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Island country, West Indies, located south of Cuba. The third largest island in the Caribbean, it is 146 mi (235 km) long and 35 mi (56 km) wide. Area: 4,244 sq mi (10,991 sq km). Population: (2009 est.) 2,702,000. Capital: Kingston. The population consists mostly of descendents of African slaves. Languages: English (official), Jamaican Creole. Religions: Christianity (mainly Protestant; also Roman Catholic); also Rastafarianism. Currency: Jamaican dollar. Jamaica has three major regions: the coastal lowlands, which encircle the island and are heavily cultivated; a limestone plateau, which covers half of the island; and the interior highlands, with forested mountain ranges, including the Blue Mountains. Agriculture employs about one-fifth of the workforce, and the major agricultural export is raw sugar, with molasses and rum as by-products. Industry focuses on the production of bauxite and alumina and on the garment industry. Tourism is very important. Jamaica is a constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses. Its head of state is the British monarch, represented by the governor-general, and its head of government is the prime minister. The island was settled by Arawak Indians c. 600 CE. It was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1494; Spain colonized it in the early 16th century but neglected it because it lacked gold reserves. Britain gained control in 1655, and by the end of the 18th century Jamaica had become a prized colonial possession because of the volume of sugar produced by slave labourers. Slavery was abolished in the late 1830s, and the plantation system collapsed. Jamaica gained full internal self-government in 1959 and became an independent country within the British Commonwealth in 1962. In the late 20th century the government, led by Michael Manley, nationalized many businesses.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on Jamaica, visit Britannica.com.