Jamaica was first inhabited by the Tainos, sometimes referred to as Arawaks, who arrived from the northern coast of South America in dugout canoes around A.D. 900. The Tainos practiced subsistence agriculture to complement hunting, fishing, and foraging activities, forming mostly seaside settlements from where travel by dugout canoe remained an important mode of transport.

Upon his arrival on the island in 1494, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus claimed the island on behalf of his financiers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain--in spite of the presence of a large Taino population with whom the Europeans engaged in an easily-won battle. The exact point of his arrival is contested; it is likely the explorer landed in Rio Bueno, on the border of present-day St. Ann and Trelawny, where there is freshwater, rather than in Discovery Bay, which he named Puerto Seco, or Dry Harbour, because it lacked freshwater--something historical observers say would have influenced where explorers chose to make landfall.

Jamaica was not deemed of much import to the Spanish Crown due to its relatively rugged terrain, and more importantly its lack of gold. Spain was more concerned with exploits in Mexico and Central and South America. Neighboring Hispaniola had more gold and was thus deemed more worthwhile, while Cuba, 145 kilometers to the north, was also more important to the Crown as it was easily settled with vast arable flat lands and a strategic position as the key to the Gulf of Mexico. While Cuba became increasingly important as a transshipment point for gold and other goods from the New World to Europe, Jamaica remained a backwater left largely under the control of Columbus' heirs. Within 50 years of "discovery," the indigenous Taino population, estimated at as much as one million inhabitants at time of contact, was virtually annihilated through forced labor and, more importantly, European diseases to which the natives had no immunological defenses.

Four early Spanish settlements are known to have been established at Melilla, somewhere on the North Coast, at Oristan, near present-day Bluefields, Westmoreland, at Spanish Town, which grew into the principal city of Santiago de la Vega, and in Yallahs, near the border of St. Andrew and St. Thomas today. These settlements were mainly focused on cattle ranching, while horse breeding was also an important endeavor. Jamaica became a regular provisions stop for Spanish galleons heading to Colombia, among other important gold coasts. While a few inland routes were carved out of the tropical jungle, transportation around the island remained almost entirely sea-based with the long and navigable Martha Brae River becoming an important route between the North and South Coasts. The lack of a centralized strategy for settlement and defense left Jamaica extremely vulnerable to attack from other early colonial powers, ultimately leading to an easy takeover by Britain's naval forces led by Cromwell. While it was the Spanish who first brought many of plants that would become key to the island's economy in subsequent centuries, including banana, sugarcane, and indigo, it was the British who created an organized plantation system--key to effectively exploit the land and establish lucrative trade with Europe.


In 1655 English naval forces, led by Oliver Cromwell, invaded Jamaica and easily captured Spanish Town, the colonial rival's capital. The Spanish colony had virtually no defense strategy in place, a fact known and exploited by Cromwell, who distributed vast tracts of land to his fellow officers as a reward for their service. These land grants would form the first plantation estates of the British Colony. The former Spanish rulers were loath to abandon the island, waging guerilla warfare and reprisal attacks on the British with the help of loyal Maroons, led by Ysassi. The Spanish fled to the North Coast or left the island altogether for Hispaniola or Cuba.

Soon after Cromwell's forces seized Jamaica, the British began a policy of legitimizing the activity of pirates--in effect gaining their allegiance in exchange for allowing them to continue their raids on mostly Spanish ships as privateers instead of buccaneers. The alliance made Port Royal at the tip of the Palisadoes in Kingston harbor into a boomtown, fueled by bustling trade in slaves and rum in addition to commerce in luxury goods, some imported from England and beyond, others plundered from victim ships.

While the slave trade had been established on the island under Spanish rule, it wasn't until the British set up vast, well-organized sugarcane plantations that slave labor was imported en masse from Africa. Jamaica became the Caribbean's primary transshipment point for slaves to other parts of the New World, including the United States.


As an incentive to see Jamaica reach its full potential as a plantation colony, the British offered land not only to those who had been involved in the successful takeover, but also to Britons from England and other British colonies, most notably Barbados. Vast estates covered thousands of acres, with many absentee landowners installing overseers to take care of business on the island while reaping the benefits from quiet England. The cultivation of sugar expanded during the 1700s to the point where Jamaica was the world's foremost producer and England's prized colony. But the economic boom was far from equitable, relying heavily on a slave trade set up first by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch and English along the Gold Coast of Ghana and Slave Coast of Nigeria. Slavery was not a new phenomenon in Africa, but with the arrival of European traders it was formalized, and raids into the interior began to supplement the prisoners of war who were first exported as slaves. The slaves brought to Jamaica were a mix of different ethnicities, including Coromantee, Ibo, Mandingo, Yoruba, and Congo. Slaves of different ethnic backgrounds and tongues were intentionally put together to complicate any potential resistance.

Slaves were not only used in the fields on the plantations, but also as domestic workers, carpenters, masons, and coopers. The tendency for women around the plantation to give birth to children of lighter complexion helped loosen the hold of the slave system as the moral high ground assumed by the British as the boundaries of race became increasingly blurred.


The 1700s saw Jamaica rise to be the world's greatest producer of sugar and rum, with large estates worked by thousands of slaves covering the island's arable land. The runaway slaves, or Maroons, consolidated their autonomy in the country's rugged highland interior, while overseers managed the large estates for their mostly absentee masters.

But the plantation system could not be taken for granted by the British, with a series of slave uprisings stirring the foundations of their booming economy. The rumors of freedom began with Tacky's War in 1760, in which a Coromantee chief known as Tacky, a driver on Frontier Estate in St. Mary, orchestrated an uprising that spread to neighboring estates, and had as its objective the overthrow of the colonial masters throughout the island. Even while the Maroons maintained, and still maintain, aloofness when it came to how they viewed enslaved Africans who accepted their lot, their parallel existence in free communities served as a constant reminder on the plantation that slavery was not unshakable. Free people of color, meanwhile, helped maintain the status quo, breeding a culture of superiority related to complexion, which remains as a historical retention in Jamaican society to this day.

With fellow slaves in North America earning or buying their freedom in increasing numbers following the War of Independence, the nonconformists in Jamaica took added encouragement. In 1783 one such freed slave, the Baptist reverend George Liele, arrived in Jamaica to establish a ministry in Kingston that would give birth to the Baptist nonconformist movement on the island as he proceeded to baptize slaves by in scores. These early Baptists, like nonconformist Methodists, Moravians, and Congregationalists, struck a chord with the masses with their anti-slavery stance. One follower, Liele, baptized those who would seek patronage from the Baptist Ministry Society of Great Britain, which responded by sending the first British Baptist Missionary in 1814. For the next twenty years, anti-slavery rumblings grew until Sam Sharpe's rebellion, known as The Baptist War, broke from its intent of carrying out a peaceful strike with several plantations burned to the ground. While the uprising was suppressed by the plantocracy's militia and a British garrison, the British Parliament held inquiries that would lead to abolition two years later.


The abolition of slavery in 1834 preceded a four-year period of "apprenticeship" designed to integrate newly freed slaves into more "sophisticated" jobs, and more importantly, allow the plantation economy to adapt to a labor force that required compensation.

Following the apprenticeship period, however, the plantation owners soon found it difficult to secure workers, as many left the countryside for town in search of alternative livelihoods far from the memory of chains. Soon after emancipation, Jamaica's plantocracy, along with cane growers in places like Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname, resorted to the importation of indentured Indian and Chinese laborers to work their fields beginning in 1845 through to 1921. The period following emancipation was the cradle for the modern identity of the Jamaican people. It was by no means an easy time, as Jamaica continued to be wrought with oppression and injustice, as evidenced by the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. Continued repression and oppression in Jamaica led many ambitious and frustrated young men to seek their fortunes overseas, whether in Panama, where the canal would be built between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, thanks in part to Jamaican labor, or to the U.S., where a similar cultural identity was being formed as uprooted Africans became African Americans. Many of these fortune seekers, among them Marcus Garvey, George Stiebel, and Alexander Bustamante, returned with wealth, which afforded them a voice in society they used to advance the cause of the worker, and ultimately, an independent Jamaica. Suffrage was tied to land ownership until it was universally declared in 1944, one of the many reasons for ongoing struggle throughout the post-emancipation period, and Jamaica's dark history of forced labor was a natural hotbed of resistance leading to the rise of the country's vibrant labor movement.


Jamaica's road to independence was trod with baby steps. In 1938, Norman Manley founded the People's National Party, and Alexander Bustamante formed the Jamaica Labour Party five years later. The first elections with universal suffrage were held in 1944. World War II had a significant impact on Jamaica, with widespread shortages adding to the urgency of rising social and political movements. The 1950s saw waves of emigrants leave Jamaica for England, with the tendency for emigrants to head for the United States increasing when Britain restricted immigration following independence. Many old folks in Jamaica still bemoan the country's independence, recalling the good old days when schools were better and society more proper under the British. The past several decades have been characterized, however, by a young nation, still under the commonwealth system, experiencing growing pains, still dependent as ever, albeit on different external forces. The flow of remittances from Jamaicans abroad, health of the global economy, approving nod of multilateral financial institutions, maintenance of bilateral trade agreements, and uninterrupted receipt of royalty payments from foreign mining companies are all vital for the government's economic welfare and that of the Jamaican people today more than ever. Until Jamaica becomes a net exporter of goods and services, it will have a difficult time claiming true independence, as today it relies little on its own productivity for survival.