Feeding Station
, near Montego Bay. On weekday evenings you can watch the birds being fed and even offer a hummingbird a syrup and get really close. Many migratory birds stop on Jamaica on their journeys north or south. One of the best references is
Birds of Jamaica: a photographic field guide
by Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton with photos by Yves-Jacques Rey Millet Cambridge University Press (1990).

In 1989 the Government established two pilot national parks under the Protected Areas Resource Conservation (PARC) project. The
Blue Mountain/John Crow Mountain National Park
encompasses almost 81,000 ha of mountains, forests and rivers. Efforts are being made to develop the area for ecotourism and provide a livelihood for local people. The
Montego Bay Marine Park
aims to protect the offshore reef from urban waste, over-fishing and hillside erosion leading to excessive soil deposition. Several initiatives on protected areas are under way, including the Negril Environmental Protection Area and the Negril Marine Park, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio Marine Park along the northern coast and the Portland Bight Protected Area and the Canoe Valley National Park along the south coast. All coral reefs are now protected. Hunting of the American crocodile, the yellow- and black-billed parrot and all species of sea turtle is banned.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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