The 1600s was a time of conquest, competition and piracy in the Caribbean. The colonial powers won and lost islands like pieces in a game. Spanish Jamaica was attacked by various French and British pirates—or privateers—during its 150 years of existence. The British West Indies began in St. Kitts & Nevis, from there the colonists spread to Barbados and Montserrat. In the wake of the English Civil War, the new Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell sought to expand his domain in the New World. In 1655 Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables were dispatched to conquer Spanish Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). Having failed to capture the bigger island, and fearing Cromwell’s wrath, the men turned their fleet toward the relatively un-protected Jamaica.
Under British rule, Jamaica went from being a Spanish storehouse to one of the most prized Colonial possession of the entire British Empire. In the early days of the colony, piracy flourished. Henry Morgan, Calico Jack Rackham, and his wife Anne Bonny were a few of the names that made Port Royal into the richest city of vice in the new world. More noble sea battles were also fought in Jamaican waters. Admirals Horatio Nelson and George Rodney fought many of their most famous battles while based on the island. Port Royal’s days as a pirate’s haven, however, were numbered, and in 1697 a massive earthquake plummeted much of the city into Kingston Harbour.
Though the gold the Spanish sought was never found, sugar became Jamaica’s—and Britain’s—prize commodity. On the backs of a large population of African slaves, the colony became one of the most important sugar producers in the world. The cruelty of the enslavement and the comparatively small number of the slave masters, however, resulted in a history of rebellion and unrest as African Jamaicans fought the freedom to better their lot.
Of these rebellions, two bear serious mention. The first, in the Christmas Season of 1831-1832, was led by Samuel Sharpe. Sharpe, who was a Baptist preacher in Montego Bay, was ultimately put to death along with hundreds of others in the wake of their protest. The collapse of slavery on the island, however, brought only nominal improvement in the lives of the island’s newly emancipated people. In 1865, the Morant Bay Rebellion marked the second time widespread unrest took root in Jamaica. Another Baptist minister, Paul Bogle, organized this rebellion. With the help and inspiration of St. Andrew landowner George William Gordon, Bogle led his revolt against the ill government of Edward Eyre. For their part, both Bogle and Gordon were hanged. What vindication there is to be had for the martyr came a century later, when Gordon, Bogle, and Sharpe were made national heroes of a newly independent Jamaica.
Jamaica under the British was a society that depended on what it produced. Sugar, at first, was without doubt the cause of its existence.
Jamaican Historical Eras: Amerindian Jamaica >> Spanish Jamaica >> British Jamaica