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The Timeline of Jamaica's History

A Chronology of Important Events in Jamaica's History

Jamaica has a long and varied history, from its indigenous Taino people who migrated to the island many hundreds of years ago, to the island being given by the Spanish monarchy to Columbus and his family, to finally being wrested away by the English from the grasp of the Spanish through a series of unplanned events.

Start with a map of the route Christopher Columbus took, which led to the discovery of Jamaica, then follow a chronological account of important events, go directly to a year by selecting from the menu above.





Pre-Columbus

The Tainos

The Tainos were the native Indians of Jamaica. They had their origins in the Arawak tribes of Eastern Venezuela, in an area called the Orinoco Delta. Beginning around 400 B.C., factions of the tribes began exploring the surrounding areas by sea, traveling further north in waves. They developed self-sufficient communities in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, eastern Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

Jamaica is estimated to have been settled by the Tainos around 650AD. Spanish chroniclers describe Taino towns, predominantly those in the Dominican Republic, as densely settled, well organized and widely dispersed. They were inventive people, developing techniques to extract poison from the yuca root before consumption, they developed pepper gas for warfare and built ocean-going canoes large enough for more than 100 paddlers. They played games with balls made of rubber.

The Tainos were generally a friendly and peaceful people with a gentle culture and a highly organized hierarchical, paternal society. Each society was a small kingdom and the leader was called a cacique. The cacique's function was to keep the welfare of the village by assigning daily work and making sure everyone got an equal share. The relatives of the caciques lived together in large houses in the center of the village made of mud, straw and palm leaves. The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. The general population lived in large circular buildings called bohios, constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. They cultivated yuca, sweet potatoes, maize, beans and other crops.

The Indians practiced polygamy with a man having 2 or 3 wives, and the caciques had as many as 30. It was a great honor for a woman to be married to a cacique. Not only did she enjoy a materially superior lifestyle, but her children were held in high esteem.

1494

Christopher Columbus sights Jamaica.

The logs of Columbus's 2nd voyage are lost. This was the voyage that led to the discovery Jamaica, which he called Santiago. Most of what we know about this voyage, is from indirect references, or from the accounts of others who were also onboard the ships. The best acknowledged sources are "Historia" by Andres Bernaldez, written after discussions with Columbus. It is possible to that Adres Bernaldez, may have had access to the original logs. The other two sources are "Historie", written by, Fernando, son of Columbus and "Decades", by Peter Martyr, a historian of Spanish explorations and chaplain to the court of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.

In one account of the first sighting of Jamaica, Bernaldez's "Historia de los Reyes Catolicos", describes the island as

"...the most beautiful island that eyes ever saw. The country is most mountainous and it seems as if the earth was touching the sky. The inhabitants have more canoes than those of any other islands thereabouts, and the largest so far seen, all made in one piece out of the trunk of a tree."

The account continues to describe Columbus being met by about 60 canoes of Indians with spears about one league (about 3.4 miles) out in the ocean as he approached the island. Many retreated when they saw the ships had no intention of stopping, and a couple found the courage to come alongside. The Indians were offered gifts of clothing and other items. The ships finally anchored at a place Columbus named Santa Gloria, because of the extreme beauty of the surrounding lands, which he described as incomparable to the gardens of Valencia. They spent the night there.

The next morning they set sail in search of a harbor in which to do repairs to the ships and after sailing about 4 leagues to the west (about 13.5 miles) they came upon a suitable location. A small party was dispatched in a boat to inspect the entrance of the harbor, but the party were attacked by Indians in two canoes, throwing spears. The Indians retreated after the Spanish resisted and Columbus and his ships sailed into the cove where they anchored.

What Columbus saw was described as follows;

"...and then he saw so many Indians that the earth was covered with them, all painted in a thousand colors, but the greatest number in black, and all of them naked as it was their custom, with plumes on their heads in various manners and the chest and stomach covered with palm leaves. They shouted and screamed in the loudest manner and threw spears which did not reach the vessels."

Columbus realizing that he was in need of water as well as wood for repairs to his ships, calculated that he needed to show a position of strength and punish the Indian so that they thought twice about attacking, so he ordered three boats to approach the shore where the crew fired cross bows at the Indians, wounding many and forcing them to retreat in fear.

The reaction of the Indians to the attack is described as follows;

"...they discharged their crossbows at them and when the Indians found they hurt they begun to be afraid; then the crews on the three boats jumped on the shore and continued shooting at the Indians, who, on seeing this, ran away in such fright that there was not a man or woman left in the neighborhood. A dog that was landed from one of the caravels followed the Indians biting and hurting them very much for a dog is as good as ten men against the Indians."

The next morning a group of six Indians, all men, returned offering gifts. Columbus was pleased with the friendly gesture of the greeting party so he befriended them and for the duration of his stay was given everything in abundance. The accounts from the two other sources provide additional information such as where did Columbus land and where did he repair his ships, which is worth exploring.

In Fernando's account, the party that was attacked by the Indians when they went to inspect the entrance of the harbor, returned to the ship choosing not to start a fight. Columbus to sail away, but then decided that he needed to show strength in order to deter future attacks. He sailed to another port shaped like a horseshoe, which he named Puerto Bueno, and it is at this port that crossbows were used against the Indians who came out to meet the boats, wounding six or seven. The Indians returned after the battle bringing bounty. Columbus befriended them and for the rest of their time there, he was given what he needed to repair his ships. On May 9th he sailed west, hugging the shores of Jamaica eventually setting course back to Cuba because of unfavorable winds.

In this second account, the port where this happened, he named Puerto Bueno, is shaped like a horseshoe. Puerto Bueno, was again mentioned as the port where Columbus's beached his shipwrecked and sought refuge from a storm on his fourth voyage when he remained stranded on the island for a year.

Between the two accounts, we know that the place where they first landed was named Santa Gloria and the place where he repaired his ships was named Puerto Bueno. There is no conclusive proof of the actual location of either of these places, but the generally accepted answer is that Santa Gloria where he first landed, is in St Ann's Bay, close to Seville, and Discovery Bay with its horse show harbor, lying about 14 miles to the west is where he stayed for 4 days while he repaired his ships.

The reason for going in search of Jamaica was also covered in Fernando's account. Columbus wanted to confirm what he had heard on other islands, that Jamaica was rich in gold. This is an important point because the lack of gold was a key reason why the island fell so easily to the English a century and a half later. No gold was ever found and the Spanish Crown lost interest in the island, leaving it under-developed and lightly defended.



1503

Columbus Shipwrecked in Jamaica

Columbus departed on his fourth and final voyage on May 9, 1502 from Cádiz, Spain; a voyage that was filled with misfortune. After a year voyaging, two ships had to be abandoned in Panama and the remaining two riddled with holes by shipworm were no longer seaworthy. Columbus now an ailing 52-year-old, and his crew barely made it to the north coast of Jamaica on June 24, 1503, at the place where he first landed. The travails of this voyage is well documented in Columbus's own words in the form of a letter to the Spanish monarchy, written while on the island.

The following excerpt is from the letter he wrote in Jamaica to the Spanish Monarchy:

On the thirteenth of May I reached the province of Mago, which borders on Cathay [JTL: North China was known as Cathay in medieval Europe. Columbus thought Cuba was part of the mainland of China], and thence I started for the island of Española. I sailed two days with a good wind, after which it became contrary. The route that I followed called forth all my care to avoid the numerous islands, that I might not be stranded on the shoals that lie in their neighborhood. The sea was very tempestuous, and I was driven backward under bare poles. I anchored at an island, where I lost, at one stroke, three anchors; and, at midnight, when the weather was such that the world appeared to be coming to an end, the cables of the other ship broke, and it came down upon my vessel with such force that it was a wonder we were not dashed to pieces; the single anchor that remained to me was, next to the Lord, our only preservation. After six days, when the weather became calm, I resumed my journey, having already lost all my tackle; my ships were pierced by borers more than a honey-comb and the crew entirely paralyzed with fear and in despair. I reached the island a little beyond the point at which I first arrived at it, and there I turned in to recover myself after the storm; but I afterwards put into a much safer port in the same island. After eight days I put to sea again, and reached Jamaica by the end of June; [JTL: June, 23rd, 1503] but always beating against contrary winds, and with the ships in the worst possible condition. With three pumps, and the use of pots and kettles, we could scarcely clear the water that came into the ship, there being no remedy but this for the mischief done by the ship-worm.

For a year and 5 days Columbus and his men remained stranded on Jamaica. On July 17, 1503, Columbus sent Diego Méndez and Bartolomeo Fieschi, captains of the wrecked ships, La Capitana and Vizcaíno, in two canoes with some natives, to get help from Hispaniola. When they arrived, the Governor, Nicolas de Ovando y Caceres, who was at enmity with Columbus took his time in arranging help for the stranded crew.

1504 - Columbus Rescued from Jamaica

During their long wait for the return of the dispatched men, relationships with the Indians began to sour. Columbus, in attempt to secure the continued support of the local Indians, gathered all the Caciques (local chiefs) in the area on February 29, 1504 and made the following proclamation...

"To punish you for your cruel conduct, the Great Spirit whom I adore, is going to visit you with his most terrible judgement. This very evening you will observe the moon turn red; after which she will grow dark, and withold her light from you. This will only be a prelude to your calamities if you obstinately persist in refusing to give us food."

Columbus had predicted a lunar eclipse, using an Ephemeris (a table published in 1474 by the German astronomer Regiomontanus, which shows tabulations of the day-to-day positions of the heavenly bodies). That evening, the natives who witnessed the eclipse, saw it as a fulfillment of "the prophecy". The Caciques were mesmerized by the demonstration of such "power", and were quick to pledge their continued support

Diego Mendez, returned to Jamaica on June 29, 1504 with a ship to rescue the Columbus and his men. Columbus left the island arriving in Hispaniola on August 13 of that year, and on November 7, sailed back to Sanlúcar, Spain to find that Queen Isabella, his main supporter, was dying.

1506

Columbus Death Sparks Legal Battle

Christopher Columbus dies in 1506.

When Christopher Columbus embarked on his second voyage in 1492, his son Diego was made a page at the Spanish court and he was promised shares in any wealth discovered in the New World, and over the years had been given titles of Viceroy, Governor and Admiral of the Sea. As time progressed, these privileges and titles were gradually taken away from him.

After his father’s death in 1506, Diego began a long struggle to regain his father’s former privileges in the Indies. He sued the crown to regain the recognition and titles that had been stripped from his father. Diego had married the cousin of King Ferdinand, María Álvarez de Toledo, which gave him some influence, and in 1508 he was accredited governor of the Indies.

He arrived at Santo Domingo in July 1509, but, unsatisfied with that assignment alone, he wanted all of his father’s privileges. In May 1511 he received the hereditary title of viceroy of the islands, but he believe the position did not carry the recognition nor the power and rights that he deserved. He made several trips to Spain to make his petitions and defend his position but he died before any final decision on his rights were decided, after which the Crown voided all previous decisions arising from the suit.

The fight was picked up by his wife and in June 1536, a final compromise and settlement was made. Their son Luis Columbus, and grandson of Christopher Columbus, was given the title of admiral of the Indies. As part of the settlement, he would renounce all other rights in return for a perpetual annuity of 10,000 ducats and the island of Jamaica given in fief, and an estate of 25 square leagues [JTL: 1 league = 3.4 miles] on the Isthmus of Panama with the titles of duque de Veragua and marques de Jamaica. He was forbidden to fortify Jamaica without the King's permission, a condition that may have played into Britain's relatively easy success at conquering it.

The gift of the island to the Columbus family was a small compromise to the Crown because it had served little economic benefit. No gold, silver or other precious gems had been discovered. It wasn't until much later that the Crown began to show renewed interest in the island when they began to realize that the island was wealthy in in pimento spices.

Fief and Feudal Society

In European feudalism, a fief was a source of income granted to a person (called a vassal) by his lord in exchange for his services. The fief usually consisted of land and the labor of peasants who were bound to cultivate it.

Short Video; What was Feudalism?

1508

Jamaica Settled by the Spanish (Colony of Santiago)

In 1508, Columbus's son, Diego Columbus, became Governor of the Indies. He appointed Juan de Esquivel, a conquistador who had accompanied Columbus on his second trip in 1493, as his Lieutenant in Jamaica.

Esquivel landed at Santa Gloria with 80 citizens and their families to colonize Jamaica. He founded the seat of government near St Ann's Bay close to the Taino Village of Maima. It was called Sevilla la Nueva, and later called Sevilla d'Oro (Golden Seville), in anticipation of finding gold. The Spanish had high hopes of finding gold based on the gold ornaments that adorned the natives. It is still unknown where the gold came from, but the idea persisted through to later English settlers who spoke of "the King of Spain secret gold mines. The idea also found its way in the folk lore of future African slaves with allusions to hidden treasures and gold mines.



1511

Spanish Settlers urged to use Tainos for Labor

In 1511 Esquivel noted that Jamaica lacked any significant gold deposits and the monarchs of Spain urged settlers to use native Indian laborers to grow food crops in support of other expeditions in Cuba and South America. The settlers were given lots of 150-200 Indians to use for mining, construction, transportation and farming. The lack of gold was pivotal in Spain losing interest in the colony, leading to a slowing rate of development and fewer arrivals of new settlers, and an island less defended as compared to Cuba and Hispaniola.

1517

The first black slaves are shipped to Jamaica by the Spanish

The first black slaves brought to Jamaica in 1517. They did not come directly from Africa but were either Africans, or the descendants of Africans, who had been enslaved for a time in Spain.

The Spanish began importing black slaves shortly after King Ferdinand, in 1501, authorized the governor of Hispaniola to import slaves of sub-Saharan African descent provided that they were born in Spain. This is the first known example of Europeans transporting black slaves across the Atlantic to the New World.

Excerpt of the letter from the Spanish Monarchs to The Governor of Hispaniola:

Because with great care we have procured the conversion of the Indians to our Holy Catholic Faith, and furthermore, if there are still people there who are doubtful of the faith in their own conversions, it would be a hindrance [to them], and therefore we will not permit, nor allow to go there [to the Americas] Moors nor Jews nor heretics nor reconciled heretics, nor persons who are recently converted to our faith, except if they are black slaves, or other slaves, that have been born under the dominion of our natural Christian subjects.

1518

New Seville, the First Capital of Jamaica and the First Slaves direct from Africa

The first Spanish settlement, which was located in the Taino Village of Maima was relocated closer to the sea in 1518, by the Spanish Governor, Francisco de Garay.

The lands forming the new settlement stretched from the fertile alluvial coastal plain in the north to the limestone highlands in the south and includes the land on which the present day Seville Great House still stands. The area today, is historically significant and important for three main reasons:

  • The first capital of Jamaica under Spanish rule,
  • one of the first sites in the region to receive a steady flow of African slaves and
  • the location of the post-1655 British sugar plantation known as Seville.

Sevilla la Nueva in 1500s by Peter Dunn

Reconstruction of Maima and Sevilla la Nueva, c. 1525. courtesy of Peter Dunn, Archaeological Reconstruction Artist
View: North (bottom of screen) to South. The original Spanish colony Sevilla la Nuevo (aka Sevilla d'Oro) was in the Taino Village of Maima (X). It was relocated closer to the sea by the Spanish Governor, Francisco de Garay, around 1518 and the name simplified to Sevilla. He built himself a castle (1) and by 1525, Sevilla was a small colony with a stone fortress, a sugar factory (2), artist worksop (3) and Franciscan monastery (4).

The first Slaves arrive directly from Africa

In 1518 King Charles I of Spain (Ferdinand's successor) signed a four-year consent allowing an annual supply of 4,000 African slaves to enter Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. This decision to create a direct, more economically viable Africa to the New World slave trade fundamentally changed the nature and scale of the practice. By 1611 Jamaica had a population of approximately 558 black slaves, 107 free blacks, and between 1,200 and 1,400 Spaniards.

1530

The First Jews in Jamaica

The earliest Jews in Jamaica can be traced back to the early days of the Spanish colonization of the island, when a number of Portuguese Crypto-Jews fleeing the Inquisition began arriving on the island around 1530 and settled in Spanish Town.

In 1478, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella instituted the Inquisition, an effort by the Spanish clergy rid to the country of heretics. For over a century, acts of violence against Jews had been practiced by the Catholics in Spain, which greatly reduced Spain's Jewish population. Having already forced much of Spain's Jewish population to convert, the Church began rooting out those who were suspected of practicing Judaism in secret, oftentimes by extremely violent methods. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella after finally freeing Spain from Muslim rule, issued the Alhambra Decree on March 31st, mandating that all Jews be expelled from the country.



The results were catastrophic. Jews were given four months to leave the country, resulting in the hasty selling of their assets at deflated prices to Catholics. Many converted in order to remain in Spain, while others gave the appearance of conversion while continuing to secretly practice their religion. Modern historians believe around 40,000 Jews emigrated, with older estimates putting the number at several hundred thousand. Communities established by Spanish Jews, known as Sephardim in Hebrew, formed the foundation of the Sephardic communities that now make up a significant percentage of the world's Jewish population.

Defying the Spanish Inquisition, the grandson of Columbus, Portugallo Colon in 1530 allowed Jews to settle in Jamaica, and in that same year, the first ship load of Portuguese-Spanish Jews landed on the island. Many were Conversos, fleeing Europe to openly practice Judaism, who, despite the Inquisition, had continued to practice Jewish rituals in secret at great personal peril. In many other colonies of Spain and Portugal, Catholicism was stringently enforced and jews continued to be persecuted if found practicing of Jewish traditions, but in new colony of Jamaica, Colon turned a blind eye, enabling these settlers to practice Judaism, albeit only in secret, but without fear of being tortured.

1534

Sevilla abandoned. Villa de la Vega (Spanish Town) Established as the Island's New Capital

In 1534 the settlers moved to a new location, surrounded by good farming land that they named Villa de la Vega (Town of the Plain). It was later renamed to St Jago de la Vega and subsequently, Spanish Town by the English. This settlement served as the capital of both Spanish and English Jamaica from its foundation in 1534 until 1872, after which the capital was moved to Kingston.

Other settlements established by the Spanish include Esquivel (now Old Harbour Bay), Oristan (Bluefields), Savanna-la-Mar (Savanna-la-Mar), Manterias (Montego Bay), Las Chorreras (Ocho Rios), Oracabeza (Oracabessa), Puerto Santa Maria (Port Maria), Mellila (Annotto Bay) and Puerto Anton (Port Antonio).

1597

English Attacks, Sir Anthony Shirley's Raid of Jamaica


Source: "The Spanish Version of Sir Anthony Shirley's Raid of Jamaica, 1597. by: Don Fernando Melgarejo De Cordova. 1922"
EXTRACTS FROM FOUR HERETOFORE UNPUBLISHED DOCUMENTS, EXISTING IN THE ARCHIVO GENERAL DE INDIAS, SEVILLE, SPAIN

During the period of 1597, conditions in Jamaica were described by Francisco Hernandez, presbyter and canon of the holy church of Xamayca in 1597, as a place of hardship. The people lived with the constant threat from the English and the French, who would take loaded ships anchored in the harbors. By another account, it was described as sparsely populated with about 100 citizens most of whom were poor with no other business or trade except of that in cassava, hides and meat. These were shipped to Havanna and other Spanish settlements.

In February 1597, an English fleet of seven, four large ships and three launches, sailed along the south coast of Jamaica in search of the entrance to the principal port of island [JTL: Passage Fort, near present-day Portmore ], which was known to be poorly defended and not far from the only major town on the island, Villa De La Vega, known today as Spanish Town. The fleet sailed west, as far as Cabo de el Negrillo, Negril Point, before realizing that they had missed it. Doubling back, they sailed east eventually finding the port that they sought.

Leaving the larger vessels anchored at the mouth of the channel, three launches set sail towards the shore. Finding little defense, a band of about 200-300 men disembarked on Tuesday, February 4th, 1597, and began their advance on Villa de la Vega, located about 7 miles inland. The governor of the island, Licentiate Francisco de Nabeda Albarado, had received word of the ships, so he, and many of the town's citizens, set out towards the location where the English landed. When the governor saw the size of the invading force, he quickly realized that resistance would have been futile so he and the citizens retreated to the town, where they gathered what they could and fled to hide in the interior jungle.



The invading forces had been met by a local Indian native called Pedro [JTL: a Taino], who led them to the town. Finding the town empty General Shirley, found a messenger to convey a message to the governor who was in hiding. The message demanded a thousand arrobas of meat and four hundred cargas of Cassava and if the demand was not met, the town would be destroyed.

On receiving the terms of the ransom, the governor and his officials decided to consult with the officials of the church, so they traveled to place called Cayo de la Legua, where the abbott, Don Francisco Marques de Villalobos, the vicar and other friars of the Dominican convent, along with others from the town had fled to hide. After a discussion amongst themselves, the church officials advised the governor not to give in to the demands. They reasoned that it was far better for the town to endure the hardships than to give in to the demands, which would enable the invaders to continue their attacks on Spanish ships. The parties agreed that that was the right approach, so they began spreading the word that on penalty of death, it was forbidden for anyone to provide assistance or aid to the enemy.

The English were growing impatient, for it had been a week since they had occupied the town and had given their ultimatum. When they learned that payment was not forthcoming, they were incensed. They began a campaign of destruction, sacking the town, burning houses (about sixty were destroyed) and destroying plantations. Angry, Shirley said that he would not leave until he had captured abbot and the vicar because he had been told that they were responsible for not meeting the demands for the cassava and meat. which had been asked as ransom. They sent a search party guided by the local Indian named Pedro, to look for the abbott and the vicar. They found their camp, and destroyed it. They robbed and sacked the camp taking everything of value. One witness account, they said that the English took all the clothing and everything else not leaving a single thing behind. Nothing left was left but empty and broken chests and wool which was emptied from the mattresses. When town's accountant, Pedro de Castillo, learned of this, he sent a messenger to the abbot requesting him and the church officials to take refuge with him, at his plantation at Maimon.

Meanwhile, the governor must have had enough of the wanton destruction. He authorized the treasurer, Francisco Arnaldo, and others, to negotiate with General Shirley on his behalf. An agreement was eventually struck, to stop the hostilities. Captain Francisco Bejarano, a Spaniard, sent with the general's ring, as a token of the legitimacy of the message, to command the party that was pursuing the abbott and the vicar, to return.

The English left after forty days on the island. They were given the meat and cassava that they demanded as well as carts and horses to carry it, and likely plunder, down to the shore, where it was loaded on the launches and transported back to the ships anchored offshore.

This raid, which happened fifty-eight years before the English conquered the island, is likely to have played a part in the decision to attack Jamaica after failing at securing Hispaniola. The fact that Jamaica was not well defended, would have been well known. Had the intelligence been otherwise, it would not have made sense for an already defeated, sick and demoralized army to immediately embark on another attack after being thoroughly defeated in Hispaniola.

1655

After a disastrous assault on Hispaniola, and fearing to return to England empty handed, Venables and Penn set sail for neighboring Jamaica, which they knew to be weakly defended (a knowledge likely gained from the previous ventures of Sir Anthony Shirley in 1596 and Captain William Jackson in 1643. They landed at Passage Fort in May 1655 and Spanish Town was quickly overrun. The island was claimed for the British but pockets of Spanish forces continued resistance mostly in the mountains and along the north coast, for another 5 years.

The following text is based on the book "The Narrative of General Venables: With an Appendix of Papers Relating to the Expedition to the West Indies and the Conquest of Jamaica, 1654-1655", edited for the Royal historical society by C.H. Firth and published in 1900.

It provides through a series of letters an account of Jamaica's capture and early occupation during 1655, before things really started to deteriorate as the Spanish resistance, with the aid of the Maroons persisted. By the last letter written in November 1655, the English army in the Jamaica, were so sick that their dead were being buried in shallow graves, and the dogs were digging up and eating the dead. And, with the food supply gone those soldiers who remained were so starved that they were eating the dogs, horses, cattle and anything they could get their hands on.

Where possible the original language and spelling has been edited for easier reading. Wherever the exact meaning of the original text is unclear, the text is left as written. The following passages provide example of how the original text was changed:

Original: "...it was agreed that the Spaniard should come in that day sennight out of the woods where they then lay, and bring in all their armes..."
Modified: "...it was agreed that the Spaniards should come out of the woods in a week where they would then lay down their arms..." ["sennight" is old english for in the space of seven nights and days]

Original: "the Generall, Vice Admirall, and Rere Admirall shott severall guns at his funerall."
Modified: the General, Vice Admiral, and Rear Admiral shot several guns at his funeral.

Original: ...we saw Jamaica Iland ...our souldiers in number 7000 (the sea regiment being none of them)
Modified: ...we saw Jamaica Island ...our soldiers in number 7,000 (excluding the naval force)

 

Letters about the English Conquest of Jamaica in 1655
From The Narrative of General Venables

I

The following picks up from the ending of the account of the failed mission in Hispaniola where the English forces were near descimated and now totally defeated, they sail away from Hispaniola with their sight on Jamaica.

On Saturday the 5 of May, the fleet stood away for the Island of Jamaica. On Tuesday we saw the Island of Navasa [JTL: A small uninhabited reef island with an abandoned lighthouse located northeast of Jamaica, south of Cuba, west Haiti] like a small bowling green, when Commissary Winslow, died, and was thrown overboard; the General, Vice Admiral, and Rear Admiral shot several guns at his funeral.

On Wednesday morning, being the 9th, of May, we saw Jamaica Island, very high land afar off.

Thursday the 10th, our soldiers in number 7,000 (excluding the naval force) landed at the 3 forts, or rather breastworks [JTL: temporary fortification about breast high], about the point, [in] which there were 8 pieces of ordinance, but only 3 were mounted, which took about 20 shots at us; the enemy had about 300 men, likewise resisting with a few shots, all missing our men, who seeing that our men were sure to land, leapt to the middle in water and abandoned the forts; the Martin gally [JTL: a ship of war] quickly gaining upon the Spaniards under whose guns we landed.



These 3 forts, or rather breastwork, were very strong and cannon proof; from these forts our men marched through a savannah to the highway in a wood leading to the town, where about half a mile farther, there was another breastwork for cannon and musketeers, which without resistance we passed, and within a little mile of the town, which lay 5 miles from the sea side, there was another strong breastwork with 2 very great murderers to scoure the lane, where the enemy likewise appeared not; breif their strength was such that if the enemy had behaved himself manfully he mought have worsted us. It was Friday the 11th of May when the army marched into the town, about 2 in the afternoon. In the afternoon of Saturday the 12th a Spaniard with a white flagg comming to our outguards, desiring a treaty was taken to the General. A treaty was agreed on, and 3 commissioned by their Governor, who was carried out of town in a hammock for the pox; meanwhile the enemy sent us 300 head of lean cattle, on purpose to make the least of the country.

On Tuesday the 15th it was agreed that the Spaniards should come out of the woods in a week where they would then lay down their arms, by the 16th of June to be transported to Nuova Spania [and] have each man take 2 suits of clothes, 4 shifts, and leave all their goods and negros with us, which may be about 3 or 4,000. The day before their time was to expire, they sent a letter (notwithstanding their 3 hostages whereof their poxy Governor was one) in to our Commissioners, [complaining of] the severity of the articles, to which if they complied, they were utterly ruined, and desired rather to expose their lives to the hazzard of war than to condescend to such terms. We endeavored to hold them to such terms as they gave us at Providence Island; our Commissioners were Major General Fortescue, Col. Holdhip, and Col. Doylie [Doylie: reference to Edward D'Oyley later appointed Governor of the island].

Upon this letter of the enemies our General, by advice of one of the Spanish Commissioners (who spoke against the treachery of the revolted Spaniards in the bushes, declaring them rebels if they did not submit not to the Articles), sent Col. Buller with 2,100 by sea and land to fall on the enemy near a river 7 leagues to leeward our town, [~24 miles likely towards the interior mountains] but the enemy was dispersed, and only a party of about 300 faced our party for a while, being most horse, and so went their ways never endeavouring to engage but to fly from us, having secured most of their best goods, their ordinary lumber, as beds, bedsteds, tables, and some chairs, lying scattered 3 or 4 miles to and again in the country. As for the town, which they call St. Jago of the Plain, there was found very little household stuff, and none but bedsteds, tables, and old chairs, except about 10,000 hides lying in the houses on the floors for their slaves etc. to lie on, which were brought into a church, ready to be sent to New England, for bisket, meal, and pease.

Friday, the last of May, Col. Buller returned with all his men in very good order and health, being only able to drive away the enemy, who of late had driven away the cattle from the savannahs near us, and so to discover the country, bringing no material plunder with them save some beds and tobacco. Upon consultation at his arrival, and considering that the only way to starve the enemy was to keep him from his Cassava bread, it was concluded that the next day a party of a 1,000 men should disperse and settle at several plantations, where the others should follow in due time, to inhabit the country, which will be divided among the regiments, and every man to have his proportion of goods from the province thereof, they mananging it themselves. And for the going forward a committee is appointed for the benefit of the country. So far our voyage and design by land. By sea we keep upon this coast, to cruise and lie in wait for the enemies' ships, 12 friggats of good force, which are now ready to sail, and must attend this service till another squadron be sent to releive them.

As for the country it is much like that of Hispaniola, in no way inferior, it has bigger plains, more and better water, most pleasant and healthful to the utmost, we have a land wind and a sea wind as at Hispaniola. The commodities of this country are sugar, Spanish tobacco, cotton, chocolate, hides, several sorts of wood as Lignum vitae, Brazil, or such sorts. Indigo will grow, so also wine and oile. The King of Spain to advance those 2 commodities having prohibited the growth thereof as the Spaniard tells us. Barley we have found and peas, so that we hope to brew beer and ale in time.

It is not so hot as Italy by day, and cooler by night and mornings. The days differ a little in length; at 7 of the clock it grows dark, and it is light at 5 in the morning. There are no other cities nor towns, but this on the island, and heer we have above 1,000 houses; the streets not regular only some, many of the houses of good brick and timber covered with tile made heer, other houses of clay and reeds, which do reasonable well. We found only 2 small ships in the harbor, one was sunken, the other had chocolate, with wood tables and bedsteds ready made, and other goods. We have inumerable many wild and tame cattle that, feed by thousands on the savannahs, hogs, and horses also. The horse much better and larger than those of Hispaniola, so that better horse are [not] to be seen in England. Victuals here is therefore reasonable. We have butchers here that kill for the army, and we have sufficient thereof, and bread of Cassava with biscuit. The 3 rainy winter months are August, September, and October, after which the horse and cattle are very fat, and now at the worst some of them fat enough. We have now 2 of our amunition and provision ships come to us, and the rest are at Barbados expected hourly: when we shall be so well provided of all things, that when we shall be satisfied [JTL: "fortified"?], as we shall be suddenly, at the entringe in by the point and other places by sea, and at the landing, and at the town, we hope by God's gracious assistance to keep our station, in spite of the enemy who is round about us from the main and the Islands. Whereof I trust he shall be made sensible suddenly, and that we are in respect of our good harbor and situation. Better than if we had taken Hispaniola, as now our council and officers plainly see and acknowledge, so that it is to be questioned whether any place in the world would have advantaged our nation more than this. We have here a mine of copper, silver, if not one of gold, as the General has been infomred by the Spaniards. We take horse and dragoones for each regiment, the enemy being about 4,000, whereof 600 Spaniards, and not 200 firearms. We have but 7 sugar mills yet found. Pray excuse the disorderly account I give you of this country, because of the haste I am in, and the care I take to settle. Mr. Wadeson our cheif treasurer, goes with the hides to New England. Meanwhile I officiate as occassion is, but little will my business be I fear me, for the civil officers will have their pay in commodities of this country, unlesse our flax [JTL: "fleet"?] in these parts bring in money, whereof we despair not: by my next I shall tell you more of this country and conveniences thereof. St. Jago on Jamaica, 1 June 1655.



II

St. Jago on Jamaica, June 15, 1655 -- Our affairs here are much unsettled; the General and Col. Buller are following home to give account of matters, and to press for recruits, then have promised to return.

The enemy lie still in the mountains, expecting us to desert this country, but the rains now at hand will sweep them down amongst us or destroy them. We have taken 20 or 21 of them, among other a rich fat woman, the richest of the country; they annoy us not, but we have what cattle we please for driving in. The land is divided among the regiments, for money we have none, nor are we likely unless some prizes drop into our mouths at sea, whereof 3 or 4 are sunk and taken before St. Domingo, having left a frigate there.

III

June 16 . -- The General's and Colonel Buller's return to England is to vindicate the army from some aspertions, and doubts cast upon it by some great ones, and there will likely be a great debate about it in England, as also to hasten supplies of men and necessaries for such an undertaking, these return again within a year, or at least have engaged their honors for it to this council.

IV

July 15, 1655 -- Our General Venables with Collonel Buller are now taking their passage for England, full sore against the desire of almost every man, by what I understand, see that our troubles and discontents are added to those former confusions and wants of meat and drink wherein we lay involved, neverthelesse we trust God will deliver us out of them in due time, who are somewhat comforted at the news of our last letters by the Charitie, dated in March last, whereby 14 sail, of victualls most, and some men of warr, are upon their way towards us, the Protector withall promising us very fair. Meanwhile sicknesse hath destroyed a considerable part of our army, and about 1000 we have still remaining sick of the flux and fevers, (the usual diseases,) which have carried away almost all my best friends, as the Secretaries &c. but blessed be God who hath sent me health in the midst of sicknesse, and life when so many lie dead, I find my constitution still exellently agreeing with hot country. Nevertheless what through want of victualls onboard and ashore, together with the much sweating which this country is subject to, I am brought to that pass that I need not Dr Amie to keep me from pinguifying, being already fallen away 4 fingers about the waste, so that by this I like my voyage the better, though I have also learned patience thereby, and other particulars, which I think I could not have learned at home; however this I can say, and I thinke there is not 20 of us can truely do the like, that I do not repent of my coming on this voyage. About 6 days since there came into us voluntarily 50 of the enemies, great and small, which we suppose the rain which already falls daily on the mountains hath caused, those parts, as we are told, being scarce habitable then: so that in all we have about 70 of the enemy among us, who have equal freedom and victuals with us as yet till the others are reduced, which we doubt not will be shortly; in the meantime they now oppresse us not, having not killed any of ours these 3 weeks, though before they dispatched about 100 of our stragglers unarmed; neither do we fear the enemy from the main, he having no shipping, nor we think force of men sufficient to oppose us. Our General goes home so very sick that we greately fear he will not recover it, and Major General Fortescue, who is to be then the Commander in Chief, is also at present very ill. God grant these rainy months may beget some good alteration in point of health amongst us. Part of our General's business at home is to sollicit that the army pay be otherwise than what we now have, and that we are not bound to take land in payment, as hitherto they have thought to invest each regiment with such a province or such partidos of land, which now they are cultivating, planting tobacco, Cassava bread etc, for sustenance and trade. This nonpayment nor hopes of any, makes so many Captains and others desire to go home, and to quit their interest, rather than be so badly paid as they count it.

V

Jamaica the 5 of November 1655
The 11 ships lately arrived to this place with &c. 1 poor men [JTL: 1800 men under Colonel Humphries] I pity them at the heart, all their imaginary mountains of gold are turned into dross, and their reason and affections are ready to bid them sail home again already. For my own part greater disappointments I never met with, having had no provisions in 10 weeks last past, nor above 3 biscuits this 14 weeks, so that all I can rape and scrape in ready money goes to housekeeping, and the shifts I make are not to be written here. We have lost half our army from our first landing on Hispaniola, when we were 8,000, besides 1,000 or more seamen in arms. Never did my eyes see such a sickly time, nor so many funerals, and graves all the town, over that it is a very Golgotha. We have a sevannah or plane near us where some of the soldiers are buried so shallow that the Spanish dogs, which lurk about the town, scrape them up and eat them. As for English dogs they are most eaten by our soldiers; not one walks the streets that is not shot at, unless well befriended or respected. We have not only eaten all the cattle within near 12 miles of the place, but now also almost all the horse, asses, mules flesh neer us, so that I shall hold little Eastcheap in more esteem than the whole Indies if this trade last, and I can give nor learn no reason that it should not bare continue so; besides this we expect no pay here, nor hardly at home now, but perhaps some ragged land at the best, and that but by the by spoken of, for us general officers not a word mentioned. I could dwell long upon this subject, and could tell you that still half our army lies sick and helpless, nor had we victuals for them before this fleet, nor expect ought now save some bread, and brandy, and oatmeal, and if that with phisick will not keep them alive, we have no other remedy but death for them. For my own part in 25 years have not I endured so much sickness as here with the bloody flux, rhume, ague, fever, so that I desire earnesly to go for England in March next, if permitted, for I am fallen away 5 inches about.

Amongst the dead persons your brother J. M. is one, who died of the dropsie, consumption, and other complicated diseases, the 22 of August 1655 last &c. we lately with 120 men and 12 frigotts took the towne of St. Martha on the Terra firma, where were 2 castles containing 32 peice of ordnance, out of which we beat the enemy by our ordnance, upon which the towns-men flying, our men presently landed and took the place with all therein, after an hour and a half skirmish, and 8 men lost on our part. The town and country, which we enjoyed 14 days, was far before this. They report 3/4 of the plunder went to the State, being all sold publicly, at which the soldiers grudge exeedingly, and I wish it spoil not the whole design; neither have we the liberty to transport those hides whereof we kill the beasts, whereby our men are wont to throw away the hides that they stink up and down the town. Our men demanded 2,0000 R. of 8 to randsom the place, which the enemy promised to give, but coming not at his time we fired the place, Churches and all. -143-