History of Jamaica

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The aftermath of the 1882 Kingston fire.

Jamaica, the third largest Caribbean island, was inhabited by Arawak natives when it was first sighted by the second voyage of Christopher Columbus on 5 May 1494. Columbus himself was stranded on Jamaica from 1503 to 1504 during his fourth voyage. The Spanish settled in Jamaica in 1509 and held the island against many privateer raids from their main city, now called Spanish Town, which served as capital of Jamaica from its founding in 1534 until 1872. In 1655 Jamaica was conquered by the English, although the Spanish did not relinquish their claim to the island until 1670.

Jamaica became a base of operations for privateers, including Captain Henry Morgan, operating from the main English settlement Port Royal. In return these privateers kept the other colonial powers from attacking the island. Following the destruction of Port Royal in the great earthquake of 1692, refugees settled across the bay in Kingston.

By 1716 it had become the biggest town in Jamaica and was designated the capital city in 1872. Until slavery was abolished by Parliament in 1833, the island sugar plantations were highly dependent on slave labour, based on Africans who initially were captured, kidnapped, and sold into slavery from peoples of West and Central Africa. By the eighteenth century, sugarcane became the most important export of the island.

Many slaves arrived in Jamaica via the Atlantic slave trade during the early seventeenth century, the same period when the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America. By the early nineteenth century, people of African descent greatly outnumbered ethnic Europeans. Due to the harshness of the conditions, there were many racial tensions. Jamaica had one of the highest number of slave uprisings of any Caribbean island.[1]

After the British Crown abolished slavery in 1834, the Jamaicans began working toward independence. As the island still had a strong agricultural economy, planters imported East Asians as indentured laborers for many years. Since independence in 1962, there have been political and economic disturbances, as well as a number of strong political leaders.

Pre-Columbian Jamaica[edit]

Around 650 AD, Jamaica was colonized by the people of the Ostionoid culture (ancestors of the Taíno), who likely came from South America.[2] Alligator Pond in Manchester Parish and Little River in St. Ann Parish are among the earliest known sites of this Ostionoid culture, also known as the Redware culture.[3] These people lived near the coast and extensively hunted turtles and fish.[4]

Around 950 AD, the people of the Meillacan culture settled on both the coast and the interior of Jamaica, either absorbing the Redware culture of co-inhabiting the island with them.[5]

Cassava (yuca) roots, the Taínos' main crop

The Taíno culture developed on Jamaica around 1200 AD.[6] They brought from South America a system of raising yuca known as "conuco."[7] To add nutrients to the soil, the Taíno burned local bushes and trees and heaped the ash into large mounds, into which they then planted yuca cuttings.[8]

Dujo, a wooden chair crafted by Taínos.

Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and mitaínos (nobles). These were governed by chiefs known as caciques (who were male), who were advised by priests/healers known as bohiques. Caciques enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guanín and sitting on wooden stools to be above the guests they received.[9] Bohiques were extolled for their healing powers and ability to speak with gods.

The Taíno had a matrilineal system of kinship, descent and inheritance. When a male heir was not present, the inheritance or succession would go to the oldest male child of the deceased's sister. The Taíno had avunculocal post-marital residence, meaning a newly married couple lived in the household of the maternal uncle. He was more important in the lives of his niece's children than their biological father; the uncle introduced the boys to men's societies.

Reconstruction of a Taíno village in Cuba

Most Taíno lived in large circular buildings (bohios), constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. These houses, built surrounding the central plaza, could hold 10-15 families each. The cacique and his family lived in rectangular buildings (caney) of similar construction, with wooden porches. Taíno home furnishings included cotton hammocks (hamaca), sleeping and sitting mats made of palms, wooden chairs (dujo or duho) with woven seats, platforms, and cradles for children.[10]

Caguana Ceremonial ball court (batey), outlined with stones.

The Taíno played a ceremonial ball game called batey. Opposing teams had 10 to 30 players per team and used a solid rubber ball. Normally, the teams were composed of men, but occasionally women played the game as well.[11] The games were often played on courts in the village's center plaza and are believed to have been used for conflict resolution between communities. The most elaborate ball courts are found at chiefdoms' boundaries.[12] Often, chiefs made wagers on the possible outcome of a game.[11]

Taino spoke an Arawakan language and did not have writing. Some of the words used by them, such as barbacoa ("barbecue"), hamaca ("hammock"), kanoa ("canoe"), tabaco ("tobacco"), yuca, batata ("sweet potato"), and juracán ("hurricane"), have been incorporated into Spanish and English.

The Taíno were historically enemies of the neighboring Carib tribes, another group with origins in South America, who lived principally in the Lesser Antilles but had also colonized Jamaica.[13] For much of the 15th century, the Taíno tribe was being driven to the northeast in the Caribbean (out of what is now South America) because of raids by the Carib. [14]

The Spanish colonial period (1494 –1655)[edit]

Further information: Colony of Santiago (Jamaica)


Second voyage

Christopher Columbus set sail on his second voyage to the Americas on September 24, 1493.[15] On November 3, 1493, he landed on an island that he named Dominica. On November 22, he landed on Hispaniola and spent some time exploring the interior of the island for gold. He left Hispaniola on April 24, 1494, and arrived at the island of Juana (Cuba) on April 30 and Jamaica on May 5. He explored the south coast of Juana before returning to Hispaniola on August 20. After staying for a time on the western end, present day Haiti, he finally returned to Spain.

Fourth voyage

Columbus returned to Jamaica during his fourth voyage to the Americas. He had been sailing around the Caribbean nearly a year when a storm beached his ships in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on June 25, 1503.

Columbus allegedly awed Jamaica's Tainos by predicting a lunar eclipse

For a year Columbus and his men remained stranded on Jamaica. A Spaniard, Diego Mendez, and some natives paddled a canoe to get help from Hispaniola. The island's governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, detested Columbus and obstructed all efforts to rescue him and his men. In the meantime, Columbus allegedly mesmerized the natives by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse for February 29, 1504, using the Ephemeris of the German astronomer Regiomontanus.[16] Help finally arrived, from the governor, on June 29, 1504, and Columbus and his men arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Castile, on November 7, 1504.

The Seville colony[edit]

Main article: Spanish Jamaica
Spanish map of Jamaica from 1528

The Spanish Empire began its official governance of Jamaica in 1509, with formal occupation of the island by conquistador Juan de Esquivel and his men. Esquivel had accompanied Columbus in his second trip to the Americas in 1493 and participated in the invasion of Hispaniola. A decade later, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote Spanish authorities about Esquivel's conduct during the Higüey massacre of 1503.

The first Spanish settlement was founded in 1509 near St Ann's Bay and named Seville. In 1534 the settlers moved to a new, healthier site, which they named Villa de la Vega, which the English renamed Spanish Town when they conquered the island in 1655. This settlement served as the capital of both Spanish and English Jamaica from its foundation in 1534 until 1872, after which the capital was moved to Kingston.

The Spaniards enslaved many of the native people, overworking and harming them to the point that many had perished within fifty years of European arrival. Subsequently, the lack of indigenous opportunity for labor was mended with the arrival of African slaves.[17] Disappointed in the lack of gold on the isle, the Spanish mainly used Jamaica as a military base to supply colonizing efforts in the mainland Americas.[18]

The Spanish colonists did not bring women in the first expeditions and took Taíno women for their common-law wives, resulting in mestizo children.[19] Sexual violence with the Taíno women by the Spanish was also common.[20][21]

The naming of Jamaica[edit]

The Taino referred to the island as "Xaymaca," which the Spanish gradually changed to "Jamaica."[22] In the so-called Admiral's map of 1507 the island was labeled as "Jamaiqua" and in Peter Martyr's work "Decades" of 1511, he referred to it as both "Jamaica" and "Jamica."[23]

Rise of piracy[edit]

In the 1640s many people were attracted to Jamaica, which had a reputation for stunning beauty, not only in reference to the island but also to the natives. Pirates were known to desert their raiding parties and stay on the island. Spanish Jamaica was subject to many privateer attacks, before the final conquest of the island by the English in 1655. The English were subject to several unsuccessful Spanish counter-attacks after they occupied the island including the largest battle to be fought on Jamaican soil at the Battle of Rio Nuevo.

British rule (1655–1962)[edit]

17th century[edit]

English conquest[edit]

In late 1654, Cromwell launched the Western Design armada against Spain's colonies in the Caribbean. It was one of the strongest ever to sail from England, with some 3,000 soldiers under the command of General Robert Venables, further reinforced in Barbados, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis.

In April 1655, these English troops attacked Spain's fort at Santo Domingo, Hispaniola. However, the Spanish repulsed this poorly-executed attack, known as the Siege of Santo Domingo, and the English troops were soon decimated by disease. [24] [25][26]

European colonies in the Caribbean after England's 1655 capture of Jamaica

Weakened by fever and looking for an easy victory following their defeat at Santo Domingo, the English force then sailed for Jamaica, the only Spanish West Indies island that did not have new defensive works. In May 1655 they landed near Spanish Town and defeated the Spanish troops. For the following years Spain repeatedly attempted to recapture Jamaica, and in response in 1657 the English Governor of Jamaica invited buccaneers to base themselves at Port Royal on Santiago, to help defend against Spanish attacks. Spain never recaptured Jamaica, losing the Battle of Ocho Rios in 1657 and the Battle of Rio Nuevo in 1658. For England, Jamaica was to be the 'dagger pointed at the heart of the Spanish Empire,' although in fact it was a possession of little economic value then.[26]


The Governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Wentworth, attempted to convert the Maroons to Christianity. Many emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1800.

When the British captured Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish colonists fled, leaving a large number of African slaves. These former Spanish slaves created three Palenques, or settlements. Former slaves organized under the leadership of Juan de Serras allied with the Spanish guerrillas on the western end of the Cockpit Country, while those under Juan de Bolas established themselves in modern-day Clarendon Parish and served as a "black militia" for the English. The third chose to join those who had previously escaped from the Spanish to live and intermarry with the Arawak people. Each group of Maroons established distinct independent communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica. They survived by subsistence farming and periodic raids of plantations. Over time, the Maroons came to control large areas of the Jamaican interior.[27]

Jamaica's pirate economy[edit]

Spanish resistance continued for some years after the English conquest, in some cases with the help of the Jamaican Maroons, but Spain never succeeded in retaking the island. The English established their main coastal town at Port Royal. and under early English rule, Jamaica became a haven of privateers, buccaneers, and occasionally outright pirates: Christopher Myngs, Edward Mansvelt, and most famously, Henry Morgan.

In addition to being unable to retake their land, Spain was no longer able to provide their colonies in the New World with manufactured goods on a regular basis. The progressive irregularity of annual Spanish fleets, combined with an increasing desperation by colonies for manufactured goods, allowed Port Royal to flourish and by 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort. Merchants and privateers worked together in what is now referred to as "forced trade." Merchants would sponsor trading endeavors with the Spanish while sponsoring privateers to attack Spanish ships and rob Spanish coastal towns.[28] While the merchants most certainly had the upper hand, the privateers were an integral part of the operation. Nuala Zahedieh, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, wrote, “Both opponents and advocates of so-called ‘forced trade’ declared the town’s fortune had the dubious distinction of being founded entirely on the servicing of the privateers’ needs and highly lucrative trade in prize commodities.”[29] She added, "A report that the 300 men who accompanied Henry Morgan to Portobello in 1668 returned to the town with a prize to spend of at least £60 each (two or three times the usual annual plantation wage) leaves little doubt that they were right.”[29]

The forced trade became almost a way of life in Port Royal. Michael Pawson and David Busseret wrote “...one way or the other nearly all the propertied inhabitants of Port Royal seem to have an interest in privateering.”[30] Forced trade was rapidly making Port Royal one of the wealthiest communities in the English territories of North America, far surpassing any profit made from the production of sugar cane. Zahedieh wrote, “The Portobello raid [in 1668] alone produced plunder worth £75,000, more than seven times the annual value of the island’s sugar exports, which at Port Royal prices did not exceed £10,000 at this time.”[29]

18th century[edit]

Jamaica's sugar boom[edit]

The revenues from cultivation of the lucrative commodity crops of sugar cane and coffee by African slave labour made Jamaica one of the most valuable possessions in the world for more than 150 years.

First Maroon War[edit]

Starting in the late seventeenth century, there were periodic skirmishes between the British and the Maroons, alongside occasional slave revolts. In 1673 one such revolt in St. Ann's Parish of 200 slaves created the separate group of Leeward Maroons. These Maroons united with a group of Madagascars who had survived the shipwreck of a slave ship and formed their own maroon community in St. George's parish. Several more rebellions strengthened the numbers of this Leeward group. Notably, in 1690 a revolt at Sutton's plantation, Clarendon of 400 slaves considerably strengthened the Leeward Maroons.[31] In September 1728, the British sent more troops to Jamaica, changing the balance of power with the Windward Maroons.

The Leeward Maroons inhabited "cockpits," caves, or deep ravines that were easily defended, even against troops with superior firepower. Such guerrilla warfare and the use of scouts who blew the abeng (the cow horn, which was used as a trumpet) to warn of approaching British soldiers allowed the Maroons to evade, thwart, frustrate, and defeat the forces of an Empire.

In 1739–40, the British government in Jamaica recognized that it could not defeat the Maroons, so they came to an agreement with them instead. The Maroons were to remain in their five main towns (Accompong, Trelawny Town, Moore Town, Scott's Pass, Nanny Town), living under their own rulers and a British supervisor.

In exchange, they were asked to agree not to harbour new runaway slaves, but rather to help catch them. This last clause in the treaty naturally caused a split between the Maroons and the rest of the black population, although from time to time runaways from the plantations still found their way into Maroon settlements.

Another provision of the agreement was that the Maroons would serve to protect the island from invaders. The latter was because the Maroons were revered by the British as skilled warriors.

The person responsible for the compromise with the British was the Leeward Maroon leader, Cudjoe, a short, almost dwarf-like man who for years fought skillfully and bravely to maintain his people's independence. As he grew older, however, Cudjoe became increasingly disillusioned. He ran into quarrels with his lieutenants and with other Maroon groups. He felt that the only hope for the future was honorable peace with the enemy, which was just what the British were thinking. The 1739 treaty should be seen in this light.

A year later, the even more rebellious Windward Maroons of Trelawny Town also agreed to sign a treaty under pressure from both white Jamaicans and the Leeward Maroons

Tacky's revolt[edit]

The colony's slaves, who outnumbered their white masters by a ratio of 20:1 in 1800, mounted over a dozen major slave conspiracies (the majority of which were organized by Coromantins), and uprisings during the 18th century, including Tacky's revolt in May 1760.

In that revolt, Tacky, a slave overseer on the Frontier plantation in Saint Mary Parish, led a group of enslaved Africans in taking over the Frontier and Trinity plantations while killing their enslavers. They then marched to the storeroom at Fort Haldane, where the munitions to defend the town of Port Maria were kept. After killing the storekeeper, Tacky and his men stole nearly 4 barrels of gunpowder and 40 firearms with shot, before marching on to overrun the plantations at Heywood Hall and Esher.[32]

By dawn, hundreds of other slaves had joined Tacky and his followers. At Ballard's Valley, the rebels stopped to rejoice in their success. One slave from Esher decided to slip away and sound the alarm.[32] Obeahmen (Caribbean witch doctors) quickly circulated around the camp dispensing a powder that they claimed would protect the men from injury in battle and loudly proclaimed that an Obeahman could not be killed. Confidence was high.[32]

Soon there were 70 to 80 mounted militia on their way along with some Maroons from Scott's Hall, who were bound by treaty to suppress such rebellions. When the militia learned of the Obeahman's boast of not being able to be killed, an Obeahman was captured, killed and hung with his mask, ornaments of teeth and bone and feather trimmings at a prominent place visible from the encampment of rebels. Many of the rebels, confidence shaken, returned to their plantations. Tacky and 25 or so men decided to fight on.[32]

Tacky and his men went running through the woods being chased by the Maroons and their legendary marksman, Davy. While running at full speed, Davy shot Tacky and cut off his head as evidence of his feat, for which he would be richly rewarded. Tacky's head was later displayed on a pole in Spanish Town until a follower took it down in the middle of the night. The rest of Tacky's men were found in a cave near Tacky Falls, having committed suicide rather than going back to slavery.[32]

Second Maroon War[edit]

In 1795, the Second Maroon War was instigated when two Maroons were flogged by a black slave for allegedly stealing two pigs. When six Maroon leaders came to the British to present their grievances, the British took them as prisoners. This sparked an eight-month conflict, spurred by the fact that Maroons felt that they were being mistreated under the terms of Cudjoe's Treaty of 1739, which ended the First Maroon War.

The war lasted for five months as a bloody stalemate. The British 5,000 troops and militia outnumbered the Maroons ten to one, but the mountainous and forested topography of Jamaica proved ideal for guerrilla warfare. The Maroons surrendered in December 1795.

The treaty signed in December between Major General George Walpole and the Maroon leaders established that the Maroons would beg on their knees for the King's forgiveness, return all runaway slaves, and be relocated elsewhere in Jamaica. The governor of Jamaica ratified the treaty, but gave the Maroons only three days to present themselves to beg forgiveness on 1 January 1796. Suspicious of British intentions, most of the Maroons did not surrender until mid-March. The British used the contrived breach of treaty as a pretext to deport the entire Trelawny town Maroons to Nova Scotia. After a few years the Maroons were again deported to the new British settlement of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

19th century[edit]

The Baptist War[edit]

In 1831, enslaved Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe led a strike among demanding more freedom and a working wage of "half the going wage rate." Upon refusal of their demands, the strike escalated into a full rebellion. It became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies,[33] lasting 10 days and mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slave population.[34]

The rebellion was suppressed with relative ease by British forces, under the control of Sir Willoughby Cotton.[1] The reaction of the Jamaican Government and plantocracy[35] was far more brutal. Approximately five hundred slaves were killed in total: 207 during the revolt and somewhere in the range between 310 and 340 slaves were killed through "various forms of judicial executions" after the rebellion was concluded, at times, for quite minor offences (one recorded execution indicates the crime being the theft of a pig; another, a cow).[36] An 1853 account by Henry Bleby described how three or four simultaneous executions were commonly observed; bodies would be allowed to pile up until workhouse negroes carted the bodies away at night and bury them in mass graves outside town.[33] The brutality of the plantocracy during the revolt is thought to have accelerated the process of emancipation, with initial measures beginning in 1833.

The road to emancipation[edit]

Because of the loss of property and life in the 1831 Baptist War rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. Their reports on conditions contributed greatly to the abolition movement and passage of the 1833 law to abolish slavery as of August 1, 1834, throughout the British Empire. The Jamaican slaves were bound (indentured) to their former owners' service, albeit with a guarantee of rights, until 1838 under what was called the Apprenticeship System.

The impact of emancipation[edit]

The freed population faced significant hardships. Only after some time was the native and African populace of Jamaica granted the right to vote, and longer still until they were allowed to hold public office. The white members of Jamaican society still continued to hold power until well into the twentieth century.

The Morant Bay Rebellion[edit]

Tensions resulted in the October 1865 Morant Bay rebellion led by Paul Bogle.

The rebellion was sparked on October 7, when a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for allegedly trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial, and in the police's attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policeman were beaten with sticks and stones.[37] The following Monday arrest warrants were issued for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among them was Baptist preacher Paul Bogle.

A few days later on 11 October, Mr. Paul Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small and inexperienced volunteer militia. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating.

Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson,[38] to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but regardless they killed blacks indiscriminately, most of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, "we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child". In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Paul Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Paul Bogle was executed "either the same evening he was tried or the next morning."[39] Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences, with thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans were burned down without any justifiable reason.

George William Gordon, a Jamaican businessman and politician, who had been critical of Governor John Eyre and his policies, was later arrested by Governor John Eyre who believed he had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was eventually executed. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law. The execution and trial of Gordon via martial law raised some constitutional issues back in Britain, where concerns emerged about whether British dependencies should be ruled under the government of law, or through military license.[40] The speedy trial saw Gordon hanged on 23 October, just two days after his trial had begun. He and William Bogle, Paul's brother, "were both tried together, and executed at the same time.

Jamaica as a Crown Colony[edit]

In 1866 the Jamaican legislature renounced its powers, and the country became a crown colony. In 1872 the capital was moved to Kingston, as the port city had far outstripped the inland Spanish Town in size and sophistication. Some measure of self-government was restored in the 1880s, when islanders gained the right to elect nine members of a legislative council.

The establishment of Crown Colony rule resulted over the next few decades in the growth of a middle class of low-level public officials and police officers, drawn from the mass of the population whose social and political advancement was blocked by racial discrimination, limited education and opportunities for advancement, and other restrictions maintained by the colonial authorities.

20th century[edit]

Black Nationalism[edit]

With these newfound rights came outspoken native figures, most notably Marcus Garvey, a labor leader and advocate of Black nationalism. Garvey, rather than advocate independence of Jamaica and other colonies, promoted the Back-to-Africa movement, which called for those of African descent to return to the homelands of their ancestors.[41] Garvey, to no avail, pleaded with the colonial government to improve living conditions for indigenous peoples in the West Indies.

Upon returning from international travels, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1914, which promoted black rights both in Jamaica and abroad.[42] Garvey served a five-year prison sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary based on allegations of defrauding investors in the league, following which he was deported to Jamaica in November 1927, after having his sentence commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. After returning to his place of birth, Garvey tried and failed to be elected into public office. The latter defeat is attributed to his followers lacking the proper voter qualifications. Despite these shortcomings, Marcus Garvey is regarded as a national hero in present day Jamaica.[43]

The Great Depression and worker protests[edit]

The Great Depression had a serious effect on the emergent middle class and the working class of the 1930s. In the spring of 1938, sugar and dock workers around the island rose in revolt over wages and conditions.

New labor unions and political parties[edit]

Through these protests, Alexander Bustamante rose to prominence. Bustamante, an eccentric Caucasian native-born moneylender,[44] founded the trade union center Bustamante Industrial and advocated autonomy for the island. After a waterfront protest in September 1940, he was arrested by colonial authorities and remained incarcerated for the better part of two years.[45]

As Bustamante Industrial gained support, a cousin of Alexander Bustamante's,[44] Norman Manley, founded the People's National Party (PNP), a democratic socialist movement which also advocated trade unions. Although Bustamante was originally a founding member of the PNP, he resigned from his position there in 1939, citing its socialist tendencies as "too radical."

In July 1943, Bustamante launched the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), which opponents brushed aside as a political label of Bustamante Industrial. In the following election, the JLP defeated the PNP with an 18 point lead over the latter in the House of Representatives.[46]

The following year, the JLP-ruled government launched a new constitution that granted universal adult suffrage, undoing the high voter eligibility standards put in place by British leaders. The new constitution, which was made official on November 20, 1944, put in place a two-chamber legislature and organized an Executive Council made up of ten members of the legislature and chaired by the newly minted position of Premier, the head of government. A checks and balances system was also established for this council as a precaution.[47]

The road to independence[edit]

As World War II came to a close, a sweeping movement of decolonization overtook the world. At this time, the British Government and local politicians began a long transition of converting the Caribbean island from a crown colony into an independent state. The political climate of the socially prospering colony was primarily a contest between the PNP and JLP, with the houses of legislature switching hands between the two throughout the 1950s.[46]

After Norman Manley was elected Chief Minister in 1955, he sped up the process of decolonization via several constitutional amendments. These amendments allowed for greater self-government and established the Minister's administration as a cabinet under a premier.[48]

Under Manley, Jamaica entered the West Indies Federation, a political union of colonized Caribbean entities that, if realized, would have united ten British territories into a single, independent state. Jamaican's participation in the Federation was unpopular, and the results of a referendum held by Premier Manley cemented the colony's withdrawal from the union in 1962. The West Indies Federation collapsed later that year following the departure of Trinidad and Tobago.[49]

Independent Jamaica (1962-)[edit]


Jamaica under Bustamente[edit]

Bustamante subsequently became the first Prime Minister of Jamaica. The island country joined the Commonwealth of Nations, an organization of ex-British territories.[50] Jamaica continues to be a Commonwealth realm, with the British Monarch as Queen of Jamaica and head of state.

Jamaica spent its first ten years of autonomy under conservative governments, with its economy undergoing continuous growth over that time.[51]


Jamaica under Michael Manley[edit]

In the election of 1972, the PNP's Michael Manley defeated the JLP's unpopular incumbent Prime Minister Hugh Shearer,

Under Manley, Jamaica established a minimum wage for all workers, including domestic workers. In 1974, Manley proposed free education from primary school to university. The introduction of universally free secondary education was a major step in removing the institutional barriers to private sector and preferred government jobs that required secondary diplomas. The PNP government in 1974 also formed the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL), which administered adult education programs with the goal of involving 100,000 adults a year.

Land reform expanded under his administration. Historically, land tenure in Jamaica has been rather inequitable. Project Land Lease (introduced in 1973), attempted an integrated rural development approach, providing tens of thousands of small farmers with land, technical advice, inputs such as fertilizers and access to credit. An estimated 14 percent of idle land was redistributed through this program, much of which had been abandoned during the post-war urban migration and/or purchased by large bauxite companies.

The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 years, while equal pay for women was introduced.[52] Maternity leave was also introduced, while the government outlawed the stigma of illegitimacy. The Masters and Servants Act was abolished, and a Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act provided workers and their trade unions with enhanced rights. The National Housing Trust was established, providing "the means for most employed people to own their own homes," and greatly stimulated housing construction, with more than 40,000 houses built between 1974 and 1980.[52]

Subsidised meals, transportation and uniforms for schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds were introduced,[53] together with free education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.[53] Special employment programmes were also launched,[54] together with programmes designed to combat illiteracy.[54] Increases in pensions and poor relief were carried out,[55] along with a reform of local government taxation, an increase in youth training,[56] an expansion of day care centres.[57] and an upgrading of hospitals.[57]

A worker's participation program was introduced,[58] together with a new mental health law[56] and the family court.[56] Free health care for all Jamaicans was introduced, while health clinics and a paramedical system in rural areas were established. Various clinics were also set up to facilitate access to medical drugs. Spending on education was significantly increased, while the number of doctors and dentists in the country rose.[57]

One Love Peace Concert[edit]

The One Love Peace Concert was a large concert held in Kingston on April 22, 1978, during a time of political civil war in Jamaica between opposing parties Jamaican Labour Party and the People's National Party. The concert came to its peak during Bob Marley & The Wailers' performance of "Jammin'", when Marley joined the hands of political rivals Michael Manley (PNP) and Edward Seaga (JLP).


Jamaica under Seaga[edit]

Edward Seaga, Prime Minister of Jamaica, 1980-1989

In the 1980 election, Edward Seaga and the JLP won by an overwhelming majority - 57 percent of the popular vote and 51 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives. Seaga immediately began to reverse the policies of his predecessor by privatizing industry and seeking closer ties with the USA. Seaga was one of the first foreign heads of government to visit newly elected US president Ronald Reagan early the next year and was one of the architects of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which was sponsored by Reagan. He delayed his promise to cut diplomatic relations with Cuba until a year later when he accused the Cuban government of giving asylum to Jamaican criminals.

Seaga supported the collapse of the Marxist regime in Grenada and the subsequent US-led invasion of that island in October 1983. On the back of the Grenada invasion, Seaga called snap elections at the end of 1983, which Manley's PNP boycotted. His party thus controlled all seats in parliament. In an unusual move, because the Jamaican constitution required an opposition in the appointed Senate, Seaga appointed eight independent senators to form an official opposition.

Seaga lost much of his US support when he was unable to deliver on his early promises of removing the bauxite levy, and his domestic support also plummeted. Articles attacking Seaga appeared in the US media and foreign investors left the country. Rioting in 1987 and 1988, the continued high popularity of Michael Manley, and complaints of governmental incompetence in the wake of the devastation of the island by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, also contributed to his defeat in the 1989 elections.

Hurricane Gilbert[edit]

In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert produced a 19 ft (5.8 m) storm surge and brought up to 823 millimetres (32.4 in) of rain in the mountainous areas of Jamaica,[59] causing inland flash flooding. 49 people died.[60] Prime Minister Edward Seaga stated that the hardest hit areas near where Gilbert made landfall looked "like Hiroshima after the atom bomb."[61] The storm left $4 billion (1988 USD) in damage from destroyed crops, buildings, houses, roads, and small aircraft.[62] Two people eventually had to be rescued because of mudslides triggered by Gilbert and were sent to the hospital. The two people were reported to be fine. No planes were going in and out of Kingston, and telephone lines were jammed from Jamaica to Florida.[63]

Buildings destroyed after Hurricane Gilbert

As Gilbert lashed Kingston, its winds knocked down power lines, uprooted trees, and flattened fences. On the north coast, 20 feet (6.1 m) waves hit Ocho Rios, a popular tourist resort where hotels were evacuated. Kingston's airport reported severe damage to its aircraft, and all Jamaica-bound flights were cancelled at Miami International Airport.[63] Unofficial estimates state that at least 30 people were killed around the island. Estimated property damage reached more than $200 million. More than 100,000 houses were destroyed or damaged and the country's banana crop was largely destroyed. Hundreds of miles of roads and highways were also heavily damaged.[64] Reconnaissance flights over remote parts of Jamaica reported that eighty percent of the homes on the island had lost their roofs. The poultry industry was also wiped out; the damage from agricultural loss reached $500 million (1988 USD). Hurricane Gilbert was the most destructive storm in the history of Jamaica and the most severe storm since Hurricane Charlie in 1951.[62][65]

Rise of dancehall music[edit]

Although Jamaican dancehall music originated in the late 1970s, it greatly increased in popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s.[66] Initially dancehall was a more sparse version of reggae than the roots style, which had dominated much of the 1970s.[67][68] Two of the biggest stars of the early dancehall era were Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse. Dancehall brought a new generation of producers, including Linval Thompson, Gussie Clarke and Jah Thomas.[69] In the mid-1980s, digital instrumentation became more prevalent, changing the sound considerably, with digital dancehall (or "ragga") becoming increasingly characterized by faster rhythms.

In the early 1990s songs by Dawn Penn, Shabba Ranks, Patra and Chaka Demus and Pliers were the first dancehall megahits in the US and abroad. Other varieties of dancehall achieved crossover success outside of Jamaica during the mid-to-late 1990s. In the 1990s, dancehall came under increasing criticism for anti-gay lyrics such as those found in Buju Banton's 1988 hit "Boom Bye Bye," which is about shooting a gay man in the head: "It's like boom bye bye / Inna batty boy head / Rude boy nah promote no nasty man / Dem haffi dead." [70]

The early 2000s saw the success of newer charting acts such as Rihanna, Elephant Man and Sean Paul. Dancehall made a resurgence within the pop market in the late 2000s, with songs by Konshens, Mr. Vegas, Popcaan, Mavado, Vybz Kartel, Beenie Man among others. In 2011, Vybz Kartel -- at the time, one of dancehall's biggest stars -- was arrested for the murder of Clive 'Lizard' William. In 2014 he was sentenced to life in prison after a 65-day trial, the longest in Jamaican history. [71]


Manley's re-election[edit]

By 1989, PNP leader Michael Manley had softened his socialist rhetoric, explicitly advocating a role for private enterprise. With the fall of the Soviet Union, he also ceased his support for a variety of international causes. In the election of that year he campaigned on a very moderate platform. Seaga's administration had fallen out of favor – both with the electorate and the US – and the PNP was re-elected.

Manley's second term focused on liberalizing Jamaica's economy, with the pursuit of a free-market programme that stood in marked contrast to the interventionist economic policies pursued by Manley's first government. Various measures were, however, undertaken to cushion the negative effects of liberalisation. A Social Support Programme was introduced to provide welfare assistance for poor Jamaicans. In addition, the programme focused on creating direct employment, training, and credit for much of the population.[58]

The government also announced a 50% increase in the number of food stamps for the most vulnerable groups (including pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children) was announced. A small number of community councils were also created. In addition, a limited land reform programme was carried out that leased and sold land to small farmers, and land plots were granted to hundreds of farmers. The government also had an admirable record in housing provision, while measures were also taken to protect consumers from illegal and unfair business practices.[58]

In 1992, citing health reasons, Manley stepped down as Prime Minister and PNP leader. His former Deputy Prime Minister, Percival Patterson, assumed both offices.

Jamaica under Patterson[edit]

Patterson led efforts to strengthen the country’s social protection and security systems—a critical element of his economic and social policy agenda to mitigate, reduce poverty and social deprivation.[72]

His massive investments in modernization of Jamaica’s infrastructure and restructuring of the country's financial sector are widely credited with having led to Jamaica’s greatest period of investment in tourism, mining, ICT and energy since the 1960s. He also ended Jamaica’s 18-year borrowing relationship with the International Monetary Fund,[73] allowing the country greater latitude in pursuit of its economic policies.

Banana trade dispute[edit]

In the 1990s, Jamaica and other Caribbean banana producers argued for the continuation of their preferential access to EU markets, notably the United Kingdom.[74] They feared that otherwise the EU would be flooded with cheap bananas from the Central American plantations, with devastating effects on several Caribbean economies. Negotiations led in 1993 to the EU agreeing to maintain the Caribbean producers' preferential access until the end of Lomé IV, pending possible negotiation on an extension.

In 1995, the United States government petitioned to the World Trade Organization to investigate whether the Lomé IV convention had violated WTO rules. Then later in 1996, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively ending the cross-subsidies that had benefited ACP countries for many years. But the US remained unsatisfied and insisted that all preferential trade agreements between the EU and ACP should cease. The WTO Dispute Settlement Body established another panel to discuss the issue and concluded that agreements between the EU and ACP were indeed not compatible with WTO regulations. Finally, the EU negotiated with the US through WTO to reach an agreement.[1]


Simpson-Miller, first female Prime Minister[edit]

On March 30, 2006, Portia Simpson-Miller replaced outgoing Prime Minister Patterson, becoming the first female head of government of the nation[75]

2008 Olympics[edit]

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Jamaica's athletes nearly doubled the country's total gold medal count and broke the nation's record for number of medals earned in a single games. Usain Bolt won three of Jamaica's six gold medals at Beijing, breaking an Olympic and world record in all three of the events in which he participated. Shelly-Ann Fraser led an unprecedented Jamaican sweep of the medals in the Women's 100 m.

Continued growth of tourism industry[edit]

After a decrease in tourism following the September 11th attacks in the U.S., Jamaican tourism rebounded towards the end of the decade, with the island receiving over a million tourists each year. Services now account for over 60 percent of Jamaica's GDP and one of every four workers in Jamaica works in tourism or services.. However, according to the World Bank, around 80% of the money tourism makes in Jamaica does not stay on the island, but goes instead to the multinational resorts. [76]


Tivoli Incursion[edit]

On May 23, 2010, Jamaica security forces began searching for major drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke, after the United States requested his extradition,[77] and the leader of the criminal gang that attacked several police stations. The violence, which largely took place over 24–25 May, killed at least 73 civilians[78] and wounded at least 35 others.[79][80] Four soldiers/police were also killed[79] and more than 500 arrests were made,[79] as Jamaican police and soldiers fought gunmen in the Tivoli Gardens district of Kingston.

Coke was eventually captured on 23 June, after initial rumours that he was attempting to surrender to the United States. Kingston police arrested Coke on the outskirts of the city, apparently while a local reverend, Reverend Al Miller, was helping negotiate his surrender to the United States Embassy.[81][82] In 2011, Coke pled guilty to racketeering and drug-related charges in a New York Federal court, and was sentenced to 23 years in prison on June 8, 2012.

Coke being taken into custody by DEA agents following his arrival in the United States

Declining murder rate[edit]

In the four years following Coke's capture, Jamaica's murder rate decreased by nearly half. [83] However, the murder rate remains one of the highest in the world and Jamaica's morgues have not been able to keep up. The lack of facilities to store and study murder victims has been one of the reasons that few murders are solved, with the conviction rate for homicides standing at around five percent. In 2007, following the botched investigation into the death of Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer, who died unexpectedly while the island hosted the sport's world cup, Jamaican politicians debated the need for a modern public morgue. [84]

2011 election and LGBT rights[edit]

Although the JLP survived an election called shortly after the 2010 Tivoli Gardens incident, the following year the date of the 2011 election was set as 29 December, and major local media outlets viewed the election as "too close to call", though as Simpson-Miller campaigned in key constituencies the gap widened to favour the PNP. Days before the election, Simpson-Miller came out fully in favor of LGBT rights in a televised debate, saying that she "has no problem giving certain positions of authority to a homosexual as long as they show the necessary level of competence for the post."[85][86]

LGBT rights returned to Jamaican headlines a few years later, following the violent murder in July 2013 of a 16-year-old boy who showed up at a party in women's clothing. Advocates called for the repeal of a nearly 150-year-old anti-sodomy law that bans anal sex, which is accused of helping spur anti-LGBT violence. [87]

High debt and continued IMF loans[edit]

In 2013, the International Monetary Fund announced a $1 billion loan to help Jamaica meet huge debt payments . The loan required the Jamaican government to institute a pay freeze amounting to a 20% real-terms cut in wages. Jamaica is one of the most indebted countries and spends around half of its annual federal budget on debt repayments. [88]

Declining sugar industry[edit]

After a brief increase sugar prices, the outlook for the Jamaican sugar industry took a hit in 2015 when the EU began moving towards ending a cap on European sugar beet production. Jamaica exports 25% of the sugar it produces to Britain and prices for Jamaican sugar are expected to fall in the wake of the end of the cap on the EU's subsidized sugar beet industry. [89]

Decriminalization of cannabis[edit]

On 25 February 2015, the Jamaican House of Representatives passed a law decriminalizing possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis. The new law includes provisions legalizing the cultivation for personal use of up to 5 plants, as well as setting up regulations for the cultivation and distribution of cannabis for medical and religious purposes[90]

See also[edit]


  • Black, Clinton V. 1983. History of Jamaica. London: Collins Educational.
  • Ledgister, F.S.J. 1998. Class Alliances and the Liberal-Authoritarian State: The Roots of Post-Colonial Democracy in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam. Trenton: Africa World Press.
  • Morales Padrón, Francisco. 1953 2003. Spanish Jamaica. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
  • Williams, Eric. 1964. British Historians and the West Indies. Port of Spain: P.N.M. Publishing Company.
  • Sawh, Gobin, Ed. 1992. The Canadian Caribbean Connection: Bridging North and South: History, Influences, Lifestyles. Halifax: Carindo Cultural Assoc.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. The University of Chicago (2014) ISBN 978-0-226-21138-1
  • Barringer, Tim., Forrester, Gillian, and Martinez-Ruiz, Barbaro. 2007. Art and Empancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11661-8.
  • Blome, Richard (1672), A Description of the Island of Jamaica, London: Printed by T. Milbourn, OCLC 7229521 
  • Henke, Holger. 2000. Between Self-Determination and Dependency. Jamaica's Foreign Relations 1972-1989, Kingston: University of the West Indies Press. ISBN 976-640-058-X.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. 1992. A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny. Addison-Wesley Publishing. ISBN 0-201-52396-5.
  • Michener, James, A. 1989. Caribbean (especially Chap. XI. "Martial Law in Jamaica", pp. 403–442. Semi-fictional but mainly accurate). London: Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0-436-27971-1.
  • Morse, J. (1797). "Jamaica". The American Gazetteer. Boston, Massachusetts: At the presses of S. Hall, and Thomas & Andrews. 

External links[edit]

  • Jamaica - Entry from the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia on Jamaica.
  • Historic Jamaica A pictorial guide to historic Jamaica