Nation in the West Indies, occupying an island of the same name, S of Cuba and W of Haiti. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations; the capital is Kingston. Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1494, and Spain conquered and settled it in 1509. The Spanish founded Santiago de la Vega, now called Spanish Town, c. 1525. Harsh rule and exploitation killed off most of the native Arawak Indians, and they were replaced by black slaves from Africa. In 1655 the English captured the island , and it was formally ceded to them in 1670. Jamaica prospered as a result of the activities of such buccaneers as Henry Morgan, who was commissioned as a privateer by the English Crown. He later was knighted and became acting governor of the island . Port Royal was the capital until 1692 when an earthquake caused it to sink into the sea. In the 18th century Jamaica was one of the largest sugar-producing areas in the world. At the same time, however, its fugitive slave population often rebelled against the colonial regime. Sugar production declined in the 19th century, partly because the slaves were emancipated in 1838, and in 1865 economic troubles lay behind the Morant Bay Rebellion of freed blacks. The British repressed the rebellion so ruthlessly that the governor was recalled and Jamaica was made a Crown colony. A measure of autonomy was restored in 1884. However, unemployment and British racial policies brought more violence in 1938, and in 1944 universal suffrage was granted.
In 1958 Jamaica became a member of the new Federation of the West Indies but withdrew in 1961 because it did not believe it was given large enough representation in the group. Jamaica became entirely independent on August 6, 1962. Alexand er Bustamante, a labor leader, was the first prime minister. In 1972 a socialist party won power and Michael Manley became prime minister. Economic troubles and international isolation continued to plague Jamaica, and in 1980 Edward Seaga defeated Manley to become prime minister of a more conservative Labor Party government. Seaga’s government privatized industry, distanced itself from Cuba, attracted foreign investment, stimulated tourism, and won substantial U.S. aid.
Still, two hurricanes and economic recession in the 1980s slowed growth in Jamaica. In 1989 Manley was reelected as prime minister, although he continued the economic policies of the Seaga government. In 1992 Manley was replaced by Percival James Patterson, who was elected in 1993 and reelected in 1997 and 2002.