Overview of Jamaica


Jamaica is the largest English-speaking Caribbean island, and the third largest in the region. Jamaica’s 4,411 square miles of terrain boasts towering mountain ranges, expanses of lush vegetation as well as long stretches of clear, sandy beaches.

The island is divided into three counties – Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey – which are subdivided into 14 parishes: Kingston, St. Andrew, St. Catherine, Clarendon, Manchester, St. Elizabeth, Westmoreland, Hanover, St. James, Trelawny, St. Ann, St. Mary, Portland and St. Thomas. Each parish has a capital town, which is typically the centre of commerce and two parish capitals, Montego Bay in St. James and Kingston, have city status. Kingston, located on the island’s southeast end, is Jamaica’s capital.


While Jamaica can be described as a multi-ethnic island, its population primarily comprises persons of African descent. People of European, East Indian and Chinese origin also make up a portion of the population.


Jamaica is a parliamentary democracy based on a system of representative government. The Constitution of Jamaica (1962) is primarily based on British socio-political culture and is modelled on the Westminster-Whitehall system of government.

The British monarch is the titular Head of State and is represented in the country by a Governor- General, to whom the Constitution of Jamaica grants limited powers. The incumbent plays an important role in the appointment of leading national figures including the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Chief Justice.

The Jamaican Parliament consists of two Houses – The House of Representatives/Lower House and The Senate/ Upper House. The former comprises 60 members, who are elected by the people. The Senate consists of 21 members who are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.


Parish Councils have responsibility for the administration of infrastructure and development at the local level. The range of responsibilities includes the development and maintenance of infrastructure; management of markets, abattoirs and cemeteries; and the regulation of public facilities.


The Jamaican judicial system is based on English common law and practice, and is administered through the courts, which comprise: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, Gun Court, Family Court, Traffic Court, Resident Magistrate’s Courts (located in each parish), Revenue Court and Petty Sessions Courts.



The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is responsible for the maintenance of law and order, while the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) is primarily responsible for protecting the country from external threats.


The tourism industry is Jamaica’s primary contributor to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The main tourist regions in Jamaica are Negril in Westmoreland, Montego Bay in St. James, Ocho Rios in St. Ann, and, more recently, Falmouth in Trelawny.

The agricultural sector also makes significant contributions to Jamaica’s economy, with domestic farming being a steady source of employment for many locals. Coffee, cocoa, spices, sugar cane and bananas are some of the main export crops, while yams, sweet potatoes, corn and pumpkins are among the popular crops grown mainly for the domestic market.


Jamaica boasts an open and diverse economy that is supported by a commitment to free enterprise, a strong brand identity and the expansion of benefits derived from the country’s membership in the Caribbean Single Market and other trade agreements.

As outlined in the national policy document, Vision 2030 Jamaica, the Government intends to increase foreign and domestic market access through sustained investment promotion and the consolidation of global trade relations. The Government will also be implementing a development-based economic plan, geared towards creating favourable macroeconomic conditions for high and sustained growth and employment opportunities.


The most practised religion in Jamaica is Christianity, represented by over 100 denominations. Other faiths practised include Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and the indigenous Rastafarianism. Chapter III of the Jamaican Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all individuals within the country.


• The Jamaican Flag, first raised at Jamaica’s Independence on August 6, 1962, has a diagonal cross or saltire with four triangles in juxtaposition. The diagonal cross is gold, the top and bottom triangles are green while the hoist and fly triangles are black.

• The Coat of Arms shows a male and female Taino, Jamaica’s first inhabitants, standing on either side of a shield, which bears a red cross, on which are five golden pineapples. On the crest is a Jamaican crocodile mounted on the Royal Helmet of the British Monarchy and mantling. Below the shield and the Tainos is a heraldic line which displays the Jamaican national motto, “Out of Many, One People”.


• The National Bird is the indigenous ‘Doctor Bird’ or Swallow-Tail Humming Bird (Trochilus Poltmus). It is well known for its iridescent feathers and two elongated tailfeathers.

• The National Fruit is the Ackee (Blighia sapida), which originated from Africa. It grows widely in Jamaica and is usually eaten with codfish (salt-fish), roasted breadfruit, bananas, yams and dumplings.

• The National Tree is the Blue Mahoe (Hibiscus Elatus). It is known to reach heights of 60 feet in height. Its beauty and strength make it a premium wood for the manufacture of furniture and reforestation.

• The National Flower is that produced by the Lignum Vitae Tree (Guiacum officinale). The petals are light blue in colour and star-shaped. The Lignum

Vitae is found mostly along the north and south coasts of the island.

Jamaica’s Heritage in Dance and Music


Mento is the original popular music form in Jamaica, developing during the plantation period and holding sway up to the 1950s. It was born out of the fusion of African and British influences.  Its performance mode, rhythmic impulse, as well as its call and response type of singing are African in origin, while the scale patterns, harmonic concepts, verse and chorus song types are British.

Mento was one of the vehicles by which aspects of life considered taboo, were addressed.  Often done with a touch of humour, the words of the accompanying songs addressed our social and economic struggles. A Mento band could be found in most villages throughout the country.

Mento is regarded in some circles as the Jamaican equivalent to calypso.  While some of the songs were aired regularly, others were banned as they were thought to be too sexually explicit.

Mento was first recorded by artistes such as Lord Flea and Lord Fly and later Harold Richardson and ‘Sugar Belly’ Walker. Popular Mento recordings include “Run Mongoose’, ‘Ruckumbine’ and ‘Peel Head John Crow’.

Today, Mento is played mainly by bands in North Coast hotels and as accompaniment for dances such as the traditional Quadrille.


Quadrille originated from the popular dance of the French and English in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It highlighted the elegance and mannerisms of the elite of these societies. It is however believed that Quadrille began in France as it was the leading country in cultural development, especially in the dances of the period.

Quadrille is performed in four distant movements called figures, A fifth or “brawta” figue was later added to the dance – the Mento.

The Square and Long Way Set formulation of Quadrille was introduced in Jamaica in the early 19th century.  However, as the dance developed, the names were changed to Ballroom Quadrille and Campstyle.

The Long Way Set formation (Campstyle) was performed mostly in the rural areas.  In this dance, four couples stand in two lines facing each other, all of whom move at the same time.

In Square Quadrille (Ballroom) was performed mostly in the towns where the elite resided.  They tried to maintain an atmosphere of elegance and grace as their counterparts in their home country.  In the ballroom, four couples stand in the cardinal position where the head and tail couples move first followed by the side couples.

Both the Campstyle and Ballroom Quadrille dance we know today include African elements, but this is more evident in the Campstyle version.

There are five African features in Campstyle Quadrille.  These are: the spectacular footwork by the men, the bent knee quality, the throw back, practised by the black to mimic the whites, the use of the hips and the incorporation of steps from other European social dances.

Although the Campstyle Quadrille includes African elements, it still retains original elements such as Advancing and Retreating, Crossing (pass though), Promenade, Figure of Eight made by Ladies, Star Formation, Grand Chain, Wheels and Balancing.

Quadrille was a popular social dance after Emancipation.  It was performed at tea parties, house openings and family celebrations, especially weddings.  It was also performed at community functions such as the 1st of August celebrations, first held by church groups, 4H Club Day celebrations, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day celebrations.

On these occasions, music was provided by Mento Band, which played a variety of traditional European tunes.  The instruments included violin, fife, piccolo, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, trumpet, banjo, guitar, drum, marimba or rhumba, triangles, pieces of iron, sardine cans, forks or graters or double bass.

Of particular interest is a bass instrument constructed from a piece of thick bamboo about 13.13 m (4 feet.) long.  A string which is attached is pulled against a hole as the musician blows through.  Musicians sometimes used improvised instruments made from discarded materials such as pieces of iron and empty sardine tins.  The women dancers’ dress was rustic which head-ties while the men wore bright shirts.

The popularity of Quadrille declined after the introduction of American music and calypso in the 1950s. Today, it is mostly performed as part of the annual festival celebrations.


The Ettu dance is performed in the parish of Hanover and is a social dance from Africa. It is believed that Ettu is a corruption of the word Edo, the name of a West African Yoruba Tribe.  The dance involves the lifting, and dropping of elbows and shoulders, with the feet doing sideways shuffling step.

The dance metre is of two types, simple duple and compound duple, known as the blues. The songs are short and repetitive, built on four notes only and sung in a Yoruban dialect.

The Maypole

The Maypole dance originated in the 15th century and is now the national dance of St. Vincent, performed on May 1 (May Day). It celebrates the coming of spring and new growth.

The dance was introduced to the island by slaves and was usually on May 27, Queen Victoria’s Birthday.

Maypole, also referred to as the Long Ribbon Pole in rural areas, was a part of outdoor social festival of old England and Jamaica and was performed at fairs, garden parties or picnics.

There are various styles in Maypole, more popular being the Spider Web, Flair, Dome and Umbrella.

Maypole is still performed in the rural areas a village fairs and on other celebratory occasions.