The history of Jamaica, this Caribbean island is quite a fascinating
one – beginning with the fact that it was originally inhabited by
the Tainos/Arawaks since circa 1,000 BC right up until 1494. The
island was called "Xaymaca". It is believed that the Tainos
originally came from mainland South America, and were known as a
peaceable people. (They're credited with inventing the hammock.)
Arrival Of The Spanish
"Xaymaca", was phonetically changed to Jamaica by the Spaniards who
colonised the island between 1509 and 1655. It is unclear as to what
actually caused the complete demise of the Tainos as part of the
early history of Jamaica. It is speculated that either:
disease brought by the settlers,
their enslavement and harsh treatment,
and even the suicide of many
...brought about their fall.
Christopher Columbus has been attributed with having "discovered"
the island (for the West) on May 4, 1494. He called it Santiago (St
Jago) but that name never caught on – Jamaica was imprinted in the
minds of the seafarers and settlers.
Jamaica history radically departed from what it had been at the
arrival of the Spanish, when circumstances changed dramatically with
the enslavement of the Tainos sometime between 1498 and 1509. The
first Spanish settlement was called New Seville (or as the Spanish
would say Sevilla Nueva).
A new settlement was founded in the interior, several years later
called Villa de la Vega, which later became known as Spanish Town,
and has retained the name till today.
With the demise of the Tainos, by the mid to late 16th century, the
first African slaves were brought in to replace the workforce. Soon
thereafter the Caribbean became a war zone between the Spanish and
the British. The Spaniards made Villa de la Vega, their main centre
on the island.
Attacked by The British
With the constant fight for dominion over the Caribbean, the British
ransacked Villa de la Vega, in 1596 then again in 1643, eventually
capturing it in 1655, (once again radically changing the history of
Jamaica). The British Governor devised a clever plan - he invited
the pirates and buccaneers to settle in Jamaica.
May 10, 1655. The British seizure of Jamaica under
Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables.
Cromwell's ships sinking the Spanish vessels in Kingston
Harbour. (Photo: Illustrated London News/Getty Images)
The capturing of Jamaica was bittersweet as the fleeing Spanish
freed the slaves and equipped them with weaponry. These freed slaves
made their way to the overgrown jungle of the sparsely populated
interior... where they formed into a loose company, called the
Maroons. These Maroons were an annoyance, and made life quite
difficult for the British in the early part of their colonisation.
As a matter of fact, the Maroons gained a reputation as being
cunning rebels... often defeating the British military in battle...
and playing a unique and long lasting role in the evolution of the
history of Jamaica. Descendants of the Maroons still inhabit certain
parts of Jamaica to this day.
Next, the British lured many settlers, through offering portions of
land on which to raise crops. Sugarcane plantations flourished, and
during the 1700's produced approximately 22% of the sugar being
produced in the world at that time. Other popular crops that were
grown were coffee and cocoa. With this boom came an increase in
slave trading. Without these slaves the economy of Jamaica would
never reach the pinnacle that it did.
The downside was that the slaves were ill-treated, a heartbreaking
affair for many Africans who were wrenched from their families. It
became worse when the American colonies separated themselves from
British colonialism... forever altering the history of Jamaica as
well as the history of the other Caribbean islands.
As a result, the slaves revolted on several occasions, but in 1831
approximately 60,000 slaves revolted laying waste to the plantations
and killing their owners. This was about 1/5th of the slave
population at the time... and the revolt lasted for 4 months.
Abolition of Slavery
There was a great outcry in Britain, and by the 1830's the abolition
move gained ground. By 1834 slavery was outlawed by an Act of
Parliament changing Jamaica history.
The plantation owners brought in indentured labourers from China and
India, to bolster the labour shortage. The fortunes of the
plantation owners waned after the introduction of sugar beet as a
crop. Other crops such as bananas, coffee and cocoa where introduced
to supplement the flagging sugarcane industry.
From 1830 to about 1940, tremendous change took place with regard to
civil liberties on the island, with several more revolts and riots
Early 20th Century
Marcus Garvey became a national hero as a result of his tireless
efforts to promote the cause of black people of Jamaica and other
conquered territories. He forever changed the perception in the
minds of many... and added significantly to Jamaica and its history.
Traveling the world, he raised support for the Back-to-Africa
movement and started the Universal Negro Improvement Association
(UNIA) which took fire across the rest of the Caribbean. He then
went on to form the first political party, the People's Political
Party in 1929.
Click here to read about other famous people from Jamaica.
Other prominent names in the political history of Jamaica are
Alexander Bustamante, the first Jamaican trade unionist and founder
of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The lawyer Norman Manley
(Bustamante's cousin), founded the People's National Party (PNP),
another political party.
It was not until August 6, 1962, that Jamaica gained independence
yet opted to stay within the Commonwealth of Great Britain – this
today underscores the past history of Jamaica.
The Governor General is the Head of State, and is appointed by the
British Monarch, while the Prime Minister is chosen through
democratic election. The present Prime Minister, The Hon. Orette
Bruce Golding, is a member of the JLP, the current ruling party.
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