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Jamaica 55: A brief History of Jamaican Independence

A brief History of Jamaican independence

On 5 May 1953 Jamaica secured internal autonomy from the United Kingdom and on 6 August 1962 independence, with Sir Alexander Bustamante elected Jamaica’s first Prime Minister. But how did Jamaica become a colony of Britain needing independence?

The original inhabitants of the island were believed to be Tainos, also called Arawaks, who migrated from South America around 2,500 years ago. They called the island Xaymaca, land of wood and water, before the Spanish changed it to Jamaiqua, then from the early 16th Century, Jamaica. The Spanish enslaved the Tainos, who from overwork and diseases were almost extinct within a century of their arrival.

Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus, of Spain, aiming to reach South and Southeast Asia stumbled upon Jamaica on 5 May 1494. Columbus was not the first European explorer to reach the Americas, but his voyages led to conquest and permanent colonization that lasted several centuries. As sea piracy was replaced by labour-intensive sugar production, thousands of enslaved West Africans were brought to the island and surrounding areas. By 1800 there were estimated to be 300,000 enslaved Africans on the island of Jamaica, with Tainos, Europeans and later Asians and others as minorities.

After 161 years of Spanish rule, the English invaded Jamaica in 1665, eventually defeating the Spanish and with the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 gained formal possession of Jamaica. Enslaved Africans exploited the British/Spanish territorial turmoil and fled to the island’s interior, forming independent communities known as Maroons.

Some like to credit the abolition of slavery and the independence secured by former slave colonies to the likes of William Wilberforce, while ignoring the decisive activities and price paid in blood by Jamaicans. Our ancestors never took enslavement, colonialism and imperialism lying down. They never surrendered to tyranny. As Bob Marley sings, they were ‘Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival’. During the Spanish period one writer described Jamaica as the ‘dagger pointed at the heart of the empire’ (Coward 2002).

There were the Maroon wars of 1740 and 1795 led by the likes of Queen Nanny, Cudjoe and Quao; Tacky’s revolt in 1760, the Baptist War of the 1830s with such as Baptist Deacon Sam Sharpe, reckoned to be the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies; the Morant Bay Rebellions led by Paul Bogle, and much beside – all of which were met by the murderous brutality of the plantocracy.

But as sustained resistance hit the once profitable sugar industry, slowly the British regime began to relent with the introduction of political and economic reforms – the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and slavery in 1834, the end of the odious apprenticeship system in 1838, followed by the vote for black and brown people.

Injustice was however interwoven into the fabric of progress, typified by the slaveowners receiving £20 million (circa £20 billion in today’s money) for ‘lost property’ when slavery officially ended in the British West Indies in 1834. This necessitated the emergence of further resistance with 20th Century activists like Marcus Mosiah Garvey, movements like Rastafari, civil unrest across the island, trades unions and further calls for self-determination. Norman Manley the Oxford educated lawyer and Rhodes scholar and cousin Alexander Bustamante, lacking even a high school diploma but with a passion for the ’barefoot man’, engineered the People’s National Party the Jamaican Labour Party. Bustamante emerged from prison to win the first General Elections of an Independent Jamaica in 1962.

In Jamaica, the 6 August is a public holiday, however, Jamaica retains the Queen of England as head of state, is a member of the British Commonwealth, and bases its political system on the Westminster model. Out of many people Jamaica is one, and now must determine how to make itself a truly independent and prosperous nation. The story continues…

Dr Joe Aldred,

Published inInspiration

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