Understanding our history means understanding why Jamaicans are as resilient and laid-back as we’re known to be. We are a diverse nation because of our past and continue to be a multicultural melting pot offering experiences dipped in unique blends of traditions preserved from centuries ago.
Indegenous People of Jamaica
Our documented history begins when Christopher Columbus first came to Jamaica in May of 1494. He was thoroughly impressed with what he saw as noted in his logs “the fairest island that eyes have beheld: mountains and the land seem to touch the sky … all full of valleys and fields and plains.”
He later brought other Spanish settlers who colonized the land and forced the Tainos, American-Indian people who had already occupied the land, into unpaid labor. The Tainos were a gente people who named the island “Xaymaca,” meaning “land of wood and water.” The words “hurricane,” “tobacco,” and “barbecue” were also derived from their language. Konoko Falls is home to an extensive museum dedicated to the Tainos.
Eventually, the Taino population perished completely due to a combination of forced labor as well as the diseases the Spanish brought with them, like the common cold, for which the Tainos had no immunity.
The Spanish established the city we now know as Ocho Rios where explorations continue in an effort to unearth Columbus’ ships beached somewhere in this region.
The History of Jamaica
The Spanish were the first to bring sugarcane and slavery to the island. They ruled the land for a century and a half until they were defeated by the English in 1655. Slavery and sugar cultivation became Jamaica’s main trade, making the English planters incredibly wealthy.
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.” However, in 1692, an earthquake destroyed Port Royal, pushing it below the sea.
What’s left of Port Royal today stands proudly as a relic of its colored past. A visit to the naval base and the museum there, followed by a fresh seafood meal at an outdoor seaside restaurant, makes for a memorable cultural outing.
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. Every year on January 6, the Maroons celebrate the signing of this treaty and visitors are welcomed to partake in the lively song and dance within the sacred lands.
Abolishment of Slavery
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. Monuments to all Jamaican heroes can be viewed in the National Heroes Park in Kingston where the Jamaica Defence Force performs an entertaining Changing of the Guards ceremony each day at noon.
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 1930s, 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.