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Jamaica - History


   Jamaica's first inhabitants were Tainos (also called Arawak) Indians, who arrived from South America around 900 AD and led a simple life of farming and fishing until the arrival in 1494 of Columbus, who claimed the island for Spain. Spanish settlement began in 1510, first at Sevilla Nueva on the north coast and then at the site of today's Spanish Town, just northwest of Kingston.
   Spanish Town was completely sacked by the British in 1596, and again in 1643. In 1655, fifteen British ships, having failed in their assault on the island of Hispaniola, turned their sights on neighbouring Jamaica. They quickly captured Spanish Town, but the Spanish weren't defeated until five years later, when the last of them fled to Cuba. In the process, the Spanish freed and armed their slaves, most of whom fled to the mountainous interior. The Maroons, as they were called, later waged successful guerrilla war against the British.
   Under British rule, new settlers were enticed to Jamaica with gifts of land. The colonists established vast sugarcane plantations. In the eighteenth century, the island became the world's biggest producer of sugar. The planters amassed extraordinary fortunes, but their wealth was predicated upon the appalling inhumanity of slavery.
   Despite heavy opposition from a West Indian lobby desperate to protect its riches in the colonies, pressure from the church finally brought about the abolition of slavery in 1834. Across the country, missionaries set up "free villages", buying land, subdividing it and either selling or donating it to former slaves. Meanwhile, planters found another source of cheap labour by importing 35,000 indentured labourers from India in the 1830s.
   Jamaica's sugar industry took another major blow in 1846, when a free-trade-minded British government passed the Sugar Duties Act, forcing Jamaica's producers to compete on equal terms with sugar producers worldwide. At the same time, the development of beet-sugar in Europe reduced demand for the West Indian product.
   The economic downturn that followed abolition and the introduction of free trade in sugar took its toll on the freed slaves. Wages were kept pitifully low, taxes were imposed and unemployment rose as plantations were downsized or abandoned altogether. There were numerous riots, the most significant of which took place in 1865, when a major rebellion broke out in Morant Bay in St Thomas. Fearing islandwide insurrection, the governor ordered a show of strength from the armed forces. Little mercy was shown as 437 people were killed, while thousands more were flogged and terrorized. The brutal suppression caused horror throughout Jamaica and Britain and the governor was dismissed for his part in the atrocities. His assembly abolished itself, and in 1866, Jamaica became a Crown Colony.
   The early twentieth century saw considerable economic prosperity. Inevitably, though, most of the new wealth bypassed the black masses, and serious poverty remained throughout the island. By the 1930s, as the Great Depression took hold worldwide, unemployment spiralled and riots became commonplace. Strikes erupted too, with a major clash in 1938 between police and workers at the West Indies Sugar Company factory in Frome leaving several people dead. Partly as a result of the Frome incident, strike-leader Alexander Bustamante founded the first trade union in the Caribbean in 1938 - the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). An associated political party was born too, with the foundation of the People's National Party (PNP) by the lawyer Norman Manley. Both events gave a boost to Jamaican nationalism, already stirred by the campaigning of black-consciousness leader Marcus Garvey during the 1920s and early 1930s.
   After serving as a major Allied base during World War II, Jamaica experienced new-found prosperity in the late 1940s, thanks to early tourism and the first bauxite exports. In 1944, a new constitution introduced universal adult suffrage, and first elections for a government that would work in conjunction with the British-appointed governor were held. Bustamante's newly formed Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won, and gradually the island's two political parties drifted in different ideological directions, with the JLP adopting a basic liberal capitalist philosophy, and the PNP leaning towards democratic socialism.
   The JLP stayed in power until 1955, when the PNP were elected on a manifesto that placed independence firmly on the agenda. Following the collapse of the short-lived West Indies Federation, Jamaica became an independent state within the British Commonwealth on August 6, 1962, with Bustamante as its first prime minister.
   The early years of independence were marked by rising prosperity, as foreign investment increased, particularly in the bauxite industry. The JLP continued in power until the key elections of 1972, when the PNP - now led by Norman Manley's charismatic son Michael - swept to power. Manley set out to improve the conditions of the black majority, and his reforms included a minimum wage, the distribution of land to small farmers, and increased funding for the island's education and health-care sectors, all of which were financed by taxation, in particular of the internationally owned bauxite industry.
   The bauxite companies promptly scaled down their Jamaican operations, and the ensuing economic decline was compounded by the 1973-74 oil crisis. Manley sought to promote a greater degree of self-sufficiency, rejecting closer ties with the US in favour of an alignment with Communist Cuba. US reaction was furious; economic sanctions were applied and it became increasingly difficult for Jamaica to attract foreign investment.
   Politics became ever-more polarized during the Manley years. The opposition JLP, led now by Edward Seaga, launched blistering attacks on the "communist" administration. The 1976 election - won by the PNP again - saw a disturbing increase in political violence, particularly in the ghettos of Kingston. Despite criticism from human rights groups, Manley's response to the violence was to impose a state of emergency and severe anti-crime legislation was put in place. Jamaica entered the economic doldrums, and was forced to turn to the IMF for assistance.
   Violence flared again during the 1980 election campaign, with hundreds of people killed in shoot-outs and open gang warfare. Amid the carnage, Jamaican voters turned to the JLP. In turn, the JLP turned to the US, but were still obliged to continue the cutback of government services begun under the PNP. The JLP's honeymoon with the Jamaican people proved short-lived; in 1989, Michael Manley and the PNP were returned to office. Ill health forced Manley's resignation in 1992; his successor, P.J. Patterson, the first black man to become Jamaica's prime minister, won the election of 1993 on a far less radical platform. The demands of the World Bank and the IMF continued to be met and a generally liberal economic policy followed.
   Tourism, bauxite and agriculture remain the mainstays of the Jamaican economy, but the island carries a huge burden of debt to foreign banks, and much of the foreign currency earned is required to repay interest and capital on that debt. Consequently, education, roads and public transport have suffered, and the lot of the average Jamaican remains hard. Crime, though, is the key concern for most people. Kingston's "garrison communities" are these days delineated by the whims of drug dons rather than by political allegiances, and gun battles have resulted in far too many riots and curfews in the capital.
   Despite these problems, there remains much to be positive about in Jamaica. Tourism remains strong, and Jamaican culture remains vibrant. Whatever the challenges, it is hard to quench the island's spirit, and while many islanders predict that "things will get worse before they get better", Jamaica's future, on balance, seems bright

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