Brief History of Jamaica
Compiled from various history books by
I. Pre-Colombian Jamaica
Prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1494, Jamaica was inhabited
by Arawaks, living in simple communities based on fishing, hunting,
and small scale cultivation of cassava. The impact of the contact
with the Spanish was traumatic, and these communities disappeared
in 70-80 years. Plunder, disruption of economic activities, new
diseases, and migration decimated the indigenous population. Only
a few artifacts-facts, examples of which are on display at the small
museum at White Marl, and a few Spanish corruptions of place names
(such as Ocho Rios) remain from this period. Otherwise, there is
no Arawak influence on the subsequent development of life on the
II. The Spanish Occupation, 1494-1655
Disappointed by the absence of gold on the island, the Spanish used
Jamaica as a base for supporting the conquest of the Americas, particularly
Mexico with its treasures of gold and silver. The population of
the Spanish settlement, including their slaves, was never large.
It was administered from the Town of Santiago de la Vega, now called
Spanish Town, and much of the architecture of the original buildings
is still evident today in the town square. Economic activity consisted
primarily of production for domestic consumption, and to a lesser
extent the supply of Spanish ships.
In 1655, it was captured by the British expedition led by Admirals
Penn and Venables, following their unsuccessful invasion of Hispaniola.
By this time, the island was of little significance to the Spanish
crown, and accordingly, very little was done to defend it against
the British. As with the previous period, the influence of the Spanish
settlement on the subsequent social, economic and political life
of the island was marginal. Apart from remnants of buildings with
Spanish colonial architectural styles, and names of places, there
is very little visible evidence of the Spanish occupation.
III. The Slave Economy, 1655-1838
After a brief period of experimenting with indentured European labor,
the British turned to large scale importation of Africans to be
used as slaves on the sugar plantations. In its hey-day, Jamaica
was one of "the jewels in the English crown" because of
the fabulous prosperity it brought to the English plantation owners
directly, and indirectly to those cities, such as Liverpool and
Bristol, which serviced the trade with Jamaica and the rest of the
British Caribbean (West Indies). Plantation slavery was based on
the Triangular trade among England (manufactured goods), Africa
(slaves), and the Caribbean (sugar), which itself was the basis for what later emerged as the
international economy. International trade was so important to the
Jamaican economy that when the American war of independence disrupted
trade between what was then the "North American colonies"
and the Caribbean, 15,000 thousands of slaves died of starvation
in Jamaica alone.
The plantation dominated economic life in every sense. It occupied
the best lands, the laws supported the slave system, and in general
all commercial and other economic activity depended on the rhythm
of activity of the plantation. Some slaves inevitably ran away from
the estates to live in small bands in the mountains as Maroons.
In recognition of her leadership in the Maroon wars against the
British, Nanny was eventually named a national hero. Except
for the Maroons, all agricultural activity took place on the plantations.
The towns served as the commercial sites for the export of sugar
and the importation of the inputs for production.
The political system consisted of a governor and his executive
council, and an assembly of representatives elected on a limited
franchise determined by property ownership. The politics of this
period was characterized by an uneasy alliance between the governor
as the representative of the crown, and the Assembly of planters,
against the slaves. Frequently, the alliance broke down, invariably
over taxation of the plantations.
By the close of the 18th century, sugar was losing its economic
preeminence because of competition from beet sugar as well as 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.
IV. The Development of the Peasantry. 1838-1938
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.
V. The National Movement and Decolonization, 1938-1962
The roots of the national movement for independence reach back into
the struggles for land in the 19th century. More immediately, it
was inspired by the political ideas and agitation of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, one of Jamaica's national
heroes, and precipitated by the reaction of the sugar and dock workers
to the economic crisis spawned by the Great Depression. It emerged
as a political force in the context of the rebellion in 1938. Its
most enduring political institutions, are the two major political
parties, and the labor unions affiliated to them. Both the founder
of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the Bustamante Industrial Trades
Union (BITU), Alexander Bustamante, and the founder of the People's
National Party (PNP) and the National Workers Union (NWU), Norman
Manley, have been declared national heroes for their individual
and combined efforts in securing political independence from England.
The constitutional change that facilitated the emergence of these
parties was the granting of adult suffrage and a measure of self-government
The period 1944- 1962 not only saw major political changes, but
also major transformations of the structure of the economy. From
a monocrop export economy, the economy became diversified around
the export of sugar, bananas and other agricultural commodities,
the export of bauxite and alumina, and the tourist industry. These
in turn, stimulated a vibrant construction industry, and an import
substituting manufacturing sector. The USA displaced the UK as Jamaica's
principal trading partner. There was also a tremendous migration
of labor to the UK and the USA which needed labor for the post-war
reconstruction and expansion of their economies.
VI. The First Decade of Political Independence, 1962-1972
Political Independence was granted in 1962, following Jamaica's
rejection, by referendum, of membership in the Federation of the
West Indies. Jamaica was given a Westminister style constitution,
with a Governor-general as the representative of the British Crown,
and a bicameral Parliament. There is a House of Representatives
consisting of elected representatives and a Senate appointed by
the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The government
is headed by a Prime Minister, who is required to consult with the
Governor General and the Leader of the Opposition on certain matters.
The first two governments were formed by the JLP, which had opposed
membership in the Federation.
The post-war boom in the economy continued through the 60's, though
it gradually slowed down, with the completion of the investment
cycle of the bauxite/alumina industry. By the end of the decade,
there were well established mining, tourism, manufacturing, and
construction sectors, alongside the traditional agricultural and
VII. The Second Decade of Political Independence
Between 1972 and 1980, the PNP, the other major political party,
held political office and initiated a shift in major economic policies.
Most notable was the imposition of the Bauxite Levy in 1974, in
order to increase Jamaica's share of the income in that industry.
The government positioned the state in the leadership role within
the process of economic development, with a view to attenuating
and rectifying the inherited economic inequalities.
Related to this was an ideology of social reform to protect the
weakest sections of the population, and to promote the welfare of
the poor through subsidized food, housing, education, health, and
other important social services. In international affairs, Jamaica
opened up relations with many non-capitalist countries, and promoted
the solidarity of the Third World in international negotiations
with the advanced countries.
The international economy was quite unfavorable for a number of
reasons. The main ones were the weakness of the aluminum market,
and hence, the bauxite industry, the inflation of oil and food prices,
and the decline and reversal of capital inflows for private investment.
All of this contributed to the decline in the economy, with the
attendant problems of unemployment, inflation, and growing external
indebtedness. By the end of the decade, the government sought assistance
from the IMF and the World Bank, and since then these two institutions,
along with the USAID, have determined the policy framework of the
VIII. The Third Decade of Political Independence
From 1980 to 1989, the JLP held political office. They were committed
to the same free market development policies as the IMF, the World
Bank, and the USAID. Because of a special political relationship
with the Reagan administration, Jamaica benefited from generous
USA assistance in the first half of the decade. The economy was
substantially deregulated, the currency was devalued, and many public
enterprises were divested in the process of adjustment, which has
now been on-going for some 14 years.
The eighties saw the development of Free Zone manufacturing especially
of garments for export to the USA, the gradual recovery of bauxite/alumina
production, and the rapid growth of tourism from North America.
In the process, the traditional international economic relations,
particularly with the USA, were strengthened at the expense of regional
relations, such as Caricom trade.
The eighties also saw large volumes of emigrants, primarily to
the USA, swelling the ranks of established overseas Jamaican communities,
and creating new ones. Jamaicans are contributing in every sphere
of human activity, and distinguishing themselves in cultural activities,
such as music, and sports. In addition, Jamaicans have been accumulating
significant quantities of wealth in assets in the USA and other