People and Culture


Size of population is an important characteristic of any country. It determines the number of houses, schools, and hospitals; the size of the labor force; and the amount of food and water it is likely to need. The total population of Jamaica in July 2003 was an estimated 2.7 million, with an annual growth rate of .61 percent. Growth rate is defined as the average annual percent change of population, which is calculated by subtracting deaths from births and taking into account migrants entering and leaving the country. This growth is consistent with the governmental target for growth of less than .8 percent over the medium term and a projected population size of less than 3.0 million by the year 2020. In 2003, the estimated average number of children born per woman was 2.01, the figure that equates zero population growth (ZPG). Net migration was an estimated loss of 5.78 migrants per 1,000 population in 2003.

Managed population growth is a key factor in sustainable development, which also must deal with the problems of poverty, environment degradation, crime, and violence.


Movement of people within and out of Jamaica has been going on for decades. Out-migration continues to characterize the Jamaican population shift. People leave the country for better employment and educational opportunities elsewhere. It is estimated that in 2002, the country's population declined by 23,160, primarily as a result of out-migration. Jamaican migration to England and, later, to the United States and Canada, began during the post-World War II era and has continued to the present. As a result of many decades of heavy emigration (out-migration), half of all Jamaicans now live outside of Jamaica.Most emigrants went to the eastern United States, or to England, with large concentrations in New York and London. Money sent home helps to support the Jamaican economy. In fact, money sent from family members outside the country amounted to 13.3 percent of Jamaica's GDP in 2001. Growth in remitted money now rivals tourism and commodity exports as an earner of foreign exchange.


Although population numbers often distinguish one country from another, it is usually the density of people (the number of people per unit of land) that is more important. In 2003, population density for Jamaica was an estimated 645 persons per square mile (249 persons per square kilometer), which is relatively high for the Caribbean and Latin America (in comparison, the United States has a density of 78 people per square mile, or 30 persons per square kilometer). Among the parishes, Kingston has the highest population density: It has the largest number of people and is the smallest parish. The town scats (parish capitals) are usually the towns with the highest population in the parishes.

In 2003, the following towns, listed in order, are the most populous in the country: Kingston, 590,000; Spanish Town, 133,400; Portmore, 113,400; Montego Bay, 93,500; May Pen, 49,700; Mandeville, 44,000; Half-Way Tree, 19,900; Savanna-la-Mar, 18,800; Port Antonio, 14,500; St. Ann's Bay, 11,900; Morant Bay, 9,900; and Ocho Rios, 9,300.

People in Cities

More than half of Jamaica's population (55 percent) lives in urban areas. The Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA)—St. Catherine parish and Montego Bay, are the largest and second-largest urban concentrations.

Kingston Metropolitan Area and St. Catherine

The Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) contains the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew. Portmore and Spanish Town, both large towns, are located in nearby St.Catherine parish. Kingston's metropolitan area is made up of 83 communities, approximately 63 percent of which display inner-city characteristics.

As the capital of Jamaica, Kingston has a wide sphere of national and international influence. The KMA is the chief center for manufacturing, commerce, government, and finance, and it has the main transport terminus for the country. The University of Technology and the main campus of the University of the West Indies (in the suburb of Mona) are both located in the KMA. KMA is also rich with cultural history, theaters, art galleries, and museums and is home to some of Jamaica's wealthiest people. It is the center of innovative music and entertainment businesses, and its world-famous music studios have produced new forms of music such as ska, reggae, and rocksteady.

Kingston is built around Kingston Harbor, the island's main port. The Norman Manley International Airport is located on the Palisadoes strip, providing international and local connections. At one time, railroads connected Kingston with Montego Bay, Port Antonio, and Ewarton, but those railroads are no longer operational. Traffic in the KMA is heavy and congested as people move in and out of Kingston. Some Jamaicans commute to work from the opposite side of the island over dangerous mountain roads. Roads crossing the island are narrow, winding, and full of potholes, and traffic is heavy and drivers are impatient (to put it mildly!).

Montego Bay

Montego Bay, or Mo Bay, as it is popularly known, is deservedly one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. Over the years, it has attracted the rich and the famous and has been the vacation spot for royalty. It is also an important seaport and commercial center and the capital of St. James Parish. In 1981, Montego Bay was given the legal status of “city,” thereby joining Kingston as the country's second community to receive this distinction. It lies on the northwestern coast and is the gateway for tourist travel on the north and west sides of the island. Montego Bay means “Lard Bay,” as translated from the Spanish Bahia de Manteca.

The commercial area of Montego Bay's free port lay dormant for almost two decades but now is growing rapidly as the home of garment factories and electronic information companies. Port facilities continue to be underutilized, mostly serving cruise ships. A multimillion-dollar cruise ship terminal and shopping center was recently completed, making Montego Bay a welcoming port of call for any number of cruise lines.

Jamaica's overall pattern of settlement is one of virtually no increase within the rural areas and of increasing urban growth. The larger urban areas are tending to sprawl and expand into rural ones, and formerly rural areas are acquiring urban characteristics. Some urban to rural migration (reverse migration) is occurring as people who migrated to Kingston and St. Catherine have begun returning to their home parishes.

Rural Settlement

Traditional island life was rural. Scattered farmhouses, villages, and very small towns found in the countryside are all examples of rural settlements.Many Jamaicans still live in these types of settlements, which are built around activities such as agriculture and fishing. A cluster of houses with a population of approximately 500 is considered a village. In Jamaica, a village is also called a district. A few houses scattered over a wide area is a dispersed settlement pattern. There are many of these in the hilly limestone interior and in the Blue Mountains.

Social structure in Jamaica is unlike the pattern of social organization associated with many developing countries, because there are no clans, lineage, or traditional village leaders. The largest grouping of family households is at the district level.


The Jamaican national motto, “Out of many, one people,” reflects the ethnic diversity that is Jamaican society and the national pride that unifies its citizens. The people of Jamaica come from many different backgrounds, and most citizens are a mix of several different ethnicities. What defines Jamaica is the merging of cultural traditions and economic practices from Europe and Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Asia. From Great Britain, Jamaica inherited language, a system of government and justice, Christianity, and in a lesser sense, forms of architecture. From Africa came a tradition rich in folklore, music, magic, and a strong belief in religion. The remainder of island's rich and varied culture is exclusively Jamaican. Unique religions, music, foods, and art forms have developed on the island and, in some cases, have spread through the Caribbean and overseas to influence other cultures.


The great majority of Jamaicans are descendents of African slaves. Breakdown of population by ethnic group shows that 90.9 percent is African, 1.3 percent is East Indian, 0.2 percent is European, 0.2 percent is Chinese, 7.3 percent is of mixed ethnicity, and 0.1 percent is other ethnic groups. Jamaicans take pride in their African heritage and its expression in language, religion, food, music, and literature. A number of traits and practices directly traceable to Africa are observed today in Maroon and Kumina communities. They are expressed through local stories, songs, dances, the use of herbs and bush medicines, local beliefs, the preparation of indigenous foods, and religious practices.

Maroon Communities

Descendents of Maroons still live in Jamaica. Maroons are a mix of Africans who came to Jamaica with the Spanish and survived the English conquest and runaway British slaves who later joined with Maroons. Maroons became a nation within a nation and still maintain many of the old traditions. For example, the Accompong Maroons gather every year to celebrate “The Day,” January 6, when Kojo, leader of the Maroons, routed the British forces in 1736. It is said that anyone who knows West Africa would find signs of Africa clearer in the Maroon villages than anywhere else in the West Indies.Many of the Maroons were Koromanti, people from the Akan region of West Africa, now known as Ghana. Although Maroon culture is not uniformly a product of Akan origins, there are extensive Ghanian influences. The Maroon communities today are Accompong, home to the Leeward Maroons, in the western Cockpit Country and Moore Town, Scotts Hall, and Charles Town, villages of the Windward Maroons, in the eastern Blue Mountains.

Granny Nanny of the Maroons

Nanny of the Maroons is a Jamaican national hero, and her story is immortalized in legend and song. Nanny was a leader of the Eastern Maroons. During the First Maroon War, she became—both during her lifetime and after—a symbol of unity and strength for her people during times of crisis. She was a small wiry woman with piercing eyes. Her influence over the Maroons was so strong that it seemed to be supernatural and was said to be connected to her powers of obeah (a religion similar to African voodoo). She was particularly skilled at organizing guerrilla warfare, which kept British troops from penetrating Maroon strongholds in the mountains. Besides being a fierce warrior, Nanny was a chieftainess, or a wise woman of the village, who passed down legends and kept African customs, music, and songs alive.

Kumina Sect

The Kumina are both a people and spiritual tradition. They are thought to be descended from Congolese indentured workers and freed slaves, and they survive in eastern parts of the island. This is the most African of the cults to be found in Jamaica, with little European or Christian influence. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, burials, or memorial services but also can be performed for births, thanksgivings, and invocations for good and evil. Kumina sessions, which involve singing, dancing, and drumming, are of two general types: a public, less sacred form of Kumina, in which songs are sung mainly in Jamaican patois (dialect or provincial speech), and the more African and serious form (pukumina, the ritual of pocomania, meaning “small madness”).


English is the official language of the country and the language taught in the schools, but most Jamaicans speak English and a patois. Jamaican patois, sometimes just called Jamaican, is an English-based creole language (a language that evolved from a combination of others and that serves as the native language of a community) with West African grammar and words from English, West African, Spanish, French, and Native American sources. It is spoken in the home and in other informal settings. Jamaican speech, whether in English or patois, has a distinctive rhythmic and melodic quality.


It is said that there are more churches per square mile in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. The variety of houses of worship covers everything from centuries-old parish churches to the bamboo and zinc shacks of Revivalists. The majority (61.3 percent) of believers belong to one of the numerous Christian denominations—the Church of God, Baptists, Anglicans, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics predominate, along with Methodists, United Church,Moravians,Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, Unity, and Jehovah's Witnesses.Other religious groups include Jews,Hindus, Muslims, and Bahais, and not least Rastafarians. Few countries in the world can match Jamaica's religious diversity, particularly considering the country's small size and population.


Rastafarianism is a religious movement that began in the 1930s in poor sections of Kingston and other Jamaican cities. It emerged out of biblical prophecy as interpreted by the political aspirations and teachings of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a native Jamaican. Garvey taught that people of African descent will find peace, dignity, self-expression, and self-reliance by embracing Africa as their ancestral home. Rastafarians believe that black people are the descendents of the early Israelites who were sent into exile. They honor Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), a former emperor of Ethiopia. His lineage, believe the Rastafarians, can be traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They believe, as did Selassie, himself, that he was “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

Dreadlocked hair symbolizes the Lion of Judah and rebellion against Babylon, which is often equated to Western civilization. Followers of Rastafarianism understand Babylon as representing the artificial affluent society of self-absorbed individuals who worship idols and live decadent lifestyles at the expense of the poor. The wearing of dreadlocks has become closely associated with the movement, although the practice is not universal among, or exclusive to, Rastas. Rastafarians believe that smoking ganja (marijuana) has Biblical approval, as well as being an aid to meditation and a form of religious observance. The colors red, green, and gold are sacred to the Rastafarian religion and frequently appear on clothing and other decorations. Most Rastas follow a certain diet, and some are vegetarians. They eat food that has not been contaminated by modern chemicals, salt, or preservatives.

Restricted food items include alcohol, coffee, milk, and soft drinks. Anything that is herbal, such as tea, is acceptable. There are a number of different Rastafarian sects that adhere to greater or lesser degrees to the beliefs of orthodox Rastafarianism. About 700,000 people practice the faith worldwide; this growth is largely attributed to Bob Marley, reggae artists, and the worldwide acceptance of reggae as an avenue of Rastafarian self-expression. Today, about 300,000 people, or 1 in 12 Jamaicans, consider themselves Rastafarians or Rasta sympathizers. The influence of Rastas in Jamaica has always outweighed their numbers, especially with respect to popular culture (in music, clothing styles, and speech).


Jamaican foods represent a blending of many food traditions, from African to Amerindian, and Asian to European. Most foods and methods of preparation evolved from conditions of slavery and its aftermath to form a distinct dietary tradition, much of which is unique to Jamaica. Jamaica has an especially wide range of food as compared with the other English-speaking islands in the Caribbean. Much of Jamaican food is highly spiced and can be made even hotter by adding scotch bonnet pepper sauce. Rice, vegetables (such as yams, peas, tomatoes, hot peppers, and green peppers), fruit (such as mangoes, bananas, papayas, pineapples, oranges, and grapefruits), stews, chicken, and various types of fish (salt- and freshwater) figure largely in the diet. Fish may be eaten two or more times a week. Ackee and saltfish is Jamaica's national dish; it can be eaten both as breakfast and as a main course and is often accompanied by bammies (cassava or manioc bread), johnnycakes, avocado, fried plantains, yams, or roasted breadfruit.

A popular way of preparing fresh fish is to escoveitch them. Would you like to try one of Jamaica's most popular dishes?


2 lb any whole small fish or filets
1 lime
? cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
oil for frying
1 cup white or cider vinegar
1 cup water
pinch of salt; pinch of sugar
1 cup julienned strips of carrot and choco (chayote, available
at Hispanic markets; you can substitute zucchini)
1 large hot pepper, such as scotch bonnet, cut in rings
1 large onion, cut in rings
6 pimento (allspice) berries

After fish are washed, squeeze lime into rinse water to reduce
fishy taste. Dust with flour, fry, and set aside.

Boil together water, vinegar, sugar, and salt. Add the remaining
ingredients and cook briefly. Pour sauce over fish and leave to
marinate in refrigerator 4 to 24 hours before serving.

Most meals are served with rice and “peas” (red beans) and may also include boiled green bananas, plantains, or fried dumplings. Stews, thick soups, and curries are popular. One-pot meals include pepper pot soup, gungo pea stew, beef soup, red pea soup, and fricasseed chicken. Curried goat is a common party food, and leftover parts are used to make mannish water, a delicacy. Jerk is a favorite of Jamaicans and visitors alike. Jerk is spicy barbequed pork or chicken roasted in open pits or on makeshift grills. Bammy is a common food and is still prepared in the style of the Taino Indians. Bammy with fried fish is a frequent combination, as is festival (fried dough) with fish. Drinks made from boiled roots, herbal teas, fruit juices, and a variety of alcoholic drinks are common, as are coffee and tea. (All hot drinks are called “tea.”)

The role of ackee, rice, and saltfish in the Jamaican diet has an interesting history. In fact, a famous Jamaican folk song, Jamaican Farewell, has in its lyrics, “Ackee, rice, saltfish are nice . . .” How did these three nonnative foods become so popular? During the early stages of the sugar plantation economy, all available productive land was devoted to growing that lucrative crop. The ackee, native to Africa, is a tree that can grow in very thin, rocky soil and thrive. It could be planted on poor land unsuited to the growing of cane. Rice was grown in abundance in British Asian colonies. Once dried, it can last almost indefinitely, even in the hot, humid, tropical climate. Plantation owners certainly were not going to send slaves to sea in boats to fish, so they had to turn elsewhere—to the British-controlled Grand Banks, rich fishing grounds off the coast of eastern Canada—for meat.

Here, codfish were plentiful. How could their flesh be preserved and sent to a tropical land? The answer was found in salt drying the fish—this became a Caribbean delicacy still enjoyed today! In rural areas, families eat dinner together each day after 4:00 P.M. Families in urban areas may eat together only on  weekends. Tradition dictates that the family shares a meal on Sunday. Even poor families have a sociable midday meal, usually including chicken, fish, yams, fried plantains, and nearly always peas and rice. Eating outdoors, especially in gardens and on patios, is popular. Restaurants range from informal cafes that serve simple Jamaican dishes to restaurants offering a variety of dishes. Indian and Chinese foods are popular. Both shops and street vendors sell take-away foods. Pineapples, melons, and water coconuts (immature coconuts) are often sold from roadside stalls or carts. Patty shops are like hamburger stands in the United States. Patties, mixtures of spicy beef, curried lobster, or chicken wrapped in deep-fried curry-seasoned pastry, are Jamaica's fast food.


Many present-day oral traditions can be traced to folklore that has been passed down from the earliest African slaves. There are two spirits in Jamaican folklore, Obeah and Jumbie. Obeah is a superstitious spirit that is held accountable for both good and evil. According to legend, Obeah takes things away from people who take such things as happiness, health, love, and wealth for granted.When a Jamaican is asked “How are you feeling,” he or she may answer, “Could be better,” or “Not too bad.” The jumbie is common to a number of Caribbean islands. They are said to be the spirits of people who have died, but do not want to leave their island. Jumbies are represented at Carnival and other parades by 12 to18 foot (3.5 to 5.5 meters) tall, stilt-walking revelers twirling Mocko Jumbies.

Anancy Stories

Jamaican lore is full of stories of the West African–linked Anancy. Anancy, the “Spiderman,” is of Ashanti (Ghanese tribe) origin. Every Jamaican has memories of Anancy stories, from Anancy and Dawg to Pig an Long-Mout, as told by an elder family member or friend.Anancy stories are parables, tales used to teach lessons. In Jamaica, the spider-god has become a “spider man” who walks upright and is a cunning trickster. He always gets whatever he wants, but his quest always carries a good lesson.

Anancy is a rebellious spirit. He has the power to overturn the social order. According to legend, he can marry the king's daughter, create wealth out of thin air, baffle the devil, and even cheat death. Should Anancy lose in one tale, you know that he will surely overcome adversity in the next. Anancy conveyed a simple message, passed from one generation to the next of an oppressed people: freedom and dignity are worth fighting for, regardless of the consequences.


Jamaicans, in general, are a friendly and outgoing people. They enjoy swapping stories and good humor (or “liming,” as it is called). Jamaicans also have a positive and carefree attitude toward life. Many questions or situations are answered with a “No problem, mon!” in the belief that things will work out fine. Many Jamaicans are very talented, often quite opinionated, and are very proud of their country and its people.