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A Brief History of the Colorful Jamaican People

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Jamaican People; Jamaican Culture

The name Jamaica is a derivative of the name given by the Arawaks - Xaymaca - which meant “Land of Wood and Water.” The history of Jamaica is a rich and colorful one. From slavery to freedom won through the determination of a people with a drive to succeed no matter what. "Being Jamaican is not just a nationality, it’s an experience.”

Jamaica’s history has been poetically summarized by Howard Pyle, who states:

Jamaica, like many another of the West Indian Islands, is like a woman with a history. She has had her experiences and has lived her life rapidly. She has enjoyed a fever of prosperity founded upon those incalculable treasures poured into her lap by the old time buccaneer pirates. She has suffered earthquake, famine, pestilence, fire and death: and she has been the home of cruel merciless slavery, hardly second to that practised by the Spaniards themselves. Other countries have taken centuries to grow from their primitive life through the flower and fruit of prosperity into the seed time of picturesque decrepitude. Jamaica has lived through it all in a few years.

– Howard Pyle, “Jamaica New and Old” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1890

A Colorful Jamaican - Usain Bolt

Around 600 - The Redware People Arrive in Jamaica

About 600 CE the culture known as the “Redware people” arrived. Little is known of them beyond the red pottery they left.

Around 800 - The Arawaks Arrive in Jamaica

The Arawaks arrived about the year 800, settling throughout the island. Most of them settled on the coasts and near rivers as they fished to get food. They came from South America and named the island Xaymaca, which meant “Land of Wood and Water”. The Arawaks were a mild and simple people by nature. Physically, they were light brown in color, short and well-shaped with coarse, black hair. Their faces were broad and their noses flat. The particular group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Jamaica were the Taino Indians.

Living in villages ruled by tribal chiefs called the caciques, they sustained themselves on fishing and the cultivation of maize and cassava. Tobacco was grown on a large scale as smoking was their most popular pastime. At the height of their civilization, their population numbered about 60,000.

The Arawaks led quiet and peaceful lives until they were destroyed by the Spaniards.

The Taino People

1494 – Christopher Columbus Landed at St. Ann’s Bay

On May 5, 1494 Christopher Columbus, the European explorer, who sailed west to get to the East Indies came upon Jamaica. This occurred on his second voyage to the West Indies. Columbus had heard about Jamaica, then called Xaymaca, from the Cubans who described it as “the land of blessed gold”. Columbus was soon to find out that there was no gold in Jamaica.

On arrival at St Ann’s Bay, Columbus found the Arawak Indians inhabiting the island. The Spaniards, when they came, tortured and killed the Arawaks to get their land. They were so overworked and ill-treated that within a short time they had all died. The process was aided by the introduction of European diseases to which the Arawaks had little or no resistance.

1509 - The Spanish Empire Began its Official Governance of Jamaica

The island remained poor under Spanish rule as few Spaniards settled here. Jamaica served mainly as a supply base: food, men, arms and horses were shipped here to help in conquering the American mainland.

Fifteen years later in 1509, after their first visit to the island, the first Spanish colonists came here under the Spanish governor Juan de Esquivel. They first settled in the St. Ann’s Bay area, the first town being called New Seville or Sevilla la Nueva.

Towns were little more than settlements. The only town that was developed was Spanish Town, the old capital of Jamaica, then called St. Jago de la Vega. It was the center of government and trade and had many churches and convents.

The colony received little attention from Spain which soon led to internal strife. This contributed to the weakening of the colony in the last years of Spanish occupation. The governors were not getting proper support from home, and quarrels with church authorities undermined their control. Frequent attacks by pirates also contributed to the colony’s woes.

A Spanish Colonial Government Building

1655 – The British Captured Jamaica

The Invasion of Jamaica was a sea expedition conducted by the English in the Caribbean in 1655. This resulted in the capture of the island from Spain. Before that, Spanish Jamaica was a colony of Spain for over a hundred years. Jamaica's capture resulted in war between England and Spain in 1655.

England gained formal possession of Jamaica from Spain in 1670 through the Treaty of Madrid. As there was no longer a need for constant defence against Spanish attack, planting of crops began.

Many former Spanish slaves used the Anglo-Spanish war as a chance to free themselves and fled into the mountainous and forested regions of the colony to join the ranks of surviving Tainos. As interracial marriage became prevalent, the two racial groups underwent assimilation. The escaped slaves and their descendants, known as the Jamaican Maroons, were the source of many disturbances in the colony, raiding plantations and occupying parts of the island's interior. Imported African slaves would frequently escape to Maroon territory, known as the Cockpit Country. Over the first seventy-six years of British rule, skirmishes between Maroon warriors and the British Army grew increasingly common, along with rebellions by enslaved Blacks.

Nanny was a leader of the Maroons at the beginning of the 18th century. She was known by both the Maroons and the British settlers as an outstanding military leader. Nanny became, in her lifetime and after, a symbol of unity and strength for her people during times of crisis. She is Jamaica's only national heroine.

The British controlled the land until 1962. They built their kingdom on sugar cultivated by African labor. They also exported rum and molasses that were traded for flour, pork and pickled fish.

The British Capture Jamaica, 1655

1807 – The Ending of the Slave Trade

Between 1662 and 1807, Britain shipped 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Africans were forcibly brought to British-owned colonies in the Caribbean and sold as slaves to work on plantations. Those engaged in the trade were driven by the huge financial gains.

Enslaved people constantly rebelled against slavery right up until emancipation in 1834. Most spectacular were the slave revolts during the 18th and 19th centuries, including: Tacky’s rebellion in 1760s Jamaica, the Haitian Revolution (1789), Fedon’s 1790s revolution in Grenada, the 1816 Barbados slave revolt led by Bussa, and the major 1831 slave revolt in Jamaica led by Sam Sharpe. Also, voices of dissent began emerging in Britain, highlighting the poor conditions of enslaved people. Whilst the Abolition movement was growing, so was the opposition by those with financial interests in the Caribbean.

The British slave trade officially ended in 1807, making the buying and selling of slaves from Africa illegal. Slavery, however itself had not ended. It was not until 1st August 1834 that slavery ended in the British Caribbean following legislation passed the previous year. This was followed by a period of apprenticeship with freedom coming in 1838

Emancipation Day in Jamaica

1823 – The Introduction of the Amelioration Proposals

Amelioration proposals were introduced in 1823 in the British and French Caribbean islands. They were introduced by the members of the West India Interest to improve the lives of the slaves. Slaves were to have Saturday for market and Sunday to attend mass.

Although the Amelioration proposals were meant to improve the condition of the slaves, it was also a means of delaying emancipation.

At that time, they believed that if the slaves were content, the abolitionists would discontinue their struggle for emancipation and slavery would be prolonged.

Overall, the amelioration proposals of 1823 failed miserably due to the response of the planter class. Around this time, with Parliamentary reform occurring, more of the members of the West Indian interest were losing their political power. The negative response of the planters showed the British and French Governments that the planters were unwilling to change. Emancipation was therefore the solution.

1831 – The Christmas Rebellion or the Sam Sharpe Revolt

Samuel Sharpe was an educated town slave, and a member of the "slave elite." He converted to Christianity and became a deacon in the First Baptist Church in Montego Bay. He followed the developments of the abolition movement both locally and abroad. Sharpe was able to communicate with and influence the native Baptist slaves.

In 1831, he developed a plan of "passive resistance" by which slaves would refuse to work on Christmas Day and afterwards. On December 27, 1831, the Kensington Estate Great House was set on fire, sparking the Baptist war, as it was known. Sharpe was eventually captured and hanged in Montego Bay. Slavery was officially abolished in Jamaica on August 28, 1833.

The Baptist War became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies. It lasted 10 days and mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves. The rebellion was suppressed by British forces under the control of Sir Willoughby Cotton. The reaction of the Jamaican Government and plantocracy was far more brutal. Approximately 500 slaves were killed. The brutality of the plantocracy during the revolt is thought to have accelerated the process of emancipation, with initial measures beginning in 1833.

Sam Sharpe, the Leader of the 1831 Christmas Revolt

May 23, 1832 - Sam Sharpe was Hanged

Sharpe was publicly hanged on 23rd May 1832. Although the rebellion was crushed and the leaders executed, the rebellion is often seen as contributing to the end of slavery across the British Empire.

1834 – Apprenticeship

Due to the loss of property and life in the 1831 Baptist War rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. Their reports on conditions contributed to the abolition movement and passage of the 1833 law to abolish slavery as of August 1, 1834, throughout the British Empire. The Jamaican slaves were bound (indentured) to their former owners’ service, albeit with a guarantee of rights, until 1838 under what was called the “Apprenticeship System."

With the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and slavery itself in 1834, the island’s sugar- and slave-based economy faltered. The period immediately after emancipation in 1834 was marked by a conflict between the plantocracy and elements in the Colonial Office. This was over the extent to which individual freedom should be coupled with political participation for blacks.

In 1840 the assembly changed the voting qualifications in a way that enabled a majority of blacks and people of mixed race (browns or mulattos) to vote. However, the change in the political system, nor abolition of slavery changed the planter’s chief interest, as they were focused on the continued profitability of their estates. They therefore continued to dominate the elitist assembly. Still, at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, the crown began to allow some Jamaicans – mostly local merchants, urban professionals, and artisans - into the appointed councils.

Slavery and Sugar Cane in Jamaica

1838 – Emancipation

When full Emancipation came in 1838 the slavery system, in place since the sixteenth century, came to an end.

Yet, whatever the terms of Emancipation, the planter class within the Caribbean remained opposed to Emancipation. Only the reward of £20,000,000 in compensation for their lost “property” made surrender to the Colonial Office more palatable to them. However, the structure of slave society remained unchanged. Planters were now focused on converting a former slave labor force into a permanent plantation labor force. From the perspective of planters, it was to be the same rider, on the same mule, cantering towards the same destiny.

1865 – Morant Bay Rebellion

The Morant Bay Rebellion was sparked on October 7, 1865, when a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for allegedly trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial, and in the police’s attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policeman were beaten with sticks and stones.

The following Monday, arrest warrants were issued for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among them was Baptist preacher Paul Bogle. A few days later on October 11, Mr. Paul Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small and inexperienced volunteer militia. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating.

Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson, to hunt down the poorly-armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but regardless they killed blacks indiscriminately, most of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion. According to one soldier, “We slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child." In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Paul Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials.

George William Gordon, a Jamaican businessman and politician, who had been critical of Governor John Eyre and his policies, was later arrested by Governor John Eyre who believed he had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was eventually executed under martial law.

Following the rebellion, the 200-year-old House of Assembly voted to change the constitution: it agreed to its own abolition and to the establishment of Crown Colony government. This meant direct rule from London and the end of representative government in the island until well into the twentieth century.

Paul Bogle and the Morant Bay Rebellion

1914 – Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a black activist and Trade Unionist, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1914. This was one of Jamaica’s first political parties in 1929, and a workers association in the early 1930s. Garvey also promoted the Back-to-Africa movement, which called for those of African descent to return to the homelands of their ancestors. Garvey, to no avail, pleaded with the colonial government to improve living conditions for indigenous peoples in the West Indies.

Garvey, a controversial figure, had been the target of a four-year investigation by the United States government. He was convicted of mail fraud in 1923 and had served most of a five-year term in an Atlanta penitentiary when he was deported to Jamaica in 1927. Garvey left the colony in 1935 to live in the United Kingdom, where he died heavily in debt five years later. He was proclaimed Jamaica’s first national hero in the 1960s after Edward Seaga, then a government minister, arranged the return of his remains to Jamaica. In 1987, Jamaica petitioned the United States Congress to pardon Garvey on the basis that the federal charges brought against him were unsubstantiated and unjust.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr. ONH

1944 – Universal Adult Suffrage

Women in Jamaica gained the right to vote in 1919, but that right was subject to property and income requirements. The country was granted full adult suffrage on November 20, 1944. The new system extended voting rights to adults irrespective of their race, sex, or social class.

On December 12 of the same year, Jamaica became only the third state in the British Empire to conduct elections on the basis of Universal Adult Suffrage, preceded only by New Zealand (1893) and the United Kingdom (1918). The election was won by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which claimed 22 seats; the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Independents won five seats each. Of the 32 new members of the Assembly, there was only one woman, Iris Collins, representing the JLP.

Over the period 1944 to 1976, only 5 women had been elected to the House of Representatives: Iris Collins, Rose Leon, Iris King, Enid Bennett, and Esme Grant.

Jamaica is the first English-speaking country in the Caribbean to achieve Universal Adult Suffrage and grant women the right to be elected to Parliament. Between 1944 and 2020, a total of 47 women have been elected as Members of the House of Representatives. As of September 2020, there are 18 women in the House of Representatives, the highest ever. This is a new all-time high at 29%, and is the first time that female representation in the House of Representatives stands at more than a quarter of the total membership.

August 6, 1962 - Jamaica became independent

Jamaica received its independence on 6th August 1962. The new nation retained its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and adopted a Westminster-style parliamentary system. Bustamante, at the age of 78, became the new nation’s first prime minister.

Jamaicans Celebrating Independence (Loop Image)


Ms. Rodgers' History BGCSE students. @HistorybgcseStudents · Education

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