Jamaican History & Culture – Spanish Rule

An 1825 engraving of Spanish Town’s colonial offices

O n his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of Jamaica on 04 May 1494. He “officially” landed near today’s St. Ann’s Bay about halfway along the island's north coast. Columbus named his landing place Santa Gloria and claimed the island—he called it, St. Jago (Santiago)—for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Many believe that the Spaniards landed first at a place they named Puerto Seco (Dry Harbour), which is about 14 miles west of the town of St. Ann’s Bay. As its name suggests, Puerto Seco has no permanent rivers flowing into it; as a result, Columbus continued eastward along the coast in search of much-needed freshwater, or so the story goes.

Second voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1493–1496 | Credit: Keith Pickering

It is said that Christopher Columbus “discovered” Jamaica, but, of course, by the time he arrived, Jamaica (then called Xaymaca) had long been home to the Taíno people. The island was, though, truly unknown to Europeans.

Before the Europeans arrived, there had been continual interaction—likely trade and war—between the inhabitants of the Greater Antilles’ four islands, which are quite closely grouped. For example, Cuba is only about 100 miles from the closest point on Jamaica’s north shore. Not surprisingly, therefore, Columbus heard of Jamaica when he was exploring Cuba.

Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Cubans allegedly described Jamaica as “the land of blessed gold,” raising expectations among the Spaniards whose voyages of discovery were first and foremost, a quest for precious metals. Columbus and his followers must have been terribly disappointed when they discovered eventually there was little if any gold to be found in Jamaica.

The natives Columbus encountered were hostile. Perhaps news of earlier Taíno-European contact had already reached Jamaica from, say, Hispaniola, where the Spanish had already established a colony. The unfriendly reception and his objective of locating the mainland sent Columbus back to sea on 16 May 1494, when he set sail for Cuba. Having explored the south coast of Cuba and nearby islands, he returned to Hispaniola on 20 Aug 1494.

Columbus returned to Jamaica briefly in 1502, while on his way to Honduras in Central America. Then, nearly a year later and after surviving damaging storms at sea, his remaining ships were hit by another storm off Cuba’s coast. With two ships leaking badly and the last of the ships’ boats already lost, Columbus beached his sinking vessels at St. Ann’s Bay on 25 Jun 1503. And, since he had not yet established a colony on Jamaica, his party was stranded.

One of Columbus’s captains, Diego Mendez, secured a canoe from a Taíno chief and sailed it to the Spanish settlement at Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola.  Once there, Mendez was detained for about seven months by the governor, who refused to allow the use of a caravel to rescue Columbus and his men. Moreover, when he finally allowed Mendez into Santo Domingo, no ships were available for the rescue.

Columbus apparently had an uncomfortable stay at St. Ann’s Bay—at one point, starvation threatened. Somehow, however, he was able to obtain provisions from the hostile Taíno. One story tells us how he impressed the Taíno by accurately predicting a lunar eclipse using astronomy tables he had with him. So impressed were they by his amazing (to the Taíno) feat; they became more helpful. During his stay, Columbus also had to put down a mutiny among his men. Finally, Mendez was able to charter a caravel at Santo Domingo and sail it to Jamaica. He arrived at St. Ann’s Bay on 29 Jun 1504 and rescued the expedition.

Under Spanish rule, the combined Taíno and Carib population in the West Indies fell from more than 3.5-million to a few thousand by the end of the 16th century. This catastrophic mortality rate was due largely to their exposure to European diseases, against which indigenous people lacked immunity. Many also committed suicide rather than submit to enslavement.

Today a few survivors (many of mixed race) live on in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Guyana, with smaller numbers in some of the Lesser Antilles, Suriname and French Guiana. Arawakan-speaking groups are also widespread in other parts of South America.

I’ve read that in 2003 Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, reported that 61.1 percent of those surveyed (800 randomly selected Puerto Ricans) had mitochondrial (maternal) DNA of indigenous origin. I’ve also read that one of the last Taíno caciques of Hispaniola’s colonial period led 600 followers to north-eastern Hispaniola, where they married Spaniards and Africans, and whose descendants retain indigenous traits. In the 1950s, researchers found high percentages of the blood types that are predominant in Amerindians. Furthermore, in the 1970s, dental surveys established that 33 out of 74 villagers in Hispaniola retained shovel-shaped incisors, the teeth characteristic of American Indians and Asians. And a more recent nationwide genetic study established that 15–18 percent of Dominicans had Amerindian markers in their mitochondrial DNA, testifying to the continued presence of Taíno genes.

I have also seen claims that Taíno descendants live on in Jamaica, especially in St. Elizabeth's parish. It seems reasonable to assume that some Taíno DNA survives in Jamaicans, specifically those who descend from the Maroons. However, I do not know how well these claims are supported by DNA research, so I will leave it to the reader to further research such claims before accepting them. 

Jamaica | 1671 Map

The first Spanish settlement in Jamaica—they called Jamaica Santiago—was not established until 1509. Santiago was made a colony of the Spanish West Indies and was within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The colony’s first town, Seville la Nueva, was located near St. Ann’s Bay and was quite substantial with a fort, a castle and a church.

Jamaica, or Santiago, was first governed by Juan de Esquivel. Because of nearby swamps, however, the Seville la Nueva location proved unhealthy. As a result, the Spanish abandoned it in 1534 and moved to Villa de la Vega—now Spanish Town—on the south side of the island.

From the earliest times of its occupation of Jamaica, Spain enslaved the island’s Taíno and so ill-treated and overworked them that by the end of the 16th century, they were extinct, at least, as regards their culture. Ill-treatment at the hands of the Spaniards included the hunting down and murder of these hapless and defenceless people for entertainment and “sport.”  As expressed above, it is conceivable that—as in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola—Taíno DNA lives on in some Jamaicans, especially in those who are descendants of the Maroons.

Blacks in Early America

Sub-Sahara Africans had sailed with Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. These earliest Black immigrants to the Americas were natives of Spain and Portugal called Ladinos. They included Pedro Alonso Niño, a navigator, who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the New World.

Black colonists helped Nicolás de Ovando form one of the earliest Spanish settlements on Hispaniola in 1502. Nuflo de Olano, a black slave, was part of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's expedition that first sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Hernán Cortés had Blacks with him when he conquered Mexico. Other Blacks accompanied Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.

Between 1502 and 1518, Castile also shipped hundreds of Ladinos to the Americas as slaves, primarily to work as miners, but some were also used in Jamaica as labourers.

By 1611 Jamaica had a population of 558 black slaves and 107 free blacks.

Spaniards of the New World disliked doing manual labour. They had, after all, migrated to the Americas to become Conquistadors, not farmers. So before long, many who had come to Jamaica left for the mainland when discovering gold, silver and precious stones promised an easier path to the wealth they sought. The Spaniards who remained on the island feared that any free peasantry that might be established would never work for pay when such an abundance of food and wood for shelter was readily available for little effort. Only slave labour, the Spaniards concluded, would assure the economic viability of the colony.

Even though indigenous peoples in the Spanish colonies were legally exempt from slavery, the colonists were able to compel the Taínos to work for them under the systems of encomienda and repartimiento. Soon, however, the Taíno population was so diminished it could no longer fill the need for forced labour, and the Spaniards began importing African slaves from Europe. By 1518, the Spaniards had shipped hundreds of Spanish-born Africans to Jamaica to work as labourers. In 1518, the demand for slaves having become so great, Charles I allowed the transportation of slaves directly from Africa to his colonies in the New World. 

Thus the slave trade began in earnest. Even with slave labour, however, the colony in Jamaica was never truly successful. In the early days, its main purpose was to act as a supply base for manpower, horses, arms and provisions to help in the conquest of Cuba and the mainland. Later, as its influence diminished, Jamaica acted as a staging and transfer point for African slaves' transportation to other colonies and provided fresh provisions to passing ships.

The Spanish colonists grew traditional tropical crops, including cotton, tobacco, indigo, bananas and citrus. They had brought several varieties of citrus from Spain and banana and plantain from the Canary Islands. They also introduced cattle, horses, and pigs and operated livestock ranches called hatos. Foodstuff, hides, and lard were among the colony’s chief exports.

Under Spain’s rule, Jamaica was semi-autonomous. A governor, appointed by Spain, and a non-elected council (cabildo) ruled the island. Unfortunately, the colony never flourished. After Jamaica was given to Columbus’s family as a personal estate in 1540, they did little to develop the island, so there was never a large population. Moreover, roads were poor, and the capital, Villa de la Vega, was the only town of any size, though there were several smaller settlements.

As years passed, a combination of European emigration to the mainland in search of gold, neglect by Spain, and internal strife between the governor and church authorities further weakened the colony. Meanwhile, Spain neglected Jamaica’s land-based defences—choosing instead to provide more warships to protect its treasure convoys. Consequently, colonists had to provide their own protection from attack by French and English ships that defied Spain’s trade monopoly.

In 1555, the Jamaican colonists had to fight off two French ships. In 1596, Sir Anthony Shirley, an English adventurer, raided the island. Other raids followed in 1603, 1640 and 1643. Each raid demoralized the colony further. In time, as European nations took a greater interest in the Americas, they began to understand Jamaica’s strategic importance: the island lies near the geographic centre of the Caribbean near the heart of Spain’s New World empire. It was only a matter of time before the English or the French would attempt to take and hold the island.