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History of Jamaica

Perhaps the first people to inhabit the island that is today known as Jamaica were the Arawak people. They were definitely the inhabitants of the island when the Spanish arrived to the island in 1503 when Christopher Columbus and his crew were stranded on the island for nearly a year.

The Spanish immediately claimed the island and began settlement in 1509 as much of the local population was killed by European diseases. From this point until the mid-1600s the island was held by the Spanish, but did little more than fend off pirate attacks as there was little economic value in the island compared to many other nearby Spanish colonies.

In 1655 the island finally fell, however it fell to the United Kingdom, although the Spanish contested this takeover for another 15 years. Under British rule, the central government in London did little to colonize the island, but rather allowed it, at first, to become a stronghold for the British privateers (or pirates), who worked with the British government at times of war. It was under these pirates or privateers that Port Royal developed as famed pirates, including Captain Henry Morgan called the island home. After an earthquake in 1692 the capital on the island moved to Kingston and remains there today.

Of the little agricultural production that took place on the island prior to 1700s, most of the industries, most notably the sugarcane industry, required manual labor and the landowners determined this was best accomplished by importing slaves from Africa. This slave trade continued until the early 1800s when the slave trade was outlawed. However, by that point Jamaica had become one of the world's most profitable regions as both sugarcane and coffee exports increased as did demand worldwide.

However, the increasing number of slaves on the island and the poor treatment of these people by the landowners seeking larger profits led to ethnic tensions as the slave population greatly outnumbered the free population in Jamaica by the early 1800s (about 20 slaves to 1 free person). This led to numerous wars and slave uprisings, with the British always winning the war, but an increasingly large number of former slaves escaping to the island's mountains and being named "maroons."

In 1834 the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout their empire, including the freeing of slaves in Jamaica. This led to immediate independence demands by these former slaves. The road to independence though was far off and the island faced numerous hardships. Tension between the former slaves and white landowners was high and in 1866 the local representative government was dissolved in favor of direct British rule, an act not entirely welcomed or fought.

With the Great Depression in the 1930s, Jamaica suffered as demand for their major export, sugarcane, diminished. This led to numerous social and political movements demanding greater freedoms and rights among the lower class and working people. It also led to greater political organization on the island and a renewed sense of independence, something that was finally accomplished in 1962.

Since independence the country has been fairly stable, although progress has been slow and the political realm has been marred with corruption and rigged elections. Additionally, the economy has been inconsistent and one of the island's greatest sources of income is money from family members living and working abroad.

This page was last updated: March, 2013