Arawaks from South America had settled in Jamaica prior to Christopher Columbus' first arrival at the island in 1494. During Spain's occupation of the island, starting in 1510, the Arawaks were exterminated by disease, slavery, and war. Spain brought the first African slaves to Jamaica in 1517. In 1655, British forces seized the island, and in 1670, Great Britain gained formal possession.
Jamaica was discovered by Columbus on 3 May, 1494. He landed probably at or near St. Ann's Bay, called by him Sancta Gloria, owing to the great beauty of the environs. Nine years later his caravels were wrecked at Puerto Bueno the present Dry Harbour. He gave the name Santiago to the island, which was but partially colonized by the Spaniards, and was never popular with them. They first introduced horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and domestic poultry. To the Spaniards Jamaica is also indebted for the orange, lemon, lime, and other fruit trees; the coffee tree is due however to British initiative about the year 1721. From the constituents of the shell mounds throughout the island and the absence therefrom of all objects of a European character, it would appear that these accumulations represent the kitchen middens of the pre-Columban aboriginal inhabitants. These remains found principally in caves, comprise: (a) crania and other bones (human), (b) stone implements (celts, etc.), (c) objects of pottery (various), (d) ornamental beads (chalcedony), kitchen middens containing shells (principally marine), broken pottery, fish and coney bones, stone implements, and ashes. Their cottages were built on stockade posts set vertically side by side in a trench. For animal food they depended principally on the sea, and on their festivals or barbecues the entire village went out on marine or river excursions. Their gardens yielded arrow-root, beans, cassava, cucumbers, melons, maize, and yams; for fruit they cultivated the guava, mammee, papaw and star-apple. They cultivated cotton and wound it for cordage and twisted it into yarn for making garments. The only domestic animals were probably the muysea duck and the alca, a small dog. The aborigines were most probably a tribe of the Arawak Indians, and not Caribs, who were cannibals. The Arawaks were a gentle and inoffensive people as their name (meal-eaters) signifies. They believed in a Supreme Being (Jocahuna), in a future state, and had a tradition about a deluge. Their form of government was patriarchal. They smoked tobacco and played a football game called bato, in which both men and women joined.
A review of the period of 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. In the few places where the Spaniards settled, they invariably built a church, sometimes a monastery, and occasionally a theatre. Sevilla-Nueva (or Sevilla d'Oro) was the capital of the island from 1510 till 1520, when Diego Columbo founded a new capital, Santiago de la Vega, which is now known as Spanish Town. In 1521 orders were received from Spain to cease from making the native Indians slaves. Las Casas, deservedly called "Protector-General of the Indians," was instrumental in inducing the pope to issue a Bull in 1542, restoring the Indians to freedom. Unhappily this concession came too late for the aboriginal inhabitants of the island. Soon after, Africans were imported into Jamaica as slaves. The discreditable failure to capture San Domingo by the expedition under Admiral Penn father of the founder of Pennsylvania and General Venables, described by Carlyle as "the unsuccessfulest enterprise Oliver Cromwell had concern with," ended in a successful descent on Jamaica, which was captured in May, 1655.
To signalise the capture of St. Iago" by the English "a small leaven of Puritan feeling and a large amount of ruffianism led the troops into a display of energy. . . . The abbey and the two churches were demolished and the bells melted down for shot" (Gardner). The poet Milton, secretary to Cromwell, justified this invasion of the West Indies on the ground of "the most noble opportunities of promoting the Glory of God, and enlarging the bounds of the Kingdom of Christ, which we do not doubt will appear to be the chief end of our late expedition to the West Indies." The advent of the English adventurer gave a considerable impetus to trade with the outside world. The chief seaport of the island, now Port Royal, soon became "a nest of iniquity and a centre of rude luxury, the emporium of the loot of the buccaneer. . . . no form of vice was wanting, no indulgence too extravagant for its lawless population." But it paid the penalty of its lawlessness, being wiped out by an earthquake on 7 June, 1692, after which event Kingston, the present capital, was established. As a means of repeopling the island, which was being decimated by fever, a large number of Royalists in Ireland were seized and sent out as slaves by the English. "As a result of Cromwell's Irish policy one thousand young women and the same number of young men were by order of the Council of State arrested in Ireland and shipped to Jamaica, while the sheriffs of several counties of Scotland were instructed to apprehend all known idle, masterless robbers and vagabonds, male and female, and transport them to the island" (Ellis). In 1660 the population of Jamaica was about 4500 whites and some 1500 negroes. Jamaica was ceded to England by the treaty of Madrid in 1670. On the accession of James II, the Duke of Albemarle (a Catholic), son of General Monk, was appointed governor of Jamaica. One of his suite was Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum.
The war with the American colonies met with little sympathy in Jamaica. The assembly petitioned George III to grant more political autonomy to the struggling colonists. In 1778 France, which had recognized the independence of the new republic, was forced into war by England, and Jamaica, like the rest of the West Indies, suffered accordingly. Seven years later the maroons, or half-breed negroes, rose in rebellion, repulsed both the colonial militia and the regular troops, devastated large tracts of country, and were not finally overpowered till 1790. Some 600 of them, men, women, and children were deported to Nova Scotia, and subsequently to Sierra Leone. In the eighteenth century 700,000 negro slaves were landed in Jamaica. When, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished in the British colonies, there were some 320,000 slaves in Jamaica. Slavery was destined to continue there for more than another quarter of a century. The local Government, which consisted almost entirely of slave holders and sympathizers with slavery, was a negrophobic plutocracy, and the Anglican, or Episcopalian, clergy were in sympathy with the assembly, as they were dependent on it for their stipends. Ministers of other Protestant denominations were working for the education and enlightenment of the negroes, only to be reviled, hindered, and persecuted by the dominant party. A serious outbreak among the slaves occurred in 1831, property to the value of $3,500,000 being destroyed. The law emancipating the slaves passed by the British Parliament was accepted by the Jamaica Assembly in 1833 under strong protests, and on 1 August, 1834, slavery was abolished in the island. The number of slaves for whom compensation was paid by the British Government was 225,290, the amount awarded having been $29,269,875. As an immediate result of the emancipation of the negroes, the want of labourers was soon experienced. In 1844 immigration of hill- coolies from Hindustan was sanctioned by the Legislative Council. During the past sixty years, some 30,000 Hindu agricultural labourers have been imported into the island, of whom over 10,000 have, during the last twenty years, returned to India, taking back with them more than $350,000 in government bills of exchange."
Sugar made Jamaica one of the most valuable possessions in the world for more than 150 years. The British Parliament abolished slavery as of August 1, 1834. After a long period of direct British colonial rule, Jamaica gained a degree of local political control in the late 1930s, and held its first election under full universal adult suffrage in 1944. Jamaica joined nine other U.K. territories in the West Indies Federation in 1958 but withdrew after Jamaican voters rejected membership in 1961. Jamaica gained independence in 1962, remaining a member of the Commonwealth.
Jamaica's political system is stable. However, the country's serious economic problems have exacerbated social problems and have become the subject of political debate. High unemployment--averaging 15.5%--rampant underemployment, growing debt, and high interest rates are the most serious economic problems. Violent crime is a serious problem, particularly in Kingston. The two major political parties have historical links with two large trade unions--the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) with the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and the People's National Party (PNP) with the National Workers Union (NWU). The center-right National Democratic Movement (NDM) was established in 1995 and the populist United Peoples Party (UPP) in 2001; neither has links with any particular trade union and both are marginal movements.
For health reasons, Michael Manley stepped down as Prime Minister in March 1992 and was replaced by P.J. Patterson. Patterson subsequently led the PNP to victory in general elections in 1993, 1997, and in October of 2002. The 2002 victory marked the first time any Jamaican political party has won four consecutive general elections since the introduction of universal suffrage to Jamaica in 1944. The current composition of the lower house of Jamaica's Parliament is 34 PNP and 26 JLP.
Since the 1993 elections, the Jamaican Government, political parties, and Electoral Advisory Committee have worked to enact electoral reform. In the 2002 general elections, grassroots Jamaican efforts from groups like CAFFE (Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections), supplemented by international observers and organizations like The Carter Center, helped reduce the violence that has tended to mar Jamaican elections. Former President Carter also observed the 2002 elections and declared them free and fair.
Historically, Jamaica has had close ties with the U.K., but trade, financial, and cultural relations with the United States are now predominant. Jamaica is linked with the other countries of the English-speaking Caribbean through the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and more broadly through the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). In December 2001, Jamaica completed its 2-year term on the United Nations Security Council.
Jamaican History Bibliography
- The History of Jamaica by Edward Long, Ian Randle Publishers (March, 2003).
* Portions of this text are from the public domain print edition of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
More To Explore