Over 1,500 years ago, the Arawak Indians came from South America to Jamaica. Farmers and fishers, they grew cotton that they spun into cloth and crafted jewellery from stones and seashells. These peaceful people presented little opposition to Christopher Columbus in 1494, when he happened upon the island on his second voyage to the new world.

Columbus' son Diego founded Jamaica's first Spanish settlement, called New Seville Town. The Spanish used the Arawaks as labour; over 100,000 died from brutal treatment. Consequently, beginning in 1517, the Spanish transported Africans to work as slave labour in Jamaica.

The British conquered the island in 1655. During the war between the British and the Spaniards, many slaves escaped to the mountains and the rugged Cockpit Country, where they became known as Maroons. In 1729 and 1795, the Maroons fought two wars against the British and became a symbol of slave resistance throughout the Americas. Jamaica still has some Maroon settlements.

The British turned Jamaica into a prosperous colony, exporting sugar, cotton, cocoa and tobacco. As the demand for sugar grew rapidly, the British imported more African slaves, transporting over 600,000 Africans to Jamaica between 1700 and 1810. Most died of illness, exhaustion or maltreatment. After numerous rebellions, slavery was abolished in 1834 and the slaves were freed; however, by then only 250,000 were left alive.

After abolition, some former slaves remained on plantations as paid labourers; others established their own farms. Some learned new skills and worked as artisans in the cities, or migrated to Central America to work on the railways. East Indians and Chinese were then brought to Jamaica to work on the plantations as indentured labourers.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germans, Lebanese, Syrians and Jews also found their way to Jamaica. Intermarriage between the Jamaican peoples has led to a truly multi-racial society with its motto "Out of Many, One People."

In 1944, the British government allowed universal adult suffrage in Jamaica and the country held its first elections. In 1962, Jamaica gained its independence from Britain under a new constitution. During the 1970's, the ruling People's National Party advocated economic independence and social reform. Despite the success of tourism and other industries, economic and political instability have led to occasional periods of social unrest. In 1988, Jamaica experienced the worst hurricane in recorded history; Hurricane Gilbert destroyed homes and severely damaged agriculture. Currently, Jamaica is governed by the People's National Party, led by Prime Minister Percival Patterson. The country is working to achieve a more stable economy

  Did you know?
"Daddy" Sam Sharpe, a Baptist preacher, led Jamaica's last slave rebellion in Montego Bay during the Christmas of 1831. Although the revolt failed, slavery was finally abolished a few years later.

  Did you know?
The British imported the mongoose to help eradicate the cane rat in Jamaica. In the process, the mongoose also fed on snakes.