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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).

Coming on October 25th -- The period between 1535 and 1655

Additional years will be published in October.