Once a Spanish possession known as Santiago, it became an English colony in 1655 under the name "Jamaica". It achieved full independence from Britain on August 6, 1962. With 2.8 million people, it is the third most populous Anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada. It remains a Commonwealth realm in concert with the Monarchy of Jamaica holding ultimate executive power, where Queen Elizabeth II is the current head of state and Queen of Jamaica. The head of government and Prime Minister of Jamaica is currently Portia Simpson-Miller, who holds full legislative power of the country. Kingston is the country's largest city, with a population of 937,700, and its capital. Jamaica has a large diaspora around the world consisting of Jamaican citizens migrating from the country.
The Arawak and Taino indigenous people, originating in South America, settled on the island between 4000 and 1000 BC. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494, there were over 200 villages ruled by caciques (chiefs of villages). The south coast of Jamaica was the most populated, especially around the area now known as Old Harbour. The Tainos were still inhabiting Jamaica when the English took control of the island. The Jamaican National Heritage Trust is attempting to locate and document any evidence of the Taino/Arawaks.
Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain after landing there in 1494 and his probable landing point was Dry Harbour, now called Discovery Bay. There is some debate as to whether he landed in St. Ann's Bay or in Discovery Bay. St. Ann's Bay was the "Saint Gloria" of Columbus who first sighted Jamaica at this point. One mile west of St. Ann's Bay is the site of the first Spanish settlement on the island, Sevilla, which was established in 1509 and abandoned around 1524 because it was deemed unhealthy. The capital was moved to Spanish Town, then called "St. Jago de la Vega", around 1534 and is located in present day St. Catherine.
Out of all the British colonies in the Caribbean, Spanish Town has the oldest cathedral. The Spanish were forcibly evicted by the English at Ocho Rios in St. Ann. In 1655 the English, led by William Penn and General Robert Venables, took over the last Spanish fort in Jamaica. The name of Montego Bay, the capital of the parish of St. James, was derived from the Spanish name manteca bahía (or Bay of Lard) for the large quantity of boar used for the lard-making industry.
In 1660, the population of Jamaica was about 4,500 whites and 1,500 blacks, but as early as the 1670s, blacks would form a majority of the population.
When the English captured Jamaica in 1655 the Spanish colonists fled after freeing their slaves. The slaves fled into the mountains, joining those who had previously escaped from the Spanish to live with the Taínos. These runaway slaves, who became known as the Jamaican Maroons, fought the British during the 18th century. The name is still used today for their modern descendants. During the long years of slavery Maroons established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, maintaining their freedom and independence for generations.
During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became one of the world's leading sugar-exporting, slave-dependent nations, producing more than 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 and 1824. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British imported Indian and Chinese workers as indentured servants to supplement the labour pool. Descendants of indentured servants of Indian and Chinese origin continue to reside in Jamaica today.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Jamaica's heavy reliance on slavery resulted in blacks outnumbering whites by a ratio of almost 20 to 1. Even though England had outlawed the importation of slaves, some were still smuggled into the colonies. The British government drew up laws regimenting the abolition of slavery, but they also included instructions for the improvement of the slaves' way of life. These instructions included a ban of the use of whips in the field, a ban on the flogging of women, notification that slaves were to be allowed religious instruction, a requirement that slaves be given an extra free day during the week when they could sell their produce as well as a ban on Sunday markets.
In Jamaica these measures were resisted by the House of Assembly. The Assembly claimed that the slaves were content and objected to Parliament's interference in island affairs, although many slave owners feared possible revolts. Following a series of rebellions and changing attitudes in Great Britain, the nation formally abolished slavery in 1834, with full emancipation from chattel slavery declared in 1838. The population in 1834 was 371,070 of whom 15,000 were white, 5,000 free black, 40,000 ‘coloured’ or mixed race, and 311,070 slaves.
In the 19th century, the British established a number of botanical gardens. These included the Castleton Garden, set up in 1862 to replace the Bath Garden (created in 1779) which was subject to flooding. Bath Garden was the site for planting breadfruit brought to Jamaica from the Pacific by Captain William Bligh. Other gardens were the Cinchona Plantation founded in 1868 and the Hope Garden founded in 1874. In 1872, Kingston became the island's capital.
In 1945, Sir Horace Hector Hearne became Chief Justice and Keeper of the Records in Jamaica. He headed the Supreme Court, Kingston between 1945 and 1950/1951. He then moved to Kenya where he was appointed Chief Justice.
Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom and in 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation among the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.
Strong economic growth, averaging approximately 6% per annum, marked the first ten years of independence under conservative governments which were led successively by Prime Ministers Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster and Hugh Shearer. The growth was fuelled by strong investments in bauxite/alumina, tourism, manufacturing industry and, to a lesser extent, the agricultural sector.
The optimism of the first decade was accompanied by a growing sense of inequality, and a sense that the benefits of growth were not being experienced by the urban poor. This, combined with the effects of a slowdown in the global economy in 1970, prompted the electorate to change government, electing the PNP (People's National Party) in 1972. Despite efforts to create more socially equitable policies in education and health, Jamaica continued to lag economically, with its gross national product having fallen in 1980 to some 25% below the 1972 level. Rising foreign and local debt, accompanied by large fiscal deficits, resulted in the invitation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing from the United States and others, and the imposition of IMF austerity measures (with a greater than 25% interest rate per year).
Economic deterioration continued into the mid-1980s, exacerbated by a number of factors; the first and third largest alumina producers, Alpart and Alcoa closed, and there was a significant reduction in production by the second largest producer, Alcan. In addition, tourism decreased and Reynolds Jamaica Mines, Ltd. left the Jamaican industry.