This series of essays record most of what I know about the island of Jamaica. The series is part of my The Times of My Life, A Private Narrative project, which is the history
of my family and my early life in Jamaica, West Indies. As part of telling the story of my Jamaican family, I thought it would be helpful to readers to learn more about the history and culture of the country in which those
people lived—after all, context is everything.
Although this series should not be considered a scholarly work, I have been careful with my research and believe this is an accurate record without too many of my biases influencing its accuracy. I say “accuracy” rather than “objectivity” for not much that I have to say about Jamaica is entirely objective. I am as much a product of my time as my ancestors were of theirs, and I bring my life experiences to everything I write.
To start, I’ll tell you about my connection with Jamaica.
I was born in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica and lived at various times at St. Andrew, Port Royal, Montego Bay, Port Maria and St. Ann's Bay. I also spent summer vacations at Discovery Bay (then called, Dry Harbour). I went to school at St. Andrew and Kingston, attending Holy Cross School and Campion Hall—when it was a prep school and before it became the high school, Campion College—and, finally, St. George’s College.
I left the island in 1955, returning only once in 1976. But, as they used to say, my navel cord is buried in Jamaica. I still crave the island’s food and thrill to the sound of its music. And, although I have spent more years abroad than I did on the island, Jamaica will always remain a special place to me.
Branches of my family have lived continuously in Jamaica for 300 hundred years or so. Families I’m related to either by blood or marriage include: Campbell, Reynolds, Stephenson, Ramsey, Brandon, Binns, Brown, Hire-Miller, Nash, Pratt, Koth, Vaz, Croswell, Facey and many more. With notable exceptions they were, I believe, good people who took pride in their contribution to the island, and especially to areas like St. Ann's Bay, Brown's Town, Discovery Bay, Falmouth and Montego Bay.
I hope you will have as much enjoyment reading these essays as I have had writing them.
Motto: "Out of Many One People."
Jamaica is the third largest island of the Greater Antilles (an island chain in the West Indies that includes the nations of Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) and the largest English-speaking country in the Caribbean. It is situated 90 miles south of Cuba and about 600 miles from Florida. Jamaica is 146 miles long—from east to west—and 22 to 50 miles wide. The total area of the country is 4,244 sq. miles. Jamaica is about the size of Connecticut, larger than Lebanon, and more than four times the size of Luxembourg.
Jamaica has a mountainous terrain complemented by sandy beaches, coastal wetlands, central plains, fertile agricultural lands, tropical forests and picturesque waterfalls. Almost half of the land area is 1,000 ft.. or more above sea level. Its mountain ranges are dominated by 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak located in the eastern section of the island. Blue Mountain Peak is the highest point both in Jamaica and the entire West Indies. Other lesser mountains extend west across the island. The island’s only active volcanic action are several thermal springs. The island, though, is subject to severe earthquakes and hurricanes.
Most of Jamaica’s 120 rivers flow either north or south from the mountains to the Caribbean Sea, which surrounds the island’s 500 miles of coastline. The longest is Black River which is 44 miles long. Except for recreational purposes, none are navigable.
Kingston is the capital and largest city and has a large natural harbour and seaport. In addition, the island has other excellent natural harbours and seaports for large cruise ships at Ocho Rios in the parish of St. Ann, Montego Bay in St. James and Falmouth in Trelawny.
Jamaica is located at 18 degrees north of the equator and has a tropical climate. The mean annual temperature is about 80° F, but north-eastern trade winds moderate the extremes of heat and humidity in many areas—because of their reliability, Jamaicans call trade winds “doctor breeze.” Mean annual temperatures in the plateau and mountain areas average 72° F at elevations of 2,950 ft., and are considerably less at higher levels. The average annual temperature at Blue Mountain Peak is 56° F. Rainfall varies from 130 inches annually in the mountains of the northeast to about 32 inches in the Kingston area. Rainfall is at its highest in May and October.
Mineral deposits in Jamaica include bauxite, gypsum, limestone, lead and salt. Jamaica was at one time the largest producer of bauxite in the world. Diversified vegetation can be found throughout the island. Among indigenous trees
are cedar, mahoe, mahogany, logwood, rosewood, ebony, palmetto palm, coconut palm, and pimento (allspice). In addition to these native species, introduced varieties—mango, breadfruit, banana, and plantain—have flourished and
are widely cultivated.
Important exports are alumina, bauxite, sugar, rum, coffee, yams, beverages, chemicals, apparel and mineral fuels. And Ganga, as marijuana is known on the island—notwithstanding the fact it is illegal—is a significant contributor to the economy as are services, which account for more than 70 per cent of GDP. Remittances from abroad and tourism each account for 30 per cent of GDP, while bauxite/alumina exports make up roughly 5 per cent of GDP. Not surprisingly then, most of Jamaica’s foreign exchange comes from tourism, remittances and bauxite/alumina.
Animal life includes several types of birds: parrots, hummingbirds (national bird of Jamaica), cuckoos, and green todies. There are also several species of land reptiles and small mammals. There are, however, no large indigenous land mammals or venomous snakes. And, of course, there is the sea with its variety of life, especially around Jamaica’s many coral reefs.
The majority of Jamaica’s 2,930,050 (July 2014 est.) population is of Sub-Saharan African or mixed Sub-Saharan African and European origin. No identifiable descendants of the Taino (Arawak), who occupied the island at the time
of Columbus’s arrival in 1494, have survived. Among the established minorities are East Indians, Chinese and Europeans.
Although English is the official language, most Jamaicans speak a local dialect of English, Jamaican Creole, a patois that incorporates English, African, Spanish, and French elements. This patois is evolving steadily and is spoken with pride by a broad cross-section of Jamaicans.
Religion has played an influential role in Jamaica. Christianity (mainly Protestant) is the religion of the majority of Jamaicans, and many denominations are represented on the island, including Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, the Church of God, Movarians, Seventh-day Adventists and other Evangelical groups. Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Bahai communities also exist. Some indigenous religions, such as Pocomania and Rastafarianism have also emerged.
The University of the West Indies, established in 1949, is located at Mona in the parish of St. Andrew. UWI has five faculties and 12 professional schools that offer more than 200 programmes to some 15,000 graduate, undergraduate and continuing studies students. Jamaica also has a number of vocational and technical schools, teacher-training colleges and a college of arts, science, and technology.
Sports have long been an important element of Jamaican life. The island has produced world boxing champions and a long list of world-class cricketers and Olympic medallists. At the 1994 winter Olympics, the Jamaican four-man bobsled team placed 14th out of the 35 teams participating—and ahead of the team from the USA. Moreover, several Jamaican-born athletes, have represented other countries such as Canada, U.S, and the U.K. and have distinguished themselves.
In our next installment, we will discuss Jamaica's pre-Columbian era.