Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

In 1986 Jamaica had an estimated population of 2,304,000 persons, making it the most populous of the English-speaking Caribbean islands. The most recent census, in June 1982, recorded a total population of 2,095,858 persons, an increase of 13.4 percent over the 1970 census count of 1,848,508. Between 1970 and 1982, Jamaica's average annual rate of population growth was 1.1 percent, a relatively low rate in comparison with other developing countries. In 1986 the rate of population growth had dropped farther, to 0.9 percent. Jamaica's low rate of population growth reflected gradually declining birth rates and high levels of emigration, the country's most striking demographic feature. Nevertheless, significant reductions in mortality rates, resulting from better health care and sanitation, also affected the overall population growth rate, tending to raise it.

Jamaica's annual rate of population growth has been relatively stable since roughly the end of World War I. Between 1881 and 1921, emigration and disease caused the rate of population growth to fall to very low levels. Some 156,000 Jamaicans emigrated during this period, 35 percent of the country's natural increase. Between 1911 and 1921, the rate of growth was only 0.4 percent per year as workers left Jamaica for Costa Rican banana plantations, Cuban sugar estates, and the Panama Canal. The burgeoning industries of the United States and Canada also attracted many Jamaicans during this period. Thousands of Jamaicans, however, returned home with the fall of sugar prices precipitated by the Great Depression. As a result from 1921 to 1954, the rate of population growth rose, averaging 1.7 percent per year.

Increased emigration after World War II reduced the rate of population growth once again. Between 1954 and 1970, the rate of growth was only 1.4 percent because large numbers of Jamaicans moved to Britain, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. This exodus continued unabated during the 1970s and early 1980s, when 276,200 men and women, over 10 percent of the total population, departed. A significant percentage of the emigrants were skilled workers, technicians, doctors, and managers, thus creating a huge drain on the human resources of Jamaican society. The world economic recession of the 1980s reduced opportunities for migration as a number of countries tightened their immigration laws. Nevertheless, by the mid-1980s, it was estimated that more than half of all Jamaicans lived outside the island.

In July 1983 the Jamaican Parliament adopted the National Population Policy, which was developed by the Population Policy Task Force under the auspices of the Ministry of Health. The objectives of the policy were to achieve a population not in excess of 3 million by the year 2000; to promote health and increase the life expectancy of the population; to create employment opportunities and reduce unemployment, underemployment, and emigration; to provide access to family-planning services for all Jamaicans and reduce the average number of children per family from four to two, thus achieving replacement fertility levels; to promote balanced rural, urban, and regional development to achieve an optimal spatial distribution of population; and to improve the satisfaction of basic needs and the quality of life through improved housing, nutrition, education, and environmental conditions.

Family planning services have been visible, accessible, and active in Jamaica since the 1960s. The success of family planning reduced the country's birth rate by about 35 percent from 1965 to 1985. The Planning Institute of Jamaica, a government agency, estimated that the crude birth rate (the annual number of births per 1,000 population) was 24.3 per 1,000 in 1985. The total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime) decreased from 5.5 in 1970 to 3.5 by 1983. The government perceived its population goal of 3 million or less by the year 2000 as feasible only if the yearly population growth rate did not exceed 1.6 percent and the replacement fertility rate were two children per woman.

The crude death rate (the annual number of deaths per 1,000 population) was quite low at 6 per 1,000 population in 1985. By comparison, the United States had a crude death rate of 9 per 1,000 in the same year. Between 1965 and 1985, Jamaica's crude death rate declined by 44 percent, the result of significant levels of investment in health care delivery systems and improved sanitation facilities during the 1970s. In 1985 life expectancy at birth (the average number of years a newborn infant can expect to live under current mortality levels) was very high at seventy-three years. The infant mortality rate (the annual number of deaths of children younger than 1 year old per 1,000 births) was 20 per 1,000 births during the mid-1980, and this rate was consistent with that of 23 per 1,000 found in other English-speaking Caribbean islands.

Jamaica, like most of the other Commonwealth Caribbean islands, was densely populated. In 1986 its estimated population density was 209.62 persons per square kilometer. In terms of arable land, the population totaled nearly 1,000 persons per square kilometer, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Since the 1960s, the population has become increasingly urban. In 1960, only 34 percent of the population lived in urban areas, but in the late 1980s, more than 50 percent of the population was urban. The heavily urbanized parishes of Kingston, St. Andrew, St. James, and St. Catherine accounted for 48.3 percent of Jamaica's total population in 1983.

Jamaica is a country of young people. Roughly 40 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age in the late 1980s. The fastest-growing age groups were those ten to thirty-four years of age and those seventy and over. Slower growth for middle-aged groups was generally explained by their greater tendency to emigrate. The 1982 census revealed that the group up to nine years old was the only one not becoming larger; this suggested both that the country's population was aging and that family planning was working. The 1982 census also revealed that 51 percent of the population was female.

The country's national motto points to the various ethnic groups present on the island. Although a predominantly black nation of West African descent, Jamaica had significant minorities of East Indians, Chinese, Europeans, Syrians, Lebanese, and numerous mixtures thereof in the late 1980s. Approximately 95 percent of all Jamaicans were of partial or total African descent, including 76 percent of complete African descent, 15 percent of Afro-European descent, and 4 percent of either Afro-East Indian or Afro-Chinese descent. Nearly 2 percent of the population was East Indian, close to 1 percent Chinese, and the remainder was made up of Europeans, peoples of the Middle East, and others. Although racial differences were not as important as class differences, the lightness of one's skin was still an issue, especially since minorities were generally members of the upper classes.

About 75 percent of Jamaica's population was Protestant, and 8 percent was Roman Catholic; various Muslim, Jewish, and spiritualist groups were also present. Rastafarians constituted roughly 5 percent of the population. Religious activities were popular, and religion played a fairly important role in society. The most striking religious trend occurring in Jamaica in the 1980s, as it was throughout the Americas, was the increasing number of charismatic or evangelical Christian groups.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Jamaica.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress