For centuries, Jamaica has welcomed settlers from all around the world. This small island has played host to the Amerindians who discovered it, to Europeans who fought to own it, to Africans forced to call it home, and to Asians, Indians and Middle Easterners searching for a better life. Each group carried with it a story and tradition, throwing everything into Jamaica's melting pot. After centuries of brewing, all have blended together to give the island its rich history and heritage - an international smorgasbord of legends, cultures and customs, all displayed right here against the background of Jamaica’s beautiful mountains and valleys.
Jamaica’s first inhabitants were the Tainos, an Arawak-speaking people, believed to be originally from South America. The Tainos called the island "Xaymaca" meaning "land of wood and water". These peaceful, seafaring people greeted Columbus when he first visited the island in 1494.
Columbus described Jamaica as "the fairest isle mine eyes ever beheld …" His arrival marked the beginning of nearly 500 years of European occupation and governance. Initially, the Spanish settled near St Ann's Bay at "Sevilla Nueva" (New Seville), but eventually moved to "Villa de la Vega" (the city on the plains), now called "Spanish Town". Their new city swiftly flourished, becoming the island's centre of activity.
During the 1650s, the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish. In a last-ditch attempt at defiance, the Spanish settlers freed and armed their slaves, who sought refuge in the island’s interior. The Maroons, as these ex-slaves came to be called, continuously defied the island's new colonisers. The only army ever to defeat the mighty British, the Maroons still exist in modern-day Jamaica.
Under British rule, Jamaica became a busy and wealthy colony. By the 18th century, the island was "the jewel of the British crown", producing 22 percent of the world's sugar on large, lucrative plantations. This success came at great cost to the African people, thousands of whom were forcefully brought to the New World as slaves.
As a result of the cruel and oppressive slavery system, Jamaica had more revolts than other West Indian islands. Reports of frequent slave uprisings and other forms of resistance, coupled with brutal planter-militia reprisals, troubled the European conscience. In time, anti-slavery sentiments grew strong in Europe, culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1834. The Act made provision for all slaves under the age of six to gain immediate freedom. All others were to serve a period of apprenticeship for four to six years. The apprenticeship period worked well in theory. In practice, however, it was little better than slavery. Planters continued to abuse their apprentices, and withheld guaranteed provisions and wages. Subsequently, full emancipation was granted in 1838, two years earlier than planned.
Eager to sever connections with the symbol of their enslavement, many labourers left the plantation, settling across the island. To provide an alternative, affordable workforce, the planters recruited indentured workers from China and India. After their period of indenture, many Chinese and Indians stayed on the island, adding to Jamaica’s eclectic mix of cultures.
After 1838, sugar productivity and profitability declined, forcing Jamaica to diversify its economy. Although crops such as bananas and coffee provided sound substitutes, other industries eventually became the driving force of Jamaica’s economy, outgrowing agricultural exports.
Like the changing economy, Jamaican politics also transformed with the end of slavery. In 1866, the island implemented the crown colony system of government. Under this new system promises of education, health care and other social reforms gave hope to a newly freed generation. But decades later, social disappointment festered, leading to a spate of incidents of civil unrest, and heralding the birth of the trade union movement.
Out of these disturbances arose Jamaica’s foremost labour organisations and political parties. Norman Manley's People's National Party and Alexander Bustamante's Jamaica Labour Party would go on to dominate Jamaica's political scene into the 21st century.
Two important and significant changes – universal adult suffrage in 1944 and independence from Britain in 1962 - set the stage for a people once conquered, controlled and constrained, to become themselves the architects of a new nation.