The history of Jamaica is one of passion and pain — the peaceful thirst for freedom intertwined with violent resistance to oppression. Through the tribulations of Jamaican history, a rich and dynamic Jamaican culture has emerged, with its own unique music, dialect, beliefs, and values.
The human history of Jamaica began a little over a thousand years ago, when Arawak American Indians arrived in the island from South America. The Arawaks were a peaceful people who thrived by hunting, fishing, and growing yams, beans, and other crops (including corn for eating and alcohol production). The people of this first Jamaican culture developed skills in such crafts as pottery making and shipbuilding.
The Arawaks' peaceful existence was shattered when Christopher Columbus landed on St. Ann's Bay in 1494, on the second of his four voyages to the new world, beginning the Spanish period of Jamaican history. Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest of Jamaica, the Arawaks were almost completely eradicated by disease, slavery, and violent treatment. In 1517, the Spanish began importing African slaves to buck up their depleted forced labor.
During the Spanish history of Jamaica, the island was
relatively ignored by Spain because it did not have the wealth of its South and Central
American colonies. Remnants of Spanish Jamaican culture
are few and far between, mostly seen in the architecture
of the old capital at present-day Spanish Town.
In the mid-17th century, the English government under Lord Cromwell decided to break the Spanish trade monopoly in the Americas. A force led by Admiral William Penn (the father of the founder of Pennsylvania) and General Robert Venables captured Jamaica for the British in 1655. The island would remain part of the British Empire for the next three hundred years of Jamaican history.
Britain was at war with
Spain for much of the 1600s. To aid in its struggle, Britain
enlisted the help of buccaneers (or pirates), who harassed
Spanish ships and settlements throughout the Americas
from bases in Jamaica. The most important base was Port
Royal, near present-day Kingston.
Famous pirates from this period of Jamaica history include
Blackbeard, Captain Morgan, and Calico Jack.
The local pirates were suppressed in the 1690s after Britain concluded its wars against Spain, but a new force was already dominant in Jamaican culture: the slave plantations. By 1800, 300,000 slaves of Africa descent worked under harsh conditions on vast sugar plantations.
Jamaica was the site of many fierce slave uprisings. For years, Maroons — descendents of slaves freed by the Spanish in 1655 and runaway slaves from British rule — fought a guerilla struggle against plantation owners and British forces. The largest revolt in Jamaica history occurred in 1831, when an initially peaceful protest against working on Christmas turned violent. The oppressive response to the "Christmas Revolt" helped convince the British parliament to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834.
The legacy of slavery has loomed large over Jamaican culture in the subsequent history of Jamaica. Jamaicans have a fierce nationalism and identify strongly with Africa, to the extent that "world news" in Jamaica often features more stories on Africa than the Americas. Even after abolition, workers on Jamaica's sugar and banana plantations have had to struggle for rights and better treatment. This has led to the formation of a strong labor movement and occasional outbursts of violence.
Jamaica was granted autonomy from the UK in 1947 and full independence in 1962, although it remains a part of the British Commonwealth and the Queen of England is still the nominal head of state. Since independence, Jamaican politics have been dominated by two political parties, the left-leaning People's National Party and the center-right Jamaican Labour Party.
Recent Jamaica history has seen the rise of the tourist industry, the development of a internationally renowned Jamaican music industry, and the invention of a unique Rastafarian culture. Drugs, crime, and poverty are continuing problems in Jamaican culture, but the struggles of Jamaican history have forged a unique and vibrant nation.