The Commonwealth of Jamaica is an island nation of the Greater Antilles, located in the Caribbean Sea. It is 391 miles east of the Central American mainland, 93 miles south of Cuba, and 112 miles west of the island of Hispaniola, on which Haiti and the Dominican Republic are situated. It is the third most populous Anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada.

Its indigenous Arawakan-speaking Taíno inhabitants named the island Xaymaca, meaning either the "land of springs," or the "Land of wood and water."

Christopher Columbus first visited Jamaica in 1494 on his second voyage and landed at Discovery Bay on the north coast near Ocho Rios on May 4, 1494. After Christopher Columbus' arrival in 1494, Spain claimed the island and began occupation in 1509, naming the island Santiago (St. James). The Arawaks were exterminated by disease, slavery, and war. Some also committed suicide, presumably to escape their conditions as slaves. Spain brought the first African slaves to Jamaica in 1517.

Columbus used Jamaica as his family's private estate. The British Admiral William Penn (father of William Penn of Pennsylvania) and General Venables seized the island in 1655.

During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became the world's largest sugar exporting nation and produced over 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 and 1824, which was achieved through the massive use of imported African slave labor.

In 1657 the Governor invited buccaneers to base themselves at Port Royal to deter Spanish aggression. In 1657 and 1658 the Spanish, sailing from Cuba, failed at the battles of Ocho Rios and Rio Nuevo in their attempts to retake the island, and in 1657 Admiral Robert Blake defeated the Spanish West Indian Fleet.

The British began full colonisation in 1661 and gained formal possession through the Treaty of Madrid in 1670. Although much of the Spanish capital, Villa de la Vega, was burned during the conquest, the English renamed it Spanish Town and kept it as the island's capital.

For some time, however, Port Royal functioned as the capital while Spanish Town was being rebuilt. The island was a major base for pirates, especially at Port Royal before it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1692.

After the disaster, Kingston was founded across the harbor, one of the largest natural havens in the world, and rapidly became the major commercial centre of the island.

The cultivation of sugar cane and coffee by African slave labour made Jamaica one of the most valuable possessions in the world for more than 150 years.

The colony's slaves, who outnumbered their white masters 300,000 to 30,000 in 1800, mounted over a dozen major slave conspiracies and uprisings between 1673 and 1832.

Escaped slaves, known as Maroons established independent communities in the mountainous interior that the British were unable to defeat, despite major attempts in the 1730s and 1790s; one Maroon community was expelled from the island after the Second Maroon War in the 1790s and those Maroons eventually became part of the core of the Creole community of Sierra Leone.

The colonial government enlisted the Maroons in capturing escaped plantation slaves. The British also used Jamaica's free people of color, 10,000 strong by 1800, to keep the enslaved population in check.

During the Christmas holiday of 1831, a large scale slave revolt (involving as many as 60,000 of the island's 300,000 slave population) known as the Baptist War broke. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by Samuel Sharp. The rebellion was suppressed by the militia of the Jamaican plantocracy and the British garrison ten days later in early 1832.

Because the loss of property and life in the 1831 rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. The results of these inquiries contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery as of August 1, 1834 through the British Empire.

However the Jamaican slaves remained bound to their former owners' service, albeit with a guarantee of rights, until 1838 under what was called the Apprenticeship System.

The freed population still faced significant hardships, marked by the October 1865 Morant Bay rebellion led by George William Gordon and Paul Bogle. It was brutally repressed and in its wake the island's Assembly renounced its authority and Jamaica became a Crown Colony. This brainchild of Byron Lee started as a very small affair in 1990, Lee set out to create something similar for the Jamaicans like that of Trinidad. The dream became a reality and today it has become a tremendous success as one of the largest annual event on the Jamaican calendar - Jamaican Carnival.

Celebrated islandwide from February through April.


Information provided courtesy of: Caribbean Association Midwest America