Jamaica history is enriched with such vibrancy that it’s at the core of our inspiration to move forward as a nation. Our history speaks to us of the experiences of hardships, prosperity, growth and the determination of a people.
Howard Pyle summed this up succinctly in an article he wrote entitled “Jamaica New and Old” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in January 1890.
“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”.
Brief history of Jamaica
The original inhabitants of Jamaica are believed to be the Arawaks, also called Tainos, who came from South America 2,500 years ago and named the island Xaymaca, which meant the land of wood and water.
About the Arawaks
The Arawaks were a mild and simple people by nature. Physically, they were light brown in colour, short and well-shaped with coarse, black hair. Their faces were broad and their noses flat.
Of the crops they grew, there were cassava, sweet potatoes, maize (corn), fruits, vegetables, cotton and tobacco. Tobacco was grown on a large scale as smoking was their most popular pastime.
Their villages were built all over the island but most of them settled on the coasts and near rivers as they fished to get food. Fish was also a major part of their diet.
The Arawaks led quiet and peaceful lives until they were destroyed by the Spaniards some years after Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1494.
Discovery of Jamaica
On his second voyage to the West Indies, after setting out for the East Indies, Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica on May 5th 1494. He had heard about Jamaica, then called Xaymaca, from the Cubans who described Jamaica then, as the land of blessed gold. Can you imagine how disappointed he must have been when he found out that there was no gold in Jamaica!
When he arrives at St Ann’s Bay, Columbus found the Arawak Indians inhabiting the island. Initially, Columbus thought these Indians were hostile, as they attacked his men when they tried to land on the island. As he was determined to annex the island in the name of the king and queen of Spain, he was not deterred.
Columbus also needed wood and water and a chance to repair his vessels. He sailed down the coast and docked at Discovery Bay. The Arawaks there were also hostile to the Spaniards. Their attitudes changed, however, when they were attacked by a dog from one of the Spanish ships and Columbus’ cross-bowmen. Some of the Arawaks were killed and wounded in this attack. Columbus was then able to land and claim the island.
When the Spaniards arrived in Jamaica, they 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.
The island remained poor under Spanish rule as few Spaniards settled here. Jamaica served mainly as a supply base: food, men, arms and horse were shipped here to help in conquering the American mainland.
First Spanish Colonist in Jamaica
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 was 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 centre of government and trade and had many churches and convents.
The little attention the colony received from Spain soon led to a major reason for 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.
Arrival Of The English
On May 10, 1655, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables led a successful attack on Jamaica. The Spaniards surrendered to the English, freed their slaves and then fled to Cuba. It was this set of freed slaves and their descendants who became known as the Maroons.
The early period of English settlement in Jamaica drew much attention to the Buccaneers based at Port Royal. Buccaneering had begun on the islands of Tortuga and Hispaniola. They were a wild, rough and ruthless set of sea rovers. They took their loot of gold, silver and jewels to Port Royal.
Port Royal prior to this time was an insignificant town in Jamaica. Under the Buccaneers’ leadership the town, within a decade and a half, grew to become known as one of the “wealthiest and wickedest city in the world”.
The greatest buccaneer captain of all was Henry Morgan. He started out as a pirate and later became a privateer. Morgan mercilessly raided Spanish fleet and colonies. He kept the Spaniards busy defending their coasts that they had little time to attack Jamaica. Morgan was knighted by King Charles II of England and was appointed the Lieutenant governor of Jamaica in 1673. Morgan died in 1688.
A violent earthquake destroyed Port Royal on June 7, 1692. The survivors of the earthquake who re-settled in Kingston abandoned the Port. Port Royal became an important naval base in the eighteenth century.
To be continued.