Jamaica has a vivid and painful history, marred since European settlement by an undercurrent of violence and tyranny. Christopher Columbus first landed on the island in 1494, when there were perhaps 100,000 peaceful Arawak Amerindians who had settled Jamaica around 700 AD. Spanish settlers arrived from 1510, raising cattle and pigs, and introducing two things that would profoundly shape the island's future: sugar and slaves. By the end of the 16th century the Arawak population had been entirely wiped out, worn down by hard labour, ill-treatment and European diseases to which they had no resistance.
In 1654 an ill-equipped and badly organised English contingent sailed to the Caribbean. After failing to take Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic), the 'wicked army of common cheats, thieves and lewd persons' turned to weakly defended Jamaica. Despite the ongoing efforts of Spanish loyalists and guerrilla-style campaigns of freed Spanish slaves (cimarrones - 'wild ones' - or Maroons), England took control of the island. Investment and further settlement hastened as profits began to accrue from cocoa, coffee, and sugarcane production. But with Britain constantly at war with France or Spain, effective control of the island was entrusted to buccaneers, a motley band of seafaring miscreants, political refugees and escaped criminals, who committed themselves to lives of piracy against the Spaniards. Depending on whether Britain and Spain had just signed or just broken peace agreements, Britain was either supporting the buccaneers, or helping Spain repel them. Slave rebellions didn't make life any easier for the English, as escaped slaves joined with descendants of the Maroons, engaging in extended ambush-style campaigns and eventually forcing the English to grant them autonomy in 1739.
New slaves kept arriving, however, most of them put to work on sugar plantations in appalling conditions. Slaves were burnt, strangled and otherwise tortured to terrorise them into obedience. There were constant insurrections, especially after the American War of Independence (1775-81) and the French Revolution (1789) spread a spirit of subversion, but they were quashed with the utmost severity. The last and largest of the slave revolts in Jamaica was the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, inspired by 'Daddy' Sam Sharpe, an educated slave and lay preacher who incited passive resistance. The rebellion turned violent, however, as up to 20,000 slaves razed plantations and murdered planters. When the slaves were tricked into laying down arms with a false promise of abolition, and then 400 were hanged and hundreds more whipped, there was a wave of revulsion in England, causing the Jamaican parliament to finally abolish slavery on August 1, 1834.
The transition from a slave economy to one based on wage labour caused economic chaos, with most slaves eschewing the starvation wages offered on the estates and choosing to fend for themselves. Although the old order had been toppled, undermining the planters' economic power, the white plantocracy maintained its political power, as only property owners could vote. Mulattos (mixed race) were enfranchised in 1830, and liberal mulattos such as George William Gordon took up the fight of the oppressed in the 1860s. When naval blockades during the American Civil War (1861-65) cut off vital supplies, desperation over conditions and injustice finally boiled over in the Morant Bay Rebellion, led by a black Baptist deacon named Paul Bogle. Governor Edward Eyre and his followers mercilessly suppressed the rebellion, hanging Gordon and Bogle, executing and flogging hundreds of others and razing thousands of homes in retribution. The brutality of the repression provoked an outcry in England, marking the beginning of a more enlightened era under a series of liberal governors.
A banana-led economic recovery was halted by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and then kick-started again by the exigencies of WWII, when the Caribbean islands supplied food and raw materials to Britain. Adult suffrage for all Jamaicans was introduced in 1944, and virtual autonomy from Britain was granted in 1947. Jamaica seceded from the short-lived West Indies Federation in 1962 after a referendum called for the island's full independence.
Post-independence politics have been dominated by the legacy of two cousins: Alexander Bustamante, who formed the first trade union in the Caribbean just prior to WWII and later formed the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), and Norman Manley, whose People's National Party (PNP) was the first political party on the island when it was convened in 1938. Manley's son, Michael, led the PNP towards democratic socialism in the mid-1970s, causing a capital flight at a time when Jamaica could ill afford it. Inflation soared above 50%, unemployment skyrocketed and society became increasingly polarised, culminating in fully-fledged warfare during the campaigns preceding the 1976 election. Heavily armed gangs of JLP and PNP supporters began killing each other in the partisan slums of Kingston and a state of emergency was declared. But the PNP won the election by a wide margin and Manley continued with his socialist agenda.
The US government was hostile to the socialist path Jamaica was taking, and when Manley began to develop close ties with Cuba, the CIA planned to topple the Jamaican government. Businesses pulled out, the economy (tourism in particular) went into sharp decline and the country lived virtually under siege. Almost 700 people were killed in the lead up to the 1980 elections, which were won by the JLP's Edward Seaga. Seaga restored Jamaica's economic fortunes somewhat, severed ties with Cuba and courted Reagan's USA. Relatively peaceful elections in 1989 returned a reinvented 'mainstream realist' Manley to power; he retired in 1992, handing the reins to his deputy, Percival James Patterson - Jamaica's first black prime minister.
The Patterson-led PNP romped it in at the 1993 and 1997 elections. In spring 1999 the country erupted in nationwide riots after the government announced a 30% increase in the tax on gasoline. Kingston and Montego Bay, where sugarcane fields were set ablaze, were particularly badly hit. After three days of arson and looting, the government rescinded the tax.
A renewal of gang violence in Kingston in July 2001 and January 2002 claimed 27 and seven lives respectively. Statistics showed that the murder rate was higher than ever. In February of the same year, the killing by police of five people leaving a crime scene raised concerns about police violence. It didn't prevent Patterson winning a fourth consecutive term in office. The PM announced the following year that he hoped Jamaica would be a republic by the time he left office in 2007. However, in March 2006, Patterson's reign ended when Portia Simpson-Miller was elected as the new leader of the PNP, succeeding Patterson to become Jamaica's first female Prime Minister.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan bounced off Jamaica en route to the Cayman Islands, causing widespread damage, and Edward Seaga – still representing the JLP as opposition leader – retired after over three decades of life in politics. Two years later, Prime Minister Patterson resigned in 2006, giving way to Portia Simpson-Miller. Jamaica’s first female prime minister, ‘Mama P’ was initially popular with the masses, but 18 years of PNP rule bred gradual voter disillusionment with the party. In the 2007 elections, Bruce Golding of the JLP carried the day.
The Jamaica Golding inherits faces several battles, and most Jamaicans will tell you the greatest is crime (the 2007 murder rate was 17% higher than the previous year’s). Illiteracy is also a grave concern (according to UNESCO, over 90% of 15 to 24 year olds couldn’t both read and write in 2004) as are threats to the environment through deforestation and overdevelopment. In the meantime, the Jamaican people face the future with resolve and a measure of good humor – they’ve endured so much worse in the past.
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