Spanish Settlement

1580-1655: The Spanish History and Settlement of Jamaica

Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella made an agreement with Christopher Columbus, saying he would be granted governorship of the island of Hispaniola. And for a while, he was, but Columbus proved to be less capable a ruler than he was a seaman and explorer, and the king and queen, in turn, refused to allow him to govern the island.

Columbus, however, never accepted this loss of his privileges. After his death, Columbus' son Diego fought to regain the rights that would have been his, and he was granted some. 1508 saw him appointed as the governor of the Indies, and shortly thereafter he made his way to Hispaniola, of which Jamaica was considered a dependency.

Jamaica had already been given to Diego de Nicuesa and Alonso de Ojeda, and they used the island to draw supplies for the mainland. However, Diego Columbus would not give up so easily and appointed Juan de Esquivel governor of the island. More than 20 Spanish governors would attempt to keep control of the island for more than a century.

Unfortunately, few Spanish records exist to tell the history of their settlement of Jamaica. In fact, the island was never a success for the Spanish and was mainly used as a base for supplies.


The first Spanish settlement in Jamaica was on the same site where Columbus was stranded. St. Ann was thought to be a fine place for settlement because it was so easy to protect and the Taínos there already were used to the Spanish. This settlement was called Sevilla la Nueva, New Seville.

In the surrounding area, herds of pigs grazed and were killed for their fat. Cattle were also herded and slaughtered for their fat and hides. Goats that ran wild in the mountains also were killed for their skins. However, the meat from these animals was, for the most part, wasted.

The Spanish also introduced fruit trees and other plants, most important of which were banana, plantain, and citrus fruits. Jamaican sugar was grown for local use, and cotton, cocoa, and tobacco were also grown locally. A liquor from pimento was brewed and drunk on Jamaica.

The settlement at New Seville did not succeed, despite its fine location. In fact, the location was partially to blame for driving the settlers away. New Seville was located close to swamp lands, which was an unhealthy way to live, and in 20 years only 10 children grew up in the colony, though it had a much higher birth rate.

Despite some stories to the contrary, silver and gold were extremely rare on the island. In fact, there was more copper currency on the island than could even be used, and at one point, the coins were melted down for utensils, such as cauldrons. Some copper coins have been found buried around Spanish Town, the island's second settlement.

Second Chances

A site on the south side of the island was earmarked by the king for a new settlement: It would be called Villa de la Vega, or St. Jago de la Vega, but is now called simply Spanish Town. This historic city quickly became the capital of the island.

Though Diego Columbus is thought to have laid some of the earliest stones in the building of this city, he died before its completion, and his son, Don Luis, also fought for rights to the island but was contented with titles of Duke of Veragua (in Central America) and the Marquis de la Vega, named for Jamaica's city. He maintained this title until the Spanish crown took control of the colony in 1640.

All those who saw this colonial city thought it to be attractive. Monks were drawn in, as were pirates, who regularly plundered its shores. In fact, a 1643 raid by Captain William Jackson ended with the desertion of many of his men, who chose to stay behind in Spanish Town.

This settlement was finally one that could flourish in Jamaica, but its small size also led to a great deal of fighting within the community. Further, its wonderful location and small size made it a perfect target for both pirates and the British, who set their sights on acquiring the island.

Further problems erupted when the Spanish and Portuguese crowns joined in 1580 and many Portuguese, particularly Jews, moved to the island. This is the base for the present Jewish community on the island, though many were expelled from the island and sent to Cuba.

Other Settlements

New Seville and Spanish Town were not the only Spanish settlements on the island, and most of the others have become modern-day cities many travelers are familiar with:

Spanish Name Current Name
Caguaya Passage Fort
Esquivel Old Harbour
Oristan Bluefields
Las Chorreras Same - near Ocho Rios
Savanna-la-Mar Same
Puerto Antón Port Antonio

Cattle ranches, or hatos, were established in low-lying areas, and many of these are also sites of current towns. The most important are listed below, alongside the current names of the location.

Hato Current Location
Morante Morant Bay
Ayala Yallahs
Lezama Mona
Liguanea Lower St. Andrew
Guanaboa St. Catherine

Taíno Trouble

Although the Taínos were a peaceful people, the Spanish made no room for them on the island of Jamaica. Spanish cruelty, as well as European illnesses, eventually destroyed the Taíno people on the island. By the time the British took control of the island in 1655, there were no more Taínos.

In the territory of Hispaniola, records indicate that settlers often murdered the Taínos for sport and to keep their battle skills sharp. Taínos also suffered a plague in 1520. Smallpox and other European diseases ran through the communities of Indians.

Other injustices included slavery of the Taínos, who were often ill-treated and malnourished. Many Taínos committed suicide to escape slavery. Mothers were said to have killed their children, so they would not be forced to suffer such a fate.

In 1598, Jamaica's Governor, Fernando Melgarejo, made an attempt to stop the dwindling size of the Taíno population. He suggested the idea of a reservation: A place where the Indians could live and have their own cultivations. While the Taínos supported the idea, the colonists objected to being deprived of Taíno services.

Pirate Problems

In the earliest years of settlement in the New World, Spain claimed many of the territories. Other European powers quickly decided they wanted a piece of this new land, and many worked to take much of Spain's territory as their own. The pirate attacks waged against Jamaica were by no means unique to the region.

French piracy began as early as 1506, while Dutch traders were well-established by 1542. The British, by comparison, were relatively late, despite a visit to the Brazilian coast by Sebastian Cabot in 1516. It took Britain another half-century to truly make waves in the Caribbean. Once the British jumped into the conflict, they quickly turned their efforts at piracy toward Jamaica.

The first pirate attacks on Jamaica came from the French in 1555. However, the next century included landings on Jamaica's shores for both trade and plunder from the French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and, of course, the English.

Sir Anthony Shirley landed and plundered and burnt Spanish Town in 1597 with little resistance; he was led there by a Taíno guide. However, by 1644, Jamaica's settlers wrote to Spain that the constant barrage of attacks meant women would run to the mountains with their most precious items if ships were even seen in port, without waiting to find out where they were from.

Governor Melgarejo beat off several attacks by pirates around the turn of the 17th century, including one where he killed the brother of French pirate Olibos. Olibos in turn swore vengeance against Melgarejo. However, the most historically important attack he turned away came in 1603, when he defeated Christopher Newport's attempt to invade, despite Newport's much larger number.

However, Melagrejo's successor, Alonso de Miranda, did not receive an island free from piracy. It was, in fact, home to the well-known Portuguese pirate, Mota, who traveled along the coast, sacking, plundering, and even capturing the island's inhabitants.

Still, at the end of the 16th century, Spain still held the only colonies in the Caribbean basin. Britain took up a few colonies in the first half of the following century and began to make its move toward Jamaica.

The Spanish leadership of the island came to an end when, in 1655, a British fleet appeared in what is now called Kingston Harbour. The people moved to the mountains, prepared for another raid, but these ships were after more than just riches: They took the island for England.

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