When Christopher Columbus for the first time visited the island in 1494, he named the bay Golfo de Buen Tiempo ("Fair Weather Gulf"). The name "Montego Bay" is believed to have originated as a corruption of the Spanish word manteca ("lard"), allegedly because during the Spanish period it was the port where lard, leather, and beef were exported. Jamaica was a colony of Spain from 1511 until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell's Caribbean expedition, the Western Design, drove the Spanish from the island.
During the epoch of slavery, from the mid-17th century until 1834, and well into the 20th century, the town functioned primarily as a sugarcane port. The island's last major slave revolt, the Christmas Rebellion or Baptist War (1831–1832) took place in the area around Montego Bay; the leader of the revolt, Samuel Sharpe, was hanged there in 1832. In 1975, Sharpe was proclaimed a national hero of Jamaica, and the main square of the town was renamed in his honor.
Montego Bay's city status prior to British rule was debated, however, it had its city status revoked during Jamaica's British colonial. In 1980, it was re-proclaimed a city by act of parliament, but this has not meant that it has acquired any form of autonomy as it continues to be an integral part of the parish of St. James.
Today, Montego Bay is known for its large regional hospital (Cornwall Regional Hospital), port facilities, second homes for numerous upper class Jamaicans from Kingston as well as North Americans and Europeans, fine restaurants, and shopping opportunities. The coastland near Montego Bay is occupied by numerous tourist resorts, most newly built, some occupying the grounds of old sugarcane plantations with some of the original buildings and mill-works still standing. The most famous is the White Witch's Rose Hall which now features a world-class golf course.
The infrastructure of the city is going through a series of explosive modernizations which once completed, aims to keep Montego Bay as a top destination in the region. The Montego Bay Convention Centre, built on a large site near to the Rose Hall estate, was opened by Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding on 7 January 2011.
The majority of the city's population is of African descent. The city is also home to sizeable minority ethnic groups such as the East Indians and Chinese, who came to the country as indentured servants in the mid to late 19th century. The Chinese especially occupy important roles in the city's economy especially in retail where Downtown Montego Bay is home to many shops and supermarkets owned by Chinese immigrants. The city's East Indians population also play a key role as they operate many gift and jewelry shops in the city which are mostly geared to tourists.
There is also a minority of Europeans, some descending from immigrants from Germany (the city is a 1 1/2 hour drive from German settlements such as German Town in Westmoreland) and Great Britain (who own most of the land in the city from as far back as the days of the slave trade).
The city is also home to many immigrants from Hispanic countries such as Mexico, Cuba and Spain as well as many French, Russians and Italians (who mostly own homes or beachfront properties in the area).
Due to the heavy influence of Tourism and BPO, the city is also home to many Americans and Canadians, who either work in Tourism or BPO.
There are a wide variety of Christian churches in the city. Most are Protestant, a legacy of British colonisation of the island. The chief denominations are Church of God, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist and Pentecostal. Afro-Christian syncretic religions such as the Rastafari movement also have a significant following. The city also has a unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The city also has communities of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
Montego Bay is pivotal to Jamaica's economy. The city holds most of the weight of the country's tourism sector. Most the country's visitors arrive and depart from Montego Bay's Airport or Port. Many international companies have resorts in the city which are Hyatt, Hilton Hotels, Holiday Inn, RIU Hotels, Royalton and Iberostar. The city is the home to the headquarters of international resort chain, Sandals. Recently, ground was broken to begin construction of a Hard Rock Café in the city, to further bolster the city's entertainment product.
The city is also home to a thriving BPO sector. The city has call centres which cater to many Fortune 500 companies such as Delta, Amazon, Netflix and many others. In addition, Vistaprint established its only call centre in Montego Bay which located in the city's up and coming tech park. Most of the city's business is done in the downtown area, however, as of recent, the CBD has begun to migrate to the suburb of Fairview/Bogue which is home to the Fairview Town Centre, which is a 5-minute commute from Montego Freezone, the city's dedicated area to BPO activity. The area is mostly populated with retail & banking, most notable are Scotiabank's new Fairview branch, The G-West building, FLOW's first & Flagship store in the Caribbean - redesigned by retail experts, Shikatani Lacroix, and Fontana Pharmacy's flagship store. The town centre also holds important to the city as it hosts places such as Digicel's Corporate offices for Western Jamaica as well as many auditing, law and insurance firms. Most stores in the town centre feature modern architecture and beautiful landscaping. The town centre continues to expand at a rapid pace today and will be home to more businesses soon, some only found in Montego Bay.
The city hosts many financial institutions such as Scotiabank, FCIB, National Commercial Bank, Jamaica National and many others. The city also has offices for many auditing firms such as KPMG and PwC.
The city is home to many health institutions such as the Cornwall Regional Hospital as well as the recently opened, Hospiten, a Spanish-owned, private hospital located in Rose Hall.
Education in the city can be found from Pre-K up to Tertiary. The city has many Pre-K and Basic Schools. Beyond this, the city has many Primary and Preparatory Schools. Secondary Education is also provided in the city most notable of which are the Montego Bay High School for Girls, Mount Alvernia High School - a Roman Catholic High School for Girls which shares the same crest, motto and wears a uniform similar to that of sister school of Immaculate Conception High School in Kingston, Herbert Morrison Technical School and the oldest school in the city, Cornwall College.
Tertiary Institutions in the city are namely the University of West Indies (UWI) - Western Jamaica Campus, The University of Technology (UTECH) Montego Bay Campus and the Montego Bay Community College (MBCC). Most tertiary institutions in the city are accredited.
The North Coast Highway runs through the city of Montego Bay, with 2 lanes in each direction within the city, terminating at the Queen's Drive and resuming at the intersection of the Alice Eldemire Drive and Barnett Street. The North Coast Highway connects Montego Bay with the North-South section of Highway 2000 (called T3), which begins at Mammee Bay in Ocho Rios, St. Ann and terminates at an interchange which leads onto the Mandela Highway in St. Catherine and into the nation's capital, Kingston.
Another major road within the city is the B15 (Montego Bay to Falmouth) road. The city is also well served by buses, mini-busess and taxis, which operate from the Montego Bay Transport Centre.
The Government of Jamaica announced that a tolled bypass to the city has been planned to be built in order to reduce traffic congestion and travel times. The bypass is to begin at Westgate and end at Ironshore. The bypass will cost around USD $200 Million.
The now disused Montego Bay railway station served the Kingston to Montego Bay main line. The railway station opened c. 1894 and closed in October 1992 when all passenger traffic on Jamaica's railways abruptly ceased.
Montego Bay is served by Jamaica's largest airport, the Sir Donald Sangster International Airport. The airport has the distinction of being the busiest airport in the English-speaking Caribbean, serving 3.8 million passengers in 2015.
The airport was the hub of Jamaica's former national airline, Air Jamaica. The airline also had its Reservations department as well as a Sales & Ticketing office in the city until its purchase by Caribbean Airlines in 2011, when they moved their offices to Kingston.
The airport is served by several North American and European airlines, connecting the island with the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and South America. The southern U.S. city of Miami can be reached within 70 minutes. The southern U.S. cities of Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta and Tampa can be reached by non-stop flights in less than three hours. Other locations like Philadelphia, New York City, Toronto, Washington D.C. and Montreal can be reached in under four hours. The airport is also 1 of 2 airports in the Caribbean (other being Havana), that has a non-stop flight to Los Angeles, allowing passengers the ability to connect to flights to Asia, Australia and Oceania. The airport has undergone major expansion since 2003, and has won awards including the coveted World Travel Award for being the Caribbean's Leading Airport, beating airports like Punta Cana International Airport and Grantley Adams International Airport.
There is a free port and cruise line terminal on a man-made peninsula jutting into the bay.
Fixed voice and broadband services in Montego Bay is provided by FLOW. FLOW uses a Hybrid Fibre and Coaxial network to provide IPTV, VoIP & POTS and cable broadband capable of speeds up to 100 Mbit/s. FLOW also uses a Copper network to provide POTS and ADSL capable of speeds up to 12 Mbit/s. This copper network is currently being upgraded to VDSL2, which will allow speeds of over 50 Mbit/s over existing copper lines as well as provide a migration path for the provider to Fibre to the Home. FLOW also has a fibre-optic network in the neighbourhood of Rhyne Park which provides up to 100 Mbit/s as well. There are several other small cable companies such as Cornwall Communications, that provides cable broadband and voice over its cable network, however, they are vastly incomparable in subscriber numbers to FLOW.
Mobile voice and broadband services in Montego Bay is dominated by both incumbents, FLOW & Digicel. Both carriers provide GSM, EDGE, 3G HSPA & HSPA+ connectivity in and around the city.
Currently, FLOW offers HSPA+ of up to 21 Mbit/s on 850 MHz and 1900 MHz spread between 2 WCDMA Carriers, effectively giving a combined throughput of 42 Mbit/s per site within the city (they do not offer DC-HSDPA, only single carrier HSPA+).
Digicel also offers 21 Mbit/s HSPA+ however, they also offer DC-HSDPA (commonly known as DC-HSPA+) allowing capable devices speeds of up to 42 Mbit/s on paired 850 MHz spectrum. Digicel's LTE network is also available in the city, however, it is currently only accessible in and around the Sangster International Airport and along the Northern Coastal Highway and out to the parish border. Digicel, in its commitment to provide an islandwide LTE network, has committed to offering LTE in the city for its subscribers. The network is theoretically capable of speeds up to 75 Mbit/s on 10 MHz of Band 17 spectrum.
FLOW has committed to offering LTE in Montego Bay. FLOW's LTE network will use Band 4/AWS spectrum.
The city was the subject of the namesake song by Bobby Bloom in 1970, later covered by Jon Stevens ten years later, and was revived by Amazulu who became a minor hit in the U.S. in September 1986.
Several scenes from the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die (in which Roger Moore appeared as Bond for the first time) were filmed around Montego Bay.
The 2002 song "Montego Slay" from the album O.S.T. by American Hip-Hop group People Under the Stairs is about the city.