Although archaeologists suggest the Arawakan-speaking Tainos settled Jamaica about 800 CE (Common Era), there were others before who left behind red pottery.

The Tainos named the island ‘Xaymaca’, meaning ‘land of wood and water’.  Incidentally the words ‘hurricane’, ‘tobacco’ and ‘barbecue’ were also derived from their language.  The Tainos grew cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, fruits, vegetables, cotton and tobacco.  Tobacco was grown on a large scale as smoking was their most popular pastime.  The Tainos built villages throughout the island.  As fish was a major part of their diet, many of their 60,000 person settlements were along the coasts and near rivers.

Caribbean Sea (area sometimes called West Indies)

The European Invasion

The Spanish King and Queen funded Columbus, a Portuguese, to find a westerly trade route from Europe to India and the East Indies.  With his westerly travels taking him to the Caribbean, this area is sometimes termed the West Indies.  Boasting of the timid inhabitants and fertile lands, he was funded for 3 more trips to this New World.  On his second voyage he landed in Xaymaca (Jamaica) on May 5, 1494.  Having heard the Cubans describe Jamaica as ‘the land of blessed gold’, Columbus was disappointed there was no gold in Jamaica.

Christopher Columbus spent 1503–04 shipwrecked in Jamaica and it is said the Spanish crown granted the island to the Columbus family.  In 1509 the Spanish Governor Juan de Esquivel established the island’s first capital, Sevilla la Nueva (New Seville), about a mile west of St. Ann’s Bay on the north coast.  This settlement is said to be the oldest Spanish settlement in Jamaica and one of the first cities established by Europeans in the Americas.  In 1534 the capital was moved to Villa de la Vega (later Santiago de la Vega and then St Jago de la Vega), now called Spanish Town.  It was the centre of government and trade and had many churches and convents.

Under Spanish rule the island remained poor as few Spaniards settled in Jamaica.  The island served as a supply base of food, men, arms and horses shipped to aid in conquering the American mainland. 

The Spanish enslaved many of the Tainos; some escaped, but most died from European diseases and overwork.  The Spaniards also introduced African slaves to cultivate the newly introduced sugar cane plantations.  By the early 17th century the island’s population was reduced to about 3,000.

The English Rule

On May 10, 1655, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables led a successful attack on Jamaica.  The Spaniards surrendered to the English, freed their slaves and then fled to Cuba.  It was this set of freed slaves and their descendants who became known as the Maroons.  The Maroons adapted to life in the wilderness by establishing remote defensible settlements, cultivating scattered plots of land notably with plantains and yams, hunting, and developing herbal medicines.

The English turned a blind eye to the buccaneers based in Port Royal.  The buccaneers attacked the treasure ships of Spain and France, ensuring these other Europeans were too busy to seriously attempt to capture Jamaica from the English.  Under the buccaneers’ leadership within a decade and a half Port Royal grew to become known as one of the ‘wealthiest and wickedest city in the world’.

One of the most famous buccaneer was a young indentured labourer from Wales named Henry Morgan, born abound 1635.  Arriving in Jamaica in 1655 he became a captain of a small privateering vessel in 1662.  His tactical approach to attacks in the Caribbean resulted in great financial income and an excellent reputation.  Morgan was promoted to a vice-admiral of the Jamaican fleet.  He was knighted and appointed deputy governor of Jamaica in 1673.  Morgan died in 1688 and was buried in Palisadoes cemetery which sank into the sea during the 1692 earthquake.

The English authorities began to suppress the buccaneers after signing the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, which recognised the English claim to Jamaica.

Like the Spanish, the English concerned themselves with growing crops that could easily be sold in England.  Thus tobacco, indigo and cacao were overtaken by sugar cane plantations with the term ‘as rich as a West Indian planter’ meaning the richest person around.  The sugar industry grew so rapidly that the 57 Jamaican sugar cane estates in 1673 grew to nearly 430 by 1739.

This growth was supported by the ongoing slave trade and transport route called the ‘Middle Passage’.  This 3-sided voyage started with England trading goods (especially ammunition) with Africa where these were exchanged for slaves.  Then the journey continued to the Caribbean where the slaves were landed and sugar, rum and molasses taken aboard for the final leg of the journey back to England. 

Map of World showing Europe, Africa and the Caribbean

The Royal African Company was re-formed in 1672 creating an English slave trade monopoly that branded its initials on the slaves’ chests.  Jamaica became one of the world’s busiest slave markets with a thriving smuggling trade to Spanish America.  Jamaica’s sugar production peaked in the 18th century, dominating the local economy and depending increasingly on the slave trade as a cheap labour source.  Small farmers diversified into coffee, cotton, and indigo production, and by the late 18th century coffee rivalled sugar as an export crop.

Fight for Emancipation

Who wants to be a slave!!

A slave’s life was brutal and short, because of high incidences of tropical and imported diseases and harsh working conditions.  In addition the number of slave deaths was consistently larger than the number of births.  Europeans fared much better but were also susceptible to tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria.  Despite those conditions, slave traffic and European immigration increased, and the island’s population grew from a few thousand in the mid-17th century to about 18,000 in the 1680s, with slaves accounting for more than half of the total.

Slaves rebelled whenever they could, with many successful in running away from the plantations to join the Maroons in the almost inaccessible mountains.  Maroons intermittently used guerrilla tactics against Jamaican militia and English troops, who had destroyed many Maroon settlements in 1686.

The story continues in Road to Independence -Part 2.  Read more then.

4 thoughts on “Jamaica’s Road to Independence – Part 1

    • Hope Kidd says:

      Dear Robyn,
      I am interested in their history.
      Would appreciate you preparing a blog on this. Let me know your time frame.

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