History of Jamaica

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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.

Spanish rule (1509–1655)[edit]

Further information: Colony of Santiago (Jamaica)

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.

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.

The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia states, "A review of the Spanish occupation is one which reflects very little credit on Spanish colonial administration in those days. Their treatment of the aboriginal inhabitants, whom they are accused of having practically exterminated, is a grave charge, and if true, cannot be condoned on the plea that such conduct was characteristic of the age, and that as bad or worse was perpetrated by other nations even in later years." This is borne out by the much more detailed history of Spanish Jamaica by Francisco Morales Padrón.

British rule (1655–1962)[edit]

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

17th century[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. Under early English rule, Jamaica became a haven of privateers, buccaneers, and occasionally outright pirates: Christopher Myngs, Edward Mansvelt, and most famously, Henry Morgan.

The English established their main coastal town at Port Royal. By 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort. The town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, after which Kingston became the main coastal settlement.

18th century[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. 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 1760. Escaped slaves known as Jamaican Maroons established independent communities in the mountainous interior, which the British were unable to suppress, despite major attempts in the 1730s and 1790s. One Maroon community was expelled from the island after the Second Maroon War in the 1790s.

Those Maroons, first shipped from Jamaica to Nova Scotia, eventually became part of the core of the Creole community of Sierra Leone. The majority of its members were African Americans, Black Loyalists and their descendants who had been freed and relocated to Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War. Life was difficult there, and nearly 2,000 chose to resettle in Sierra Leone, a British colony in West Africa.

19th century[edit]

A depiction of daily life in Jamaica from the early 19th century. Watercolor, ink, and pencil. Created between 1808 and 1816.

The British also used Jamaica's free people of color, 10,000 strong by 1800, to keep the enslaved population in check. During the Christmas holiday of 1831, a large-scale slave revolt known as the Baptist War broke out. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by Samuel Sharpe. The rebellion was suppressed by the militia of the Jamaican plantocracy and the British garrison ten days later in early 1832.

Because of the loss of property and life in the 1831 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 freed population faced significant hardships.

Tensions resulted in the October 1865 Morant Bay rebellion led by Paul Bogle. It was brutally repressed by the government and private militieas. George William Gordon, a friend of Paul Bogle, was hanged because he was thought to have contributed to the riot, although he was not a part of its organization or execution. As the sugar crop declined in importance in the late 19th century, the colony diversified into cultivation of bananas.

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]

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. Although the revolt was suppressed, it led to significant changes, including the emergence of an organized labour movement and a competitive party system.

Independent Jamaica (1962-)[edit]

Jamaica gained a degree of local political control in the mid-1940s. The People's National Party (PNP) was founded in 1938. Its main rival, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was established five years later.

The first elections under universal adult suffrage were held in 1944. Jamaica joined nine other UK territories in the Federation of the West Indies in 1958 but reconsidered. After a 1961 referendum in which voters chose independence, the nation withdrew from the federation.

Jamaica gained independence on August 6, 1962, remaining a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The first prime minister was Alexander Bustamante of the Jamaica Labour Party.

Power regularly shifted between the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party. Michael Manley was the first PNP prime minister in 1972. He introduced socialist policies and relations with Cuba. During his second-term campaign, unrest in the country erupted in repeated political violence.

When the PNP lost power in 1980, Edward Seaga immediately began to reverse the policies of his predecessor. He began to privatize industry and sought closer ties with the USA. When the PNP and Manley returned to power in 1989, they carried out more moderate policies; they were returned in the elections of 1993 and 1998. After Manley resigned for health reasons in 1992, he was succeeded as leader of the PNP by Percival Patterson.

Historically, Jamaican emigration has been heavy. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many Jamaicans migrated to Central America, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic to work in the banana and canefields. Others went to the United States, particularly New York City, where they became important in the rise of the Harlem Renaissance and various political movements.

In the 1950s the primary destination was to the United Kingdom; but after the UK restricted immigration in 1962, the major flow has been to the United States and Canada. Because of economic problems since the 1990s, many Jamaicans have emigrated to New York and Miami for work. About 20,000 Jamaicans immigrate to the United States each year; another 200,000 visit annually. New York, Hartford, Connecticut, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale are among the U.S. cities with the largest Jamaican populations. In New York, more than half the Jamaican expatriate population resides in Brooklyn. Remittances from the expatriate communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada make increasingly significant contributions to Jamaica's economy.


Marital separation[edit]

Slaves who married each other without slavemasters' recognition might separate "without much ceremony"[2] or by cutting a "cotta, a circular pad of dried, plaited plantain leaves, upon which slaves customarily rested the loads which they carried upon their heads.... each party retain[ing] ... a half signifying 'the severance of their mutual affection'."[3] Slaves in divorce had relative equality with each other,[4] which was derived from West African traditions,[4] under which either spouse could initiate a divorce,[4] when "the vast majority of European women"[4] lacked equality in divorce.[4]

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.


  1. ^ "Jamaica History". Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  2. ^ Bush, Barbara, Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650–1838 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, pbk. 1990 (ISBN 0-85255-057-X & 0-253-21251-0)), p. 98.
  3. ^ Bush, Barbara, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, op. cit., p. 100.
  4. ^ a b c d e Bush, Barbara, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, op. cit., p. 101.

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