Little is known about the island’s early history, except that there are many traces of Arawak habitation, and that Arawaks, agriculturists who made good-quality textiles and pottery, were living there when Christopher Columbus landed on 14 May 1494, on his second American voyage of exploration. He named the island Santiago (Saint-James). However, the name was never adopted and it kept its Arawak name Xaymaca, of which ‘Jamaica’ is a corruption. Lacking gold, Jamaica was used mainly as a staging post in the scramble for the wealth of the Americas.
The Spanish arrival was a disaster to the indigenous peoples, great numbers of whom were sent to Spain as slaves, others used as slaves on site, and many killed by the invaders, despite the efforts of Spanish Christian missionaries to prevent these outrages. There were no Arawaks left on the island by 1665, but there were enslaved Africans replacing them.
In 1645 the British captured Jamaica from the Spaniards, whose former slaves refused to surrender, took to the mountains and repelled all attempts to subjugate them. These people came to be known as Maroons (from the Spanish cimarron, meaning ‘wild’, a word applied to escaped slaves). Between 1660 and 1670 pirates used Jamaica as a place of resort.
In 1670 Spain formally ceded the island to Britain. Two years later the Royal Africa Company, a slave-trading enterprise, was formed. The company used Jamaica as its chief market, and the island became a centre of slave trading in the West Indies. Nonetheless, the battles of the Maroons to retain their freedom succeeded when, in 1740, the British authorities recognised their rights to freedom and ownership of property.
Settlers, using slave labour, developed sugar, cocoa, indigo and later coffee estates. The island was very prosperous by the time of the Napoleonic wars (1792–1814), exporting sugar and coffee; but after the wars sugar prices dropped, and the slave trade was abolished in 1807. After the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the plantations were worked by indentured Indian and Chinese labourers. Sugar prices fell again in 1846. Jamaica’s worsening economic situation caused widespread suffering and discontent. In October 1865, a political protest at Morant Bay organised by G W Gordon developed into an uprising during which the local magistrate and 18 other Europeans were killed. The governor, E J Eyre, declared martial law and launched a punitive campaign of ruthless severity, with several executions without trial, including the hanging of Gordon, who had not instigated any violence. The reaction in Britain was astonished outrage. Eyre was removed from office and Jamaica placed under Crown colony rule (1866). The banana industry was established in the second half of the 19th century, on big estates and smallholdings. In the early 20th century, Jamaicans worked on banana plantations in Central America and Cuba, and in the construction of the Panama Canal.
Jamaica’s first colonial constitution gave considerable power to settlers. The governor’s council included senior figures such as the bishop and Chief Justice, but the representative assembly was controlled by white settlers. After the imposition of direct Crown colony rule in 1866, settlers lost their power and the Governor was advised only by the mainly nominated privy council. With amendments, this constitution was retained until 1944.
In 1938, the People’s National Party (PNP), led by Norman Manley, was formed to campaign for independence. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Sir Alexander Bustamante, was founded in 1943.
In 1944, an executive council, with half its members elected by universal adult franchise, was established. In 1953, ministers from the council took over most portfolios, and Bustamante became Chief Minister. Manley followed, in 1955. When Jamaica joined the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, it had full internal self- government with a legislative council (Senate) and legislative assembly (holding real power).
On independence in 1962 Bustamante was Prime Minister. With bauxite in demand, tourism flourishing and a revival in bananas, Jamaica’s economy boomed.
In 1972, the PNP, led by Norman Manley’s son, Michael, won the elections, and remained in office until 1980, when the JLP under Edward Seaga came to power. The PNP, again under the leadership of Michael Manley, won the elections of 1989.
Due to ill health, Prime Minister Michael Manley retired in March 1992 and was succeeded by P J Patterson, who led the PNP to another victory at elections in March 1993. The PNP won 52 seats, the JLP eight.
Jamaican politics was preoccupied with economic and security issues during the 1990s and this resulted in a high incidence of strikes, with all parties favouring economic liberalisation. In late 1995 the JLP split, leading to the creation of a third party, the National Democratic Movement, headed by Bruce Golding, former chairman of the JLP.
Patterson and the PNP were returned in the general election in December 1997. The poll had been relatively peaceful and the international team of observers led by former US President Jimmy Carter judged it free and fair. With 56 per cent of the votes the PNP took 50 of the 60 seats in the lower house, while the JLP received 39 per cent of the votes and took ten seats.