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When did they come? Jamaica was first colonized by a native group of South American origin who, in the early history of Jamaica, called their home a paradise of wood and water. The Arawak were there to greet Christopher Columbus when he arrived in Jamaica in 1494, beginning a long period of European colonization there. The history of Jamaica as a European outpost saw the island under Spanish rule for 150 years, during which the city now known as Spanish Town was established and flourished as the colony’s economic hub.
In the 1650s, Jamaica was captured by the British. Despite turning Jamaica into a profitable colony, continued harassment by a group of ex-slaves – brought over throughout the Spanish period and set free during their retreat – and their descendants dogged the British until they relented and granted emancipation to all remaining plantation laborers in 1838. The Maroons, as this small army was known, are still revered today as some of the most brave and noble figures in the history of Jamaica.
Why did they come?
On May 10, 1655, an English expedition, commanded by Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables, landed at the present-day coastal town of Passage Fort, in the southeastern parish of Saint Catherine. This expedition, which had failed to capture Hispaniola, proceeded to claim the island of Jamaica for England. At the time of the English conquest, the Spaniards were unable to effectively resist the invasion because only about 500 of them were armed with weapons. The English ordered the Spanish colonists to deliver all of their slaves and goods and leave the island.
Some followed these orders, but a group led by Don Cristabal Arnaldo de Isasi remained and put up guerrilla resistance to the English. Isasi freed the slaves, many of whom retreated with the Spanish rebels into the hills. From there, the Spanish and the freed blacks who had joined them frequently raided and waged guerrilla warfare on English settlements. Isasi, finally overwhelmed by English forces, fled to Cuba for reinforcement. Some of the blacks who had fought with Isasi, recognizing that the Spanish case was lost, defected to the English.
A black regiment fighting for the English, led by the former slave Juan de Bolas, proved a decisive factor in the final defeat of the Spanish, marked by Isasi’s retreat in 1660. How did they colonize? Jamaica’s English-appointed governor Edward D’Oyley compensated the black regiment by officially recognizing their freedom and granting them landholdings. Other formerly Spanish-owned slaves remained autonomous of the colonial administration, living in their own communities as maroons. Spain officially ceded the island to England under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670.
The English established a representative system of government, giving white settlers the power to make their own laws through an elected House of Assembly, which acted as a legislative body. The Legislative Council, whose members were appointed by the governor, served an advisory function and took part in legislative debates. This system lasted until it was replaced in 1866 by the crown colony system of government, which stripped the island elite of most of its political power. What changes did they make?
The English encouraged permanent settlement through generous land grants. In 1664 Sir Thomas Modyford, a sugar plantation and slave owner in Barbados (a Caribbean island of the Lesser Antilles chain), was appointed governor of Jamaica. He brought 1,000 English settlers and black slaves with him from Barbados. Modyford immediately encouraged plantation agriculture, especially the cultivation of cacao and sugarcane. By the early 1700s sugar estates worked by black slaves were established throughout the island, and sugar and its by-products dominated the economy.
Other economic activities, including livestock rearing and the cultivation of coffee and pimento (allspice), developed as well. With the establishment of the plantation system, the slave trade grew. Slaves of both genders and every age were found in all facets of the island’s economy, in both rural and urban areas. They were laborers on plantations, domestic servants, and skilled artisans (tradesmen, technicians, and itinerant traders). The wealth created in Jamaica by the labor of black slaves has been estimated at ? 18,000,000, more than half of he estimated total of ? 30,000,000 for the entire British West Indies. It has been postulated that the profit generated by the ‘triangular trade’ (involving sugar and tropical produce from the British Caribbean colonies, the trade in manufactured goods for slaves in Africa, and the trade of slaves in the British Caribbean) financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain. More than 1 million slaves are estimated to have been transported directly from Africa to Jamaica during the period of slavery; of these, 200,000 were reexported to other places in the Americas.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Akan, Ga, and Adangbe from the northwestern coastal region known as the Gold Coast (around modern Ghana) dominated the slave trade to the island. Not until 1776 did slaves imported from other parts of Africa-Igbos from the Bight of Biafra (southern modern Nigeria) and Kongos from Central Africa-outnumber slaves from the Gold Coast. But slaves from these regions represented 46 percent of the total number of slaves. The demand for slaves required about 10,000 to be imported annually.
Thus slaves born in Africa far outnumbered those who were born in Jamaica; on average they constituted more than 80 percent of the slave population until Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807. When Britain abolished the institution of slavery in 1834, Jamaica had a population of more than 311,000 slaves and only about 16,700 whites. By the mid-1700s planters were distributing small plots of marginal land to their slaves, both men and women, as a way to offset the cost of providing food. However, the slaves were expected to tend their own crops only during their limited free time.
Although slaves were not allotted much time to work the plots, they were able to produce enough not only for their own subsistence but also for sale. A vibrant marketing network developed among the slaves throughout the island, creating what is referred to as a proto-peasantry. In the British mind, slaves were no more than property and merchandise to be bought and sold. On this premise, the British enacted a whole system of slave laws aimed primarily at policing slaves. In general, the premise that slaves were no more than property allowed slave owners to treat them brutally.
The severity of this brutality varied. Slaves on large sugar estates generally suffered the harshest punishments, while those on smaller estates and in towns received somewhat better treatment. Colonialism The history of Jamaica is crucial to understanding the country’s current situation. Many of the problems today are results of neocolonial forces. The roots of such concerns can be found within the country’s long legacy of colonialism extending 300 years in length before reaching independence. Jamaica was the meeting place of two expropriate populations: the Britisher uprooting himself in search of quick wealth through sugar; and the African uprooted by force from his environment to supply slave labor upon which his owner’s dream of wealth depended” (Manley, 1975: 12). In 1494 Christopher Columbus arrived on the island to be followed by his son, Diego, in 1509. Diego Columbus sent a delegation to the island thus supporting Spanish control in Jamaica until 1660. During the reign of the Spanish the colonizers managed to wipe out the entire population of native Arawaks, comprised of 60,000 people.
The Spanish had imported some slaves from Africa during this time but developed little of the island. Profound development began in 1660 when, after a five-year struggle against the Spanish crown, the British won power. There was a significant rise in population under British control. Their system allowed the colony to prosper as they gave new European settlers land to cultivate sugar cane and cocoa. “The European planter has been described as a machine for making money” (Waters, 1985: 22).
The purpose of this colonial economic system was to provide raw materials and goods for the Mother Country. In addition, a general consumer market was developed to send wealth to Europe and allow for capital accumulation, all for the benefit of the colonizers. Slavery represents an important part of Jamaican history and the cultivated dominant atmosphere. For one, plantations highly depended on slave labor to maximize profit margins. Between 1655 and 1808 one million slaves were forcefully brought to Jamaica (Waters, 1985: 21-23).
Persaud (2001: 72) suggests, “the plantation system, the totality of institutional arrangements surrounding the production and marketing of plantation crops, has seriously affected society in Jamaica”. In other words, the slave mode of production was a crucial factor in the establishment of Jamaica’s structural society. “Jamaica’s class structure today reflects its history as a colonial plantation society and its beginnings of industrial development characterized by a high rate of inequality and poverty
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