Arawaks were the first inhabitants of Jamaica, which they called Xaymaca, meaning "isle of springs." Columbus first glimpsed the north coast of the island in May 1494, landing in Montego Bay before he sailed back to Cuba. When he returned nine years later, stormy weather damaged two of his ships, and he was forced to anchor at St. Anne's Bay, where he and his men were marooned until the governor of Hispaniola retrieved them. In 1510 a permanent Spanish settlement was finally established under the orders of Don Diego, Columbus's son, who was then governor of the West Indies.

In 1655 Britain, under Oliver Cromwell, challenged Spain's claim to the island, ultimately triumphing and establishing a base at across the harbor from what is now Kingston. The new headquarters at Port Royal became the center of nefarious activities on the high seas, under the direction of the buccaneer Henry Morgan. His sacking of the Spanish colony in Panama clinched England's claim to Jamaica. A major earthquake in 1692 shook half the town into the sea.

Sugarcane farming was established and so many black slaves were imported that Jamaica became one of the world's principal slave-trading centers. Jamaica's population also included "free coloureds," the offspring of white men and slave women, and Maroons, descendants of freed slaves. Slave revolts became a common occurrence in Jamaica; the largest, bloodiest conflict was led by Sam Sharpe, a Baptist preacher whose oratory and convictions helped lead to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica in 1838. Emancipation led directly to the fall of the sugarcane industry.

A British colony from 1655 until 1962, Jamaica developed a two-party system before World War II. A considerable amount of self-government was introduced in 1944, but full independence was delayed by attempts to set up a wider federation embracing all or most of the Caribbean Commonwealth territories. Jamaica joined the now-defunct West Indies Federation in 1958, but withdrew in 1961 because of disagreements over taxation, voting rights, and location of the federal capital. Sir Alexander Bustamante, one of the original founders of the two-party system, became the nation's first prime minister at independence in 1962. Under the 1962 constitution, the queen of England is the titular head of state. Her representative, a governor-general, is advised in matters relating to the royal prerogative by a six-member privy council. Jamaica is divided into 13 parishes and the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation, a special administrative entity encompassing the principal urban areas.

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