Jamaica: History

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Jamaica History

When Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the island of Xaymaca (which means land of wood and water) in 1494, it was already inhabited by a tribe, originally from South America, called the Arawak Indians. On arrival the second time around, Columbus re-named the island St. Jago, and more of his fellow Spaniards arrived to colonise the island in 1509; as a result, by the 16th century, hard farm work and foreign diseases had pretty much wiped out the indigenous Arawak population. But Spanish rule was fairly short-lived: the island’s lack of gold and silver meant that they gave little resistance to the various British attacks which took place and eventually, the British captured Jamaica in 1655.

Before fleeing, however, the Spanish, who had imported slaves to replace the dwindling Arawak population, freed and armed their slaves; a move which led to rebellion and most of the freed slaves escaping to the hills. These escaped slaves, called Maroons (after the Spanish word, ‘cimarron’, meaning ‘wild’ or ‘untamed’) went on to become an integral part of Jamaican history when they defended themselves against the British and successfully set up their own society in the hills of Jamaica.

The British arrival marked a new chapter in Jamaican society when they turned to large scale importation of African slaves to work on the sugar plantations. It marked a hey day for England, and on the back of the enormous wealth it brought plantation owners, Jamaica was considered to be one of the ‘jewels in England’s crown’.

This dominance lasted until 1838 when, after years of sugar losing its economic prominence and the culmination of slave discontent, slaves were granted their freedom. Following the emancipation, plantations had to pay slaves a wage for their work. The fight for independence from England was a long way off, but the wheels were set in motion during the 1920s by Marcus Garvey. It was not until the formation of the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) Alexander Bustamante, and the PNP (People’s National Party), Norman Manley, in the late 1930s that the Jamaican landscape really began to change; eventually leading to Jamaica gaining independence from England in 1962.