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History of Jamaica


The history of Jamaica over the past 500 years has been marked by the courage of the Jamaican people in their triumphant struggle for freedom and justice and by their unrelenting resistance and determination in the face of adversity and discrimination. Modern Jamaica is built on a historical legacy of genocide perpetrated against the island’s indigenous peoples, on the experience of over three hundred years of slavery and oppression suffered by the Jamaicans of African origin and on the interplay between Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the building of a proud, free and progressive nation in the heart of the Caribbean.

The First Jamaicans

The first Jamaicans were the Taino Indians who settled in Jamaica around 600 AD. They were stone–age peoples who had migrated to Jamaica from the northern coast of South America. After living continuously in Jamaica for almost 900 years, the Tainos were wiped out within 50 years of the Spanish conquest in 1494, due to exploitation by the Spanish settlers, starvation and a lack of resistance to European diseases. Many Tainos fiercely resisted the Spanish occupation of their land and some even committed suicide rather than serve as slaves.

The Arawak language spoken by the Tainos survives in many words such as ‘hammock’, ‘hurricane’, ‘tobacco’, ‘barbeque’ and ‘canoe’. The word Jamaica actually derives from the Arawak word Xaymaca, meaning “Land of wood and water”.

The Spanish Period

Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on the island when he claimed it for Spain on May 3rd, 1494, during his second voyage to the New World. Jamaica was settled by the Spanish in 1510 and the indigenous Taino people were forced into slavery and eventually exterminated. In the early years of the 16th century the practice of importing slaves from West Africa to work in Jamaica began.

Jamaica’s first town was built by the Spanish in Saint Ann’s Bay and was called Sevilla Nueva. In 1538 the Spanish moved the capital of Jamaica to Spanish Town. Jamaica was, however, never heavily populated by the Spanish, for they found no gold on the island. Instead, plantations were established to supply food for the Spanish ships that sailed between Europe and the Americas. Spain remained in control of Jamaica for more than 150 years and the legacy of this period can still be seen in the historic buildings of Spanish Town and in the many Spanish names assigned to Jamaican rivers, mountains and towns.

The British Period and the Pirates of the Caribbean

In 1655 British naval forces captured Jamaica from the Spanish. The British went on to retain control of Jamaica for over 300 years. The British took advantage of Jamaica’s strategic location in the centre of the Caribbean to challenge the Pirates of the CaribbeanSpanish dominance of the region and to disrupt their lucrative trade in gold and silver. While many of the first English settlers in Jamaica were land owners, others were pirates who operated with the consent of the British. Buccaneers like Sir Henry Morgan joined with mercenaries and adventurers to attack the Spanish galleons that carried gold and silver from Central and South America to Spain. Their headquarters at Port Royal soon became rich with stolen Spanish gold and was known in the seventeenth century as the "wickedest city in the world".

Port Royal was almost completely destroyed in 1692 by a devastating earthquake, and further damaged by a series of hurricanes over the next thirty years. By then, England and Spain had signed a peace treaty and the need for the buccaneers had vanished. Jamaica became more involved in trade and the exportation of sugar, cocoa and other agricultural products.

The decline of the buccaneers, coupled with the destruction of Port Royal by earthquake, led to the rise of the nearby fishing village of Kingston which offered a natural harbour on the more sheltered southern side of the island. Kingston eventually became Jamaica's capital in 1872.

The Maroons

During the upheaval caused by the transition from Spanish to English rule in 1655, many of the West African slaves formerly owned by the Spanish escaped into Jamaica’s hilly interior and pioneered the resistance to slavery that would continue in Jamaica for most of the ensuing 200 years. These escaped slaves developed their own separate culture based on their West African roots. Known as the Maroons, the British were never able to recapture or subdue them, and they were granted political autonomy in 1739. Their descendants and culture still exist today in modern Jamaica, a testament to their skill and tenacity.

Africa in the Caribbean and the Resistance to Slavery

The importation of African slave labour, begun by the Spanish, continued under the British with much greater intensity, and grew steadily in volume as sugar production increased in extent and value. Most Jamaican slaves came from the region of modern day Ghana, Nigeria and Central Africa, and included the Akan, Ashanti, Yoruba, Ibo and Ibibio peoples. By the 18th century, Jamaica had become one of the most valuable British colonies. But the conditions endured by the slaves were horrendous. Families were routinely separated. Housing and sanitary conditions were abysmal. Beatings and torture were rampant. Many died from overwork and starvation. Life expectancy of a West African slave in Jamaica was 7 years.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807. By then, almost 2 million slaves were traded to Jamaica, with tens of thousands dying on slave ships in the brutal middle passage between West Africa and the Caribbean.

Then, after almost 250 years of rebellion and resistance, emancipation from slavery was finally won in 1838. Over two hundred years of inhuman bondage was ended through the fierce resistance of the West African slaves, and thanks to the support of enlightened members of the British parliament and to Christian dissenters in Britain. A great contribution was made also by the Christian missionaries in Jamaica who treated the slaves as human beings and awakened them to the Christian Gospel in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

The end of slavery brought about the collapse of the plantation system, as the West African slaves who had fought for their freedom were no longer prepared to work for their former masters. This, together with other factors, including unemployment, heavy taxation and droughts produced a crisis in 1865 that changed the old social and economic patterns decisively and quickly. In October, 1865, an uprising known as the Morant Bay Rebellion was put down with terrible severity and its leaders were hanged. The handling of the crisis by the British Governor led to his recall to London, but before leaving he induced the frightened House of Assembly to vote for its own extinction. In its place a crown colony form of government, in which the Governor wielded the only real executive or legislative power, was established by an act of the British Parliament in 1866.

Asia and the Middle East in the Caribbean

The Jews were among the first ethnic group to settle in Jamaica, arriving in the early sixteenth century to work in sugar manufacturing. After completing their period of indentured labour, they moved into business and other professions, and although small in number they still have significant influence in Jamaica in these areas.

In 1845 the first Indians arrived in Jamaica to work as indentured servants on the sugar plantations that had been abandoned by the African-Jamaicans after the abolition of slavery. The first labourers came from Northern India, but others arrived later from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, the Central Provinces, Punjab and the North West Frontiers.

In 1854 the first Chinese migrants arrived as indentured labourers. Most were from Hong Kong and from the Kwang Tung Province in southeast China.

In the early years of the twentieth century migrants from Palestine and Lebanon settled in Jamaica, fleeing political and religious persecution in their home countries and in search of a better way of life.

The peoples of the Middle East, India and China have retained many of the cultural values from their places of origin and have enriched Jamaica with their contributions to farming, commerce and other professions, while integrating with their own traditions and expertise into the Jamaican society.

Transition to Independence

By 1938, dissatisfaction with the crown colony system, sharpened by the hardships and suffering brought on by a worldwide economic depression, erupted in serious and widespread rioting. These events resulted in the formation of the first lasting labour unions, as well as of political parties linked to them. A growing demand for self-determination also became apparent

Political agitation by Jamaican activists and trade union leaders led to the granting of a new constitution in 1944, providing for a two-party House of Representatives, the appointment of Ministers and universal adult suffrage. Further constitutional advances took place in 1953 and 1957, and full internal self-government was obtained in 1959.

In 1958 Jamaica became a founding member of the Federation of the West Indies, from which it seceded in 1961, after a referendum. On August 6, 1962, after 300 years of British colonization, Jamaica became an independent nation with full dominion status within the Commonwealth.

Jamaican Identity

The legacy of Africa lives on in Jamaica in countless ways. It is most evident in the ethnic composition of the Jamaican people; in the Jamaican language called patois whose grammar and pronunciation are heavily influenced by the Twi language spoken in West Africa; in Jamaican music and dance; in religious worship and rituals; and in food and dress.

The legacy of Britain also lives on in Jamaica in many ways. For example, English is the official language; Her Majesty the Queen is the Head of Jamaica’s Parliament; Jamaica’s system of government is based on the Westminster parliamentary model; Jamaica’s jurisprudence is based on English common law and practice; and the game of cricket is the national sport.

The Jamaican national motto “Out of many, one people” reflects the fact that peoples of different races and creeds have lived side by side for centuries to forge a unique Jamaican identity and a common destiny as a nation.

Important Dates in Jamaica’s History

  • A.D. 600 - 800: Tainos settled in Jamaica and lived there for some 900 years before being exterminated by the Spanish.
  • 1494: Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica and claimed the island for Spain
  • 1510: Colonised by the Spanish
  • 1655: Captured by the British
  • 1670: Officially ceded to the British under the Treaty of Madrid.
  • 1692: Earthquake destroyed Port Royal
  • 1739: Peace Treaty signed between the British and the Maroons, after years of violent struggle.
  • 1807: Slave Trade was abolished
  • 1832: Western Liberation Uprising, the largest mass rebellion against slavery, led by Sam Sharpe.
  • 1838: Slavery Abolished.
  • 1845: First Indians arrive in Jamaica as indentured servants.
  • 1854: First Chinese arrive in Jamaica as indentured servants.
  • 1865: Morant Bay Rebellion
  • 1884: New constitution for local authority.
  • 1914: Marcus Garvey launched the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to create an international awareness of the right of the black race to coexist with other peoples of the world as equals. Garvey awakened black consciousness and pride in millions of blacks in Africa and the African Diaspora.
  • 1938: The People’s National Party (PNP) was formed by The Right Honourable Norman Washington Manley.
  • 1943: The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was formed by The Right Honourable Alexander Bustamante.
  • 1944: Jamaica Labour Party won elections for the House of Representatives, in the first general elections under universal adult suffrage.
  • 1958: The West Indian Federation was formed, uniting ten English-speaking countries of the Eastern Caribbean and Jamaica.
  • 1959: People’s National Party won elections for the House of Representatives and The Right Honourable Norman Washington Manley appointed first and only Premier.
  • 1961: Jamaica withdrew from the Federation of the West Indies, as mandated in a referendum that year.
  • 6 August 1962: Jamaica became an Independent Nation
  • 1962: The Jamaica Labour Party won the general elections to the House of Representatives and Sir Alexander Bustamante became the first Prime Minister of Jamaica.
  • Between 1962 and 1989 the two major political parties alternated in power, with each party serving two consecutive terms.
  • 1989 to September 2007: The People’s National Party (PNP) remained in power for four (4) consecutive terms under three (3) different Prime Ministers, namely The Most Honourable Michael Manley, The Most Honourable P.J. Patterson and the Most Honourable Portia Simpson-Miller, who was sworn in as Jamaica’s seventh Prime Minister on 30 March 2006.
  • September 3, 2007: General elections were held. The opposition Jamaica Labour Party gained 33 seats in Parliament and the People's National Party 27 seats.
  • September 11, 2007: The Honourable Orett Bruce Golding was sworn in as Jamaica's eighth Prime Minister.

For the list of Cabinet Ministers please click here:

© 2007 Embassy of Jamaica Washington, DC | 1520 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20036