Jamaica is a land of trees and water, secluded bays, beautiful beaches, friendly people, and rich colonial heritage. Always a popular romantic holiday destination, Jamaica was originally named “Xayamaca”, which means “Land of wood and water”. The Arawak Indians were the first inhabitants on the island. In 1494, Christopher Columbus landed on the north coast and the island was soon colonized by the Europeans. Today, Jamaica is the largest English-speaking island in the Caribbean. Its counties and parishes take on familiar names such as Kingston, Middlesex, Manchester, and Surrey.
Jamaica has five main resort areas. The rest of the island consists of contrasting landscapes that include spectacular mountains, majestic waterfalls, and beautiful beaches. Most people can find something to suit them on the island. Even travelers who like cooler temperatures can stay in the hills around the British town of Mandeville. Sun-lovers can keep to Ocho Rios or the coast of Montego Bay.
Jamaica has long been a favorite among the rich and famous. In recent years, it has become more affordable to average folks. But even if you are in search of exclusivity, there are still places on the island to hide out. While the northern coast is lined with resorts and crowded by tourists, the south coast is more peaceful and is yet full of attractions.
Geographically, Jamaica is a much larger island than you would imagine. The island is located about 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of the Panama Canal and about 1,120 kilometers (700 miles) south of Miami. It measures 7,060 square kilometers (4,410 square miles), 230 kilometers (150 miles) long and 82 kilometers (50 miles) wide. The entire island would take you many weeks to explore, but would also create for you with many wonderful memories.
The majority of the island is mountainous, with the highest, the Blue Mountain, reaching 2,260 meters (7,400 feet). Half the island is above 305 meters (1000 feet) in altitude. Over 1.5 million acres of land are also either farmed are covered in forests. Limestone depressions and sinkholes also cover the “Cockpit Country”, an area southeast of Montego Bay.
Jamaica also has 120 rivers criss-crossing throughout the country and mostly flowing downstream from the mountains to the coast. These rivers help create a green lushness that is unique to Jamaica among the Caribbean islands. The rivers that run from the mountains to the north coast tend to be shorter and faster than those in the south but all the rivers play an important part in Jamaican life, and visitors, too, will be invited to travel slowly down river on a banana boat or to scramble up waterfalls.
Sports enthusiasts will also have plenty to do in Jamaica. Golfers can try their swings at several championship courses. Horse-riders is available in most areas, with Chukka Cove being the most popular. Every large hotel will have tennis courts and various equipment can be rented at the beaches to engage in most any water sports. Soccer and cricket grounds also abound.
The first Europeans to arrive in Jamaica were a group led by Christopher Columbus. When he arrived, he encountered Arawak Indians already living on the island. These Indians originated from the Orinoco region of Venezuela and had settled on the island for the previous 500 years. Columbus’ followers quickly established a settlement near St. Ann’s Bay on the north coast and called it Sevilla Nueva. On his fourth voyage, Columbus himself was stranded on Jamaica because his ships were in a poor state of disrepair. He pulled his ships onto shore and had to wait for rescue.
Not too long after the Europeans arrived, many of the Arawak Indians died out as a result of disease and harsh labor. The Spanish replaced the Indians with imported African slaves and put them to work. In 1538, the Sevilla Nueva settlement was abandoned, replaced by the founding of Spanish Town on the south coast near present-day Kingston. Spanish Town was initially named St. Jago de la Nueva before the British renamed it.
In 1655, the British led by Admiral Penn and General Venables arrived on the island and captured it. The Treaty of Madrid in 1670 officially ceded Jamaica, as well as the Cayman Islands, to the British. The island remained a British colony until it gained independence in 1962. Until 1961, the Cayman Islands were also a dependence of Jamaica, but they chose to remain a British colony and severed all political ties with Jamaica. Today, people still travel freely between the islands. Many Jamaicans go to the tax-free Caymans in search of work.
The first few years of British reign on Jamaica were dominated by pirate attacks. Henry Morgan, for example, used Port Royal as a base and roamed the Caribbean plundering Spanish treasure ships leaving the Americas for Europe. An earthquake in 1692 devastated Port Royal, killed thousands of people, and tamed the pirates.
To make the Jamaica viable, the British turned to farming, milking the island for all its worth. They used every bit of soil for sugar-cane plantations and imported African slaves to work them. A few escaped and joined the Spanish settlements that remained in the mountains.
These people and their descendants, called Maroons, still live in this area today known as Cockpit Country. The Maroons fought the British and eventually won the right to keep their homes in the mountains in 1739 through a signed agreement. While Maroons are found throughout the Caribbean and South America, they are greatest in numbers in Jamaica.
Discontent grew among the slaves during the early 19th century, leading to constant rebellions, including Sam Sharpe’s rebellion of 1831. Eventually, slavery was abolished in 1838, and many of the former slaves remained in Jamaica, becoming the core of the island’s population. The British turned to Indians and the Chinese for cheap labor, after losing their African slaves. Small Jewish settlements have also been on the island since the Spanish first arrived. This mix of cultures and races have resulted in generations of intermarriages, creating a truly multi-racial society.
Politics has always been a messy affair in Jamaica. In 1865, the Morant Bay Rebellion provoked the House of Assembly to vote to remain a colony under full British rule. Jamaica still maintains much of its British traditions, especially being a Commonwealth member. The island has a parliamentary system modeled on Westminster. The titular head of state is the Queen who is represented in Jamaica by a Governor-General. There are two tiers of Government: the lower house and the upper house. The lower house is the House of Representatives, which is voted in every five years in a general election. The upper house is the Senate, which is made up of members appointed by the Governor General, Prime Minister, and the leader of the opposition.
The seeds of Jamaican independence were first sown in 1944, when political movements arose. Eventually, Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley helped the island gain independence in August, 1962. Since then, three political parties have fought for control of the country: the Jamaica Labour Party, the People’s national Party, and the Worker’s Party of Jamaica. Elections are held every five years, but the Prime Minister is allowed to call one earlier if he chooses.
Today, while crime is still somewhat of a problem, the country is generally stable socially and politically. While thousands of families still live in poverty in the remote villages, the country as a whole is buoyed economically by tourism. Even though the population is only about 2.65 million, more than a million travelers visit each year, pumping cash into Jamaica’s tourism-dependent businesses.
Booth, Elizabeth. Jamaica and the Greater Antilles. Swindon: Crowood Press, Ltd, 1991. ISBN: 1852234628.
“Introduction to Jamaica.” < http://www.frommers.com/destinations/jamaica/0093010001.html>
“Jamaica.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaica>
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