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Country of the Week: Jamaica

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

We can’t get enough of the sunny Caribbean, so this week we’re heading down to the island country of Jamaica!

  • Capital (and Largest City): Kingston
  • Population of Jamaica (2015): 2,950,210 (139th)
  • Total Area: 10,991 km² (166th)
  • Official Language: English
  • National Language: Jamaican Patois (de facto)
  • Currency: Jamaican dollar ($) (JMD)
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A small snapshot of Jamaica’s long and beautiful coastline

History of Jamaica

The story of Jamaica begins in a familiar place, with indigenous groups calling the island home. In this case, it was the Arawak and Taíno people who founded many villages throughout the country – both inland and along the coast.

Spanish Jamaica

In 1494, Christopher Columbus arrived and immediately claimed the island for the Spanish crown. It wasn’t until 1509 when the first settlement (named for the Spanish city of Seville) was founded – and soon abandoned. Still, the Spanish built up other towns and shaped Jamaica in their image for nearly 150 years.

British Jamaica

This ended in 1655, when English forces forcibly removed the Spanish, one fort at a time. During this period, the city of Port Royal grew into a renowned pirate haven – something the British tolerated as it warded off Spanish attacks on the colony. Another faction at play here was freed and escaped slaves who remained in the mountains – known as maroons. The maroons fought against the British, particularly during the 1700’s.

Despite these threats to British rule, the colony proved to be a prosperous one for the empire, bringing in huge sums of money through sugar exports (which were largely dependent on slave labour).  By the 1800’s, the slaves on the island far outnumbered the white British overseers. Eventually, pressure from slaves and domestic opinions brought about the end of slavery in the UK, with it formally abolished in 1834. Near the end of the 19th century, the capital was designated as the city of Kingston.

Independent Jamaica

After many rumblings, full independence for Jamaica was granted in 1962. Following this, the economy began to grow through a combination of investment, manufacturing, and tourism. This didn’t last long however, as the 70’s were greeted by a slowdown and a greater focus on the rising inequality in the country. Since then, there have been many ups and downs in Jamaica. This is exemplified in the desire of a sizable proportion of the population to return to British territorial rule.

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Underwater life near Montego Bay

Jamaican Culture

Like most Caribbean countries, Jamaican culture draws influences from a variety of sources, including indigenous tribes, European colonizers, and Africans sent over as slaves. In the case of Jamaica, the black slaves became the dominant demographic and, as such, have had the biggest influence on the culture of the land.

Religion in Jamaica

Religion is a major part of Jamaican life, with the Christian faith far and away the largest. Perhaps the most well known aspect of this is the offshoot Rastafarian movement. As a unique set of beliefs that originated in the 30’s, it rose to global prominence thanks largely to Bob Marley and reggae music. Despite international fame and following of the Rasta movement, it remains a minority culture in its home country.

Music in Jamaica

As already mentioned, Jamaican music has achieved worldwide fame, especially when it comes to reggae. Styles such as ska, dub, and dancehall have also found popularity in other countries, with many Jamaican artists recognized globally.

Food in Jamaica

Jamaican cuisine comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, reflective of the history of the country. Jerk spice is an integral part of Jamaican cooking, which consists of a hot spice marinade for a variety of meats. Drinks such as Red Stripe beer and Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee have garnered plaudits across the world. Rum is perhaps the best known of Jamaican beverages – and is considered the national drink.

Sports in Jamaica

Sports are very popular in Jamaica, with cricket the most keenly followed domestically. Players from the country play on the West Indies team, which is largely made up of players from English speaking British and former British territories, and is considered one of the best in the world. Despite the popularity of cricket, the country is perhaps best known worldwide for its track and field athletes – particularly sprinters. The fastest man of all time (officially), Usain Bolt, is just one of many in a long, storied line of Jamaican track stars. Soccer is also popular in the country, with the national team one of the better squads in North America and a single qualification for the World Cup back in 1998.

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Jerk chicken – a Jamaican speciality

Famous Jamaicans

We’ve perhaps already mentioned two of the most famous Jamaicans: the late reggae artist Bob Marley and world record holding sprinter Usain Bolt. As far as musicians go, Bob Marley’s son Ziggy, singers Shaggy and OMI, and dancehall singer Sean Paul are also popular. Other well known sprinters include Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake.

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Much of Jamaica’s interior is dominated by mountains

Geography of Jamaica

Jamaica consists of a single island, the third largest in the Caribbean. Most of the island is mountainous, thanks to the ever-present Blue Mountains. The interior is very rugged, with karst formations commonplace throughout. The coasts consist of a narrow coastal plain, eroded cliffs, and natural harbours. It is here where the majority of Jamaica’s cities and towns are found.

The largest city in Jamaica is (by far) Kingston. It was granted capital status in 1872 due mainly to a massive natural harbour. Other important municipalities include Portmore on the south coast (like Kingston), Montego Bay on the north coast, and the old capital – Spanish Town – slightly inland.

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Kingston – the capital city – at sunset

Facts About Jamaica

  • Renowned Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan ruled Jamaica as effective governor for a time. His name is used for Captain Morgan rum (albeit a product of Puerto Rico)
  • A form of voodoo (Obeah) is still practiced by some – though it is illegal
  • Jamaica was the main driver in turning bananas into a global export
  • Ian Fleming began work on James Bond while in Jamaica
  • Jamaica is the first country from the tropics to participate in the Winter Olympics. That would be the famous bobsled team immortalized in the film Cool Runnings
  • Jamaica was the first country in the hemisphere to build a railroad – even earlier than the US
  • Ackee and saltfish is a traditional Jamaican meal and is considered by some the national dish
  • The country has the most highly concentrated amount of churches in the world
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Boats in the Luminous Lagoon

Last Word

Want to learn more about Jamaica? Check back this week for our Travel Guide and Currency Spotlight!

Stay tuned to theCurrent for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

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