Spanish Town

History of Jamaica

what makes us, us

Our journey is a truly remarkable story. It is a story of resilience and diversity, written by Jamaicans who are world changers and global luminaries.

Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica on May 4, 1494. In his log, he described Jamaica as "the fairest island that eyes have beheld: mountains and the land seem to touch the sky…all full of valleys and fields and plains.”

In Jamaica, the Spanish mariners found a gentle American Indian people, the Tainos, who named the island “Xaymaca”, meaning “land of wood and water”. The words “hurricane”, “tobacco” and “barbecue” were also derived from their language. 

Under the Spanish settlement the entire Indian population, perhaps a hundred thousand, died from a combination of forced labor and European infections like the common cold, to which they had no immunity. 

In 1509, the Spaniards established a capital, New Seville, near the town of Ocho Rios. The Spaniards actually called the area Las Chorreras, meaning “waterfalls”. The English misunderstood, interpreting Las Chorreras to mean “eight rivers”, hence the name Ocho Rios. Today, the foundations of New Seville are under excavation and the search continues for the two ships that Columbus beached nearby. There is also an attempt to identify the first settlement of the early Spanish settlers in the area. In their century and a half of rule, the Spaniards brought sugar cane, and later, slaves from Africa to cultivate the cane. 

The English captured Jamaica in 1655 and turned the island into one vast sugar plantation, making the planters rich. In England, they used to say “as rich as a West Indian planter” to mean the richest person around. To grow the sugar cane the English brought many more Africans to work as slaves, mostly from the west coast of the continent and from present-day Nigeria. Buccaneers soon operated out of Jamaica, attacking the treasure ships of Spain and France. One was a young indentured laborer from Wales named Henry Morgan. He would prosper and rise to Lieutenant Governor. His home base, Port Royal, was known as the “richest and wickedest city in Christendom”. But, in 1692, an earthquake destroyed Port Royal, pushing it below the sea. 

When the English arrived, the Spaniards fled to the neighboring islands. Their slaves escaped into the mountains and formed their own independent groups, called Maroons. The Maroons were in time joined by other slaves who escaped from the English. For a long time, they fought against the English who sought to re-enslave them. So successful were the Maroons, fighting from their fortresses, that the English were forced to sign peace treaties granting the Maroons self-government and ceding to them the mountain lands that they inhabited. The runaways periodically staged rebellions until the treaty in 1739 that gave them a measure of local autonomy that they still retain today. Slavery was abolished in 1834. In the economic chaos that followed emancipation, one event stood out: the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. The uprising was led by a black Baptist deacon named Paul Bogle and was supported by a wealthy Kingston businessman, George William Gordon. Both were executed and are now among Jamaica’s national heroes. In the years that followed, much of modern Jamaica was forged. Migrants from India and China came as indentured workers for sugar estates and rapidly moved to other occupations. Soon Jewish settlers came to Jamaica, followed by migrant traders from the Middle East. All together these groups created the diverse people of Jamaica today, to which we owe the national motto “Out of Many, One People’.

In the 1930’s, politics in Jamaica was born. Two very dissimilar men, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante (who, in a uniquely Jamaican coincidence, happened to be cousins), founded the two major political parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party, respectively. On August 6, 1962, at a midnight ceremony witnessed by Britain’s Princess Margaret and U.S. Vice president Lyndon Johnson, the British Union Jack was lowered; the new black, gold and green Jamaican flag was raised and Jamaica became an independent nation.