When Christopher Columbus spotted the land of Jamaica during his second voyage in 1494, the island was inhabited by Arawak Indians from South America. Columbus annexed the island for the king and queen of Spain, but the island was not settled until 1509. Spanish colonization was slow as the Spaniards were disappointed to find neither gold nor silver here. The Arawak population steadily decreased for the next 70-80 years due to plunder, new diseases, and migration, eventually becoming nonexistent. The Spanish town of Saint Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town) was founded about 1523. The Spanish population, including their African slaves, was never large, and there wasn’t much of a fight when the British led by Sir William Penn conquered the island in 1655.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, growing numbers of English immigrants arrived, and the plantation economy flourished with large scale importation of black slaves. The slaves rebelled time after time, and by 1838 slavery was abolished on the island.
After emancipation, many of the freed slaves set up farms in the steep hills of the island. Land struggles were common, and while the sugar economy was on the decline, bananas, coffee, and logwood helped in the development of a peasant class. Meanwhile, there continued to be unrest amongst the island’s black and white populations, and in 1865 a rebellion took place at Port Morant. The result was that Britain made Jamaica a crown colony, taking away much of the self-government that the island had enjoyed. In 1884, representative government was partly restored.
In 1958, Jamaica was united with other British colonies in the Federation of the West Indies, hoping to seek independence. When independence had not been granted by 1962, Jamaicans rejected membership in the federation, and thus gained full independence. The nation’s first Prime Minister was Sir Alexander Bustamante, who had founded the Jamaica Labour Party in the 1930s.
Today, Jamaica produces a number of goods, from sugar and rum to coffee, tobacco, citrus fruits, and minerals such as bauxite, clay, limestone, and marble. Cement, chemicals, clothing, and agricultural machinery are manufactured here, and tourism is increasingly important to the nation’s economy.