The first inhabitants of Jamaica probably came from islands to the east in two waves of migration. About 600 CE the culture known as the “Redware people” arrived; little is known of them, however, beyond the red pottery they left. Alligator Pond in Manchester Parish and Little River in St. Ann Parish are among the earliest known sites of these people, who lived near the coast and extensively hunted turtles and fish.
The second wave of inhabitants of Jamaica are the Arawaks, also called Tainos. They came from South America 2,500 years ago 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 main thrust of exploration of the New World came from Portugal, but Spain was quick to follow. In 1492, Ferdinand II and Isabella I helped the Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus, to sail in search of the New World. Columbus is believed to be the first European to reach Jamaica when he landed on the island on May 5, 1494, during his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus returned to Jamaica during his fourth voyage while sailing around the Caribbean nearly a year when a storm beached his ships in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on June 25, 1503. For a year Columbus and his men remained stranded on the island, finally departing in June 1504.
The Spanish crown granted the island to the Columbus family the island was insignificant in the colonial scene and was valued chiefly as a supply base for food and animal hides. In 1509 Juan de Esquivel founded the first permanent European settlement, the town of Sevilla la Nueva (New Seville), on the north coast.
In 1534 the capital was moved to Villa de la Vega (later Santiago de la Vega), now called Spanish Town. This settlement served as the capital of both Spanish and English Jamaica, from its founding in 1534 until 1872, after which the capital was moved to Kingston.
The Spanish enslaved many of the Taino but some escaped while most died from European diseases and overwork. The Spaniards also in the meantime introduced the first African slaves. By the early 17th century virtually no Taino remained in the region and population of the island was about 3,000, including a small number of African slaves. Disappointed in the lack of the magic metal, gold on the isle, the Spanish mainly used Jamaica as a military base to for their colonizing efforts in the mainland America.
In late 1654, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth England Oliver Cromwell launched the Western Design armada against Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean. English force then sailed for Jamaica, the only Spanish West Indies island that did not have any significant defence. In May 1655, around 7,000 English soldiers landed near Jamaica’s Spanish Town capital and soon overwhelmed the small number of Spanish troops (at the time, Jamaica’s entire population only numbered around 2,500). Spain lost the Battle of Ocho Rios in 1657 and the Battle of Rio Nuevo in 1658. For England, Jamaica was the base to the heart of the Spanish Empire,’ although in fact it was a possession of little economic value then. England gained formal possession of Jamaica from Spain in 1670 through the Treaty of Madrid. Removing the pressing need for constant defense against Spanish attack, this change served as an incentive to planting.
Cromwell increased the island’s white population by sending indentured servants and criminals to Jamaica. But tropical diseases kept the number of whites under 10,000 until about 1740. Although the slave population in the 1670s and 1680s never exceeded 10,000, by the end of the seventeenth century imports of slaves increased the black population to at least five times the number of whites. Thereafter, Jamaica’s blacks did not increase significantly in number until well into the eighteenth century when the slave population increased from 45,000 to over 300,000.
Abolition Act 1833 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, the “Island of Ceylon” and “the Island of Saint Helena”). However these two exceptions were eliminated in 1843. In Jamaica, Abolition of Slave Trade 1838 was officially announced at the Kings House in Kingston.
The first coins of Jamaica under Queen Victoria were issued in 1869 as the bronze coins introduced into the British coinage in the 1860s were not suitable for the West Indies. The use of cupro-nickel had been considered during the trials for the British coinage by Thomas Graham, renowned chemist and Master of the Mint from 1855–1869, and Jamaica provided an opportunity to test the new alloy. The first coins in cupro-nickel were released for this purpose in Jamaica and, like aluminium, this metal became a success for coinage all over the world.
When the World War broke out in in 1914, the Africans in the New World had acclimatized to the British institutions, culture and language to the extent of supporting Britain. In fact their response was so overwhelming the British War Office was concerned enough try and curtail the number of Black Africans in the army. On 19 May 1915 King George V, approved to raise a West Indian contingent on during the World War.
At the end of he war when the contingents started returning to Jamaica in 1919 the state services were poorly organised to offer
any support to the returning Black American Soldiers. With the already prevailing poor socioeconomic conditions when the soldiers began to arrive they quickly joined the wave of worker’s protests resulting from a severe economic crisis produced by the war. The political climate was right for emergence of black nationalist ideology espoused by black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and others. Disenchanted soldiers and angry workers unleashed a series of protest actions and riots in a number of territories including Jamaica, Grenada and especially in British Honduras.
November 20, 1944 was an important day in the history of Jamaica when nominations for the first-ever elections held under universal adult suffrage in Jamaica took place. That election was held on December 14, 1944. This meant that all adults had the right to vote. Prior to 1944, one had to pay at least ten shillings tax per year or have property to be able to vote.
The end of World War II brought reality of occupied lands leading to decolonization across the world. British Government and local politicians were in long drawn out state of transition of Jamaica from a crown colony into an independent state. After Norman Manley was elected Chief Minister in 1955, he sped up the process of decolonization via several constitutional amendments. Under Manley, Jamaica entered the West Indies Federation, a political union of colonial Caribbean islands which if united would have brought ten British colonial territories into a
single, independent state. However within Jamaican participation in the Federation was unpopular, and the results of the 1961 West Indies referendum held by Premier Manley cemented the colony’s withdrawal from the union in 1962. Further with departure of Trinidad and Tobago the West Indies Federation collapsed later that year.