Jamaica, third-largest island in the West Indies, situated in the Caribbean Sea, 90 mi (145 km) south of Cuba and 100 mi (161 km) west of Haiti. The name Jamaica is derived from the Arawak Indian name Xaymaca (isle of woods and water).
Land and climate
Jamaica's surface is largely a limestone plateau, with a backbone of mountains and volcanic hills running east and west. In the east, Blue Mountain has an elevation of 7,402 ft (2,256 m), the highest point on the island. Sugar, bananas, allspice, coffee, ginger, and citrus fruits are grown on the warm mountain slopes. Rain forests in the north and northeast supply bamboo, mahogany, and ebony. Vegetation is generally richly tropical or subtropical, with over 3,000 species of flowering plants. Jamaica is generally rainy, with the heaviest falls occurring in May and Oct. Kingston, the capital, is fairly dry, with only 30 to 35 in (76 to 89 cm) per year. Hurricanes may occur between Aug. and Nov.
Most Jamaicans are of African descent. The others are East Indians, Chinese, and Europeans, mainly British. English is spoken throughout the island, and a local patois (a mixture of African and archaic English words) is also used. Most people are Protestants, either Anglican or Baptist. There are over 800 schools on the island, but people in remote rural areas are often illiterate. The principal campuses of the University of the West Indies are located in Jamaica. Over 30% of the people live in rural areas, but in recent years the population of the two major towns, Kingston and Montego Bay, has increased. The birthrate is high, and the density of population (564 persons per sq mi) creates serious problems.
Jamaica is predominantly agricultural. Sugar refining and the manufacture of molasses and rum are the principal industries. The island also has a thriving tourist industry. In 1942 deposits of bauxite were discovered, and today Jamaica is one of the world's chief suppliers of this aluminum ore. Gypsum is another important export commodity.
In 1494, Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica, which was thinly settled by the Spaniards in 1509 and remained a Spanish colony until it was ceded to the British in 1670. By the 18th century the original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, had been killed off by disease and the harsh treatment of their colonial rulers. From 1660 African slaves were imported to work in the lucrative sugar industry. Jamaica was particularly prosperous under Sir Henry Morgan, a buccaneer who served as lieutenant-governor from 1674 to 1683. By the 18th century the island was a leading slave trading center.
When slavery was abolished in 1834, the sugar industry declined. Thereafter unemployment, poverty, and overpopulation caused tension, and riots occurred, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To improve conditions, crop diversification was encouraged, including the cultivation of bananas, and substantial governmental changes were made between 1930 and 1940. In 1962, after 3 centuries as a British colony, Jamaica became an independent nation within the Commonwealth of Nations.