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The island was inhabited by Arawak Indians prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. A few years later, it was formally colonized by the Spanish whose rule lasted until 1655. They were displaced by the British who turned Jamaica into the most important of the British Caribbean slaving colonies. Within 100 years, virtually the whole island had been divided up into large plantations owned by absentee landlords and worked by forced labor imported from West Africa. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, Jamaica became relatively prosperous under orthodox colonial rule until the early 20th century when a spate of natural disasters, compounded by the depression of the 1930s, sent the economy into decline.

The 1930s also saw the rise of black political activity and trade union organization, forming the rivalries that characterize modern Jamaican politics in the process. Since independence in 1962, the political arena has been dominated by the struggle between the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the leftist People’s National Party (PNP). The JLP held power throughout the 1960s, but lost the national election of 1972 to the PNP under the leadership of Michael Manley.

Manley’s father Norman had founded the PNP and the younger Manley shared the radical socialist agenda of his father. The PNP program was widely popular throughout the island and despite growing economic difficulties, the PNP were returned to office in 1976 with an increased majority. However, Manley had begun to develop close relations with Cuba, which inevitably brought down the wrath of the US government. The Americans provided substantial backing for the rival JLP and its leader, Edward Seaga.

Amid widespread political violence, with gun-toting supporters of both parties running amok on the streets, Seaga won the 1979 election. Seaga adopted a pro-American stance in economic and foreign affairs, Jamaican troops were committed to the American-led invasion of Grenada in 1983 which ousted that island’s radical government. Seaga ran the country for the rest of the decade but proved unable to improve the country’s economic fortunes. In 1989, Manley was returned to power. Although he still enjoyed huge personal popularity, Manley was in poor health and in early 1992 he retired to be replaced by his deputy, Percival (‘PJ’) Patterson. By now, the PNP leadership had reoriented the party, dropping much of its previous radical agenda, adopting free-market economic policies and making great efforts to stay on good terms with the US. Elections in April 1993 confirmed Patterson in the post with a landslide victory, and the PNP under Patterson has been in power ever since. Successive elections – most recently in October 2002 – have been consistently marred by violence and intimidation, especially in deprived urban areas, but there have been no serious complaints about the outcome of the polls. Patterson has now been in power for a decade while his opposite number, Edward Seaga, remains leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, despite losing three elections in a row. Both men have been at the top of Jamaican politics since the 1960s. Apart from dealing with the island’s difficult economic situation, the new Patterson government must also address persistent and increasingly vocal demands for constitutional reform – specifically, an elected head of state to replace the British monarch. Patterson now seems amenable to disposing of what he has recently described as “this last vestige of colonialism”, indicating that he wished to see the necessary change to the constitution enacted before his retirement from office in 2007.


The head of state is the British monarch, represented by a Governor General who has nominal and rarely used powers. The 60-member House of Representatives, which is responsible for legislation, is elected every five years by universal suffrage. An upper house, the Senate, has 21 appointees to ratify legislation.


The discovery of bauxite in Jamaica during the 1940s spawned a thriving bauxite-alumina industry, shifting the island’s economy from sugar and bananas. By the 1970s, Jamaica had emerged as a world leader in export of these minerals and today, bauxite accounts for more than half of the country’s export earnings.
During the mid 1990s the economy shrunk each year at a rate of 1%. In 1996, Jamaica navigated the troubled waters of an economic crisis that saw the GDP remain stagnant until 2000. In 2005/6, the economy grew by 1.8%. Economic policy has pursued a familiar course of privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation, tight budgetary controls, and reform of the tax and banking systems. The process was supervised by the IMF and aimed principally at reducing Jamaica’s large national debt burden. Although these measures improved Jamaica’s financial position, it has offered little benefit to the population, with high inflation and unemployment rife.
Today, tourism has become a major source of foreign exchange and Jamaica’s economic backbone.

Jamaica is a member of the Caribbean trading bloc, CARICOM, and of the Inter-American Development Bank.