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The Commonwealth


Caribbean and Americas

Did you know:

Jamaicans hold four Commonwealth Games records and three world records.

Four Jamaican women have won Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes: Olive Senior in 1987 (Best Book); Erna Brodber in 1989; Alecia McKenzie in 1993; and Vanessa Spence in 1994.

The Commonwealth Library Association has its secretariat at the Mona, Kingston, campus of the University of the West Indies.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1962
Population: 2,784,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.5% p.a. 1990–2012
UN HDI: world ranking 96
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT minus 5hr
Currency: Jamaican dollar (J$)


Area: 10,991 sq km
Coastline: 1,020km
Capital city: Kingston
Population density (per sq. km): 253

Jamaica, whose name comes from the Arawak Xaymaca, meaning ‘Land of Wood and Water’, lies south of Cuba and west of Haiti.

Main towns:

Kingston (capital, pop. 584,627 in 2011), Portmore (182,153), Spanish Town (147,152), Montego Bay (110,115), May Pen (61,548), Mandeville (49,695), Old Harbour (28,912), Savanna-la-Mar (22,633), Ocho Rios (16,671), Port Antonio (14,816), Linstead (14,231), St Ann’s Bay (11,173), Morant Bay (11,052), Hayes (10,639), Ewarton (9,753) and Bog Walk (9,431).


There are 22,120 km of roads, more than 70 per cent paved. There is no railway.

Main ports are Kingston, with dedicated wharves for bulk cargoes of petroleum, flour, cement, gypsum and lumber, and Montego Bay in the north-west; and the international airports are Norman Manley International, 17 km south-east of Kingston, and Montego Bay International, 5 km north of the city.

International relations:

Jamaica is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Association of Caribbean States, Caribbean Community, Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of American States, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

Jamaica hosts the headquarters of the International Seabed Authority, the autonomous international organisation established in 1994 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Jamaica is the ridge of a submerged mountain range. The land rises to 2,256 metres at Blue Mountain Peak. The coastline is indented, with many good natural bays. Fine sandy beaches occur on the north and west coasts. Small fast-flowing rivers, prone to flash flooding, run in forested gullies.


Tropical at the coast (22–34°C), with fresh sea breezes; markedly cooler in the mountains. Rainfall ranges from 1,500 mm p.a. in Kingston to 3,850 mm p.a. in Port Antonio. Jamaica lies in the hurricane zone.


The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; pollution of coastal waters by industrial waste, sewage and oil spills; damage to coral reefs; and air pollution in Kingston due to vehicle emissions.


Jamaica’s luxuriant tropical and, at higher altitude, subtropical vegetation is probably the richest in the region. There are more than 3,000 flowering species, including 194 orchid species, several cactus species, of which seven are unique to Jamaica, and 12 native palm species. Forest covers 31 per cent of the total land area, having declined at 0.1 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises 11 per cent and permanent cropland nine per cent of the total land area.


Fauna include 30 bat species. There is also a rich variety of birdlife (of some 75 species recorded, ten were threatened with extinction in 2012), turtles, non-poisonous snakes, lizards, crocodiles, 14 kinds of butterfly unique to Jamaica, and many moths and fireflies. Manatees live in the coastal waters. There are about 500 species of landshell, many of which are unique to Jamaica.


Little is known about the island’s early history, except that there are many traces of Arawak habitation, and that Arawaks, agriculturists who made good-quality textiles and pottery, were living there when Christopher Columbus landed on 14 May 1494, on his second American voyage of exploration. He named the island Santiago (Saint-James). However, the name was never adopted and it kept its Arawak name Xaymaca, of which ‘Jamaica’ is a corruption. Lacking gold, Jamaica was used mainly as a staging post in the scramble for the wealth of the Americas.

The Spanish arrival was a disaster to the indigenous peoples, great numbers of whom were sent to Spain as slaves, others used as slaves on site, and many killed by the invaders, despite the efforts of Spanish Christian missionaries to prevent these outrages. There were no Arawaks left on the island by 1665, but there were enslaved Africans replacing them.

In 1645 the British captured Jamaica from the Spaniards, whose former slaves refused to surrender, took to the mountains and repelled all attempts to subjugate them. These people came to be known as Maroons (from the Spanish cimarron, meaning ‘wild’, a word applied to escaped slaves). Between 1660 and 1670 pirates used Jamaica as a place of resort.

In 1670 Spain formally ceded the island to Britain. Two years later the Royal Africa Company, a slave-trading enterprise, was formed. The company used Jamaica as its chief market, and the island became a centre of slave trading in the West Indies. Nonetheless, the battles of the Maroons to retain their freedom succeeded when, in 1740, the British authorities recognised their rights to freedom and ownership of property.

Settlers, using slave labour, developed sugar, cocoa, indigo and later coffee estates. The island was very prosperous by the time of the Napoleonic wars (1792–1814), exporting sugar and coffee; but after the wars sugar prices dropped, and the slave trade was abolished in 1807. After the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the plantations were worked by indentured Indian and Chinese labourers. Sugar prices fell again in 1846. Jamaica’s worsening economic situation caused widespread suffering and discontent. In October 1865, a political protest at Morant Bay organised by G W Gordon developed into an uprising during which the local magistrate and 18 other Europeans were killed. The governor, E J Eyre, declared martial law and launched a punitive campaign of ruthless severity, with several executions without trial, including the hanging of Gordon, who had not instigated any violence. The reaction in Britain was astonished outrage. Eyre was removed from office and Jamaica placed under Crown colony rule (1866). The banana industry was established in the second half of the 19th century, on big estates and smallholdings. In the early 20th century, Jamaicans worked on banana plantations in Central America and Cuba, and in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Jamaica’s first colonial constitution gave considerable power to settlers. The governor’s council included senior figures such as the bishop and Chief Justice, but the representative assembly was controlled by white settlers. After the imposition of direct Crown colony rule in 1866, settlers lost their power and the Governor was advised only by the mainly nominated privy council. With amendments, this constitution was retained until 1944.

In 1938, the People’s National Party (PNP), led by Norman Manley, was formed to campaign for independence. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Sir Alexander Bustamante, was founded in 1943.

In 1944, an executive council, with half its members elected by universal adult franchise, was established. In 1953, ministers from the council took over most portfolios, and Bustamante became Chief Minister. Manley followed, in 1955. When Jamaica joined the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, it had full internal self- government with a legislative council (Senate) and legislative assembly (holding real power).

On independence in 1962 Bustamante was Prime Minister. With bauxite in demand, tourism flourishing and a revival in bananas, Jamaica’s economy boomed.

In 1972, the PNP, led by Norman Manley’s son, Michael, won the elections, and remained in office until 1980, when the JLP under Edward Seaga came to power. The PNP, again under the leadership of Michael Manley, won the elections of 1989.

Due to ill health, Prime Minister Michael Manley retired in March 1992 and was succeeded by P J Patterson, who led the PNP to another victory at elections in March 1993. The PNP won 52 seats, the JLP eight.

Jamaican politics was preoccupied with economic and security issues during the 1990s and this resulted in a high incidence of strikes, with all parties favouring economic liberalisation. In late 1995 the JLP split, leading to the creation of a third party, the National Democratic Movement, headed by Bruce Golding, former chairman of the JLP.

Patterson and the PNP were returned in the general election in December 1997. The poll had been relatively peaceful and the international team of observers led by former US President Jimmy Carter judged it free and fair. With 56 per cent of the votes the PNP took 50 of the 60 seats in the lower house, while the JLP received 39 per cent of the votes and took ten seats.

The Truth About Jamaica & Jamaicans

Reggae The Story Of Jamaican Music BBC Documentary

Roots, Reggae, Rebellion Full BBC Documentary 2016

Learn more about Jamaica on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Studies in Jamaica history
by Cundall, Frank (1900) (pdf)

Annals of Jamaica
By The Rev. George Wilson Bridges, A.M. in two volumes (1926) (pdf)
Volume 1 | Volume 2

Jamaica: its history, constitution, and topographical description
by John Jarrett Wood (1884) (pdf)

Stark's Jamaica Guide
by Stark, James Henry (1898) (pdf)

Virgin Atlantic Destination Guides: Jamaica

Jamaica Vacation Travel Video Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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