History of Jamaica

History of Jamaica

Once The Most Valuable Island In the World

Once considered the most valuable island in the world due to its cultivation of sugar, tobacco, and other commodities, Jamaica has history of that was built on colonialism. On May 5th, 1494 Jamaica was first visited by Christophe Columbus who sought to establish trade with the indigenous people (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). From that date until the 1960’s Jamaica would be a victim of colonialism that would forever alter the demographics and history of the island nation.

Jamaica is a Caribbean tropical island nation with a current population of 2,651,000 (CIA, 2013). Jamaica has a diverse population of different ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural groups due to its history. Beginning in 1494 when Columbus first visited the island, this event would mark the start of generations of cultural influx from several European countries.

The indigenous people of Jamaica were the Arawak people who were Amerindian people who are believed to have migrated to the island long before Columbus arrived. The Arawak people, also known as the Tainos, are believed to have lived on Jamaica for generations before the arrival of Europeans. There is still a great deal of mystery that surrounds these former inhabitants because they were annihilated by foreign colonization practices. Slavery, disease, and war destroyed the Tainos and left little of their history. The last known indigenous people were recorded in Jamaica in 1666 (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

Like other areas of the New World, sugar cane and tobacco were easily cultivated in the climate of Jamaica and the demand for these crops made Jamaica a highly sought after trade depot for European powers. The island was also considered a strategic point for the Atlantic Slave Trade due to its proximity to Africa, South America, and North America (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

Jamaica’s history is best understood by its periods of colonialism. The Spanish were the first to settle in Jamaica in 1509 (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). As colonization of the New World began Jamaica felt the brunt of this effort as it became the focal point of British and other European privateer raids. Under Spanish rule, the indigenous people of the island were enslaved and when these slaves proved insufficient to maintaining the demand for sugar cane and other commodities, African slaves were imported to fill the labor demands (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

The British took control of Jamaica in 1655 and when the Spanish fled they left many slaves to fend for themselves (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). Many of these slaves ran during the initial occupation of the British. These former slaves would take refuge in the mountainous interior of Jamaica and they were known as the Maroons. These former slaves were slaves brought from Africa and they mixed with the surviving Tainos peoples. This group would wage war against the British raiding towns and using guerilla tactics. Eventually, the Maroons were either deported or some managed to maintain peace with the British (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). The Maroons still exist today in small towns that are isolated in the interior areas of Jamaica (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

The British founded the city of Port Royal which served as a trade hub until 1692 when it was destroyed in an earthquake. Kingston would become the main trade hub and eventually the capital of Jamaica in 1872 (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). Under British occupation, Jamaica became a haven for pirates and privateers. The British endorsed the use of privateers in order to protect the island from incursion from Spanish and other European settlers.

British colonization efforts in Jamaica increased the slave population due the island needing labor and being a hub for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Under the British the slave populations of Jamaica would grow to incredible numbers with estimates as high as 20:1 (slaves to masters) by the 1800s. The oppressive life and harsh conditions that slaves endured made Jamaica a hotbed for revolts and uprisings (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). One of the ways in which order was maintained was by using freed black populations to maintain control of the slaves. A freed black militia was paid and maintained by the British which allowed the British an efficient means of managing slave revolts.

Despite being under British rule, Jamaica ran as a plantocracy which was the collective plantation owners using their affluence and political position to make policy and govern the island (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). This form of government was allowed because it served the purpose of maintaining trade with England and other nations. This plantocracy was vehemently opposed to anti-slave and abolitionist movements. This form of rule was oppressive and harsh. In 1831 anti-slavery protest and work strike was held in order to attempt to receive emancipation. This strike from plantation work was met with violence as the governor and plantation owners mobilized the militia and British forces to quell the disturbance. After 10 days of violence approximately 500 slaves were killed and for several months afterwards executions were held in which anyone suspected of sympathizing with abolitionists were killed. The death count of abolitionists and slaves is still unknown (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

This strike which became known as the Baptist War would not be completely in vain. The news of the revolt and the cruelty of the plantocracy reached England and the Crown initiate an investigation. This investigation was thought to accelerate the ending of slavery in Jamaica. In 1833 the process of emancipation began in Jamaica in which full emancipation of slaves was finalized in 1838 (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

Despite emancipation, Jamaicans faced considerable hardships and revolts against English rule continued. A Jamaican Legislature was created but proved ineffective and it surrendered to British rule in 1866. Under British colonialism, Jamaica would improve its situation to some degree with the establishment of a middle class composed of blacks that would hold low level government positions and police service. Racial discrimination would ultimately keep most Jamaicans financially oppressed (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998).

Between the 1920’s and 1962 various political parties arose in Jamaica in efforts to gain independence. On August 6, 1962 Jamaica gained full independence from England under the Jamaican Labour Party. The two primary political parties in Jamaica are the People’s National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). Since 1962 these two parties have vied for control of the country, and by the 1990’s the political system began to stabilize as more moderate policies were initiated by the parties (CIA, 2013).

Modern Jamaica is a stable and diverse country composed of its own culture that has grown from Spanish, African, and British influence. One can see this diversity in the major religions of Jamaica consisting of Protestantism, Rastafari, and Christianity (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). The impacts of colonialism still persist today as Jamaica suffers from a very polarized economic system in which there are rich and poor with a small middle class.

Unemployment is very high above 12% and as a result emigration is tremendous as Jamaicans continue to seek economic opportunities (CIA, 2013). The widespread poverty in Jamaica increases crime substantially (CIA, 2013). Jamaica is considered one of the most violent places on earth because of its high murder rate. The influx of Christian religion has also had a negative impact on the diversity of the nation which has become known for its violence and intolerance of homosexuals.

Disapproval of gays is an entrenched part of island life, rooted, Jamaicans say, in the country’s Christian tradition. The Bible condemns homosexuality, they say. But critics say islanders are selective in the verses they cite, and the rage at gay sex contrasts sharply with Jamaicans’ embrace of casual sex among heterosexuals, which is considered part of the Caribbean way.

…human rights groups have denounced the harassment, beating and even killing of gays here, to little avail. No official statistic has been compiled on the number of attacks. But a recent string of especially violent, high-profile assaults has brought fresh condemnation to an island otherwise known as an easygoing tourist haven (Lacey, 2008).

Another major problem that Jamaica faces is the emigration of its citizens. The main issue is that the people emigrating are often the most educated and those possessing the ability to make positive changes for the country. As many as 60% of Jamaicans who possess higher education live outside Jamaica and this continues to be a large problem because of the lack of educated people (CIA, 2013).

Despite these problems Jamaica continues to grow and better its economics as it has been actively seeking to increase relations with the United States and other more developed foreign powers. Jamaica since the early 1990’s has continued to take a more active role in world politics and in world trade (Henke, 2000). As policies ease in Jamaica, the growth of trade is expected to increase the country’s economic standing.


CIA. (2013). Jamaica. Retrieved from factbook/

Henke, Holger. 2000. Between Self-Determination and Dependency. Jamaica’s Foreign Relations 1972–1989, Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.

Lacey, M. (2008, February 24). Attacks show easygoing jamaica is dire place for gays. Retrieved from =2

Sherlock, P. M., Bennett, H. (1998). The story of the Jamaican people. Ian Randle Publishers Kingston, Jamaica.

Photo By William Sancroft — This vector image was created by converting the Encapsulated PostScript file available at Brands of the World (view • download). Public Domain.


Triola Vincent. Sat, Feb 06, 2021. History of Jamaica Retrieved from

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