In the Beginning
Jamaica was settled around 6000 B.C. by Stone Age people about whom little is known. They were displaced around A.D. 600 by the Arawak, Indians who originated in northern South America (probably in the area of modern Guyana). Skillful fishers and crafters of pottery and bead items, they had copper-colored skin and lived in thatch-covered huts similar to those used in parts of Jamaica today. The Arawak made flint knives and spears tipped with sharks' teeth, but they never developed the bow and arrow. They lived mainly on a diet of fish and turtle steak. The Arawak were completely unprepared for the horrors brought by the Spanish conquest.
In 1494, during his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus visited Jamaica and claimed the island for the Spanish monarchy. Although he quickly departed to search for gold and treasure elsewhere, he returned accidentally in 1503 to 1504, when he was stranded with a group of Spanish sailors for many months off Jamaica's northern coastline while they repaired their worm-eaten ships.
Beginning in 1509, Spaniards from the nearby colony of Santo Domingo established two settlements on Jamaica: one in the north (Nueva Sevilla, later abandoned) in modern St. Ann Parish; and another in the south, San Jago de la Vega (St. James of the Plain), on the site of present-day Spanish Town. Pirates estimated the Arawak population in Jamaica at the time to be about 60,000.
In 1513 the first African slaves reached Jamaica, and in 1520 sugar cane cultivation was introduced. In the 1540s the Spanish Crown grudgingly offered the entire island to Columbus's family as a reward for his service to Spain. Columbus's descendants did nothing to develop the island's vast potential, however. Angered by the lack of immediate profit (abundantly available from gold and silver mines in Mexico and Peru), the Spanish colonists accomplished very little other than to wipe out the entire Arawak population. Forced into slavery, every last Arawak was either executed or died of disease, overwork, or malnutrition.
Rasing the Union Jack
After 146 years as a badly and cruelly administered backwater of the Spanish Empire, Jamaica met with a change of fortune when a British armada arrived at Kingston Harbour in 1655. The fleet sailed on orders from Oliver Cromwell, but it had failed in its mission to conquer the well-fortified Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. Almost as an afterthought, it went on to Jamaica. Within a day, the Spaniards surrendered the whole island to the British, who allowed them to escape. Most of the Spaniards emigrated to nearby Cuba, although a handful remained secretly on the island's North Coast.
Six months later, British colonists arrived, but many died. In 1657 Spaniards based in Cuba initiated a last-ditch effort to recapture Jamaica. Two of the fiercest and biggest battles in Jamaican history pitted the Spanish against the British. The defection from the Spanish army by some Maroons (escaped slaves and their descendants living in the Jamaican mountains) led to the permanent exit in 1660 of Spanish troops from Jamaica. Humiliated, these soldiers escaped to Cuba in canoes.
In 1661 the British began to colonize Jamaica in earnest. They appointed a governor directly responsible to the Crown, with orders to create a governing council elected by the colonists. All children born of British subjects in Jamaica became free citizens of England. Within 2 years the population of Jamaica had grown to more than 4,000. Hostilities between England and Spain continued, with skirmishes and raids by the British on Spanish colonies in Cuba and Central America.
Earthquakes, Fires & Prosperity
British interest in Jamaica grew as opportunities for adding profit and territory increased. In 1687 Sir Hans Sloane, physician to powerful British aristocrats and namesake of London's Sloane Square, wrote two influential scholarly books on the geography, flora, fauna, and people of Jamaica. The volumes helped convince Britain to continue its investments in the island.
In 1690 a slave rebellion was crushed by the British, who executed its leaders. Some participants escaped to the mountains, where they joined the independent Maroons.
On June 7, 1692, just before noon, one of the most violent earthquakes in recorded history struck the city of Port Royal. In less than 20 minutes the three shocks, ascending in intensity, caused the sea to recede and then rush back with terrible force, drowning countless inhabitants. Much of the city actually dropped into the sea. A handful of survivors attempted to rebuild parts of the city, but in 1704 a great fire destroyed every building except a stone-sided fort.
Although the centerpiece of Jamaica had disappeared, the countryside was fast becoming one of the world's great producers of sugar -- mostly to sweeten the flood of tea being imported by Great Britain from Asia.
Power Struggles & Emancipation
The struggle for control of Jamaica intensified over the next 50 years as the island became one of the most profitable outposts of the British Empire, despite hurricanes, pirate raids, and slave rebellions. For ease of government, it was divided into 13 parishes, whose boundaries remain today.
Most troublesome for the British were the Maroons, who escaped control by fleeing into the mountains and forests. In 1734, in one of many dramatic battles, the British captured the Maroon stronghold of Nanny Town, destroying its buildings and killing many of its inhabitants. The survivors committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, preferring death to enslavement.
By 1739, however, both the British and the Maroons recognized the virtues of mutual cooperation, and signed a series of peace agreements. The Maroons were given tax-free land in different parts of the island and were allowed to govern themselves. In return, the Maroons also agreed to hunt down runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
By the time of the American Revolution, the population of Jamaica had reached almost 210,000, some 193,000 of whom were slaves. After 1776 the population increased as Loyalist residents of the United States moved south to Jamaica. An official census in 1800 revealed a Jamaican population of 300,000 blacks and 20,000 whites. This disparity was not lost upon either the powers in London or the leaders of the increasingly politicized blacks.
However, the boom times -- dependent on a supply of slave labor -- would not last. The importation of forced laborers from Africa was outlawed in 1807, and in 1838 slavery itself was made illegal in all British dependencies, including Jamaica. The sugar industry began to decline.
A Modern Age Dawns
Still, progress marched forward on other fronts, ushering in a more modern Jamaica less dependent on a plantation economy. Telegraph communication with Europe was established in 1869; nickel coins -- guaranteed by the Bank of England -- were issued for the first time. The educational system was improved, irrigation projects were initiated, and British tourism began to revive fortunes in the 1890s. A Lands Department was organized to sell government land to local farmers cheaply. Island teachers organized themselves into unions, and the railroad was extended to Jamaica's northeast tip at Port Antonio. New bridges and improved roads also helped open the island. Jamaican planters began investing heavily in the production of bananas.
On January 14, 1907, another great earthquake shattered much of Kingston, destroying or damaging nearly every building. More than 800 lives were lost, and total damage was estimated at £2 million. But Parliament and the Church of England spent massive funds to rebuild Kingston; the new street plan they created remains the basis for the city's layout to this day.
During World War I, Jamaica sent about 10,000 men to fight with British forces in Palestine, where they battled heroically against the Ottoman Empire. The war effort was complicated by hurricanes that devastated the island's banana crop, but progress was still made: In May 1917, for instance, Jamaican women were given the right to vote.
In 1938 Alexander Bustamante organized Jamaica's first officially recognized labor union. At first imprisoned but later freed and knighted by the British, he is today regarded as the founder of modern Jamaica.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Jamaica was placed under rigid control, as the governor set prices and censored the press, the telephones, the telegraph, and international mail. By 1943 many Jamaicans were moving north to the United States to work in munitions factories. During that same year, bauxite, the raw material for aluminum, was mined for the first time in St. Ann Parish. The next year, a new constitution provided for universal adult suffrage.
In 1957 Jamaica attained full internal self-government under a system based on well-established British models. Lengthy celebrations marked the event. The Montego Bay airport opened 2 years later, and the Kingston airport was expanded to handle the flood of visitors. Despite economic growth, however, large-scale emigration to Great Britain continued.
On August 6, 1962, Jamaica finally achieved its independence (though it still recognizes the British monarch as the formal head of state). Sir Alexander Bustamante, head of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), became the country's first prime minister. And the last British troops in Jamaica departed the island, officially ending a colonial era begun in 1655.
In 1966 Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia, came to Jamaica on a 3-day state visit. The stay sparked national interest in the emperor's life, and as a result there was a notable increase in Jamaican converts to Rastafarianism, a religion that venerates the late emperor, known earlier as Ras Tafari. During the 1970s the popularity of Rastafarian musician Bob Marley and other Jamaican reggae performers spread worldwide, carving a place for Jamaica on the international music stage.
In 1972 Michael Manley, a trade unionist who headed the left-wing People's National Party (PNP), was sworn in for the first of what would eventually be several terms as prime minister. Jamaicans began arguing vehemently about whether the nation should embrace socialism, and about its relationship with the United States. In 1977 Cuban President Fidel Castro paid a 6-day official visit, which led to a perception in Washington that Jamaican politics were increasingly shifting leftward.
Despite Manley's political prowess, Edward Seaga of the moderate JLP defeated him and became prime minister. Shortly afterward, Jamaica broke diplomatic ties with Cuba. Seaga's mandate was solidified during the 1983 elections. Seaga attempted to promote economic growth and cut inflation, but with little success. Unemployment rose, as did violent crime. Then, in September 1988, the island was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert, which destroyed 100,000 homes and affected a number of resort properties.
A more moderate Manley returned to power as prime minister in 1989, retiring in 1992 because of ill health; he was succeeded by Percival J. Patterson, also a moderate. In 1998 Patterson launched a crackdown on those who badgered tourists to buy or barter for drugs, sex, or merchandise. Jamaica also established night courts, making it possible for law-enforcement officers to appear in court without having to abandon their beats.
Still, in 2001 Jamaica saw yet another eruption of violence; gun battles between police and government opponents caused at least 40 deaths. To quell the violence, Patterson ordered out the entire Jamaican army of 3,000 soldiers. What sparked this violence wasn't clear.
In early 2002, the "queen of Jamaica" -- Queen Elizabeth II -- paid a royal visit. She came to show good will, but also stirred up controversy about why an independent nation still retained a European monarch as head of state -- a throwback to colonialism that many still resented. For his part, Patterson assured Jamaicans he would work to create a national identity more distinct than ever from the former days of British rule.
Jamaica faced a dim financial year in 2003, with a budget deficit of about 11%. High interest rates kept inflation in the single figures but the Jamaican dollar weakened.
In March of 2006, the Star Princess, carrying 2,690 passengers and 1,123 crew members -- and bound for its port of Montego Bay -- caught fire. Before it was put out, 1 passenger was dead, 11 people were injured, and at least 100 staterooms scorched. Apparently, the fire was started by a cigarette. Once in port, inspectors noted that metal was twisted because of the intensity of the heat.
In 2007, Orette Bruce Golding, the leader of Jamaica's Labour Party, became prime minister in a slim victory, making him the nation's eighth prime minister since independence.
To counter the slowdown in the world economy, Jamaica launched an aggressive ad campaign on TV in the United States, urging visitors to "come to Jamaica." It began in the 1990s and continues to this day.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.