The original Arawak or Taino people from South America first settled on the island between 1000 and 4000 BC. Although some claim they became virtually extinct following contact with Europeans, others claim that some survived for a while. There is very little trace of the Arawak culture, and the Jamaican National Heritage Trust is attempting to locate and document any evidence of the Arawaks .
Jamaica was claimed for Spain after Christopher Columbus first landed there in 1494. Columbus used it as his family's private estate. The British Admiral William Penn (father of William Penn of Pennsylvania) and General Venables seized the island in 1655. During its first 200 years of British rule, post Spanish rule, Jamaica became one of the world's leading sugar exporting nations and produced over 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 and 1824, which was achieved through the massive use of imported African slave labour. When this was not enough the British imported Indian and Chinese indentured servants in the early 1800s. Many of the descendants of the Chinese and Indian indentured servants continue to reside in Jamaica today.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the United Kingdom's heavy reliance on slavery resulted in blacks outnumbering whites by a ratio of almost 20 to one, leading to constant threat of revolt. Following a series of rebellions, slavery was formally abolished in 1834, with full emancipation from chattel slavery declared in 1838.
In 1945, Sir Horace Hector Hearne became Chief Justice and Keeper of the Records in Jamaica and sat in the Supreme Court, Kingston between 1945 and 1950/1951 before going on to become Chief Justice in Kenya.
Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom. In 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation among all of the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.
Strong economic growth averaging about six percent per annum marked its first ten years of independence under conservative governments led successively by Prime Ministers Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster and Hugh Shearer. The growth was fueled by strong investments in bauxite/alumina, tourism, manufacturing industry and to a lesser extent the agricultural sector. However, the initial optimism of the first decade vanished following a change in government (the PNP - People's National Party) in 1972, Jamaica lagged economically with its gross national product falling in 1980 to some twenty-five percent below the level previously obtained in 1972. Rising foreign and local debt accompanied by large fiscal deficits resulted in the invitation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing from the USA and others, and the imposition of IMF austerity measures (with a greater than 25% interest rate per year).
Economic deterioration continued into the mid 1980s, exacerbated by the closure of the first (Alpart) and third (Alcoa) largest alumina producers, significant reduction in production by the second largest (Alcan), the exit of Reynolds Jamaica Mines Ltd from the Jamaican industry and reduced flows from tourism. During the 1980s Jamaica was still a prosperous country though increases in crime and petty theft began to weigh on the island.
The former capital of Jamaica was Spanish Town in the parish of St. Catherine, the site of the old Spanish colonial capital. The Spanish named the town Santiago de la Vega. In 1655 when the British captured the island, much of the old Spanish capital was burned by the invading British troops. The town was rebuilt by the British and renamed Spanish Town. It remained the capital until 1872, when the city of Kingston was named the capital under questionable circumstances.