Jamaica’s first known inhabitants were the Tainos of the Arawak people, who were some of the indigenous people of the West Indies. The Tainos named the island ‘Xaymaca’, which means ‘land of wood and water’. The Tainos were peaceful people that farmed, fished and made crafts, and were the originators of the hammock.
In 1494, Christopher Columbus “discovered” Jamaica at Santa Gloria, now St. Ann’s Bay, where the Tainos met him with hostility and would not allow his boat to reach the shore. Columbus traveled a a litter further down the coast to Puerto Bueno, now Discovery Bay, where he forced his way onto land. He claimed the land in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
In 1509, the Spanish arrived on the island and settled in an area named Seville, near St. Ann’s Bay. They changed the name of Xaymaca to be written phonetically with the letter “J” instead of “X”. They moved their settlement to a better area and named it Villa de la Vega in 1534. The British would later rename this area Spanish Town. Spanish Town became the centre for the Spanish colonists and was often attacked by the British. Spanish Town was the capital city from 1534 until 1872.
The British conquered the island in 1655, but not without a fight. The Spanish freed and armed their slaves to help in the fight against the British. Most of these freed slaves escaped to the interior of the island and formed the Maroons. The Maroons were successful for a time, at fighting off the British and keeping from becoming slaves. The British brought over slaves from Western Africa to work the land and cultivate the sugar cane, cocoa and coffee. During the 1700s, Jamaica was one of the richest nations and the world’s largest producer of sugar, and it remained that way for over 150 years. Jamaica was a major part of the Triangular Slave Trade in which slaves were brought from Africa, traded in Jamaica (and the Caribbean) for sugar and rum, which was then taken to England in exchange for manufactured goods that were bartered in Africa for slaves. In the late 1700s, the number of slaves was 20 times more than the number of white slave masters. This along with the decline in the demand for sugar productions and the American Revolution are what caused Britain to loose a strong hold on Jamaica.
In 1831, Samuel Sharpe started what is known as the “Christmas Rebellion”, in an effort to gain freedom from slavery. Many slaves died during the rebellion and as a result of the trials that took place afterward. In 1834, Britain signed the Emancipation Act, freeing slaves under the age of 6 and placing all others in an apprenticeship for 4-6 years. This was not well received by anti-slave groups and 1838 full emancipation was granted.
Although slaves were now “free”, many Jamaicans lived in poverty and faced many hardships. This lead to the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 where Paul Bogle, one of Jamaica’s National Heroes, led the people in a march for justice. In 1866, Jamaica became a crown colony. In 1872, the capital was moved from Spanish Town to Kingston because of it’s modernized city and port. Jamaica’s major export was no longer sugar; wood, coffee and bananas were now the major commodity.
Prior to the Great Depression, Marcus Garvey, a born Jamaican and well educated leader, traveled the Caribbean and the Americas spreading the message for improvement of Black people everywhere. Marcus Garvey was one of the first leaders to instill in the people the idea of independence for Jamaica. After the Great Depression, exportation of bauxite led to Jamaica’s economic success in the 1940s, which in turn helped stabilize the island’s political situation. In 1938, the Trade Union helped spawn the creation of the People’s National Party (PNP), formed by Norman Manley. In 1943, Alexander Bustamante formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), in opposition to the existing People’s National Party. By 1944, with the help of Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, Jamaicans were free to vote under universal adult suffrage. Over time, the PNP began leaning toward democratic socialism, while the JLP would adopt a capitalist philosophy.
In 1958, the Federation of the West Indies was formed to create a political unit amongst the islands that would become independent from Britain as a single state. Some Jamaican politicians did not think the federation was viable and requested a withdrawal. In 1961, Jamaica held a referendum to let the people decide, and the people spoke.
Jamaica withdrew from the federation that year and on August 6st, 1962 gained independence.