When you think of Jamaica, you think of beautiful beaches, exotic jerk food, Reggae and vibrant people with their colourful patois language and laid back attitudes. But did you ever wonder how it all came to be? How has history created such a melting pot of cultures and influences, to create the vibrant island of Jamaica that we know today?
The Early Days
The first inhabitants of Jamaica were the Arawak Indians. They lived in simple communities based on fishing, hunting, and small scale cultivation of cassava. It was the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494 which heralded disaster for these small, peaceable communities. The Spanish brought with them new ways of living and new diseases, and these, combined with plundering, migration and disruption of their traditional economic activities all lead to the Arawak communities disappearing all together over the following 80 years.
The Spanish Occupation 1494 – 1655
The Spanish had hoped to find gold on the island of Jamaica. Finding none, they instead used the island as a base from which to carry out their conquest of The Americas. During this time, the population was predominantly the Spanish occupiers and their slaves.
The Slave Economy 1655 – 1838
In 1655, Jamaica was captured by the British expedition led by Admirals Penn and Venables. After a brief period of experimenting with indentured European labour, the British turned to large scale importation of Africans to be used as slaves on the sugar plantations.
The plantations dominated life in Jamaica. They brought huge prosperity to plantation owners, slave traders and the Govenor and his officials. For the African slaves the plantations were their prisons. Some slaves inevitably ran away from the estates to live in small bands in the mountains as Maroons.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, sugar began to lose its economic preeminence because of competition from beet sugar and also rising production costs. In 1838, the slaves were Emancipated and the plantations had to begin paying wages to its workers. One of Jamaica’s national heroes, Rev. Sam Sharpe, after whom Montego Bay’s city square is named, is celebrated for his leadership role in the famous Christmas rebellion of slaves in 1831, a few years before Emancipation.
After Emancipation, many of the ex-slaves settled down as small farmers in the mountains, cultivating steep hill slopes far away from the plantations. Still others settled on marginal lands in the plains nearby the plantations on land leased or bought in various land settlement schemes organized and sponsored by Christian groups such as the Baptists.
Struggles over land were central themes in the history of this period, culminating in the Morant Bay rebellion, for which two of Jamaica’s national heroes, George William Gordon and Paul Bogle paid with their lives.
In this period, sugar continued its secular decline, but peasant exports of logwood, coffee, and eventually bananas grew steadily. In this way, the economy began to be diversified away from its traditional dependence on sugar alone.
The Move towards De-Colonisation 1938 – 1962
These years were typified by a growing feeling of unrest and a growing national movement towards independence from England. Three men in particular, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley were instrumental in the fight for freedom, which resulted in the granting of adult suffrage and a measure of self-government in 1944, and ultimately full independence in 1962.