History of Jamaica

The history of Jamaica includes both hardships and amazing accomplishments

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The History of Jamaica

Understanding a little bit more about the history of Jamaica can help travelers to appreciate its beauty, culture, and unique spirit. However, this island's history has been complicated, with many troubles since Columbus' arrival.

This article provides a brief overview of some of Jamaica's most important historic events, however, if you're looking for more detailed information about any particular historic event, you don't have far to go. More detailed history articles are available chronologically, and a timeline can help you find any event you're looking for. Jamaica's complex history of sugar and warfare has been important to island development.

Changes of Power

The first known inhabitants of Jamaica were the Tainos, an Arawak-speaking tribe that traveled throughout the Caribbean after leaving South America. The Tainos left very little evidence of their time on the island, but their influence was profound. The Tainos' Arawak name for the island was “Xaymaca,” which means “land of wood and water.” This was later written phonetically by Spanish explorers, who substituted a J for the X at the beginning of the word.

This was not the only name given to the island. During Columbus' second voyage to the Caribbean in 1494, he “discovered” Jamaica and named it for a saint, the way he named many other islands. In this case, St. Jago, but only the Arawak name of Xaymaca stuck to this beautiful island.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tainos farmed and fished and were even the creators of the hammock. Unlike many other islands in the area, they were never at war with the Carib tribes that peppered the region. After the arrival of the Spanish, Jamaica’s history was no longer as peaceful; the Tainos’ new enemy was the Spanish, who began enslaving the natives around the time they established their first settlement in 1510.

This settlement was Sevilla Nueva, “New Seville.” By the late 16th century, the Tainos had been almost completely wiped out, whether from the hard farm labor, European disease, or by their own hand—committing suicide to escape slavery. There were almost none left, and many Africans were imported to replace the Tainos as slaves.

British Colonialism

Later many settlers moved to Villa de la Vega, “City on the Plains,” now called Spanish Town. Spanish Town became the center for the Spanish colonists and was often attacked by the British. In both 1596 and 1643, the British sacked Spanish Town, and in 1655 captured it after failing an assault on Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It took five years to defeat the Spanish, who eventually fled to Cuba.

However, before fleeing, the Spanish freed and armed their slaves. Most of these freed slaves ran to the interior of the island and formed the Maroons, a group which still exists today. The Maroons waged guerrilla war against the British colonists and are respected for their ability to defeat the British in battles throughout the early colonial period.

The British encouraged new settlers to come to the island through gifts of land, and soon the economy was booming through the business of the vast sugarcane plantations. Jamaica was the world’s largest producer of sugar, yielding 22 percent of the world’s supply during the 1700s. Sugarcane wasn’t the only cash crop grown on the islands, the British also produced cocoa and coffee plants for trade. However, many Africans were brought into slavery to help the British rise to this caliber of economic power on the island.

Slaves were treated poorly, especially after the American colonies split from England and the French Revolution, when feelings of freedom were stronger than before. In fact, Jamaica had more slave revolts than any other West Indian island. With frequent resistance and uprisings, anti-slavery feelings grew in Britain especially after the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, in which 20,000 slaves killed planters and ruined crops. The British owners convinced them to lay down their revolt with promises of abolition, which were never kept. Afterward, 400 slaves were hung, and many more were whipped.

Freeing the Slaves

In 1834, after several more slave revolts, the British made into law the Emancipation Act. This act allowed all slaves under the age of 6 to be immediately freed; all other slaves would serve an apprenticeship to learn helpful skills for several years. This was not a pleasing announcement to the many British landowners who relied on slave labor to produce huge cash crops. Planters imported 35,000 indentured servants from India and later China to fill this gap.

In 1830 the mulattoes – or mixed-race people – of the island were allowed political power and began fighting for the poor ex-slaves in the 1860s. Again the American political situation affected Jamaica, and the naval blockade during the American Civil War brought economic strife to the island. The Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 by many blacks was put down aggressively by Jamaica’s Governor Edward Eyre. However, the violence of his response was not well-received in England, and the next series of governors chosen was much more liberal.

The production of sugar was no longer the island’s most useful export by 1838, and the colonists soon realized that bananas and coffee were more economically sound alternatives. However, the biggest hit Jamaica’s economy took was in 1846 with the Sugar Duties Act, which forced Jamaica to compete with other sugar producers in price. The advent of beet sugar in Europe further hurt the island’s sugar trade. Bananas bolstered the island until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Entering the 20th Century

It was just before the Great Depression that Marcus Garvey began his worldwide campaign for Black Nationalism. Born in Jamaica, he was a publisher and journalist as well as a crusader. He left Jamaica and began to travel the world, championing the Back-to-Africa movement. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association which spread across the Caribbean and on to several other countries. He also founded Jamaica’s first modern political party in 1929, the People’s Political Party. After his death he was declared one of Jamaica’s first national heroes.

During the Great Depression there was another period of civil unrest on the island, and riots were common. A strike in 1938 resulted in a clash between police and workers and ended with several people dead at a West Indies Sugar Company factory. The strike’s leader, Alexander Bustamante founded the first trade union, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. The Union also spawned the creation of a political party, and the People’s National Party (PNP) was founded by lawyer Norman Manley. This, following the work of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and early 1930s, spurred Jamaican nationalism.

During World War II, Jamaica served as an Allied base, however it was the advent of tourism and the first bauxite exports that drove the island to economic success in the 1940s, which in turn helped to stabilize the island’s political situation. 1944 saw Jamaica’s first election with universal adult voting rights, and Bustamante’s Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) won the election. Over time, the JLP adopted a capitalist philosophy while the PNP eventually began leaning toward democratic socialism. The JLP stayed in power until 1955 when the PNP came into power.

Moving to Independence

Jamaica joined the Federation of the West Indies in 1958 but left in 1961 when voters rejected membership and, on Aug. 6, 1962, Jamaica gained independence. Bustamante as a part of the JLP became the island’s first prime minister. This was a period of prosperity for the islands, and foreign investment increased in many industries. The JLP stayed in power until 1972, when Manley’s son Michael Manley came into power as the country's first biracial prime minister. He improved relations with Cuba, set a minimum wage and helped the poorer classes in many ways. However, this help came at a price, and the internationally owned bauxite industry was hit hard with taxes.

The bauxite industry immediately declined, as company owners lowered their production. This caused an economic slump that was made worse by the oil crisis during 1973 and 1974. In an attempt to make the country more self-sufficient, Manley proposed breaking alliances with the United States and allying with socialist Cuba. This angered America, which quickly imposed economic sanctions. The JLP, now led by Edward Seaga, began attacking the PNP’s administration, calling it “communist” but, despite these attacks and the political violence of the time, the PNP won the 1976 elections.

Power switched between the JLP and the PNP during the 1980s, but Manley was forced to resign in 1992 due to failing health. His successor was P.J. Patterson, Jamaica’s first black Prime Minister. Patterson won the 1993 election with a less radical platform than Manley’s had been. There were again riots in 1999 due to a 30 percent tax increase on gasoline, and after three days of rioting, the government repealed the tax. Jamaica now suffers from international debt, a relic from its early days of independence, but its bauxite and tourism trades are flourishing, as well as its dynamic culture.

Time Line of Jamaican History: Detailed Articles:
650-1492: The Taíno (Arawak Indian) Period of Jamaican History
1493-1494: Columbus' Arrival Changes the Face of Jamaica's History
1502-1506: Columbus' Historic Hardships in a Year Spent on Jamaica
1580-1655: The Spanish History and Settlement of Jamaica
1653-1670: England Makes History with Western Design and Piracy
1663-1700: The British in Jamaica Fight Maroons, France, and England
1700-1741: A History with Pirates Protects Jamaica from France and Spain
1739-1755: The War of Jenkins' Ear and Jamaica's Troubled History
1756-1768: Fighting at Home and Abroad: Jamaica's War-Torn History
1765-1783: Jamaica Takes Part in History During the American Revolution
1778-1793: Jamaica Makes its Own History Between Two Revolutions
1789-1798: Jamaica and Haiti -The Caribbean Front of the French Revolution
1795-1796: The History of Jamaica is Torn by the Second Maroon War
1799-1815: Relative Quiet Descends on Jamaica's History in the 19th Century
1816-1836: Jamaica Reluctantly Makes History by Freeing its Slaves
1834-1838: Jamaica's History as a Slave Island Ends in Apprenticeship
1838-1860: The Fall of Sugar and the Rise of Immigration in Jamaica
1861-1866: Mismanagement and Rebellion Lead to a Great Step Forward
1867-1900: Bananas Change the Economy and a Governor Creates History
1901-1936: Leadership in the 20th Century Carries the Island Through Trouble
1937-1944: Jamaica Seizes Control of its Own History
1945-1962: A History of Hard Work Leads to Jamaica's Independence
1963-Present: Political Parties Trade Leadership of Jamaica
Timeline: A listing of the events in Jamaica's history
Resources: Recommended Reading


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