Before Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494, the land was inhabited by the Tainos from South America, whose native Arawak name for the island was "Xaymaca" -- "land of wood and water." The peaceful Tainos gradually disappeared after falling victim to the ravages of war, disease and slavery. Nearly a century and a half after Columbus discovered Jamaica, it was seized by the British who, in 1670, gained possession formally of the island whose sugar made controlling it so advantageous. The island became an extremely prosperous British colony, but only through the rise of a slave system finally eradicated by the British in 1838. Jamaica did not gain full independence until 1962 as a member of the Commonwealth. Since the early 1960's the Jamaican government has been based on the British parliamentary system with a prime minister representing Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Jamaica.
The rich diversity of today's Jamaican culture is a result of not only the influence of the freed African slaves, but of the cultural contributions eventually made by the indentured servants subsequently brought from China and India as replacements. English is the official language on the island, but many speak a creole known as Patois which combines English with words from the African culture. The music most closely associated with the island, Reggae, was a gift to the world from the musical legend most closely associated with Jamaica, Bob Marley. Marley, a Rastafarian, wrote and sang about equality, love and peace and is considered one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century and one of the 20th century's foremost messengers of Pan-Africanism. Jamaican cuisine has also long been influenced by West African and Indian cultures. Spicy fresh seafood dishes, curried goat, and the famous Jamaican jerk recipes found in the proliferating "jerk shacks" are rivaled only by the equally famous Jamaican rums.
Jamaica is the third largest of the Caribbean islands, claiming a 4,244 square mile area, and is 146 miles long. Much of the island is higher than 1,000 feet above sea level with its highest point, Blue Mountain Peak, being 7,402 feet above sea level. Jamaica enjoys a tropical climate and boasts beautiful rugged mountains, coastal plains and white sand beaches. Although not normally in the path of hurricane activity, Jamaica has been the victim of hurricanes. The average yearly rainfall is 78 inches, and the average yearly temperature is 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The flora and fauna of Jamaica are as spectacular as its geography. Orchid shows proliferate on the island for good reason. Exotic fruits such as custard apple, mangoes, sweet sop and the national fruit, ackee, figure significantly into Jamaican cuisine. Pineapples were Jamaican before they were Hawaiian. The largest butterfly in the western hemisphere, the giant swallowtail, is indigenous to Jamaica with a wingspan of six inches. Of the more than 250 species of bird in Jamaica, 27 can be seen only in Jamaica. Bird watching pulls tourists to the island regularly.
The U.S. Department of State website reports that, although the Jamaican economy is, in spite of the global recession, beginning to improve, it still copes with long-term issues. The island's economy depends most heavily upon tourism, agriculture and mining. Jamaican natural resources include marble, sand, limestone, silica, gypsum and bauxite. Mining of the aluminum ore bauxite has long figured significantly into the economy with 2006 reports indicating, unfortunately, that the bauxite industry has had significant negative impact on the island's unique bird species. Of the four bauxite/alumina companies, two were lost to the recession. Jamaican agricultural exports include sugar, coffee, bananas, cocoa, coconut, pimiento, citrus fruits and citrus products. The coffee grown within a small area of the Blue Mountains is considered one of the world's finest. Additional exports include Jamaican rum, spices and chemicals. Jamaica's main source of foreign exchange is its lively tourism industry which employs more people than any other major industry group on the island.
Jamaica's system of formal education is overseen by a Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture that has made education from primary school through secondary school (age 18) compulsory. A reported 91.1 percent literacy rate among women places them ahead of Jamaican males at 80.5 percent, and literacy rates are highest among Jamaican youth 15-24 years of age at 94.3 percent. Somewhat contradictory studies have shown, however, that Jamaica continues to struggle with widespread illiteracy. The problem is thought to be compounded by a particularly intense social stigma of illiteracy which compels many to avoid seeking help out of the long-held belief that it brings shame upon the family.
During Britain's early rule of Jamaica, the Caribbean island was considered "the jewel in the crown" of the British colonies. Jamaica exudes such spirit and displays such a richly diverse cultural tapestry that no doubt many who visit and certainly those who live there can easily continue to view the island as a perhaps even more multi-faceted jewel today.
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