A Brief History of Jamaica

The People Who Came... First

The history of Jamaica, this Caribbean island is quite a fascinating one – beginning with the fact that it was originally inhabited by the Tainos/Arawaks since circa 1,000 BC right up until 1494. The island was called "Xaymaca". It is believed that the Tainos originally came from mainland South America, and were known as a peaceable people. (They're credited with inventing the hammock.)

Arrival Of The Spanish

"Xaymaca", was phonetically changed to Jamaica by the Spaniards who colonised the island between 1509 and 1655. It is unclear as to what actually caused the complete demise of the Tainos as part of the early history of Jamaica. It is speculated that either:

  • disease brought by the settlers,
  • their enslavement and harsh treatment,
  • and even the suicide of many

...brought about their fall.

Christopher Columbus has been attributed with having "discovered" the island (for the West) on May 4, 1494. He called it Santiago (St Jago) but that name never caught on – Jamaica was imprinted in the minds of the seafarers and settlers.

Jamaica history radically departed from what it had been at the arrival of the Spanish, when circumstances changed dramatically with the enslavement of the Tainos sometime between 1498 and 1509. The first Spanish settlement was called New Seville (or as the Spanish would say Sevilla Nueva).

A new settlement was founded in the interior, several years later called Villa de la Vega, which later became known as Spanish Town, and has retained the name till today.

With the demise of the Tainos, by the mid to late 16th century, the first African slaves were brought in to replace the workforce. Soon thereafter the Caribbean became a war zone between the Spanish and the British. The Spaniards made Villa de la Vega, their main centre on the island.

Attacked by The British

With the constant fight for dominion over the Caribbean, the British ransacked Villa de la Vega, in 1596 then again in 1643, eventually capturing it in 1655, (once again radically changing the history of Jamaica). The British Governor devised a clever plan - he invited the pirates and buccaneers to settle in Jamaica.

May 10, 1655. The British seizure of Jamaica under Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables. Cromwell's ships sinking the Spanish vessels in Kingston Harbour. (Photo: Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

The Maroons

The capturing of Jamaica was bittersweet as the fleeing Spanish freed the slaves and equipped them with weaponry. These freed slaves made their way to the overgrown jungle of the sparsely populated interior... where they formed into a loose company, called the Maroons. These Maroons were an annoyance, and made life quite difficult for the British in the early part of their colonisation.

As a matter of fact, the Maroons gained a reputation as being cunning rebels... often defeating the British military in battle... and playing a unique and long lasting role in the evolution of the history of Jamaica. Descendants of the Maroons still inhabit certain parts of Jamaica to this day.

Slave Trading

Next, the British lured many settlers, through offering portions of land on which to raise crops. Sugarcane plantations flourished, and during the 1700's produced approximately 22% of the sugar being produced in the world at that time. Other popular crops that were grown were coffee and cocoa. With this boom came an increase in slave trading. Without these slaves the economy of Jamaica would never reach the pinnacle that it did.

The downside was that the slaves were ill-treated, a heartbreaking affair for many Africans who were wrenched from their families. It became worse when the American colonies separated themselves from British colonialism... forever altering the history of Jamaica as well as the history of the other Caribbean islands.

As a result, the slaves revolted on several occasions, but in 1831 approximately 60,000 slaves revolted laying waste to the plantations and killing their owners. This was about 1/5th of the slave population at the time... and the revolt lasted for 4 months.

Abolition of Slavery

There was a great outcry in Britain, and by the 1830's the abolition move gained ground. By 1834 slavery was outlawed by an Act of Parliament changing Jamaica history.

The plantation owners brought in indentured labourers from China and India, to bolster the labour shortage. The fortunes of the plantation owners waned after the introduction of sugar beet as a crop. Other crops such as bananas, coffee and cocoa where introduced to supplement the flagging sugarcane industry.

From 1830 to about 1940, tremendous change took place with regard to civil liberties on the island, with several more revolts and riots taking place.

Early 20th Century

Marcus Garvey became a national hero as a result of his tireless efforts to promote the cause of black people of Jamaica and other conquered territories. He forever changed the perception in the minds of many... and added significantly to Jamaica and its history.

Traveling the world, he raised support for the Back-to-Africa movement and started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which took fire across the rest of the Caribbean. He then went on to form the first political party, the People's Political Party in 1929.

Click here to read about other famous people from Jamaica.

Other prominent names in the political history of Jamaica are Alexander Bustamante, the first Jamaican trade unionist and founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The lawyer Norman Manley (Bustamante's cousin), founded the People's National Party (PNP), another political party.

Independence

It was not until August 6, 1962, that Jamaica gained independence yet opted to stay within the Commonwealth of Great Britain – this today underscores the past history of Jamaica.

The Governor General is the Head of State, and is appointed by the British Monarch, while the Prime Minister is chosen through democratic election. The present Prime Minister, The Hon. Orette Bruce Golding, is a member of the JLP, the current ruling party.