Jamaica's story was forged at the sharp edge of Western imperialism. Conquest, sugar and slavery led to the island becoming Britain’s wealthiest colony, yet internal resistance helped create a national identity that led to reform and the path to independence. It's a history that has left its mark on the island, but the passion and the perseverance of its people, which have made the island and its culture so vital, still leads Jamaicans to work toward a stronger future.
The Caribbean was inhabited long before Christopher Columbus sailed into view, colonized by a successive wave of island-hopping incomers originally from South America. Most notable were the Arawaks, and then the Taínos who first settled ‘Xaymaca’ (‘land of wood and water’) around AD 700–800.
The Taínos were both farmers and seafarers, living in large chiefdoms called caciques, and honing their skills as potters, carvers, weavers and boat builders. They worshipped a variety of gods believed to control rain, sun, wind and hurricanes, and who were represented by zemes (idols of humans or animals).
Clothing was made of cotton or pounded bark fibers, along with jewelry of bone, shell, and gold panned from rivers. While Taíno artifacts remain relatively few, the crops they bequeathed to the world were revolutionary, from tobacco and yams to cassava and pineapples.
Columbus & Spanish Settlement
Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1494 on his second voyage to the New World, landing at Bahía Santa Gloria (modern St Ann’s Bay) and making first contact with the Taínos along the coast at Discovery Bay. Although he didn’t linger, he claimed the island for Spain and christened it Santa Jago.
Columbus returned disastrously in 1503, when his poorly maintained ships sank beneath him. He and his crew spent almost a year marooned, and suffered from disease and malnutrition. Finally, two officers paddled a canoe 240km to Hispaniola to raise a rescue expedition.
Jamaica became Columbus’ personal property and when he died in 1506 it passed to his son Diego, who appointed a governor to establish a capital called Nueva Sevilla, near present-day Ocho Rios.
Within three decades of their first meeting with Europeans, the Taínos were quickly reduced to a shadow of their previous numbers, stricken by European illnesses and the forced labor required to dig for gold. In response, the Spaniards began importing enslaved Africans.
In 1534 a new settlement was founded on the south coast, Villa de la Vega (Spanish Town). However, Spain had become distracted by the immense riches coming from its new possessions in Mexico and Peru, and Jamaica languished as a post for provisioning ships sailing between Spain and Central America.
The English Invasion
On May 10, 1655, an expeditionary force of 38 ships landed 8000 troops on weakly defended Jamaica as part of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Grand Western Design’ to destroy the Spanish trade monopoly and amass English holdings in the Caribbean.
The British had to fight both Spanish loyalists and the cimarrones (runaways) – freed slaves left in the Spaniards’ wake. The guerrilla warfare lasted several years until the last Spanish forces were finally routed at the Battle of Rio Bueno (outside Ocho Rios) in 1660.
By 1662 there were 4000 colonists on the island, including exiled felons as well as impoverished Scots and Welsh who arrived as indentured laborers. Port Royal, across the bay from Spanish Town, became the island’s capital, and a viable trading economy slowly began to evolve.
The Age of the Buccaneers
Throughout the 17th century, Britain was constantly at war with France, Spain or Holland. The English sponsored privateers to capture enemy vessels, raid their settlements and contribute their plunder to the Crown’s coffers. These buccaneers became the Brethren of the Coast, committed to a life of piracy, and grew into a powerful and ruthless force, feared throughout the Antilles.
In 1664 the Jamaican governor Sir Thomas Modyford invited the Brethren to defend Jamaica, with Port Royal as their base. Their numbers swelled astronomically, and within a decade Port Royal was Jamaica’s largest city – a den of iniquity and prosperity.
When England and Spain finally made peace, the pirates’ days became numbered. Mother Nature lent a hand in their suppression when a massive earthquake struck Port Royal on June 7, 1692, toppling it into the sea. More than 2000 people – one-third of the city’s population – perished, and survivors fled to newly founded Kingston, believing the earthquake to be punishment from God.
Sugar & Slavery
Europe’s sweet tooth had been growing for years, and sugar – cultivated by enslaved Africans – helped turn Jamaica into Britain’s wealthiest colony and provide the capital that fueled the Industrial Revolution.
Planters built ‘great houses’ in Georgian fashion high above their cane fields, and lived a life of indolence, while others were absentee landlords, forming the powerful sugar lobby back in London. Many overindulged in drink and had sexual relations with slaves – some of the mixed-race offspring were freed; known as ‘free coloreds,’ they were accorded limited rights and often sent to study in England.
Plantations were both farm and factory, growing the cane and refining the sugar. The by-product molasses was turned into cheap rum for export. Sugar production was backbreaking work, and plantation owners used extreme violence to terrorize their slaves into obedience. Plantation society was firmly wedded to the rule of the whip.
Most slaves worked on plantations; others were domestic servants. During their few free hours, the slaves cultivated their own tiny plots, and could sell produce at market. In rare instances they might save enough money to buy their freedom, which masters could also grant as they wished. By 1800, however, the slave population of 300,000 outnumbered the free population 20 to one.
Colonial life was paranoid over the possibility of slave rebellion. The first major revolt occurred in 1690 in Clarendon parish, when escaped slaves joined the descendants of slaves who had been freed by the Spanish, coalescing into two powerful bands called Maroons. The Windward Maroons lived in the remote Blue Mountains, while the Leeward Maroons colonized the almost impenetrable Cockpit Country. Both groups raided plantations and attracted runaway slaves.
Colonial troops fought several prolonged campaigns against the Maroons, who were led by Nanny in the Blue Mountains and Cudjoe in Cockpit Country. The thickly forested mountains, however, were ill-suited to traditional British military tactics and perfect for the Maroons’ ambush-style guerrilla warfare. Nonetheless, after a decade of costly campaigning, the English gained the upper hand.
In March 1739 the English signed a peace treaty with Cudjoe, granting the Maroons autonomy and 1500 acres of land. In return, the Maroons agreed to chase down runaway slaves and return them to the plantations and to assist the English in quelling rebellions. The Maroons of the Blue Mountains, now led by Quao, signed a similar treaty one year later. To this day, the Maroons still practice a semiautonomous form of government.
Revolt & Reform
After a prolonged campaign by abolitionist campaigners such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, although the institution of slavery itself was left untouched.
Jamaica’s 1831 Christmas Rebellion lent particular focus to the debate. Inspired by ‘Daddy’ Sam Sharpe, an educated slave and lay preacher, up to 20,000 slaves razed plantations and killed their masters. The rebellion was violently suppressed, and 400 slaves were hanged as a result. The brutality of the response lent weight to British abolitionist debates. In 1834 the British Parliament finally passed antislavery legislation, emancipating the empire’s slaves.
The resulting transition from a slave economy to one based on paid labor caused economic chaos; most slaves rejected the starvation wages offered on the estates, choosing to fend for themselves. Desperation over conditions and injustice finally boiled over in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion.
‘Come Mr Tallyman, tally me banana...’
In 1866 a Yankee skipper, George Busch, arrived in Jamaica and loaded several hundred stems of bananas, which he transported to Boston and sold at a handsome profit. He quickly returned to Port Antonio, where he encouraged production and soon had himself a thriving export business. Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker followed suit in the west, forming the United Fruit Company. Within a decade the banana trade was booming. Production peaked in 1927, when 21 million stems were exported.
To help pay the passage south to Jamaica, banana traders promoted the island’s virtues and took on passengers. Thus, the banana-export trade gave rise to the tourism industry, which continues to grow and flourish.
Birth of a Nation
During the Depression of the 1930s, sugar and banana sales plummeted, causing widespread economic hardships. Strikes and riots erupted in 1938, but out of the clamor stepped the charismatic labor leader Alexander Bustamante and his Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. That same year, his cousin Norman Manley formed the People’s National Party (PNP), Jamaica’s first political party.
Separately they campaigned for economic and political reforms, putting the working class into political life and securing constitutional changes. Not content with trade-union activism, Bustamante formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1943.
A year later, a new constitution granted universal suffrage and Jamaica’s first elections, which were won by Bustamante’s JLP. There was a brief flirtation with the fledgling West Indies Federation of British colonies, but on August 6, 1962, Jamaica finally gained full independence. The Union Jack was replaced by Jamaica’s new flag, in glorious black (for the people), green (for the land) and gold (for the sun).
The Manley-Seaga Era
The legacies of Bustamante and Manley have dominated postindependence politics. Manley’s son Michael led the PNP toward democratic socialism in the mid-'70s. His policy of taxation to fund social services deterred foreign investment and caused widespread capital flight, and bitterly opposed factions engaged in open urban warfare before the 1976 election. Amid a controversial state of emergency, the PNP won the election by a wide margin.
The US government was hostile to Jamaica’s socialist turn, withdrew aid and purportedly planned to topple the Jamaican government. The economy (tourism in particular) went into sharp decline. JLP–PNP violence escalated until a cease-fire was finally brokered, celebrated by the famed 'One Love' concert in April 1978, when Bob Marley got Manley and the JLP's Edward Seaga to hold hands in a symbol of unity. Nevertheless, almost 800 people were killed in the lead-up to the 1980 elections, which were won by Seaga. Seaga opened the door to the free market and International Monetary Fund, and became a staunch ally of the Reagan administration.
Relatively peaceful elections in 1989 returned a reinvented ‘mainstream realist’ Manley to power; when he retired in 1992, he handed the reins to his deputy, Percival James Patterson, who became Jamaica’s first black prime minister.
The PNP Years
The Patterson-led PNP triumphed in the 1993 and 1997 elections. In spring 1999 the country erupted in nationwide riots after the government announced a 30% increase in the tax on gasoline. Kingston and Montego Bay, where sugarcane fields were set ablaze, were particularly badly hit. After three days of arson and looting, the government rescinded the tax.
In the lead-up to the 2002 elections, violence in West Kingston soared to new heights as criminal posses battled to control electoral turf and profit from the largesse that victory at the polls in Jamaica brings. Rival political gangs turned the area into a war zone, forcing residents to flee, and schools, businesses and even Kingston Public Hospital to close.
In 2004 Hurricane Ivan bounced off Jamaica en route to the Cayman Islands, causing widespread damage, and Edward Seaga – still representing the JLP as opposition leader – retired after more than three decades in politics. Two years later Prime Minister Patterson resigned, making way to Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica’s first female prime minister and Michael Manley’s protégé. ‘Mama P’ was initially popular with the masses, but 18 years of PNP rule bred voter disillusionment with the party. In the 2007 elections, Bruce Golding of the JLP carried the day, inheriting high rates of crime and illiteracy as well as threats to the environment through deforestation and overdevelopment.
From Dudus to the Present
Politics and gang crime came to a head in 2009, when the US called for the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, the don of the pro-PNP Tivoli Gardens ghetto and one of the most powerful men in Jamaica, on alleged gun- and drug-running charges. In May 2010 a joint police-military force undertook the deeply controversial Tivoli Incursion, which left some 74 dead – including many bystanders – with others the victims of alleged extra-judicial executions. Dudus himself remained on the run for a month before being apprehended, and is now serving a 23-year sentence in the US.
In 2011 Portia Simpson-Miller was returned as prime minister. Her government looked to China as much as America, using Jamaica's long-standing Chinese community to leverage increased investment from Beijing. In 2013 the government had to go cap in hand to the IMF for restructured loans. Although the economy began to stabilize, in 2016 the voters deemed it was time for a change, voting out the PNP and returning the JLP to power, with Andrew Holness becoming prime minister just in time for another Jamaican golden sweep of the athletics track at the Rio Olympics.