St. Elizabeth was once the largest parish in Jamaica. It was split to form parts of Westmoreland and Manchester, and named in honor of Lady Elizabeth Modyford, wife of Sir Thomas Modyford, Governor of Jamaica between 1664 and 1671. Today St. Bess is the third largest parish in Jamaica.
Early settlement in St. Elizabeth began in the Pedro Plains where the Tainos, the first known inhabitants of Jamaica, occupied the coastline and lead a simple life. Though the original Tainos died by the 17th century, persons of Taino descent from Surinam came to settle in the parish in the 18th century and their descendants are there to this day.
Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494 and the Spanish colonized the area. The Spanish were interested in cattle rearing and soon the thriving cattle ranches were the focus of the parish.
The Spanish were greatly helped in their battle against the English in 1655, by the slaves who they had brought here during their over 150 years in Jamaica. When the Spanish were defeated, the slaves who did not manage to flee to Cuba, retreated to the impenetrable Cockpit Country, which included parts of St. Elizabeth. These fleeing slaves became known the Maroons and, today, St. Elizabeth remains home to the Maroons of Accompong, one of the most famous Maroon towns in Jamaica.
St. Elizabethans played an instrumental role in the Sam Sharpe Rebellion of 1831. It is documented that about 20 to 40 percent of the slave population fought in that uprising.
The communication pattern of the rebels followed the valleys of the Black and Great Rivers and they relied in the network of the religious meetings that had been founded by the dissenting Christians. In the wake of the uprising, armament caches were found at several locations and there was substantial property loss amounting to 22,146 sterling pounds in value.
Black River, among the oldest towns in the island, is reportedly the first to have received electricity. The Leydens brothers were among the earliest settlers in the parish, and they are said to have imported Jamaica’s first motorcar.
The brothers are also said to have introduced racehorses to the island, thereby aiding in the establishment of the once famous Black River racetrack. Racing fans from all over the island came to this track, making it one of Black River’s biggest money-making ventures.
This little town of Black River, now the parish capital, can boast its popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a fishing spot, colourful balls and banquets – often held at ‘Court-house’ and its annual circus that attracted visitors from far and wide.
Unfortunately, the outbreak cholera in 1850 brought most of these activities to a halt. Since then Black River, and indeed the entire parish of St. Elizabeth, has never quite returned to the former level of social vibrancy that made it a popular entertainment and recreational centre for Jamaicans from all across the island.
Though the social scene has changed significantly, the parish has forged ahead in agricultural production, providing the bulk of Jamaica’s vegetable and fruit provisions. The Black River supports an important shrimp and freshwater fishery. And best of all, St. Elizabeth’s diverse geographical patterns make for a landscape as rich and varied as the heritage of its people.
The St. Bess population is said to bear out eloquently the country’s motto, “Out of Many One People”, as there is a high concentration of people of diverse ethnic origins, including Amerindian, African, Maroon, Mulatto, Dutch, Spanish, German and British.
Size and Density
At the end of 2000, St. Elizabeth had a population of 148,600 people with a population density of 119 persons per square kilometre. The parish has become increasingly urban with Santa Cruz, Balaclava and Southfield exhibiting the most impressive growth in population since 1991. The population of the parish is considered quite young, as 43 per cent are below 20 years old.
Crude Birth and Death Rates
A total of 2,172 live births were registered in 1996, representing a crude birth rate of 14.6 per 1,000 of the population. In 1996, the number of registered deaths for the parish numbered 718. On the basis of these registrations, the Crude Death Rate for 1996 is 4.8 per 1,000 population.