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 From Slavery to Freedom: the African-American Pamphlet Collection 1822-1909. To locate more documents on this subject, search the collection on slave trade.
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.
- Read the chapter about Jamaica in Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: a Regional Study, one of the texts included in the Country Studies digital collection.
- 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. These Journals are a part of A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.
- For images of a Jamaican hotel and an estate, search on the term Jamaica in the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. 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.