In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jamaica in the Atlantic World to 1838

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Multiperiod Surveys and Analyses of Jamaican Culture
  • Taíno Jamaica
  • Spanish Jamaica
  • Maroon Society after the Treaties
  • Estimating the Wealth of 18th-Century Jamaica
  • White Societies: Christians and Jews
  • Towns and Merchants
  • Administration
  • Politics and War

Atlantic History Jamaica in the Atlantic World to 1838
James Robertson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0287


Jamaica’s engagement with the wider Atlantic world began with Columbus’s sailing past during his second voyage in 1494. The island’s colonial experience was then shaped by two invasions: a Spanish settlement in 1514 and an English assault in 1655. The Taíno had undertaken some subsistence agriculture, but the European seizure imposed export-driven economies. Forced labor and introduced diseases led to the precipitous collapse of the Taíno population with enslaved Africans introduced from the early 1500s. The island’s transition to a sparsely settled agricultural backwater hastened in 1536 after it was transferred to Columbus’s heirs. A reduced labor force encouraged a shift toward pastoral farming, although cocoa was planted in the 1640s. In 1655 an English expedition invaded. Some of the island’s Spanish and African-Jamaican settlers sustained a five-year resistance, leading to substantial cultural breaks.

Despite some senior English officers’ expectations of failure Jamaica was retained as an English colony. Port Royal, its principal port, thrived. Trading with Spain’s mainland colonies saw their silver and cocoa exchanged for enslaved Africans and European textiles. Some of the profits, alongside the markets that victualling the smugglers’ ships provided, helped to fund a slave-based commercial agriculture. From the 1670s this was increasingly based on sugar. Massive numbers of enslaved Africans were shipped to Jamaica from the 1670s until the end of Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. African cultural practices survived, contributing to a distinctive Creole folk culture, music, and language, as well as strategies for conspiracies and uprisings. A distinct white Creole culture also developed that was not dislodged by warfare or rebellions. The peace treaties that ended the First Maroon War in 1738 and 1739 allowed the African-Jamaican Maroons to develop as a further free group. Although Maroon communities faced internal tensions cooperating with the colonial government, most survived, and their populations increased. By the mid-18th century the island’s free people of color also sustained a positive birth rate. From the late 18th century developments on the island were increasingly influenced by the prolonged wars with France and her allies, the “Humanitarian Revolution,” and falling prices for sugar and coffee. Despite pushbacks by pro-slavery groups, emancipation came to Jamaica and Britain’s other slave-holding colonies in 1834.

General Overviews

There is no substantial modern survey of Jamaica’s past, although Bryan 2000 is an introduction to the major issues in writing a modern history of the island, Sherlock and Bennett 1998 aimed to provide a post-independence narrative and is used in the island’s schools, while Buisseret 1996 offers a historical introduction to the overlaps between Jamaica’s topography and its history. In a historiographical overview, Johnson 1999 describes the successive published histories of Jamaica. Robertson 2005 explores the island’s former capital and its place in Jamaican society from 1534 to 2000, while Curtin 2007 introduces local landscapes and local priorities. Four general surveys of Britain’s 17th- and 18th-century colonies in the region also deliver useful comparisons: Mulcahy 2014, Delle 2014 (cited under Case Studies of Individual Estates), and Burnard 2015 each consider the late-17th- to early-19th-century American and West Indian colonies, where Jamaica is a major feature in both their analyses, while Burnard and Garrigus 2016 compares Jamaica and St. Domingue. All offer suggestive insights into what was distinctive about Jamaica and its society in this period. Other older surveys are available, with Hurwitz and Hurwitz 1971, a sensible coverage of the state of play at Jamaican independence, and Beckford and Witter 1982 among the most passionate—and contentious.

  • Beckford, George, and Michael Witter. Small Garden . . . Bitter Weed: The Political Economy of Struggle and Change in Jamaica. London: Zed, 1982.

    A strongly felt survey of Jamaican history written at the end of the socialist-dominated 1970s which seeks to trace the island’s development as a socialist society. Passionately written with some suggestive insights and many powerful turns of phrase.

  • Bryan, Patrick. Inside Out and Outside In: Factors in the Creation of Contemporary Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: Grace Kennedy Foundation, 2000.

    A personal overview of the themes shaping the island’s development. An effort to delineate key factors that have shaped the island’s culture and its development.

  • Buisseret, David. Historic Jamaica from the Air. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1996.

    A replacement edition of David Buisseret and Jack Tyndale-Biscoe, Historic Jamaica From the Air (Bridgetown, Jamaica: Caribbean Universities Press, 1969). Has aerial photographs of the island with an informed historical commentary. The second edition is heavily revised and includes different photographs. Each edition offers a distinct overview of the island’s history and topography. Both editions repay close reading.

  • Burnard, Trevor. Planters, Merchants and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286242.001.0001

    A wide-ranging study filled with comparisons that are often phrased in contentious terms. Jamaica looms large in the analysis.

  • Burnard, Trevor, and John Garrigus. The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

    A comparison of the island territories that became Britain and France’s most profitable 18th-century colonies—and in Saint-Domingue’s case the site of one of the first successful post-slave revolt nations, too.

  • Curtin, Marguerite R. The Story of Hanover: A Jamaican Parish. Kingston, Jamaica: Marguerite R. Curtin, 2007.

    An illustrated history of a predominantly rural parish. Short and accessible, this and her Story of Westmorland: A Jamaican Parish (2010) offer an introduction to local chronologies and landscapes.

  • Hart, Richard. Occupation & Control: The British in Jamaica 1660–1962. Kingston, Jamaica: Arawak, 2013.

    A breakdown of administrative developments in Jamaica across the whole colonial period. An invaluable reference text.

  • Hurwitz, Samuel J., and Edith Hurwitz. Jamaica: A Historical Portrait. London: Pall Mall, 1971.

    Still a serviceable overview of the pre-independence discussions that cites North American comparisons and acknowledges the Jewish presence on the island.

  • Johnson, Howard. “Historiography of Jamaica.” In Methodology and Historiography of the Caribbean. Edited by B. W. Higman, 478–530. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan for UNESCO, 1999.

    Surveys locally written histories by generation and then by decade.

  • Mulcahy, Matthew. Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

    A comparative survey of the early Atlantic settlements in mainland North America and the contemporary British settlements in the Caribbean. More social than political or military in its emphases.

  • Robertson, James. Gone is the Ancient Glory: Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1534–2000. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2005.

    An urban survey extending from the Spanish period to the end of the 20th century of the town that served as the island’s capital under the Spaniards from 1534 and then under the English until the 1870s. Jamaica’s history viewed from the town’s streets and squares.

  • Sherlock, Philip, and Hazel Bennett. The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1998.

    An overview of Jamaica’s history with some flashes of Sherlock’s insight, but on many questions it does not move far beyond colonial-era surveys.

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