Sugar made Jamaica one of the most valuable possessions in the world for more than 150 years. The early period of English settlement in Jamaica drew much attention to the buccaneers based at Port Royal. Buccaneering had begun on the islands of Tortuga and Hispaniola. They were a wild, rough and ruthless set of sea rovers. They took their loot of gold, silver and jewels to Port Royal.
Port Royal prior to this time was an insignificant town in Jamaica. Under the buccaneers’ leadership the town, within a decade and a half, grew to become known as one of the “wealthiest and wickedest city in the world”. The greatest buccaneer captain of all was Henry Morgan. He started out as a pirate and later became a privateer. Morgan mercilessly raided Spanish fleet and colonies. He kept the Spaniards busy defending their coasts that they had little time to attack Jamaica. Morgan was knighted by king Charles II of England and was appointed Lieutenant governor of Jamaica in 1673. Morgan died in 1688.
A violent earthquake destroyed Port Royal on June 7, 1692. The survivors of the earthquake who re-settled in Kingston abandoned the Port. Port Royal became an important naval base in the eighteenth century.
The slaves were unhappy with their status, so they rebelled whenever they could. Many of them were successful in running away from the plantations and joining the Maroons in the almost inaccessible mountains. Several slave rebellions stand out in Jamaica’s history for example, the Easter Rebellion of 1760 led by Tacky; and the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 which began on the Kensington Estate in St. James, led by Sam Sharpe. He has since been named a National Hero.
The Maroons also had several wars against the English. In 1739 and 1740 after two major Maroon Wars, treaties were signed with the British. In the treaty of 1740, they were given land and rights as free men. In return they were to stop fighting and help to recapture run-away slaves. This treaty resulted in a rift among the Maroons as they did not all agree that they should return run-away slaves to the plantations.
The frequent slave rebellions in the Caribbean was one factor that led to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Other factors included the work of humanitarians who were concerned about the slaves’ well-being. Humanitarian groups such as the Quakers publicly protested against slavery and the slave trade. They formed an anti slavery committee which was joined by supporters such as Granville Sharp, James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson and later on, William Wilberforce.
On January 1, 1808 the Abolition Bill was passed. Trading in African slaves was declared to be “utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful”. The British Parliament abolished slavery as of August 1, 1834. Emancipation and apprenticeship came into effect in 1834 and full freedom was granted in 1838. The immediate post-slavery days were very difficult for the poorer classes. After the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the plantations were worked by indentured Indian and Chinese labourers. Sugar prices fell again in 1846. Jamaica’s worsening economic situation caused widespread suffering and discontent.
Though most of the English planters had left the islands and new owners were running the plantations, the old oligarchic system still remained. The will of the masses was not deemed important and hence ignored. To add fuel to the already burning flame, the American Civil War resulted in supplies being cut off from the island. A severe drought was also in progress and most crops were ruined.
The succeeding years saw the island’s recovery and development – social, constitutional and economic, and its evolution into a sovereign state. Education, health, and social services were greatly improved. A proper island-wide savings back system was organised. Roads, bridges and railways (railways became government owned in 1845) were built and cable communication with Europe established (1859). The island’s capital was moved from Spanish Town to Kingston (1872).
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