Jamaica has a remarkable and dramatic history, one of merging peoples and cultures. The island's inhabitants enjoy a culture that is a blend of traditions from various groups that have come to the island over time. They include the native Taino Indians, the English colonizers, and Africans who were introduced to the Caribbean to perform slave labor on the European-owned plantations. There are also people of East Indian and Chinese descent. In recent years, many Canadians and Americans have made Jamaica their home.


Jamaica's original inhabitants were Taino Indians, an Arawak people originally from the nearby Guyana coastal area of South America. Taino settled the island around 650 A.D., indicating that they had the ability to island-hop using boats of some type. The name “Jamaica” comes from the Arawak word Xaymaca, which means “land of wood and water.” The Taino were a farming people who grew cassava, sweet potatoes, maize (corn), fruits, vegetables, cotton, and large amounts tobacco. They built villages throughout the island, but most were on the coasts and near rivers to be close to the fishing. Fish was a major part of the Taino diet. The Taino, estimated to number about 100,000, led a relatively peaceful life until the arrival of the Spaniards.


Christopher Columbus landed on the northern coast of the island on May 4, 1494, claiming it for the king and queen of Spain. Fifteen years later, in 1509, the Spanish founded Sevilla Nueva (New Seville) near the present town of St. Ann's Bay on the north coast. Santiago de la Vega (Spanish Town), the Spanish capital city, was established in 1538. For 146 years, Jamaica was a Spanish colony. Within four decades of Spanish rule, the Taino Indians were virtually eradicated.

Most died as result of diseases introduced by Europeans against which they had no natural resistance. Others died from hard labor forced on them by their conquerors. No fullblood Taino remain today. As the Taino population declined, the labor they had provided was replaced by African slave labor. Spanish settlers raised cattle and pigs and introduced two things that would profoundly shape the island's future: sugar and slaves.


British forces defeated Spanish forces and took control of Jamaica in 1655.On May 10, a body of English sailors and soldiers landed at Passage Fort in Kingston harbor and marched toward Spanish Town. The next day, the Spaniards surrendered. They were allowed a few days to leave the island. Some of them went to Cuba, but others secretly went to the north side of Jamaica.

Slaves released or abandoned by the fleeing Spanish took refuge in the mountains and in the rugged and nearly inaccessible Cockpit Country. There, they established the first “Maroon” communities. Maroon numbers grew with the addition of runaway slaves from British plantations. The name Maroons was taken from the Spanish word cimarrones, meaning “unruly, fugitive, and wild.” Skirmishes with British troops eventually escalated into two separate Maroon Wars, the second of which led to the deportation of a number of Maroons to Nova Scotia in Canada and eventually to Sierra Leone in West Africa. For 145 years,Maroons fought the British.

Peace treaties eventually gave the Maroons self-government and the rights to land they inhabited, and many descendents of original Maroon families still live on the land in Maroon communities.

Slave Trade

Spain formally ceded Jamaica to England in 1670. After the British takeover, the island was turned into a vast sugar cane plantation.With the need for a large labor force accustomed to a hot, humid climate, the British turned to Africa. Several million Africans were brought to the Caribbean region as slaves, hundreds of thousands of them to Jamaica to work the plantations. The Africans were from many tribes: Although the majority were Fante, Ashanti peoples from the Gold Coast (Ghana), there were also Ibo, Edo, and Yoruba from Nigeria and Mandingo from Guinea.

Port Royal and the Buccaneers

Port Royal was Jamaica's commercial center until the devastating earthquake of 1692, when much of the city sank into the sea. Spanish Town became the new capital, and the city of Kingston was founded across the bay. In the late 1600s, Jamaica was a British possession surrounded by Spanishand Portuguese-held territory. For most of this time, Spain and England were at war. Port Royal was a deep and safely protected harbor and was centrally located along the trade routes between Panama and Spain. Port Royal became the headquarters of buccaneer raids of Spanish vessels carrying gold and silver.

Buccaneers were originally French, Dutch, and English sailors, many of whom had fled their countries to escape the law. The English used the term to refer to the sea rovers or raiders of the Caribbean. Between 1665 and 1671, English buccaneers under the leadership of Sir Henry Morgan sacked 18 Spanish-American cities, 4 towns, and 35 villages and captured ships too numerous to count. Much of the plunder obtained on the raids flowed through Port Royal. The town earned the reputation as being one of the wickedest in the world, as well one of the richest for its size.

Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer

Henry Morgan was probably the most successful and famous pirate of his time. He had a reputation for harsh brutality yet was respected as a skilled businessman and brave sailor. He acquired the reputation for keeping a cool head under pressure and for the ability to take advantage of favorable circumstances. Morgan was arrested in 1672 for fighting after peace had been arranged between Spain and England and was sent to England to answer to piracy charges. Indeed his immense stolen wealth and tales of his skills and bravery earned a pardon from King Charles II. Morgan was treated like a hero: He was knighted and appointed lieutenant governor of Jamaica in 1674, charged with the task of putting an end to piracy!


Jamaica reached its peak under British rule in the eighteenth century, when it was the world's largest producer of sugar and a strategically important military base. Other island activities included cattle raising, coffee growing, logging, and the cultivation of crops such as pimento  (allspice), ginger, and arrowroot. The island was virtually self-governing, and its planters (along with those of Barbados) controlled an influential bloc of votes in the English parliament. It was a violent time that suffered numerous slave revolts, pirate raids, Maroon attacks, epidemics, and devastating hurricanes. The region continued to be a war zone fought over by several European powers: England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. All the while, Jamaica was prospering on sugar.

Great Houses of Jamaica

Many of the “Great Houses”—huge plantation homes—of Jamaica were built during the sugar boom. Most are now in ruins, but several of the surviving houses have been opened to tourists because of their architectural charm and often-colorful histories. One of the best preserved is Prospect Great House. It also is still used as a residence. Rose Hall Great House is one of Jamaica's major tourist attractions. It was formerly the home of Annie Palmer, the “white witch” of Rose Hall. As the story goes, Annie Mae Patterson was an incredibly beautiful young woman. She was also an expert in voodoo, having learned voodooism from her nursemaid as a child in Haiti. John Palmer was bewitched, and after he married her, he died of a mysterious illness. He was the first of her three husbands, all of whom experienced similar deaths. Their bodies are said to be buried beneath tall palms growing near the beach opposite the Great House.

Plantation Labor

The limiting factor in the sugar economy was labor. Slaves were always in short supply. In 1834, there were about 650 sugar estates, ranging in size from 800 to 3,000 acres (325 to 1,215 hectares), on the island. Only about 100,000 acres (40,469 hectares) were actually planted in cane.Most of estate land was pasture, waste, or provision grounds worked by slaves in their off-hours.

The death rate among the slaves was extremely high. Between 1702 and 1807, more than 400,000 slaves were imported for use in Jamaica, yet when the British slave trade was abolished in 1807, the slave population was only 319,351. Slave rebellions were not uncommon. In 1782, Jack Mansong, better known as Three-Fingered Jack, led a slave rebellion in St. Mary's Parish. Three-Fingered Jack was a fierce and famous bandit who was the subject of many songs, stories, and even a London play. He patrolled the nearby hills and valleys and fought, often single-handedly, a war of terror against the English soldiers and planters. A chivalrous outlaw who never harmed a woman or child, he was finally ambushed and killed by a Maroon bounty hunter who pickled his head and his three-fingered hand in rum and took them to Spanish Town to claim his reward.

The last and largest of the slave revolts in Jamaica was the 1831 Christmas Rebellion. This uprising was inspired by “Daddy” Sam Sharpe, an educated slave and lay preacher who incited passive resistance. The rebellion turned violent, however: As many as 20,000 slaves razed plantations and murdered planters. When the slaves were tricked into laying down arms with a false promise of abolition, 400 of them were hanged and hundreds more were whipped. There was such a wave of revulsion in England that the Jamaican parliament was forced to abolish slavery.

The End of Slavery

Slavery ended on August 28, 1833, and a system of apprenticeship was put in place. This arrangement allowed slaves to become totally free over a period of four to six years. Slaves finally were given full freedom on August 1, 1838. Some former slaves chose to work on the sugar estates, but many did not. The sugar industry suffered a further blow in 1848. At that time, Great Britain adopted a policy of free trade, allowing goods from foreign countries to enter the English market on the same terms as goods from the British colonies. Jamaica was unable to compete with Cuba and other foreign sugar-producing countries.

After emancipation, many of the ex-slaves settled down as small farmers in the mountains, cultivating steep hill slopes far away from the plantations. Others settled on marginal lands on the plains nearby the plantations. These lands were leased or purchased through various land settlement schemes organized and sponsored by Christian groups such as the Baptists. During this period of peasant history, from about 1838 to 1938, there were many struggles and battles over land (and because of their role in assisting with land ownership, there was an increase in the membership of nonconformist churches). The colonial government treated former slaves poorly. In 1865, the deadly Morant Bay Rebellion erupted as a protest against injustices of the court system and lack of services for the poor.

As a result of the Morant Bay Rebellion and the related deaths of national heroes Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, a new era in Jamaica's development began. The British government was compelled to make reforms in education, health care, local government, banking, and infrastructure. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Jamaica's assembly voted away its traditional independence and became a full crown colony of Great Britain.

Throughout this period, sugar production declined. Indentured workers and free laborers from Central Africa, India, China, and Europe (primarily Germans, Scots, and Portuguese), replaced freed slaves on the plantations. The greatest number of immigrants came from India. Today, settlements of Indian descendents can still be found in the major sugar cane farming belts.


Roots of a national independence movement took root in the nineteenth-century struggles for land. More specifically, it was inspired by the political ideas of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, another one of Jamaica's proclaimed national heroes. In the 1930s, political life was reborn. Two very different men, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley (who happened to be cousins), founded Jamaica's two most enduring political institutions and the labor unions affiliated to them—the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP). Both men have been declared national heroes for their individual and combined efforts in securing political independence from Great Britain. After World War II, Jamaicans migrated to Great Britain and the United States in large numbers seeking better job opportunities. The United States began to replace Great Britain as Jamaica's principal trading partner, and the island's economy became more varied. It included bauxite and alumina processing and tourism, as well as the export of sugar, bananas, and other agricultural products.


On August 6, 1962, Jamaica was granted full independence from Great Britain, with Sir Alexander Bustamante as the first prime minister. The first two governments were formed by the JLP. The postwar boom in the economy continued through the 1960s. Between 1972 and 1980, the PNP, the other major political party, held political office and initiated a shift in major economic policies. Michael Manley, son of Norman Manley, was prime minister. At this time, the government began to take a leadership role in the process of economic development. The Bauxite Levy of 1974 was enacted to increase Jamaica's share of the income in the bauxite/alumina industry. Under Manley, Jamaica joined the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), a framework for cooperation with other English-speaking Caribbean nations.

JLP regained control in 1980, electing Edward Seaga. The government pursued free market polices, leading to the deregulation of the economy, devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, and privatization of many industries. These policies, in moderated form, have continued to the present.


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Jamaica is struggling both politically and economically. It is a young country with little experience in nationhood and relies on the world economy for most of its money.Many of its citizens, who have a well-earned reputation for hard work, are unable to find jobs at home and must leave the island to better themselves, thus Jamaica is sending many of its best people out of the country. These people are vital human resources that the country desperately needs to succeed as a modern nation.