Knowing Jamaica


Culture & History - History

Jamaican history is chock-full of interesting stories featuring colourful characters. The island went through periods of colonization by Spain and Britain and both European nations left a legacy in Jamaica. Here are some critical dates and events in the historical development of Jamaica.

Prior to 1494

The Taino Indians were the original inhabitants of Jamaica. The history books suggests that the Tainos came from South America and arrived in Jamaica via the chain of islands, supposedly trying to outrun another set of Indians.


During his second voyage to the new world, Christopher Columbus attempted to come ashore near St. Ann’s Bay, but is blocked by Tainos, and the lack of a good supply of fresh water. He landed the next day (May 5) at Discovery Bay (which he named Horseshoe Bay due to the shape of the land!).


Columbus returned to Jamaica during his fourth voyage and ran aground with one of his ships. He was stranded in Jamaica for a full year, the longest he spent in any one place in the “new” world.


The Spaniards established the first European settlement on the island – Sevilla Nueva – and literally began working the Taino Indians to death. And where hard work didn’t succeed, the exposure to European diseases completed the job. Within 150 years, the Taino population was decimated! The first Africans also came to the island around the same time – as body servants to the Spaniards!


Due to the swampy nature of the area, Sevillia Nueva is deemed unhealthy and a new settlement is established. Named Santiago de la Vega, or St. Jago de la Vega, meaning St. James in the plain, the town would eventually become known as Spanish Town. The new parish of St. Catherine was formed in that year.


On May 10, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables led an attack on the Spaniards, and captured Jamaica. Before fleeing to Cuba the Spaniard released their slaves, who fled to the hills and formed the Maroons.


It was Sir Thomas Modyford who provided royal protection for the buccaneers allowing them to attack Spanish merchant ships and colonies. Port Royal served as their headquarters, and swiftly became “the richest and wickedest city in Christendom.”


Jamaica was formally ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Madrid.


A devastating earthquake hit Port Royal, sending a significant portion of the town to the bottom of the sea.


After several wars between the British and the Maroons, two peace treaties were signed. In the 1740 treaty, the Maroons were granted land and the right to self-government. In return, they were to help in the recapture of runaway slave. This did not sit well with all the Maroon groups.


The second Maroons war breaks out. More than 600 Maroons are deported to Canada, then to Sierra Leone, becoming the first Africans repatriated from the new world.


The government of Britain abolished the slave trade in British colonies.


Samuel Sharpe, an educated slave in St. James, led the Christmas slave rebellion which began on the Kensington Estate in Montego Bay. The authorities were very severe in their response and Sharpe was executed in the town square.


Slavery was abolished in all British colonies. In 1838 Britain pays compensation to Jamaican slave-owners and full freedom was given to the enslaved population.


The Morant Bay Rebellion, led by Baptist deacon Paul Bogle, stormed the Morant Bay Court House. Unfortunately, several white people died, including the custos of the parish. The Governor responded with a heavy hand, execcuting 430 “conspirators’, including Bogle and George William Gordon.


The Capital of Jamaica is moved from Spanish Town to Kingston.


Much of downtown Kingston is destroyed by a great earthquake and fire.


Many persons see this as a flashpoint year for Jamaica. The disparity between rich and poor fostered widespread social riots. One of the rising political leaders, Alexander Bustamante organized Jamaica’s first officially recognized labour union (BITU) and eventually the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The People’s National Party (PNP) was formed soon after by Norman Washington Manley, another political leader and Bustamante’s cousin.


Jamaica held its first election under universal adult suffrage.


Jamaica is granted political independence from Britain, with Sir Alexander Bustamante as her first Prime Minister. The British Monarch remains head of state, represented by a Governor General. Jamaica enters the Commonwealth of Nations.