What Is The History Of Jamaica?
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You're planning to go on vacation to this Caribbean island but you realize you don't know its past? Would you like to know more about the ancestors of the Jamaicans? Do you ask if there were people living there before the Spanish conquistadors arrived? Want to know the history of Jamaica?
I'm Caroline, Reggae Roots enthusiast, I'm also a real fan of History, more particularly that of Africa and the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, I chose to make my main passions my profession while traveling our Earth to meet many participants of the Rastafari movement to share their cultures and knowledge with them. Rest assured, I know exactly how to answer all your questions!
The first people settled in Jamaica were the Arawaks in the 1000s. They then called it Xamayca (Land of Wood and Water). It was on May 4, 1494 that Christopher Columbus arrived on these Caribbean coasts and discovered the Tainos, who had succeeded the Arawaks. Colonized by the Spanish from 1509 to 1655, then England until 1962, Jamaica finally became independent on August 06 of that same year.
Through this article, you will learn:
- Who were the first inhabitants of the island
- The impact of slavery on these lands
- The social and political struggles that took place there
- The link that binds Jamaica to the Rastafari movement
Buckle up, the historic flight to Kingston is ready to take off!
1- A Caribbean island with a rich history
The first traces of occupation of Jamaica are observed with the Arawaks as early as the 1000s. They give the name Xamayca, which means "Land of Wood and Water" to the territory, which remains in obscurity until the arrival of the Spanish settlers.
It was on May 4, 1494 that Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of Jamaica. He discovers a varied land with green plains, gentle mountains and a welcoming people, the Tainos, who have succeeded the Arawaks over time.
The Spaniards settled there in force and by 1509 founded a capital, New Seville. This was the beginning of the Spanish occupation which lasted for nearly a century and a half. During this period, the island prospered at the expense of the occupiers. The colonists imported sugar cane, which became an important currency. To cultivate it, they also brought in many slaves from Africa. In 1655, it was the turn of England to take possession of the island. They met little resistance from the Spaniards, who preferred to flee. The sugarcane trade grows and so does the number of slaves. The territory becomes synonymous with prosperity and attracts many English but also buccaneers, who make the territory an important post of piracy in the Caribbean. Among these outlaws, Henry Morgan stands out. Becoming lieutenant governor, he developed Port Royal, a town that became very important until its destruction in 1692 by an earthquake.
2- The English occupation
During the British occupation, the Spaniards left the Jamaican territory leaving the slaves behind. These took refuge in the mountains and formed groups, called Maroons, who would oppose the British settlers on several occasions. The first major revolt took place in 1673. More than 300 slaves and former slaves, abandoned to their fate by their masters, then massacred landowners around Saint-Ann. Numerous assaults continued until the beginning of the 18th century. The white planters are going through a difficult period and request help from England, which sends armed reinforcements. A guerrilla war then began. Two names of Maroons remain in Jamaican memory to this day: Quao and Cujoe, two of the leaders of the movement.
The British sign a peace treaty with the help of the Mosquito Indians of Cuba and former slaves in 1738. The Maroons succeeded in gaining autonomy in 1739 and officially recovered the mountainous territories in which they had taken refuge. However, this treaty was repeatedly forgotten. The English recovered many lands over time. This autonomy is nevertheless still in place today.
3- Slavery is abolished
It was in 1834 that slavery was abolished. One would have thought that things would settle down, but they did not. Indeed, a very difficult economic period followed, the status of Blacks still being very unstable. They were then said to be in "transition to freedom". This period corresponds to the English will to teach the former slaves what freedom is and the correct way to live! They were then offered work but the pay was miserable. Some Blacks reach important positions, others buy land, but they always remain in the background. They have access to education but suffer regular bullying. And they get no help from the British government while the planters are compensated for the loss of their slaves.
The poor are the most vulnerable.
The poor are getting poorer. Other workers are brought in from all over the world, mainly from China and India but also from the Middle East, including workers of the Jewish religion, who are very numerous. This mixture of peoples is the source of Jamaica's diversity, which is captured in the country's motto: "Out of Many, One People."
4- Increasingly bloody struggles
Two names mark the period: Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, two important figures in Jamaican history. The two men joined forces when Gordon lost his position in the Assembly, under the pretext of only advocating for the poor of color. In 1844, there was a major uprising to challenge the power of the planters who continued to abuse their prerogatives. Bogle took the lead in this rebellion. Then in 1863, he defended Gordon, who regained his position thanks to him.
But another event came to aggravate matters. Queen Victoria wrote a letter in which she encouraged the planters to continue their actions and to work blacks for poverty wages.Both men opposed this. Bogle became radicalized and organized a protest march from Morant Bay to Spanish Town. Faced with the refusal of the authorities to receive them and listen to their grievances, Bogle and his brother try some final steps. The silence of the British authorities exacerbated matters and over 400 men revolted and burned down the courthouse in Morant Bay. Bogle and his brother were killed.
To avoid further problems, England set up a new political system the "Crown Colony" or Crown Colony. A governor is appointed by the British government to take direct charge of the territory's problems.
Jamaica continued to develop in a difficult atmosphere. British settlers were getting richer at the expense of the workers. Things endure for a hundred years with, however, the emergence of a middle class that sees some descendants of slaves acquire a better life. But the Great Depression begins in 1929 with a very negative impact on the middle classes and naturally the poorest. It is in this context that sugar workers, as well as employees of Jamaican ports revolt. Unions appear and a new policy is born.
Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante founded two parties the "People National Party" and the "Jamaica Labor Party." It was also during this period that Rastafarianism was born in this context of emancipation.
5- The rise of Rastafarianism as an important point in Jamaican island history
Leonard Percival Howell and Marcus Garvey are the two main actors in the birth of the Rasta movement. Both of these protagonists build on the inequalities that the descendants of slaves experienced. Without going into detail - you can easily learn more in our article dedicated to the history of the Rasta movement, we can note that M. Garvey founded in New York the U.N.I.A: Universal Negro Improvement Association (or Universal Negro Development Association), which would have a major influence on the history of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. He thus advocates the return of blacks to their African homeland. He also relates these same descendants of slavery to African history and the Bible. Thus slaveholders are likened to Babylon. The promised land - Zion - is Africa, specifically Ethiopia. He then prophesies the coming of a black emperor, signifying that "deliverance is at hand." This was fulfilled on November 2, 1930 with the coronation in Ethiopia of Haile Selassie.
Rastafarianism could have remained a secondary movement of little importance in Jamaican history, but this was not the case. More and more followers are claiming to be part of the Rastafari movement and sharing the philosophy around the world. This trend is helped by the music that symbolizes the Rastafarians: reggae. Learn more by checking out our article on the creation of reggae.
6- A controversial movement with a strong impact
Rastafarians are becoming increasingly important in Jamaica, even if they remain outside of official settings. Nonetheless, they are recognized as important challengers of the English government and will experience numerous arrests. The movement is driven out of the rural lands it occupied and the rastas will move to the ghettos of the cities and become more and more demanding.
On August 6,1962, Jamaica gains its independence. It continued to follow the Commonwealth political system but moved closer to the United States. An unstable climate is established between violence and major social crisis. This instability explains why the Rasta movement remains a refuge for many inhabitants who wish to find answers and a serenity they no longer have in their daily lives. It was the same year that Jamaica saw the Union Jack disappear from its official facades. A ceremony with Margaret and the Vice President of the United States was held in Kingston, the capital. The new Jamaican flag is raised. The nation is then independent.
Political crises follow one another and even today the island remains very fragile. Especially since it is regularly the target of natural disasters such as storms and hurricanes. Today, the country still regularly experiences social crises.
7- Jamaica, This Caribbean Island In Search Of Peace
You'll understand, Jamaica has experienced many social problems since the arrival of the Spanish settlers in the 15th century. Despite all this, the inhabitants of this island have no cease but to try to assert their rights in order to live with dignity.
You now know the complete history of Jamaica and the various trials the country has faced. The endless battle that former slaves had to fight in order to gain access to freedom and the different social crises are a very important part of the history of the Jamaican island. You now understand in what context Rastafarianism developed.
If, like us, the past of this people particularly touches you, we encourage you to wear its colors as with this Rasta items that will immerse you in the heart of Jamaica by the same occasion.
Discover it by clicking on the image below: