Members of the Arawak tribe, an important group of the Arawakan linguistic stock of Native North Americans, were the aboriginal inhabitants of Jamaica (the Arawakan word Xaymaca, meaning “isle of springs”). Christopher Columbus sighted the island during his second voyage, and it became a Spanish colony in 1509. Saint Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town), the first settlement and, for the ensuing 350 years, the capital, was founded about 1523. Colonization was slow under Spanish rule. The Arawak quickly died out as a result of harsh treatment and diseases. African slaves were imported to overcome the resultant labor shortage.
Jamaica was captured by an English naval force under Sir William Penn in 1655. The island was formally transferred to England in 1670 under the provisions of the Treaty of Madrid. During the final decades of the 17th century, growing numbers of English immigrants arrived; the sugar, cacao, and other agricultural and forest industries were rapidly expanded; and the consequent demand for plantation labor led to large-scale importation of black slaves. Jamaica soon became one of the principal slave-trading centers in the world. In 1692 Port Royal, the chief Jamaican slave market, was destroyed by an earthquake. Kingston was established nearby shortly thereafter. By parliamentary legislation passed in 1833, slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834. The act made available $30 million as compensation to the owners of the nearly 310,000 liberated slaves.
Large numbers of the freed blacks abandoned the plantations following emancipation and took possession of unoccupied lands in the interior, gravely disrupting the economy. Labor shortages, bankrupt plantations, and declining trade resulted in a protracted economic crisis. Oppressive taxation, discriminatory acts by the courts, and land-exclusion measures ultimately caused widespread unrest among the blacks. In October 1865 an insurrection occurred at Port Morant. Imposing martial law, the government speedily quelled the uprising and inflicted brutal reprisals. Jamaica was made a crown colony, thus losing the large degree of self-government it had enjoyed since the late 17th century. Representative government was partly restored in 1884.
Jamaica was one of the British colonies that, on January 3, 1958, was united in the Federation of the West Indies. Disagreement over the role Jamaica would play led to the breakup of the federation, and on August 6, 1962, the island gained independence. The JLP won the elections of April 1962, and its leader, Sir Alexander Bustamante, became prime minister. In 1967 he retired and was succeeded by Hugh Lawson Shearer. In 1968 Jamaica was a founding member of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA).
Elections in 1972 brought the PNP to power under Michael N. Manley, a labor leader who promised economic growth. His leftist policies and open friendship with Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro, however, polarized the population. When he proved unable to revitalize the economy, Manley was voted out in 1980 following a turbulent election campaign that left about 800 Jamaicans dead, mainly as a result of clashes between political gangs. Election-related violence remained a part of Jamaica’s political scene into the 1990s.
Edward Seaga of the JLP, a former finance minister, then formed a government. Repudiating socialism, he severed relations with Cuba, established close ties with the United States, and tried hard to attract foreign capital. However, weak prices for Jamaica’s mineral exports impeded economic recovery. In September 1988 Hurricane Gilbert caused an estimated $8 billion in property damage and left some 500,000 Jamaicans homeless.
The PNP won a large parliamentary majority in 1989, returning Manley to power. He introduced moderate free-market policies before resigning in March 1992 because of poor health. P(ercival) J. Patterson succeeded him as prime minister and PNP leader. In the 1993 elections, the PNP maintained its majority in the House and Patterson continued as prime minister. In 1997 the PNP won an unprecedented third consecutive electoral victory, capturing 56 percent of the vote and taking most of the elected seats in Jamaica’s Parliament. Although sporadic violence did occur during the campaign, international observers reported that the 1997 election was one of the least violent elections in Jamaica’s recent history.
In 2002 the PNP continued its electoral success, again winning the majority of Parliament’s elected seats. Patterson continued as prime minister, and he pledged to improve the island’s economy and lower its high murder rate.