Sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1494, Jamaica was conquered and settled in 1509 by Spaniards under a license from Columbus's son. Spanish exploitation decimated the native Arawaks. The island remained Spanish until 1655, when Admiral William Penn and Robert Venables captured it; it was formally ceded to England in 1670, but the local European population obtained a degree of autonomy. Jamaica prospered from the wealth brought by buccaneers, notably Sir Henry Morgan, to Port Royal, the capital; in 1692, however, much of the city sank into the sea during an earthquake, and Spanish Town became the new capital.
A huge, mostly African, slave population grew up around the sugarcane plantations in the 18th cent., when Jamaica was a leading world sugar producer. Freed and escaped slaves, sometimes aided by the maroons (slaves who had escaped to remote areas after Spain lost control of Jamaica), succeeded in organizing frequent uprisings against the European landowners. The sugar industry declined in the 19th cent., partly because of the abolition of slavery in 1833 (effective 1838) and partly because of the elimination in 1846 of the imperial preference tariff for colonial products entering the British market. Economic hardship was the prime motive behind the Morant Bay rebellion by freedmen in 1865. The British ruthlessly quelled the uprising and also forced the frightened legislature to surrender its powers; Jamaica became a crown colony.
Poverty and economic decline led many blacks to seek temporary work in neighboring Caribbean areas and in the United States; many left the island permanently, emigrating to England, Canada, and the United States. Indians were imported to meet the labor shortage on the plantations after the slaves were freed, and agriculture was diversified to lessen dependence on sugar exports. A new constitution in 1884 marked the initial revival of local autonomy for Jamaica.
Despite labor and other reforms, black riots recurred, notably those of 1938, which were caused mainly by unemployment and resentment against British racial policies. Jamaican blacks had been considerably influenced by the theories of black nationalism promulgated by the American expatriate Marcus Garvey. A royal commission investigating the 1938 riots recommended an increase of economic development funds and a faster restoration of representative government for Jamaica. In 1944 universal adult suffrage was introduced, and a new constitution provided for a popularly elected house of representatives.
By 1958, Jamaica became a key member of the British-sponsored West Indies Federation. The fact that Jamaica received only one third of the representation in the federation, despite its having more than half the land area and population of the grouping, bred resentment; a campaign by the nationalist labor leader Sir Alexander Bustamante led to a 1961 decision, by popular referendum, to withdraw from the federation. The following year Jamaica became an independent member of the Commonwealth. Bustamante, leader of the JLP, became the first prime minister of independent Jamaica. The party continued in power under Donald B. Sangster after the 1967 elections; he died in office and was succeeded by Hugh Shearer.
In 1972 the PNP won an impressive victory, and Michael Manley became prime minister. Although the PNP administration worked effectively to promote civil liberties and reduce illiteracy, economic problems proved more difficult. In 1976 the PNP won decisively after a violent election contest between the two parties. The PNP continued to promote socialist policies, nationalizing businesses and strengthening ties to Cuba. Lack of foreign investment and aid continued to hurt the economy.
In 1980 the JLP returned to power, with the moderate Edward Seaga as prime minister. Seaga's administration favored privatization, distanced itself from Cuba, attracted foreign investment, stimulated tourism, and won substantial U.S. aid. However, two major hurricanes (1980, 1988) during Seaga's tenure set back prospects for substantial economic progress. In the 1989 elections the PNP ousted the JLP, and Manley returned as prime minister; he chose to continue the policy directions taken by Seaga. Manley was replaced by P. J. Patterson in 1992. The following year Patterson and the PNP were returned to office in a landslide. Patterson led his PNP government to a third term in 1997 and a fourth term in 2002, although the PNP majority was reduced in 2002.
Patterson retired as prime minister in 2006 and was succeeded by the PNP's Portia Simpson-Miller, who became the first woman to hold the office. In the Sept., 2007, parliamentary elections, the PNP narrowly lost to the JLP, now led by Bruce Golding, who became prime minister. An attempt in May, 2010, to arrest Christopher "Dudus" Coke, an alleged drug gang leader wanted by the United States, led to a week of fighting in Kingston between security forces and gang members in which scores died; he was finally arrested and extradited in June. Criticism of Golding's handling of the arrest and extradition led the prime minister to step down in Oct., 2011; Andrew Holness succeeded him as JLP leader and prime minister. A snap election called in hopes of winning support for Holness led (Dec., 2011) to a PNP victory, and returned Simpson-Miller to the prime minister's office in Jan., 2012.