Jamaica Magazine

A Brief Jamaican History – An American Retiree in Jamaica

Written by John Casey

Jamaica celebrated 49 years of independence from the British Commonwealth on August 6th, 2011.  My intention for this month was to give you a brief history of Jamaica but during my research I found many discrepancies from one source to another.  The general information is in agreement between them but beyond that I don’t know what to believe.  This article will give you brief, basic information.  It is in agreement that Columbus, indeed, landed here sometime during the year 1492.  It isn’t certain if Columbus landed in Discovery Bay or St. Ann’s Bay but I know there is a tourist attraction in Discovery Bay called Columbus Park. Greeting him were the Taino Indians who spoke the Arawak language.   Most references simply refer to the Taino’s as Arawak’s.  In 1510, the Spanish began colonizing the island and immediately enslaved the Arawak’s.  Within a few decades, they all died of diseases, overwork, malnutrition or were executed.  It was at this point in time that the slaves from Africa were introduced to take the place of the Arawak’s.  One source says it was the Arawak’s who had syphilis which eventually made it to Europe and the rest of the world.  Disappointed by the lack of gold or other riches, the Spanish were content to use Jamaica as a stop over port for their ships sailing throughout the Caribbean.

By 1655, Jamaica became very corrupt because of internal strife and lack of support from Spain.  The Spanish became easy prey for the British.  England didn’t plan an invasion of Jamaica but the failure of Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables to capture Hispaniola caused these two men to try to accomplish something out of a failed mission.  Conquering Jamaica from the Spanish was quite simple for the British.  For their efforts, Oliver Cromwell imprisoned both Penn and Venables in the tower of London.  The Spanish, in retreating from the island freed and armed their slaves in hopes they would join them should Spain attempt to retake Jamaica.  These slaves and their descendants later became known as the Maroons.

During the early years of British occupation, the notorious pirates were embraced to help protect the island.  Buccaneers, as they were called, got their name from the Spanish word for wooden rack (boucan).  These buccaneers were hunters on the island of Tortuga where they use wooden racks to dry the skin and meat of the cattle and pigs they hunted.  In their new found home these pirates made Port Royal the richest and wickedest city in the world.  It was during this time that famed pirate Henry Morgan became Lieutenant Governor of the island.  His body was buried in Port Royal in 1688, 4 years before the catastrophic earthquake plunged most of the city into the sea.

Perhaps the biggest problem the British had on the island were the Maroons.  These runaway slaves established themselves deep in the mountains where they consistently harassed the local farmers by stealing their livestock and burning their fields.  The British retaliated by sending troops deep into Cockpit Country where the Maroon’s lived.  They were no match for the Maroon’s who were highly trained in guerilla warfare.  Their ability to hide and move about through the thick forest was no match for the British.  While the Maroon’s hid in trees or dressed in branches from bushes, the British stood in single file adorned in their red uniforms and became easy targets.  Still the British persisted.  In 1739 the war ended with the Maroon’s being granted 1500 acres of land and granted complete freedom for its people.  The Maroon’s set up their own government and could punish its people as it saw fit unless the crimes occurred outside of their domain.  

Slavery was still rampant until it was abolished in 1807 with Emancipation taking place in 1838.  The final uprising occurred in St. James parish during the Christmas season of 1831 and was led by Sam Sharpe, a Baptist leader who is one of Jamaica’s national heroes.  Two other national heroes came out of the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865.  They were Paul Bogle and George William Gordon.  This uprising saw many whites murdered but the rebellion was squelched by Governor Eyre.  It resulted in the execution of hundreds of people while many more than that were flogged.  An earlier national hero was Nanny of The Maroon’s who lead the Maroon’s in battle against the British in the Maroon war.

Jamaica was prospering under British rule until after World War 1 when several factors, such as the Great Depression in the U.S. caused dissatisfaction among its people.  In 1938 Alexander Bustamante, another national hero, formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union.  Also in 1938, another national hero, Norman Manley, formed the Peoples National Party (PNP) which he hoped would lead to independence from British rule.  Manley and Bustamante were also cousins as well as allies.  Bustamante later had differences with the PNP and formed the Jamaica Labourite Party (JLP).  Jamaica’s first national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, was the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and has been credited with founding the black pride movement. 

Moving towards independence there was division between Manley’s PNP party and Bustamante but the latter finally agreed to support the movement.  In 1962 Bustamante became the first Prime Minister of Jamaica.  Now, 49 years later there are still discussions as to whether Jamaica would be better off still being part of the British Commonwealth.  Be that as it may, Jamaica is forging ahead and looking forward to celebrating 50 years of independence in 2012.  Later….

About the author

John Casey