A Brief History of Jamaica

Photo: realmystictransportation.com

I rarely engage in this sort of thing, so if you will, indulge me this one #humblebrag: Leigh and I are going to Jamaica.

I’m looking forward to it immensely. I haven’t been out of the country in years, and haven’t ever taken an international vacation with a significant other (though the Caribbean seems like it shouldn’t count, for reasons we’ll get into later), so it’s going to be a real treat, and with the way scheduling worked out, it’ll be a great respite from what’s sure to be another bitter New York winter, followed immediately by a long stay with family in Dallas.

I have, however, been to Jamaica before. As a matter of fact, my grandparents used to own a piece of property in Montego Bay (you can still rent it from the Tryall Beach club if you feel so inclined to visit a place I toddled around in my salad days), though I can’t remember much of those early, early days in the island nation. My immediate family visited again when I was in high school, and it was an exquisite and relaxing time. This is how the country of Jamaica sells itself to potential travelers, as one of a slew of Carribean locales that has built its economy almost entirely around the trade of tourism. As I finalized details of our tropical getaway, I wondered how exactly such a thing happens. How does an entire nation of people become a vacation spot (and little else) to foreign tourists? My hunch is that massive amounts of colonization, financial pressure, racism, and political maneuvering is involved, so let’s jump right in.

A little history: the indigenous peoples of Jamaica, the Arawak and Taino, originated in South America and settled the island sometime between 4000 and 1000 BC. First contact with the West was made in 1494, when Christopher Columbus made his voyages to the Americas, and claimed the land for Spain. Conquistador Juan de Esquivel arrived with troops in 1509 to formally occupy the country, and in doing so, wiped out most of the native population. The Spanish, who at the time were absolutely gold-crazy, were disappointed in the lack of jewels and riches yielded by the island, and used it mainly as a military base for operations in the Americas whilst simultaneously beginning the import of African slaves to the region. During this same period, Jamaica also saw an enormous influx of European Jews, who had fled the continent to escape the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. These refugees referred to themselves as “Portugals” and practiced their religion in secret. This ethnic enclave would also prove invaluable to the invading British in the mid-17th century, when they were instrumental in forming the strategy of encouraging piracy in the city of Port Royal, a location that allowed bandits to plunder Spanish trading vessels and weaken its armed forces.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy (illustration: piratesinfo.com)

Under British rule, which was formally established in 1655, the island became a haven for pirates and lawlessness. This entire period seems incredibly fascinating, as a number of notorious pirates and sailors all spent time in Jamaica and Port Royal in particular during this period. Upon their defeat at the hands of the British, the Spanish colonists freed their slaves, who dispersed amongst the mountains of Jamaica’s interior and joined up with the Maroons, previously escaped slaves that had formed free cities with the surviving Tainos, who had escaped the earlier Spanish genocide. The Maroons would go on to fight with the British colonists for the better part of the 18th century, battling the empire in two separate wars and winning nominal victories in the name of independence as the UK gradually transformed the island into a slave-dependent, sugar plantation-driven economy. It was during this period that Jamaica shifted to a majority black population, a fact that alarmed British imperialists once the United Kingdom began its gradual abolition of slavery, beginning in the early 19th century. By 1838, slavery in Jamaica had been completely abolished. At that time, former slaves made up nearly 85% of the country’s population.

Jamaica began a slow creep towards independence over the next 100 years, becoming a province of the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, and then gaining complete independence upon leaving the Federation in 1962. Initially, the country enjoyed solid financial growth and economic prosperity, but class disparities (which had been a contentious issue since the early days of British rule) lingered, spurred on by the government’s focus on luring private wealth to the country, most visibly in the form of relaxed regulations surrounding investment in mining and tourism, the country’s two biggest industries. I have to admit that economics is not my strong suit, but there’s a wealth of writing surrounding the subject of Jamaica’s economic downturn and slow recovery.

I’m unable to find a lot of concise and verified information pertaining to Jamaica’s transition to a tourism-based economy, but the country did became a popular draw for traveling Americans and Europeans, especially the British, from the 1950s onward. Celebrities like Errol Flynn promoted the island’s then fledgling tourism trade, and by the time Jamaica gained independence in the early 60s, it only seems logical that the newly formed government would seek to prop up the rather considerable beam of the country’s economy by any means necessary. Again, I’m speaking solely through conjecture, but my gut tells me that this early prosperity and the sudden economic boon for a very young country gave way to widespread corruption at the hands of meddling foreign investors.

Privately-owned resorts and clubs ring the beaches of the island (photo: royalcaribbean.com)

It’s a glum outlook, but it seems that if interventionist foreign powers couldn’t control the island of Jamaica outright, the next best thing would be to grab large portions of wealth and power in the country by means of investment in tourism and mining. Whether the Jamaican government has colluded in these sorts of matters or been taken advantage of by bullying foreign capitalists is a matter for somebody more well versed global economics than I.

I feel like something of a hypocrite writing all of this and then realizing that my vacation may very well be contributing to the wealth disparity in a country that’s been more or less put on fiscal life support by the tourism industry. I’m also rather intrigued by Jamaica’s fascinating history, yet I can’t say with conviction if my six days in paradise will find me traveling very far from my all-inclusive resort. At the very least, I can take a little bit of the guilt off my plate via my own lackluster education, and I can hope that others who are thinking of making a pleasure pit stop in the Caribbean might take a few moments to learn about the place they’ll be a guest of.

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