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The aftermath of the 1882 Kingston fire.

Jamaica, the third largest Caribbean island, was inhabited by Arawak natives. When Christopher Columbus arrived at the island, he claimed the land for Spain. Still, it was not truly colonized until after his death. But only a few decades after Columbus' death almost all Arawaks were disappearing. Spain held the island against many buccaneer raids at the main city, which is now called Spanish Town. Eventually England claimed the island in a raid, but the Spanish did not relinquish their claim to the island until 1670.

Jamaica became a base of operations for buccaneers, including Captain Henry Morgan. In return these buccaneers kept the other colonial powers from attacking the island. Africans were captured, kidnapped, and forced into slavery to work on plantations when sugarcane became the most important export on the island.

Many slaves arrived in Jamaica via the Atlantic slave trade during the same time enslaved Africans arrived in North America. During this time there were many racial tensions, and Jamaica had one of the highest instances of slave uprisings of any Caribbean island.[1] After the British crown abolished slavery, the Jamaicans began working toward independence. Since independence there have been political and economic disturbances, as well as a number of strong political leaders.

Contents

Prehistory and European discovery

Tainos from South America had settled in Jamaica at around 1,000 BC and called the land Xamayca, meaning "a land of wood and water". After Christopher Columbus' arrival in 1494, Spain claimed the island and began occupation in 1509, naming the island Santiago (St. James). The Arawaks were exterminated by the Spanish. Some also committed suicide, presumably to escape. Spain brought the first slaves to Jamaica in 1517.

On Jamaica one outspoken man, Bartolomé de Las Casas, worked for the protection of the Taino population. It was also he who suggested, and later came to regret, the importation of slaves from Africa. De Las Casas was a Spanish priest, and wrote several books about the poor treatment of the natives by Spanish conquistadors. He believed that the Spanish should work to convert the Tainos to Christianity.

Spanish rule

The settlers later moved to Villa de la Vega, now called Spanish Town. This settlement became the capital of Jamaica. By the 1640s many people were attracted to Jamaica, which had a reputation for stunning beauty, not only when referring to the island but also to the natives. In fact, pirates were known to desert their raiding parties and stay on the island. For 100 years between 1555 and 1655 Spanish Jamaica was subject to many pirate attacks, the final attack left the island in the hands of the English. The English were also subject to pirate raids after they began their occupation of the island.

The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia states, "A review of the period of Spanish occupation is one which reflects very little credit on Spanish colonial administration in those days. Their treatment of the aboriginal inhabitants, whom they are accused of having practically exterminated, is a grave charge, and if true, cannot be condoned on the plea that such conduct was characteristic of the age, and that as bad or worse was perpetrated by other nations even in later years." This is borne out by the much more detailed history of Spanish Jamaica by Francisco Morales Padrón.

British rule

A depiction of daily life in Jamaica from the early nineteenth century. Watercolor, ink, and pencil. Created beteween 1808 and 1816.

In 1655, General-at-Sea William Penn and General Robert Venables seized Jamaica without orders in the name of Britain's Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, seeking to make up for the disastrous failure of the mission Cromwell had assigned them: to seize Hispaniola. Spanish resistance continued for some years thereafter, in some cases with the help of the maroons, but Spain never succeeded in retaking the island. Under early British rule Jamaica became a haven of privateers, buccaneers, and occasionally outright pirates: Christopher Myngs, Edward Mansvelt, and most famously, Henry Morgan.

The cultivation of sugar cane and coffee by African slave labour made Jamaica one of the most valuable possessions in the world for more than 150 years. The colony's slaves, who vastly outnumbered their white masters by a ratio of 20:1 in 1800, mounted over a dozen major slave conspiracies and uprisings throughout much of the 18th century, including Tacky's revolt in 1760. Escaped slaves known as Maroons established independent communities in the mountainous interior that the British were unable to inhabit, despite major attempts in the 1730s and 1790s; one Maroon community was expelled from the island after the Second Maroon War in the 1790s and those Maroons eventually became part of the core of the Creole community of Sierra Leone. The colonial government enlisted the Maroons in capturing escaped plantation slaves. The British also used Jamaica's free people of color, 10,000 strong by 1800, to keep the enslaved population in check. During the Christmas holiday of 1831, a large scale slave revolt known as the Baptist War broke. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by Samuel Sharpe. The rebellion was suppressed by the militia of the Jamaican plantocracy and the British garrison ten days later in early 1832.

Because the loss of property and life in the 1831 rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. The results of these inquiries contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery as of August 1, 1834 throughout the British Empire. However the Jamaican slaves remained bound to their former owners' service, albeit with a guarantee of rights, until 1838 under what was called the Apprenticeship System. The freed population still faced significant hardships, marked by the October 1865 Morant Bay rebellion led by George William Gordon and Paul Bogle. It was brutally repressed. The sugar crop was declining in importance in the late 19th century and the colony diversified into bananas.

In 1872 the capital was moved to Kingston, as the port city had far outstripped the inland Spanish Town in size and sophistication.

In 1866 the Jamaican legislature renounced its powers, and the country became a crown colony. Some measure of self-government was restored in the 1880s, when islanders gained the right to elect nine members of a legislative council.

The establishment of Crown Colony rule resulted over the next few decades in the growth of a middle class of low-level public officials and police officers drawn from the mass of the population whose social and political advancement was blocked by the colonial authorities.

The Great Depression had a serious impact both on the emergent middle class and the working class of the 1930s. In the spring of 1938 sugar and dock workers around the island rose in revolt. Although the revolt was suppressed it led to significant changes including the emergence of an organized labour movement and a competitive party system.

Independent Jamaica

Jamaica gained a degree of local political control in the mid-1940s. The People's National Party (PNP) was founded in 1938. Its main rival, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was established five years later. The first elections under universal adult suffrage were held in 1944. Jamaica joined nine other UK territories in the Federation of the West Indies in 1958 but withdrew after Jamaican voters rejected membership in 1961. Jamaica gained independence on August 6, 1962, remaining a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The first prime minister was Alexander Bustamante of the Jamaica Labour Party.

Initially, power swapped between the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party regularly. Michael Manley was the first PNP prime minister in 1972 and he introduced socialist policies and relations with Cuba. His second term elections marked the start of repeated political violence. When the PNP lost power in 1980 Edward Seaga immediately began to reverse the policies of his predecessor, bringing in privatization and seeking closer ties with the USA. When the PNP and Manley returned to power in 1989 they continued the more moderate policies and were returned in the elections of 1993 and 1998. Manley resigned for health reasons in 1992 and was succeeded as leader of the PNP by Percival Patterson.

Historically, Jamaican emigration has been heavy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Jamaicans migrated to Central America, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic to work in the banana and canefields. In the 1950s the primary destination was to the United Kingdom; but since the United Kingdom restricted emigration in 1962, major flow has been to the United States and Canada. The heaviest flow of emigration particularly to New York, and Miami occurred during the 1990s and continues to the present day due to high levels of violence, drugs, and gang warfare which is hampering Jamaica. About 20,000 Jamaicans emigrate to the United States each year; another 200,000 visit annually. New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale are among the U.S. cities with the largest Jamaican population. In New York, over half of Jamaican expatriates reside in Brooklyn. Remittances from the expatriate communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada make increasingly significant contributions to Jamaica's economy.

References

  • Black, Clinton V. 1983. The Story of Jamaica. London: Collins Educational.
  • Ledgister, F.S.J. 1998. Class Alliances and the Liberal-Authoritarian State: The Roots of Post-Colonial Democracy in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam. Trenton: Africa World Press.
  • Morales Padrón, Francisco. 1953 2003. Spanish Jamaica. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
  • Williams, Eric. 1964. British Historians and the West Indies. P.N.M. Publishing Company, Port-of-Spain.
  • Sawh, Gobin, Ed. 1992. The Canadian Caribbean Connection: Bridging North and South: History, Influences, Lifestyles. Carindo Cultural Assoc., Halifax.

Notes

Further reading

  • Michener, James, A. 1989. Caribbean. Secker & Warburg. London. ISBN 0-436-27971-1 (Especially Chap. XI. "Martial Law in Jamaica", pp. 403-442. Semi-fictional but mainly accurate).
  • Kurlansky, Mark. 1992. A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny. Addison-Wesley Publishing. ISBN 0-201-52396-5.
  • Barringer, Tim., Forrester, Gillian. and Martinez-Ruiz, Barbaro. 2007. Art and Empancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds. Yale University Press. New Haven and London. ISBN 978-0-300-11661-8

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