Jamaica, aboriginally Xaymaca ('Land of Springs'), by far the most important of the British West Indian Islands, is 90 miles S. of Cuba, and stretches between 17° 43' - 18° 32' N. lat., and 76° 11'-78° 20' W. long. It is divided into three counties, Surrey, Middlesex, and Cornwall; its area is 4193 sq. m., or a little more than the three English counties of the same names with Hampshire thrown in. The greatest length is 144 miles; the greatest breadth, 50 miles. Turk's and Caicos Islands, as well as the three Cayman Islands, are dependencies. The island is traversed from east to west by the Blue Mountains, which rise to 7400 feet. From this range nearly 120 streams descend to the coasts, but they are not navigable, except Black River (30 miles for small craft). Incomparably the best of many fine harbours is that of Kingston (q. v.). Jamaica is believed to be rich in minerals, but none are wrought. The chief towns are Kingston (the capital) and Spanish Town (the former capital), on the south-east of the island ; and Montego Bay, Falmouth, and Port Maria, on the north. Port Royal, at the western extremity of the spit of sand that shuts in Kingston harbour on the south, previous to the great earthquake of 1692 was one of the chief cities in the West Indies, but is now a place of only 1200 inhabitants, and of little importance. The climate varies considerably, falling on an average 1° for every 300 feet in altitude, and at Kingston ranging between 70° during the night and 90° during the day; but the heat is tempered by the sea-breezes. On the whole, the island is very healthy; invalids even come from the United States to enjoy the salubrious air of the interior. There are two rainy seasons, one in spring and the other in summer. In the latter the rains are exceptionally heavy ; violent thunder-storms are frequent, and hurricanes sometimes occur. Enormous damage was done by cyclones in 1880 and 1893.
The vegetation is very luxuriant. The primeval woods are rapidly disappearing ; yet there are still many valuable trees, such as mahogany, logwood, lignum vitAe, ebony, cocoa-nut and other palms, cactuses, etc. Tropical fruits are grown in great variety, also many of the fruits of more temperate climes. Spices, dye-woods, medicinal plants, and food plants, such as ginger, cochineal, castor-oil, arrowroot, maize, vanilla, pimento (allspice), etc, are extensively grown. Guinea grass and pasture land occupy the greater portion of the north and west of the island. The mongoose, imported to prey on the rats that infested the sugar estates, has, after exterminating them, become a plague, and has nearly extirpated lizards, harmless snakes, and small birds, so that insect pests (especially the troublesome ticks) abound. The negroes, who are mostly small holders, are the chief growers of fruit. The exports, which consist chiefly of dye-woods, fruits (oranges, lemons, bananas, cocoa-nuts, &c), sugar and rum, coffee, ginger, pimento, and cocoa, range between l 1/2 and 2 millions annually ; as also do the imports, consisting of foodstuffs, clothing, hardware, liquors, coals, building materials, etc. About 40 per cent. of the trade is with the United Kingdom, and 43 per cent. with the United States. Since 1850 the white inhabitants have increased far less rapidly in numbers than the black and coloured population. In 1861 the total pop. was 441,255 (13,816 whites) ; in 1871, 506,154 (13,101 whites); in 1881, 580,804 (14,432 whites); and in 1904, 795,600, of whom over 700,000 are black or coloured, about 15,000 whites, about 11,000 East Indian coolies, and a few Chinese. About 35,000 belong to the Church of England, 33,000 are Baptists, 25,000 Methodists, 12,000 Presbyterians, 5000 Roman Catholics, etc.-children being excluded. Besides nearly 720 government schools, with over 80,000 pupils, there are three government training-colleges for teachers. Besides a British garrison, there are volunteers and a semi-military police force.
Jamaica was discovered by Columbus in 1494, and occupied by the Spaniards in 1509. The original inhabitants were peace-loving Indians (not Caribs); but they were practically extinct in 1655, when the island was conquered by the English, to whom it was ceded in 1670. The place of the native Indians was taken by negro slaves, imported by the Spaniards. During the 18th century more than half a million slaves were brought over from Africa. Under English rule the chief events were frequent rebellions of the Maroons, a community of runaway slaves; in 1831-32, a negro insurrection; on August 1, 1834, the emancipation of the slaves, Jamaica receiving £6,161,927 as compensation ; the failure of the experiment; and in 1865 the rebellion of the negroes and massacre of twenty-three whites, suppressed by Governor Eyre. Under the constitution of 1866, the island is governed as a crown-colony. See the history by Gardner (1873) and the annual Handbook.