On May 3, 1494, Christopher Columbus sighted the island of Jamaica. Spanish colonists settled the island fifteen years later, and it fell into British hands in 1655. Although the Spanish introduced slavery to Jamaica, the British oversaw its development. By the end of the eighteenth century, Jamaica was one of the most valuable colonies in the world, its profitable plantation economy based on the production of sugar through the labor of African slaves.
Some measure of the human cost of this economy is apparent in African Slave Trade in Jamaica, and Comparative Treatment of Slaves, an essay read before the Maryland Historical Society in October 1854. In this treatise, which includes a statistical comparison of the cost of slavery in the United States and Jamaica, Moses Sheppard attempts to undercut British criticisms of American slavery by emphasizing Britain’s role in the introduction of slavery to the Americas and by recounting British atrocities in Jamaica. Sheppard’s essay is featured in African American Perspectives, 1818-1907; to locate more documents on this subject, search the collection on slave trade.
Folklorist, author, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston collected material in both Jamaica and Haiti for her 1938 book Tell My Horse. In addition to her independent research, Hurston also worked closely with John and Ruby Lomax and others in the Southern U.S. capturing the voices of everyday folks. A description of the Hurston material available in the Library’s Folklore Collection gives an indication of Hurston’s broad range of skills.
Jamaica gained its independence from England in 1962 but remains a member of the British commonwealth. The U.S. has long been one of Jamaica’s principal trading partners.
- To learn more about Christopher Columbus and the consequences of European exploration of the Americas, see the online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage or search the loc.gov on Columbus.
- The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship includes a map of West Africa During the Eighteenth Century. Many of the ports identified on the map are identified as being controlled by the English, Dutch, Danish, or French. The use of Latin, French, and Dutch place names on the map is another indication of the international interest in the African trade.
- The Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 make evident the fact that the Founding Fathers considered the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, strategically important to trade. See, for example, the debate of October 20, 1775, which may be located through the collection’s Navigator. The Journals of the Continental Congress are a part of A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1875.
- Search on the name Hurston in Florida Folklife, 1937-1942 to find material about the folklife of Florida, particularly its music. Read, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s essay entitled “Proposed Recording Expedition Into the Floridas” and listen to some of the music that she helped to preserve.
- For images of a Jamaican hotel and an estate, search on the term Jamaica in Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America. Note, however, that this search also retrieves images of Jamaica Avenue and Jamaica, Long Island. To refine such a search, use a more concise term, such as Jamaica, British West Indies.
- Oral history is a way to gather information from people who took part in past events. Zora Neale Hurston gathered oral histories for the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers effort and for her book on Jamaica. Learn more about using oral history from the Teacher’s site.
- Search the loc.gov on her name to learn more about Zora Neale Hurston.