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Out of the past of fire and suffering and neglect, the human spirit has survived – patient and strong, quick to anger, quick to forgive, lusty and vigorous, but with deep reserves of loyalty and love and a deep capacity for steadiness under stress and for joy in all the things that make life good and blessed.

Norman Manley, Jamaica’s first prime minister

Ever since the Spanish conquered the peaceful Arawaks in the early 16th century, Jamaica has endured a painful history tinged with an undercurrent of violence. Yet it’s also the story of epic resistance to tyranny and a passion for freedom. It’s this passion, and the perseverance of the Jamaican people that have made the island and its inimitable culture so vital.


An Amerindian group, the Arawaks (also known as the Tainos), settled the island around AD 700 to 800. The Arawaks are believed to have originated in the Guianas of South America perhaps 2000 years earlier. After developing seafaring skills, they gradually moved north through the Caribbean island chain.

Once settled, they made their homes in conical thatched shelters. Their communal villages were made up of several family clans, which were headed by a cacique (chief). Subsistence farmers to the core, the women gathered food, while the men tilled the fields, hunted and fished. Jamaica’s fertile soils yielded yams, maize, beans, spices and cassava, which the Arawaks leached of poison and baked into cakes and fermented into beer. The Arawaks called the island ‘Xaymaca, ’ meaning ‘land of wood and water.’

Having neither the wheel nor a written language, the Arawaks did not use beasts of burden or metals (except for crude gold ornamentation). They honed skills as potters, carvers, weavers and boat builders. (Columbus was impressed with the scale of their massive canoes hewn from silk cotton trees.) They were particularly adept at spinning and weaving cotton into clothing and hammocks – the latter an Amerindian invention.

For recreation, the Arawaks got fired up with maize alcohol, smoked dried leaves and snorted a powdered drug through a meter-long tube they called a tabaco. 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.

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Columbus & spanish settlement

Jamaica’s first tourist was none other than Christopher Columbus, who landed on the island in 1494 on the second of his four voyages to the New World. Anchoring offshore in Bahía Santa Gloria (modern-day St Ann’s Bay), Columbus sailed down the coast to a horseshoe-shaped cove (Discovery Bay), where he had his men fire crossbows at a group of Arawaks that failed to welcome him. He also set a fierce dog – the first the Arawaks had ever seen – on them, establishing the vicious tone of future colonial occupation. Columbus claimed the island for Spain and christened it Santo Jago. The Arawaks soon reappeared with peace offerings and feasted the strange newcomers throughout their brief stay.

On May 9 Columbus sailed on to El Golfo de Buen Tiempo (the Gulf of Good Weather, now Montego Bay) and then on to Cuba. He returned later that year and explored the west and south coasts before again departing.

Like so many later visitors to Jamaica, Columbus could not keep away. In 1503 he returned on his fourth and final voyage, still hell-bent on finding that elusive passage to Asia. Unfortunately, his worm-eaten ships were falling apart. He abandoned one, the Gallega, off Panama. Another sank off Hispaniola. Later, as he headed back to Hispaniola, storms forced him to seek shelter in Jamaica and he barely made it to Bahía Santa Gloria. The two remaining vessels were so worm-riddled that Columbus and his 120 crew were forced to abandon ship and watch both vessels sink.

The hapless explorers spent almost a year marooned and suffered desperately from disease and malnutrition. Finally, two officers paddled a canoe 240km to Hispaniola, where they chartered a ship to rescue the now broken explorer and his men. On June 29, 1504, Columbus sailed away.

Though he’d had enough of the New World to never again leave the Old, Jamaica became Columbus’ personal property. When he died in 1506, it passed to his son Diego, whose descendants carry the honorary title of Marquis of Jamaica to this day. Diego appointed as governor one of his father’s lieutenants, Don Juan de Esquivel, who established a capital called Nueva Sevilla (New Seville) near present-day Ocho Rios.

From their arrival the Spaniards had exacted tribute from the Arawaks, whom they enslaved and killed off through hard labor and ill-treatment. European diseases decimated the Amerindians too, for they had no resistance to the common cold, influenza and such deadly European exports as syphilis. By Esquivel’s time, the Indian population had been virtually wiped out, and to replenish the labor pool, the Spaniards began importing slaves from West Africa to Jamaica, the first arriving in 1517.

In 1534 the Spanish uprooted and created a new settlement on the south coast, Villa de la Vega (Spanish Town). However, the Spaniards never developed their Jamaican colony and it languished as a post for provisioning ships en route between Spain and Central America.

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The english invasion

In 1654, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, devised his ill-fated ‘Grand Western Design’ to destroy the Spanish trade monopoly and amass English holdings in the Caribbean. He assembled a fleet, jointly led by Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables, to conquer the Spanish-held Caribbean islands. The ill-equipped expedition was repulsed in April 1655 by Spanish forces on Hispaniola.

Deciding on an easier target, Penn and Venables then sailed to weakly defended Jamaica. On May 10, 1655, this expeditionary force of 38 ships landed 8000 troops near Villa de la Vega. The Spaniards retreated north over the mountains, from where they set sail to Cuba.

In a rare act of benevolence, the departing Spanish freed their slaves – encouraging them to harass the English, who promptly destroyed the Spanish capital. These cimarrones (wild runaways) took to the hills, where they mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare and fiercely defended their freedom. A small band of Spanish loyalists under General Cristobal Ysassi also fought a guerrilla war against the English with less success. The decisive battle at Rio Bueno (outside Ocho Rios) in 1660 was won by the English under Colonel Edward D’Oyley.

In December 1656, some 1600 English arrived to settle the area around Port Morant near the eastern tip of Jamaica. The region proved too swampy: within a year, three-quarters of the settlers had succumbed to disease. Other settlers fared better and a viable economy began to evolve.

By 1662, there were 4000 colonists on the island, including exiled felons as well as impoverished Scots and Welshmen, who arrived as indentured laborers. Settlement hastened as profits began to accrue from cocoa, coffee and sugarcane production.

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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 privateers, or buccaneers (from boucan, a French word for smoked meat, of which the privateers were fond), evolved as a motley band of seafaring miscreants, political refugees and escaped criminals who decided their ill-gotten gains were better off in their own pockets. They formed the Confederacy of the Brethren of the Coast, committed to a life of piracy. Gradually they replaced their motley vessels with captured ships and grew into a powerful and ruthless force, feared throughout the Antilles – even by their English sponsors.

Initially, the newly appointed governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, joined with the Spanish in attempts to suppress the buccaneers. But the outbreak of the Second Dutch War against Holland and Spain in March 1664 forced England to rethink its policy. Modyford contrived for the Brethren to defend Jamaica. Port Royal and Kingston Harbour became their base. Their numbers swelled astronomically, and within a decade Port Royal was Jamaica’s largest city – a den of iniquity and prosperity.

With England at peace with Spain, buccaneers were now regarded merely as pirates. Mother Nature lent a hand in their suppression when a massive earthquake struck Port Royal on June 7, 1692, toppling much of the city into the sea. More than 2000 people – one-third of the Port Royal population – perished.

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The slave trade

Meanwhile, Jamaica’s English planters grew immensely wealthy from sugar, and English merchants from the sordid market in slaves – whose lot marked a brutal contrast. Wrenched from the Ashanti, Cormorante, Mandingo and Yoruba tribes of West Africa, they were bought from African slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Kingston, where they were auctioned off. Estimates as to the number transported from Africa run as high as 20 million slaves.

Many never made it that far. The ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic lasted anywhere from six to 12 weeks. The captives were crammed so tight in the festering holds that there wasn’t room enough to lie down; many died of disease.

Those slaves who were still alive at the end of the voyage were fattened up as the boat reached port, and oiled to make them appear healthy before being auctioned. Their prices varied between £25 and £75 for unskilled slaves. Slaves who had been trained as carpenters or blacksmiths fetched a premium – often £300 or more. The most wretched had a worth of no more than a shilling.

Kingston served as the main distribution point for delivery to other islands. Of the tens of thousands of slaves shipped to Jamaica every year, the vast majority was re-exported. The slave ships then returned to England carrying cargoes of sugar, molasses and rum.

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Maroon resistance

By the end of the 17th century, Jamaica was also under siege from within. The first major slave rebellion occurred in 1690 in Clarendon parish, where many slaves escaped and joined the descendants of slaves who had been freed by the Spanish in 1655 and had eventually coalesced into two powerful bands (called Maroons, from the Spanish word cimarrón) : one in the remote Blue Mountains and one in the almost impenetrable Cockpit Country of southern Trelawny, from where they raided plantations and attracted runaway slaves. The eastern community became known as the Windward Maroons; those further west were called Leeward Maroons.

In 1729 the English launched the First Maroon War offensive to eradicate the Maroons. The thickly jungled mountains, however, were ill-suited to English-style open warfare and the Maroons had perfected ambush-style guerrilla fighting. Nonetheless, after a decade of costly campaigning, the English gained the upper hand.

On March 1, 1739, Colonel Guthrie and Cudjoe, the leader of the Maroons of Cockpit Country, signed a peace treaty 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, under a leader named Quao, signed a similar treaty one year later.

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King sugar

During the course of the 18th century, Jamaica became the largest sugar producer in the world. The island was jointly ruled by a governor (appointed by the English monarch) and an elected assembly of planters. Jamaica was divided into the same 13 parishes that exist today. The Crown’s interests at the parish level were looked after by an appointed custos (the Crown’s local representative).

The planters built sturdy ‘great houses’ in Georgian fashion high above their cane fields. Many planters were absentee landlords who lived most of the year in England, where they formed a powerful political lobby. In Jamaica the planters lived a life of indolence, with retinues of black servants. Many overindulged in drink and sexual relations with slave mistresses, frequently siring mulatto children known as ‘free coloreds, ’ who were accorded special rights.

The economic and political life of the times was an exclusively male arena. The planters’ wives spent much of their time playing cards, arranging balls and other events, and otherwise socializing, while the day-to-day care of their children was undertaken by wet nurses, who were often female slaves.

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The cruelty of slavery

Slavery dominated Jamaican life. By 1700 there were perhaps 7000 English and 40, 000 slaves in Jamaica. A century later, the number of whites had tripled and they ruled over 300, 000 slaves. Tens of thousands were worked to death. Many were put to work building factories, houses and roads. Others were domestic servants, cooks, footmen, butlers and grooms.

During their few free hours, the slaves cultivated their own tiny plots. Sunday was a rest day and slaves gathered to sell yams and other produce at the bustling markets. In rare instances, slaves might save enough money to buy their freedom, which masters could also grant as they wished.

The planters ran their estates as vicious fiefdoms under the authority of an overseer (the busha), who enjoyed relatively free rein. Some planters showed kindness and nurtured their slaves, but most resorted to violence to terrorize the slave population into obedience. The extreme treatment was eventually regulated by slave codes, but plantation society remained tied to the rule of the whip.

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New slaves kept arriving, most of them put to work on sugar plantations in appalling conditions. Bloody slave insurrections occurred with frightening frequency. The last and largest of the slave revolts in Jamaica was the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, inspired by ‘Daddy’ Sam Sharpe, an educated slave and lay preacher who incited passive resistance. The rebellion turned violent, however, as up to 20, 000 slaves razed plantations and murdered planters. When the slaves were tricked into laying down arms with a false promise of emancipation – and then 400 were hanged and hundreds more whipped – there was a wave of revulsion in England, causing the Jamaican assembly finally to abolish slavery in 1834.

The resulting transition from a slave economy to one based on wage labor caused economic chaos, with most slaves rejecting the starvation wages offered on the estates and choosing to fend for themselves. Desperation over conditions and injustice finally boiled over in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, led by a black Baptist deacon named Paul Bogle.

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Banana boom & bust

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, with his base at Montego Bay. 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.

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Birth of a nation

With the Depression of the 1930s, sugar and banana sales plummeted, and the vast majority of Jamaicans were unemployed and destitute. Strikes and riots erupted, spilling over in 1938 when a demonstration at the West Indies Sugar Company factory at Frome, in Westmoreland, got out of hand. A battle between police and the unemployed seeking work left several people dead. The situation was defused when a locally born labor leader, Alexander Bustamante, mediated the dispute.

Amid the clamor, the charismatic Bustamante, son of an Irish woman and a mulatto man, formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) in 1938. That same year, Bustamante’s cousin Norman Manley formed the People’s National Party (PNP), the first political party in the colony. Separately they campaigned for economic and political reforms. As histor­ians Philip Sherlock and Barbara Preston observed, ‘Bustamante swept the Jamaican working class into the mainstream of Jamaican political life and Norman Manley secured the constitutional changes that put political power in their hands.’ Not content with trade union activism, Bustamante formed Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1943.

Adult suffrage for all Jamaicans, and a new constitution that provided for an elected government, were introduced in 1944, and Bustamante’s JLP won Jamaica’s first election. In 1947 virtual autonomy was granted, though Jamaica remained a British colony under the jurisdiction of Parliament and the Crown – a prelude to full independence.

On August 6, 1962, Jamaica finally gained its independence (while remaining part of the British Commonwealth). At midnight the Union Jack came down, replaced by Jamaica’s new flag with three new colors: black (for the people), green (for the land) and gold (for the sun).

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Turbulent years

Postindependence politics have been largely dominated by the legacies of Bustamante and Manley. Manley’s son Michael led the PNP toward democratic socialism in the mid-’70s, his policy of taxation to fund social services deterring foreign investment and causing a capital flight at a time when Jamaica could ill afford it. Bitterly opposed factions engaged in open urban warfare before the 1976 election. A controversial state of emergency was declared and the nation seemed poised on the edge of civil war, but the PNP won the election by a wide margin and Manley continued with his socialist agenda.

Unsurprisingly, US government was hostile to the Jamaica’s socialist turn, and when Manley began to develop close ties with Cuba, the CIA purportedly planned to topple the Jamaican government. Businesses pulled out, the economy (tourism in particular) went into sharp decline and the country was under virtual siege. Almost 800 people were killed in the lead-up to the 1980 elections, which were won by the JLP’s Edward Seaga. Seaga restored Jamaica’s economic fortunes somewhat, severed ties with Cuba and became a staunch ally of the Reagan Administration – even dispatching Jamaican troops to assist in the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Relatively peaceful elections in 1989 returned a reinvented ‘mainstream realist’ Manley to power; he retired in 1992, handing the reins to his deputy, Percival James Patterson – Jamaica’s first black prime minister.

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Recent years

The Patterson-led PNP romped 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 thought better of it and 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 over three decades of life in politics. Two years later, Prime Minister Patterson resigned in 2006, giving way to Portia Simpson-Miller. Jamaica’s first female prime minister, ‘Mama P’ was initially popular with the masses, but 18 years of PNP rule bred gradual voter disillusionment with the party. In the 2007 elections, Bruce Golding of the JLP carried the day.

The Jamaica Golding inherits faces several battles, and most Jamaicans will tell you the greatest is crime (the 2007 murder rate was 17% higher than the previous year’s). Illiteracy is also a grave concern (according to UNESCO, over 90% of 15 to 24 year olds couldn’t both read and write in 2004) as are threats to the environment through deforestation and overdevelopment. In the meantime, the Jamaican people face the future with resolve and a measure of good humor – they’ve endured so much worse in the past.

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