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Quick Facts About Jamaica 

 
 
THE LAND

Jamaica has an area of 4, 411 square miles of 11,424 square kilometers. The island is 146 miles (235km) long with widths varying between 22 (35km) miles. She is the third largest of the Caribbean islands and the largest of the English speaking islands.

Jamaica is a very mountainous country. Almost half of the island is above 1,000 feet (305m). Blue mountain Peak, the highest point, is 7,402 feet (2,256m) above sea level. The annual average rainfall is 78 inches (198cm). Because of the effects of the mountains, rainfall is fairly evenly distributed. Some hilly areas get nearly 300 inches (762cm) a year while parts of the western plains get as little as 30 inches (76.2).

The annual average temperature is 27ºC.  The hottest months are the in the summer and the winter months (December to March) are appreciably cooler. Areas of high altitude are also much cooler.  For example, the Blue Mountain Peak, has an average annual temperature of 13ºC. The tides around the coast hardly vary.  The difference between high and low tide is never more than 16 inches (41cm).

Jamaica has about 120 rivers, most of which flow to coast from the central mountain ranges. Those on the north side tend to be shorter and swifter than those on the south side.

Jamaica is blessed with several mineral springs, four of which are developed with facilities for bathing and/or accommodation. Once is attached to the Grand Lido San Souci Hotel and three are Public; Bath in St. Thomas, Milk River in Clarendon and Rockfort in St. Andrew.

HISTORY AND PEOPLE

The first Jamaican were the aboriginal Taino Indians. Christopher Columbus found them living here when he came. Soon after the Spaniards settled on the island, the Tainos were all killed or died out from overwork and European diseases to which they had no immunity. Africans were imported to work as slaves on the plantations. Cattle and other small animals were the main livestock, while tobacco and staple foods were the main crops. The staple foods provided food for the population as well as supplies for passing ships. The word Jamaica comes from an Awarak word Xaymaca, meaning “Land of wood and water”.

Although the Tainos of Jamaica have all died out, they have left several words in the English Language. Among them: hammock, tobacco, potato, hurricane, maize, barbecue, cannibal, and canoe.

Christopher Columbus first came to Jamaica on May 4, 1494 while on his second voyage to the “new” world. This great explorer landed at Discovery Bay on the north coast near the resort town of Ocho Rios. Columbus once spent a whole year in St. Ann’s Bay. It was during his fourth voyage in 1503 when he stopped here because his ships were worm-eaten.  A full year passed before help arrived and he was able to repair his ships. This is the longest time he ever spent in any one place on any of his voyages.

Jamaica’s first town built by the Spanish in 1509 was “Sevilla Nueva”, or New Seville near ST. Ann’s Bay on the islands north coast. In 1534 the Spaniards, having abandoned Seville for health reasons, founded Spanish town on the south coast and made it the island’s capital. Seville Nueva now lies beneath in the earth in St. Ann. Archaeological excavations are being made of this Spanish settlement.

Jamaica became a British colony in 1655 when the English captured it from the Spaniards. The English turned the island into one vast sugar plantation which made them rich. In England they used to say as rich as a ‘West Indian planter’ to mean the richest person around.

To grow the sugarcane, the English brought many more Africans to work as slaves. Most of the slaves came the West Coast of Africa. The majority were from the Fanti and Ashanti tribes. Others from the Ibo and Yoruba tribes came from what is now present day Nigeria.

When the slaves were fully freed in 1838, most of them deserted the plantations and settled down in the hills to cultivate their own small plots of land. They founded a peasantry which is still today regarded as the “backbone” of Jamaica.

After slavery was abolished, the English brought in Chinese and later East Indians as indentured labourers to work on the plantations.

The Jews are among the oldest residents of Jamaica. Some Jewish families have been here from the time of the earliest Spanish settlements. Although very small in number, the Jewish community has been very influential in government and commerce.

When the English took over Jamaica, the Spaniards fled to neighbouring islands and their freed slaves escaped into the mountains and formed their own independent groups called the Maroons.

The Maroons were in time joined by the many other slaves who escaped from the English. For a long time, they fought against the English who sought to re-enslave them. So successful were the Maroons, fighting guerilla style from their mountain fortresses, that the English were forced to sign peace treaties with them, granting tem self-government and the mountain lands which they inhabited. Today, descendants of the Maroons still live in the hilly Cockpit Country of western Jamaica (Accompong) and Moore Town in the hills of Portland (eastern Jamaica). Another established Maroon settlement exists at Scots Hall in St. Mary. Maroons, however, are fully integrated into the Jamaican society and share the rights and responsibilities of Jamaican citizenship.

Over ninety percent of the Jamaican population is of African descent. There has been much inter-marriage among the races over the centuries and this is reflected in the diverse physical appearance of Jamaicans, and in their unique culture. The African heritage is still very strong. It is seen in the foods Jamaicans grow and eat (e.g. yam); in some religious practices; in music and dance; in folk tales, proverbs and aspects of the language.

The official language of Jamaica is English. However, the majority of the population speaks a Jamaican creole called patois, which is a mixture of English and African forms, and words adopted from foreign sources. The Jamaican creole has been studied by many scholars. There is even a Dictionary of Jamaican English published by Cambridge University Press.

Jamaica has a population of over 2.6 million. Kingston, the capital city is the most densely populated with 750,000 persons. In the Nothern Hemisphere, Kingston is the largest English speaking city south of Miami.

The majority of the population is Christian with small Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Bahai communities. The other established churches are Anglican (Episcopalian), Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Adventist, Moravian and United Church (Presbyterian and Congregational). The Pentecostals also have a large number of adherents. Many Jamaicans are member of indigenous religious groups e.g. Pocamania, Revivalism and Rastafari. Rastafari is a religious sect which believes in the divinity of Haile Selassie, the late Emperor of Ethuiopia.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS

On August 6, 1962, Jamaica became independent country after more than 300 years of British rule. She remains a part of the Commonwealth of Nations. The Queen of England is titular head of state, and is represented by the Governor General who is a Jamaican.

The Prime Minister is the head of government. Jamaica has a bicameral parliament based on the Westminister model, where there is a lower house (The House of Representatives) whose members are elected under universal adult suffrage; and an upper house (The Senate) whose members are appointed by the Governor General. The majority of senate members are appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the others on the recommendation of the leader of Opposition. Parliament is made up of a majority which forms the Government, and minority parties who form the Opposition.

Jamaica has two main political parties: The People’s national Party (PNP) and the Jamaica labour Party (JLP). A third political party, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) was launched in 1995. The term governance is five years, but the Prime Minister can call an election at any time within the term. The minimum voting age is 18.

The island is divided into 3 counties and 14 parishes. Each parish has a capital town which is the centre of local Government administration.

Jamaica has many post–secondary institutions.

These Include:

  • The University of the West Indies
  • University of Technology, Jamaica
  • Northern Caribbean University
  • College of Agriculture, Science and Education
  • Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts
  • Several Teacher Training Colleges
  • Community Colleges

There are also many specialist educational institutions island-wide. Jamaica has a good public library system with libraries maintained in most towns. Bookmobiles take books to small villages. The National Library of Jamaica is at the institute of Jamaica in Kingston and it is the best repository of West Indian historical documents in the world. The herbarium there has over 55,000 specimens of West Indian plants. The National archives are in Spanish Town.

Jamaica has produced many international sportsmen and women especially in cricket, athletics, boxing, football and tennis. Jamaicans are a sport-loving people. The most popular spectator sports are cricket, track and field, football (soccer) and boxing. Also popular are golf, tennis, basketball, netball, polo, swimming and watersports.

Every year, an annual islandwide activity is held to celebrate the anniversary of independence. Festival brings together the best in Jamaican art, craft and performing arts. The finals of the events are held islandwide and provide much colour and spectacle. On Independence Day, August 6, there is usually a grand gala in Kingston. There is also a major celebration on August 1, Emancipation Day.

The National Dance Theatre Company and the Jamaica Folk Singers are undoubtedly two of the best-known theatrical performing groups.

An annual theatrical event is the Jamaican Pantomime. It is a colourful musical and is very popular with Jamaicans. The Pantomime plays for approximately four months at different theatres, after opening in December in Kingston.

Jamaica has three daily newspapers: “The Gleaner”, “The Observer”, “The Star”, several weekly newspapers and other publications. There are several radio stations including RJR, Hot 102 FM, KLAS FM, Irie FM, Love FM, Power 106-2 television stations (TVJ CVM). There are also several local cable operators.

THE ECONOMY

The most important areas of the economy are tourism, agriculture, bauxite mining and manufacturing. The main agricultural export crops are: sugar, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa, coconut, pimento (allspice) and root crops (e.g. yams). Jamaica exports flowers and folia plants. Much has also been achieved in fresh water fishing and shrimp farming, the growing of mushrooms, strawberries and oyster farming. Numerous tropical tubers, vegetables, flowers and exotic are cultivated in accordance with tradition. Blue Mountain Coffee is the most priced and expensive in the world and is used chiefly for blending with less aromatic beans worldwide. It is grown only in a small area on the slopes of the Blue Mountains. Jamaica also produces excellent mid-mountain and lowland coffee.

Jamaica is one of the world’s major producers of bauxite and alumina, from which aluminium is made. Aluminium is not actually made in Jamaica, as the ore is shipped to smelters in the USA, Canada, Norway and other countries. Of all the minerals in Jamaica, Bauxite is the one most mined. Others are gypsum, marble, alabaster and limestone. There are also significant deposits of agate.

Tourism is Jamaica’s largest earner of foreign exchange and there are over 1 million visitors per year. Jamaica offers year round tourism but the major resort centers are Kingston, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril, Port Antonio and the Central and South Coast.

There are a number of hotels, large and small, varying from high rises to hotels in elegant old world style and small modern hotels marketed under the umbrella title of “Inns of Jamaica”. There are also guest houses and different villas and apartments. All offer modern conveniences and excellent service. They are inspected regularly before recommendations are issued or are renewed. Approved properties offer good value for money.

Jamaica has many fine restaurants which offer a variety of dinning styles in Jamaican, American, continental, East Indian, Chinese and Italian cuisines, among others.

There is a wide variety of attractions and entertainment events year round and Jamaica abounds in fine beaches and scenic beauty.

There are numerous recreational opportunities. Facilities for tennis, golf, equestrian, sports and water sports of all sorts are excellent.

The Jamaica Tourist Board Headquartered in Kingston and maintains offices both locally and overseas.

Cruise shipping plays a major part in the tourist industry and Jamaica is a popular port of call. There are cruise ship ports in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Port Antonio, Falmouth and Kingston. Jamaica also offers excellent shopping opportunities ranging from art and craft goods, duty free items, leisure and evening wear.

NATURAL HISTORY

A little bird called Jamaican Tody makes its nest, not in a tree, but in the hole in the ground. The Tody is also known as the robin redbreast   (not to be confused with the Robin Redbreast of England). This particular Tody is found only in Jamaica and is one of the many endemic species found here.

Jamaica has a few harmless snakes found mostly in remote areas such as the Cockpit country.

The breadfruit was brought to Jamaica by the Tahiti in 1793 by Captain Bligh. The first time he attempted to bring the plants to the island, his crew took over the ship and put him off on a deserted island. The Film “Muting on the Bounty” was based on this event.

The mongoose was introduced to the island from India to kill snakes in the canefields. Drivers will sometime see them running across the road.

Jamaica is famous for its woods - mahogany, blue mahoe (the national tree), satinwood, cottonwood, cedar, Spanish elm and others. These woods are used in the manufacturing of beautiful furniture and fine craft items.

The national flower is the Lignum Vitae which means “Tree of Life”. In the old days, Lignum Vitae was used widely as a medicine. The wood is extremely heavy and hard and has been used to make ships’ propellers and policemen’s batons. Today it is prized by furniture manufacturers and sculptors.

Jamaica has many native species of orchids and hundreds of imported varieties and hybrids. As a result there are orchid shows especially in the spring and fall.

Ackee and salt fish is the “national dish”. The ackee was first brought from Africa on a slave ship. Ackee, though cooked and used as a vegetable, is a fruit. It is Jamaica’s national fruit.

Jamaica has many exotic fruits – many types of mangoes, star apple, sweet sop, soursop, custard apple, rose apple, sweet-cup, otaheiti apple, jack fruit, guinep, tamarind and naseberry, among others. When in season, all are available at roadside stalls. The pineapple was introduced to Hawaii from Jamaica.

The coconut is the world’s most useful tree. Every part of the tree, as well as its fruit, is used by man. The trees can be seen along Jamaica’s coastline and on working plantations, some of which offer regular sightseeing tours.

The Giant Swallow Tail butterfly is found only in Jamaica. It has a wingspan of up to six inches (0.2). It is believed to be the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. A Jamaican butterfly called the ‘Zebra’ has an interesting habit. Every evening, large swarms roost on the same tree or branch. This is a most unusual habit in the butterfly world. The ‘Zebra’ is striped black and yellow.

Jamaica has over 500 species of true ferns. Some are enormous tree ferns while others are so small they can hardly be seen with the naked eye.

Pimento (also called Allspice) is indigenous to Jamaica. We therefore supply most of this spice on the world market. The spice comes from the dry berry. Pimento oil is extracted from leaves. A delicious liqueur is made from the ripe berries.

Over 252 species of birds are found here. Of these, 27 are found nowhere else. These include the national bird, the streamer tailed humming bird or doctor Bird. Four varieties are now found in Jamaica. Bamboo Avenue is an attraction close to the island’s southwest coast where the feathery tops from a canopy over than three miles of road.

Bats (locally called ‘rat bats’) live in vast colonies in caves. Some feed insects, some on fish, and some on fruit. Twenty-three species are found in Jamaica. The island’s lizards are all harmless. Many can change colour to suit their surroundings – a protective strategy. Jamaica’s largest lizard is the iguana which can grow to over 6 feet long. Though now rare in Jamaica, iguanas can be seen at the Hope Zoo in Kingston. A group of whistling frogs found in Jamaica does not go through the tadpole stage as do most frogs. Their eggs are laid under stones and hatch out into little frogs.

Jamaica has about 50 species of coral, in addition to a wide variety of beautiful sponges and seaweed. Some of Jamaica’s corals are found nowhere else.

When Jamaican fireflies flash their lights, it means they are courting each other. Each specie has a different flash and the females have a different have a different signal from the males. They are known locally as blinkies or peenie-wallies.

KINGSTON

Kingston is built around the 7th largest natural harbor in the world and the completely rebuilt waterfront has splendid modern buildings which house offices, shops and apartments. The imposing Bank of Jamaica building houses the Central bank as well as the coin museum. Across the road is the unique Jamaican Conference Centre, which is open for tours. Other interesting places in the area are the National Gallery, home of Jamaica’s priceless art collection and one of the best displays in the Caribbean, Kingston Crafts Market and the spectacular St. William Grant Park. Other points of interest downtown are: The Institute of Jamaica (east Street) which was established in 1879; Ward Theatre, which is one of the oldest theatres in the Americas; Kingston Parish Church which has existed from at least 1699 (as the date on the oldest theatres in the Americans; Kingston Parish Church which has existed from at least 1699 (as the date on the oldest tombstone attests); Coke Chapel, built in 1840 on the site of the first Methodist chapel  in Jamaica; Gordon House, the house of Parliament and Headquarters House, which in the 1760s, was the townhouse of a wealthy planter. It was built on a wager. National Heroes Park has monuments of Jamaica’s national Heroes as well as the tomb of a former Prime Minister. Mico Teacher Training College nearby, was founded in the 1830s and Wolmer’s school was founded in the early 18th century.

Principal points to interest uptown are the national Stadium and Arena; the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing  Arts; Devon House (built in the 1880s as a millionaire’s residence and now open to tours with a popular shopping and restaurant complex); Vale Royal, the official residence of the Prime Minister which was built in the early 1770s; Hope Botanical gardens and the University of the West Indies, Mona, (the UWI Chapel was reassembled stone by stone from an old sugar warehouse  in Trelawny). King’s House, the official residence of the Governor General and the Bob Marley Museum are also major points of interest in the area.

Half Way Tree (the capital of the parish of St. Andrew) was named in olden days after an old cotton tree which served as a landmark. The St. Andrew Parish Church dates from the 1680s.

Port Royal arguably the most famous place in the Caribbean, was, in the 1600s, the headquarters of English Buccaneers who preyed on Spanish ships. Fort Charles, built in 1656 by the British a year after their capture of the island, was used to command the entrance to the harbour (now Kingston Harbour). Port Royal grew enormously wealthy on plunder. Its most famous pirate was Henry Morgan who was later Knighted and appointed Lieutenant Governor.  The city became known as “the wickedest city in Christendon”. In 1692, an Earthquake and tidal wave toppled over two-thirds of Port Royal into the sea. The sunken city, lying in shallow water, is the world’s most priceless underwater archaeological site. Reminders of old Port Royal brought up from the sea can be seen at the Museum of Historical Archaeology. Other places of interest are St. Peter’s Church with its 18th century organ loft and chandelier; the Communion plate donated by Sir Henry Morgan and the tomb of Louis Galdy who was swallowed up by the earth during the earthquake and was miraculously thrown up alive. He lived to a ripe old age. Fort Charles is a reminder of the time when the town was a British naval stronghold. The flagstaff there is the point from which Jamaica’s latitude and longitude are measured and Nelson’s Quarterdeck has a plaque which honours the British naval hero of Trafalgar who served there.

SPANISH TOWN

Spanish Town, Jamaica’s capital for over three hundred years, is 13 miles from Kingston and was founded in 1534. The old town square has a Spanish design and contains places of historical interest. On the north side is the stately monument of Admiral George Rodney, by John Bacon, Britain’s most eminent artist of the late 18th century. The red brick House of assembly is on the east and faces Old Kings House – the old governor’s residence which was destroyed by fire in 1925. The façade has been rebuilt and now houses the Museum of Craft and technology. The Cathedral Church of St. James dates to 1714.

MANDEVILLE

Mandeville is Jamaica’s mountain resort, the island’s largest hill town and the fifth largest urban centre. The town was laid out in 1816 and was named for Lord Mandeville, the eldest son of the Duke of Manchester, the governor after whom the parish was named. The original building of that period can still be seen.

MONTEGO BAY

Montego Bay is Jamaica’s second largest city. It is the capital of St. James. The population is over 70,000.

The word ‘Montego’ comes from the Spanish “Manteca”, meaning land. In the old days, the Spaniards use to butcher wild hogs in the mountains and ship the lard from this port. Montego Bay has been a tourist resort since the turn of the century. People first came to bathe a Doctor’s Cove for health reasons. Montego Bay has the largest number of hotel rooms in Jamaica, as well as five championship golf courses, many tennis courts, numerous attractions, restaurants and entertainment spots.

It has an international airport, named for former Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster (Sangster International Airport), a modern cruise ship pier and a growing industrial freezone area. There is also a craft market.

Sam Sharpe Square is named for a slave leader and deacon who fought for freedom and was hanged there. He led the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. Sam Sharpe is now a National hero of Jamaica.

Fort Montego dates from the days when all the coastal towns had to be defended. The fort was hardly ever used. A battery with three cannons and the powder magazine are that remain.

The Dome was built in 1837 over the creek which was used to supply Montego Bay with water. The Keeper of the creek had his office there.

The cage was built in 1806 as an overnight lockup for runaway slaves, disorderly seamen and other vagrants.

The Parish Church of St, James is dedicated to St. James the Great. It was built in 1778. The church was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake on March 1, 1957, but it has been faithfully restored. Burchell Memorial Church was established in 1824 by Rev. Thomas Burchell, a Baptist missionary and abolishionist. The early congregation was mostly slaves. Sam Sharpe, the great slave leader, was deacon there.

NEGRIL

Negril, the resort at the western tip of the island, extends from half moon bay in Hanover to Negril Lighthouse in Westmoreland, enclosing seven miles of white sand beach one of the best in the world. Negril has a carefree ambience and a wide range of accommodation, of which no building is higher than the tallest palm tree – by law.

Calico Jack, a notorious pirate in Jamaica’s history, was captured on this beach. At his trial, it was discovered that two of his crew were women. Bobby Cay, the island at the northern end of the beach, was used in filming the south sea scenes in Walt Disney’s “Twenty Leagues Under the Sea”. Bobby Cay in Negril was so named during the whaling days, centuries ago.

OCHO RIOS

Ocho Rios is in the middle of the island’s long north coast. Like Montego Bay, it boasts a wide range of visitor accommodation. It is particulary noted for spectacular waterfalls, working plantations beaches, busy modern cruise ship piers and beautiful tropical gardens.

Ocho Rios is the resort from which the following attractions are mostly reached: Fern Gully, Dunn’s River Falls, Chukka Cove Equestrian Centre, New Seville (the archaeological site of Jamaica’s first town built by Diego Columbus); Noel Cowards house, “Firefly” and Ian Flemming’s house “Golden Eye”, (home of James Bond). There are regular tours of “Firefly” which is now a museum. “Golden Eye” is a private residence. The Old Fort beside the Reynolds installation was built in the late 17th century.

PORT ANTONIO

Port Antonio owes its early prosperity to the banana trade with the USA and England which officially began in 1870. Among the houses built at the height of the ‘banana boom’ was Demontivin Lodge Guest House which resembles an old New England mansion. Titchfield School was founded in 1785 and is housed in the barracks of Fort George, the remains of which can still be seen.

Titchfield is in fact the old name of the town, and was the name of the English estate of lord Portland, the governor for whom the parish was named. Christ Church (Anglican) was built around 1840. The legendary Folly was built in 1905 by a wealthy American. The mansion began to crumble around 1936 because sea water was used to mix the concrete and this caused the steal to decay. Some of the town’s attractions are the Blue Lagoon; Sommerset Falls; the Twin Harbours, described by the American poet, Ella Willa Wilcox, as the Rio Grande Valley. Fishing tournaments are held from the Port Antonio Marina and there are historical tours of the town from the sea. Navy Island an offshore isle was once owned by Errol Flynn. There is 24-hour ferry service from the mainland at nominal cost.