The Arawak Indians were the first to settle on the island of Jamaica around 700 C.E. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was the first European to see Jamaica, in 1494. The Spanish colonized the island in 1510. After their arrival, the indigenous population of the island drastically declined due to epidemics and ill treatment by the Spaniards. The Spanish settlers set up sugar plantations on the island and imported slaves from Africa to work on them.
There were some among those Africans who preferred to take a chance on freedom in the mountains rather than bear the burden of slavery, and they fled into the wilderness of the island. These runaway slaves were branded as Maroons. As the number of African slaves brought to Jamaica increased so, too, did the number of Maroons. They were further joined by the slaves of the retreating Spanish. The Maroons had frequent skirmishes with the British.
England defeated the Spanish and took control of the island in the mid-17th century. In 1739 England granted autonomy to the Jamaicans—but only to the small minority of white colonial rulers—who continued their lucrative plantation economy based on slavery.
The American War of Independence (1775–83) and the French Revolution (1789) stepped up the frequency and pitch of the local slave rebellions that had been going on since the early 1700s. These rebellions, however, were mercilessly suppressed.
The Christmas Rebellion of 1831 is the best known and was led by a Creole slave named Daddy Sam Sharpe (1801–32). He was born in 1801 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and unlike other slaves he had learned to read and write. He learned from various newspapers that a number of people in England were opposed to slavery.
Sam Sharpe joined the Baptist Church, which preached that slavery was immoral. He learned that the Bible says that all men are equal and that “no man can serve two masters.” All this encouraged him to work toward freedom for slaves.
Sharpe convinced other slaves to participate in a peaceful plan for people to refuse to work unless they were paid. Some slaves, who were followers of Sharpe but in favor of more radical action, rejected Sharpe’s peaceful protest and instead, just after Christmas in 1831, they burned down Kensington Estate in St. James. Sharpe’s Christmas Rebellion, which ultimately failed, got out of control and turned violent. Sharpe surrendered, was sentenced to death, and was executed in Market Square in Montego Bay in 1832.
The British government took the slave rebellion seriously. Public opinion in England favored abolishing slavery. Finally on August 1, 1834, slavery was abolished in Jamaica. Subsequently the Jamaican parliament introduced the concept of wage labor.
This caused economic turmoil in Jamaica, since the former slaves considered the wages too low and opted to work independently.
The American Civil War (1861–65) cut off vital supplies to the island, causing a rapid deterioration in economic conditions. This resulted in the Morant Bay Rebellion led by the Black Baptist deacon, Paul Bogle (? 1820–65). On October 11, 1865, Paul Bogle led about 300 black men and women into the town of Morant Bay in the eastern part of Jamaica. They came armed and hoped that by challenging the power of the European plantation owners they would ultimately precipitate a general rebellion throughout the island. The rebels met with little resistance and soon took control of the town. In the days that followed, some 2,000 rebels roamed the countryside, killing plantation owners and forcing others to flee for their lives. The Morant Bay Rebellion turned out to be one of the defining points in Jamaica’s struggle for both political and economic freedom as power shifted decisively toward the black majority.
The economy of Jamaica developed and strengthened during World War II, as it supplied food and raw materials to Britain. In 1944 all Jamaicans were granted voting rights. Virtual autonomy was achieved in 1947. In 1962 Jamaica gained full independence after a referendum dissolved the West Indies Federation. Alexander Bustamante (1884–1977), founder of the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), and his cousin Norman Manley (1893–1969), founder of the People’s National Party (PNP), dominated post-independence politics in Jamaica.

Jamaica and the other islands of the Antilles evolved from a chain of ancient volcanoes that rose from the sea billions of years ago. The country is divided into three landform regions: the eastern mountains, the central valleys and plateaus, and the coastal plains.
The coastline of Jamaica presents many contrasts.
The northeast shore is severely eroded by the ocean.
There are many small inlets in the rugged coastline, but no coastal plain of any extent. A narrow strip of plains along the northern coast offers calm seas and white sand beaches. Behind the beaches is a flat raised plain of uplifted coral reef.
There are two types of climate in Jamaica. An upland tropical climate prevails on the windward side of the mountains, whereas a semi-arid climate predominates on the leeward side. Warm trade winds from the east and northeast bring rainfall throughout the year but primarily between May and October.
Temperatures are constant throughout the year, averaging 82°F. The island receives, in addition to the northeast trade winds, refreshing onshore breezes during the day and cooling offshore breezes at night.

The Jamaican economy is heavily dependent on its service sector. The global economic slowdown, particularly after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, stunted economic growth. The economy rebounded moderately in 2003, with one of the best tourist seasons on record.
However the economy faces serious long-term problems that include spiraling interest rates, foreign competition; an exchange rate under tremendous pressure, unemployment; and a growing internal debt. Depressed economic conditions have led to increased civil unrest, including gang violence fueled by the drug mafia.

Jamaican society is predominantly Christian with various denominations, such as Methodist, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Anglican, and Mormon. The Rastafarian religion is also widely practiced. Its followers believe that the former head of Ethiopia Haile Selassie (1892–1975) is their leader. The spiritual consumption of marijuana is prevalent among this group. The followers of this unique folk religion (Rastas) wear their hair in dreadlocks, eat saltless food, and wear vivid colors (red, gold, and green).
Jamaican Creole, a patois, is the language of the people in Jamaica. Reggae music, an important part of Jamaica’s cultural heritage, is derived from a form of Jamaican music called dancehall. Jamaicans love to celebrate whenever possible, and festivals take place throughout the year. Many of these celebrations commemorate the important historical events of Jamaica. Others have been adopted from neighboring regions.
Carnival is new to Jamaica and is an import from the eastern Caribbean. The celebrations last an entire week. There are street dances and parades leading up to a grand finale at the Jamaican National Stadium in Kingston. The processions feature colorful floats, and people in colorful costumes participate in street dances and parades.

Jamaican cuisine incorporates a multitude of influences from around the world. The Arawak Amerindians, who made use of native products and meats, did the initial cooking on the island. Cassava root, ackee (a fruit used as a vegetable), and callaloo (a green similar to spinach) were mainstays of the Arawaks’ diet. With European colonization and the introduction of slavery, English pudding, along with African yams and okram, entered Jamaican cuisine.
When the British brought over indentured servants from India, various curries became popular. Chinese immigration and influence introduced an array of sweet-and-sour dishes. Other popular ingredients of Jamaican cuisine include bananas, breadfruit, chocho (or chayote, a type of squash), bok choy, butterbeans, papaya, lime, and avocados. Pork, chicken, fish, and shellfish are the meat bases of many dishes, and the extra hot Scotch bonnet pepper adds a punch to almost everything. The vegetarian cooking of the Rastafarians is also an important part of Jamaican food. Blue Mountain coffee, grown in the interiors of Jamaica, is a world-famous export.

Jamaican weddings take place in a church. The bride’s father leads her down the aisle, and a flower girl carries her train. All the villagers line up to see the bride. Only her husband can lift the bride’s veil. After the ceremony the couple go to the church office or the rectory to sign the wedding register.
The bride may change from her wedding gown into a formal dress before the reception that follows the church ceremonies. Curried goat, rice, and rum punch are served at the wedding banquet, along with champagne and wine. The newly married couple cut the wedding cake.

Funerals in Jamaica are important events for which people turn out in their best clothes to comfort the bereaved family and pay their last respects to the deceased. Burial takes place the day after the death.
Some towns and churches have their own cemeteries, but most of the rural people maintain their family graves in their yards. Normally the body is brought to the church about an hour before the service so that it can be viewed. After the graveside service the coffin is lowered into the ground.
Wreaths are then placed on the coffin, and the workers fill the grave with earth and seal it with concrete slabs.
Many funeral customs are based on African traditions or beliefs. For instance it is considered important to say goodbye to the corpse to ensure that the dead person does not return. People do not normally leave before the last shovel of sand is tossed onto the grave or the last hymn is sung.
Family and friends assemble for wakes for several nights after the burial. Funeral rituals end nine nights following the death. On the ninth night after the burial the spirit of the dead is given a final farewell. Refreshments are served, and hymns, accompanied by beats of a drum, are sung. This ritual continues until the following morning and also involves dancing. Additional singing takes place 40 nights later. This is the time when the soul is supposed to have ceased roaming.