Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

BEFORE THE SPANIARDS occupied Jamaica in the early sixteenth century, the island was inhabited by the Arawak Indians, who called it Xaymaca, meaning "land of wood and springs." Lying on the trade routes between the Old and New Worlds, Jamaica served variously for centuries as a way station for Spanish galleons, a market for slaves and goods from many countries, and a prize for the Spaniards, the British, buccaneers, and entrepreneurs. By far the largest of the English-speaking islands in size and population, independent Jamaica has played a leading role within the Commonwealth Caribbean and has been active in international organizations.

Jamaica's story is one of independence that began in the seventeenth century with the Maroons, runaway slaves who resisted the British colonizers by carrying out hit-and-run attacks from the interior. Their 7,000 descendants in the Cockpit Country have symbolized the fervent, sometimes belligerent, love of freedom that is ingrained in the Jamaican people as a result of both their British tutelage and their history of slavery. Independence came quietly, however, without a revolutionary struggle, apparently reflecting the lasting imprint of the British parliamentary legacy on Jamaican society.

Despite its people's respect for the rule of law and the British Westminster system of government, Jamaica's first twentyfive years as an independent state were marked by significant increases in criminal violence and political polarization. The extremely violent 1980 electoral campaign and the boycott by the opposition party of the 1983 local elections strained the island's two-party political system. In 1987 Jamaica was still bitterly divided, both politically and socially. This trend seemed to belie the motto beneath the Jamaican coat of arms, reading "Out of Many, One People." Both types of violence on the island--political and criminal--have been attributed among other things to Jamaican cultural and societal traits, the socioeconomic structure of Jamaican politics, worsening economic conditions, narcotics trafficking, and inadequate law enforcement.

Notwithstanding the periodic outbursts of violence around elections and the one-party legislative situation, the nation's well institutionalized political system remained generally intact during the first quarter- century of independence. Jamaicans have cherished their inherited parliamentary system of government, whose roots extend back to the seventeenth century. Despite the divergent ideologies and intense antipathy of the two principal political parties, they have recognized their common stake in the stability of political life. Jamaica has no history of coups, assassinations of national leaders, or racial confrontation. The two main parties have alternated in power every ten years, and neither has ever retained power beyond its constitutionally mandated term of office. It was widely expected that a changeover would result from the elections constitutionally required in early 1989.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress