Jamaica was discovered by Columbus on the 3rd of May 1494. He named it Santiago although it was generally referred to by its Indian name Jaymaca, the island of springs, modernized in form and pronunciation into Jamaica. Columbus returned there once more in 1505 but it was not until his son Diego sent Don Juan d'Esquivel to take possession that it formally passed in to Spanish rule. Santiago de la Vega, or Spanish Town, was established in 1523 as the capital of the island and it remained so until 1872.
The island would become a pawn between the Protestant English and Catholic Spanish during the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Sir Anthony Shirley, an English admiral, attacked the island in 1596, and plundered and burned the capital, but he did not follow up this attack. Upon his retirement the Spaniards restored their capital and were unmolested until 1635, when the island was again raided by the British under Colonel Jackson.
Under the vigorous foreign policy of Oliver Cromwell an attempt was made to crush the Spanish power in the West Indies, and an expedition under Admirals Penn and Venables succeeded in capturing and holding Jamaica in 1655. The Spanish were entirely expelled in 1658. Many of their slaves escaped to the mountains, these Maroons were established their own authority in the highlands and mountains of the interior. They frequently attacked plantations and settlements until the British authorities reached a compromise with them in the eighteenth century.
Jamaica continued to be governed by military authority until 1661, when Colonel D'Oyley was appointed captain-general and governor in-chief with an executive council, and a constitution was introduced. He was succeeded in the next year by Lord Windsor, under whom a legislative council was established. Jamaica became a recognised target and stopping point for buccaneers and various privateers. It was only after the English formally took control of the island after the Treaty of Madrid was signed in 1670 that the Royal Navy was employed to forcibly control the activities of these various buccaneers.
The Royal African Company was formed in 1672 with a monopoly of the slave trade in the English colonies. It was from this time that Jamaica became one of the greatest slave markets and destinations in the world. The sugar-industry was introduced about this period, the first pot of sugar being sent to London in 1673. The problem with sugar was that the cane required very heavy labour in very uncomfortable conditions to extract the necessary syrup. Native labour was in short supply and unwilling to do the hard work required. Experiments were attempted with indentured labour from England but the physical consitution of these Europeans was not up to the task. Slavery provided the solution to the planters' problem. Strong workers who were used to the physically demanding geography were imported from Africa. These slaves were denied the luxury of refusing the work. They were forced, with incredible brutality, to do the menial but harsh work. As the demand for sugar in Europe seemed insatiable, more and more plantations were established and more slaves were imported to fulfil the labour requirements.
During these years of political struggle the colony was frequently afflicted by nature. A great earthrruake occurred in 1602, when the chief part of the town of Port Royal, built on a shelving bank of sand, slipped into the sea. Two dreadful hurricanes devastated the island in 1712 and 1722, the second of which did so much damage that the seat of commerce had to be transferred from Port Royal to Kingston.
The main event in the history of the island during the later years of the 18th century, was the threatened invasion by the French and Spanish in 1782 during the American Wars of Independence. However, Jamaica was saved by the victory of Rodney and Hood off Dominica. The last attempt at invasion was made in 1806 during the Napoleonic War, when the French were defeated by Admiral Duckworth.
When the slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807 the island was at the zenith of its prosperity; sugar, coffee, cocoa, pimento, ginger and indigo were being produced in large quantities. The anti-slavery agitation in Great Britain found its echo in the island, and in 1832 the slaves revolted, believing that emancipation had been granted. They killed a number of whites and destroyed a large amount of valuable property. Two years later the Emancipation Act was passed, and, subject to a short term of apprenticeship, the slaves were free.
Slaves were not compensated for their period of enslavement and yet the slaveowners were. The British government awarded them compensation at the rate of £19 per slave, the market value of slaves at the time being £35, but much of this compensation went into the hands of the planters' creditors, middlemen and lawyers. The economic fortunes of the island were about to decline, although more because of a shift to Free Trade policies and the growing of sugar beet in Europe rather than due to the abolition of slavery. During the era of slavery the British government had protected planters by imposing a heavy differential duty on foreign sugar; but on the introduction of free trade the price of sugar fell by one-half and reduced the profits of the already impoverished planter. Many estates were abandoned or sold at a loss. Differences between the executive, the legislature, and the home government, as to the means of balancing public expenditure on the island, created much bitterness. There was some slight improvement during the administrations of Sir Charles Metcalfe and the earl of Elgin, when Indian immigration was introduced to supply the scarcity and irregularity of labor and the railway was opened. However, this only masked the long term decline of the economic viability of the colony.
In 1865 Edward John Eyre became governor. Financial affairs were at their lowest ebb and the colonial treasury showed a deficit of £80,000. To meet this difficulty new taxes were imposed and discontent was rife amongst the black population of the island. Dr Underhill, the secretary of a Baptist organization known as the British Union, wrote to the colonial secretary in London, pointing out the state of affairs. This letter became public in Jamaica, and in the opinion of the governor added in no small measure to increased tensions. On the 11th of October 1865 rebels rose at Morant Bay and killed most of the white inhabitants there. The encounter which followed filled the island with terror, and there was no doubt that many excesses were committed on both sides. The assembly passed an act by which martial law was proclaimed, and the legislature passed an act abrogating the constitution.
The action of Governor Eyre, though generally approved throughout the West Indies, caused much controversy in England, and he was recalled. Opinion was sharply divided with some deploring his hard line tactics but others regarding him as a hero in his active defence of law and order. Prosecutions of murder were instigated against Eyre, but they petered out due to a lack of clarity in his constitutional powers. However, a direct consequence of the rebellion was that the Jamaica Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony.
In 1868 the first fruit shipment took place from Port Antonio, this would provide a new economic lifeline to the island and shortly afterwards the immigration of indentured labour was revived. Another economic opportunity came with the cultivation of the cinchona plant was introduced which was used in the production of quinine.
In. the afternoon of the 14th of January 1907 a terrible earthquake occurred in Kingston. Almost every building in the capital and in surrounding towns were destroyed or seriously damaged. The Americans tried to supply relief with the despatch of three warships to aid the island. The US Commander, Rear Admiral Davis, ahd to withdraw them on the I9th, owing to a misunderstanding with the governor of the island, Sir Alexander Swettenham, over the role of US marines in trying to preserve order. The incident caused a diplomatic stir, and led to Sir A. Swettenham's resignation in the following March and being replaced by Sir Sydney Olivier. However, the destructive effect of the earthquake was a severe check to the prosperity of the island.
It became independent in 1962.