When looking at the history of Jamaica, we must first consider the first inhabitants. Around 600 CE a race known as the “Redware people” arrived; little is known of them, however, beyond the red pottery they left. They were followed about 800 CE by the Arawak, a race of skilful hunters, fishermen and farmers also called Taino.
They had migrated from South America some four centuries before Columbus “discovered” Jamaica on 4 May 1494. They named the island Xaymaca, which means “land of wood and water”.
The first slaves in Jamaica
When Columbus arrived, he claimed the island for Spain. In 1503 he spent a year shipwrecked there. The Spanish crown granted the island to the Columbus family. They did not make much use of the island until 1509 when Juan de Esquivel founded the first permanent European settlement, the town of Sevilla la Nueva (New Seville), what is now St Ann’s Bay on the north coast. In 1534 the capital was moved to Villa de la Vega (later Santiago de la Vega), now called Spanish Town.
The Spanish enslaved the Taino and merely 50 years after the Spanish arrival, the Taino were almost extinct due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, enslavement and overwork. Some Taino did manage to escape. The boost their workforce, the Spanish introduced the first African slaves to the island.
Unable to find gold and other precious metals in Jamaica, they saw little use for the island and hardly resisted the invasion of 5,000 British soldiers led by Sir William Penn in 1655.
The island was formally transferred to England in 1670 under the provisions of the Treaty of Madrid. With the English came a period of sprawling and prosperous sugarcane plantations and piracy. During the final decades of the 17th century, growing numbers of English immigrants arrived; the sugar, cacao, and other agricultural and forest industries were rapidly expanded; and the consequent demand for plantation labour led to large-scale importation of black slaves.
Slaves were imported from Africa to work the plantations of wealthy Englishmen, many of whom actually lived in England, lavishly spending their Jamaican profits. Jamaica soon became one of the principal slave-trading centres in the world. In 1692 Port Royal, the chief Jamaican slave market was destroyed by an earthquake. Kingston was established nearby shortly thereafter.
The most notorious of pirates–the English buccaneer Henry Morgan–made Jamaica his home. The city of Port Royal, across the harbour from Kingston, was a haven for pirates. Perhaps from the weight of all its sins, Port Royal virtually disappeared in an earthquake in 1692. The quake tilted two-thirds of the city into the sea and a tidal wave that followed swept away the debris, along with a great deal of valuable loot. Divers have turned up some of the bounties, but much of it remains in the reefs off Kingston’s shore.
Although the pirates had had their day, the English continued to prosper from Jamaica’s agriculture: Plantations of sugar, tobacco, indigo and eventually bananas, thrived on the island. By the 19th century, it was the English Crown’s most profitable Caribbean colony, with a population of about 300,000 African slaves to 20,000 whites. The island also had a population of mulattos–born to white men and slave women–and Maroons, the descendants of freed slaves.
Slave revolts punctuated the 18th and 19th centuries and the British Parliament abolished slavery from the 1st August 1834. The act made available $30 million as compensation to the owners of the nearly 310,000 liberated slaves. Without slave labour, however, the sugarcane plantations were no longer so profitable, and it seemed their time had passed as well. Competition and falling prices took a further toll on Jamaica’s sugar production reign.
Large numbers of the freed blacks abandoned the plantations following emancipation and took possession of unoccupied lands in the interior, gravely disrupting the economy. Labour shortages, bankrupt plantations, and declining trade resulted in a protracted economic crisis. Oppressive taxation, discriminatory acts by the courts, and land-exclusion measures ultimately caused widespread unrest among the blacks. The freed slaves suffered economic hardship and a drought in 1865 brought on desperate times.
In October 1865 a riot occurred at Port Morant in which a government official was killed. Imposing martial law, the government speedily quelled the uprising and inflicted brutal reprisals. Jamaica was made a crown colony, thus losing the large degree of self-government it had enjoyed since the late 17th century. The Jamaican Assembly relinquished much of its power to the governor due to the strife and in 1866, Jamaica became an official Crown Colony. Representative government was partly restored in 1884. After a long period of direct British colonial rule, Jamaica gained a degree of local political control in the late 1930s and held its first election under full universal adult suffrage in 1944.
In 1958, Jamaica joined nine other UK territories in the West Indies Federation but withdrew after Jamaican voters rejected membership in 1961 This move led to the eventual collapse of the federation. Jamaica’s withdrawal was urged by Sir Alexander Bustamante, a labour leader who became prime minister when Jamaica achieved full independence on 6th August 1962.
It became a democratic country, meaning that the government is elected by the people, with a prime minister and a cabinet serving at the head similar to the Canadian and British leaders. Jamaica is a part of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Jamaica is home to 2.5 million people. While the majority are of African descent, others are of Indian, Chinese, European, Lebanese and Jewish descent. Because of intermarriage and the mixture of all these cultures, Jamaica’s motto is “Out Of Many One People.” It is also estimated that another 2.5 million Jamaicans and their descendants live outside of Jamaica. Historically, Jamaican emigration has been heavy. Since the United Kingdom restricted emigration in 1967, the major flow has been to the United States and Canada. Jamaicans living overseas can be found in just about every country around the world but the majority live in Britain, Canada and the United States.
Since gaining its independence Jamaica has had its economic and political ups and downs, the most noted of which occurred in the 1970s when Prime Minister Michael Manley’s leftist statements and affiliations with Cuba led other nations to fear the country would become Communist.
Manley, leader of the People’s National Party (PNP), became prime minister in 1972 and instituted wide-ranging socialist reforms. The resulting trade deficit brought Jamaica near bankruptcy by 1980. When he proved unable to revitalise the economy, Manley was voted out in 1980 following a turbulent election campaign that left about 800 Jamaicans dead, mainly as a result of clashes between political gangs. Election-related violence remained a part of Jamaica’s political scene into the 1990s.
The elections brought the conservative Labour party, led by Edward P. G. Seaga, to power. Seaga was a former finance minister. Repudiating socialism, he severed relations with Cuba, established close ties with the United States, and tried hard to attract foreign capital. However, weak prices for Jamaica’s mineral exports impeded economic recovery. In September 1988 Hurricane Gilbert caused an estimated $8 billion in property damage and left some 500,000 Jamaicans homeless.
Reelected in 1983, Seaga was defeated by Manley in the 1989 elections. Manley, who during his second term adopted free-market economic policies, resigned in 1992 due to ill health. He was succeeded as party head and prime minister by Percival J. Patterson, who led the PNP to a landslide victory in the 1993 elections. In 1997 the PNP won an unprecedented third consecutive electoral victory, capturing 56 per cent of the vote and taking most of the 60 seats in Jamaica’s Parliament. Although sporadic violence did occur during the campaign, international observers reported that the 1997 election was one of the least violent elections in Jamaica’s recent history.
Today, the island economy relies mostly on the agriculture and tourism industries.