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A BRIEF HISTORY OF JAMAICA

"A flame of the forest…come upon unexpectedly around a bend in the road startles like a shout;

against the Wedgewood glaze of a March sky the blossoms seem, literally, radiant with the heat of fire."

John Hearne (Jamaica)

Methodist Church
Methodist Church
Savanna-la-mar
Jamaica is vibrant and intense with brilliant sunshine, azure waters that compete with the sky, lush, verdant mountains, and flowers that dazzle the eye. Christopher Columbus was so mesmerized by its beauty, he described it in his ship's log in 1494 as "…the fairest land my eyes have ever seen." In this idyllic paradise, he was greeted by a friendly, gentle people known as the Arawaks or Tainos. They were skilled sailors from the Guianas and Venezuela who gradually made their way northwards through the Caribbean archipelago to reach the island they called Xamayca meaning 'land of wood and water' around 1000 A.D.

They settled mainly in coastal areas near to a river where they cultivated tabaco for smoking and cassava and maize for food. They also hunted small animals and fished the shallow coastal waters for a variety of seafood. The Arawaks favored the huge cedar and cotton trees for making their dugout canoes and although most were one-man vessels, Columbus was astounded to observe one canoe measuring 96 feet long, 8 feet wide, and capable of carrying 50 men.

Five centuries of peaceful existence came to an end with Spanish colonization. The entire Arawak population of around 100,000 was wiped out within the next century by harsh labor, European diseases and sheer sport by the Spanish. It is probable that their tranquil days were already numbered because Columbus' arrival coincided with raids on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico by fierce, man-eating Caribs who had practically decimated the Arawak communities of the Eastern Caribbean.

During the 16th century, Spain's Caribbean colonies, especially Hispanola and Cuba, were important for securing the shipping routes between Spain and the wealthy Americas. Jamaica was of little consequence and served mainly as a provisioning center for ships sailing to and from Panama. The lack of gold and the overall impoverished condition of early settlers deterred potential immigrants and the island remained poor and sparsely populated. No other European nations sought to establish their own colonies in the Caribbean during this period but their ships regularly plied these waters to plunder Spanish ships and ports.

Trade between Spain and her New World colonies began to wane in the 1620s. The elimination of native populations resulted in a labor shortage that caused mining and agricultural production to fall. At the same time, piracy increased dramatically and the cost of defending the sea routes became more burdensome to the Spanish Crown. The merchants of Seville banded together to send their ships in larger groups for greater security but this led to a longer time span between journeys. Consequently, colonists became more self sufficient and increasingly relied on smugglers for the imported goods that they needed. By 1650, high inflation, staggering war debts and plummeting treasure from the Americas all contributed to Spain's economic decline.

Morgan's Harbour
Morgan's Harbour
Port Royal
During the 17th century, the early Spanish claim to the Caribbean was challenged by England, France, Holland and Denmark. The English, in particular, sought to take control of the sea routes and concurrently, trade with the Americas. In 1655, a ragtag army under General Venables and Admiral Penn failed miserably in their attempt to capture Hispanola, Spain's most prized West Indian possession. Fearful of Cromwell's anger, the hapless troop sailed to take Jamaica which was known to be poorly defended. Following the fiasco in Hispanola, the English abandoned their 'Grand Western Design' and set about establishing a proper colony in Jamaica. They recognized the detrimental effects borne by the Spanish at the hands of the pirates and buccaneers who were, therefore, encouraged to settle in Port Royal. In this way, the English reduced the expense of defending the new colony and contributed to the erosion of Spanish influence in the region. Port Royal became known as the "richest and wickedest" city in the world but was destroyed by a violent earthquake in 1692.

The power struggles of 17th and 18th century Europe directly affected the distant island colonies. After an 11 year war, England reached a tentative peace with Spain under Philip of Anjou in 1713 whereby they were granted the 'Asiento,' a contract to provide Spanish colonies with African slaves for 30 years. This contract was previously held by the French and the Portuguese who had provided Spain with slaves even before Columbus made his fateful voyages. At the same time, an increase in the European demand for sugar gave rise to a prolific slave trade to meet the large labor requirements of sugar cane cultivation. Jamaica became the major center for the slave trade and dominated all the Caribbean in sugar production. Replacing gold and silver as the primary source of wealth, the 'sugar colonies' commanded the highest real estate values in the world and the wealth of the West Indian planter became legendary.

Carnival
Carnival
Kingston
By the close of the 18th century, Europeans had developed a less expensive process to extract sugar from sugar beets. The increase in European sugar production coincided with talks of Emancipation for the slaves. In Jamaica, freedom was granted in 1838 but the transition from slave to free man was difficult. There were few jobs available as sugar production dwindled. Slaves had little in common with each other for they were often from different tribes and had also been prevented from forming family relationships. The process of providing a framework for the transition was left to the missionaries who had at first Christianized the slaves and later fought for the abolition of slavery. Today, Jamaica has the largest number of churches per square mile in the entire world. Many are beautiful, old, stone structures from the 1800s that remain a vital part of Jamaican lives.

Problems persist in Jamaica but they have not quashed the 'can do' and hopeful spirit of Jamaicans. This spirit is best noted in the ability of a small island to produce music giants such as Bob Marley of reggae fame, world class athletes like Merlene Ottey and Linford Christie as well as popular marine nature artist, Guy Harvey. It is the very same spirit encountered in the multitude of higglers, especially in tourist areas, who fend for themselves in the absence of generous social welfare benefits that are available in wealthier countries. Jamaicans are a proud and straightforward people and it is understanding this that one becomes open to the real adventure of the island. Today's adventurers, like Columbus, seek enchantment in spectacular scenery from quiet mountain tops. Others, like Henry Morgan, the buccaneer and Calico Jack, the pirate, favor sea-going adventures and the boisterous merry-making of an exuberant land while those like Cudjoe, the Ashanti leader of runaway slaves, prefer to explore the rugged landscape with its forgotten pathways. Regardless of inclination, Jamaica invites exploration, discovery and fun.


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