Shipwreck, hunger, thirst, and bloodshed. This is how the Spanish occupation of Jamaica began. Columbus himself shipwrecked off the north coast for twelve months between 1508 and 1509, a stretch of coastline whose beauty he had praised so highly only two years before. Less than a year later, Columbus was dead, and the island of Jamaica, like the larger Hispaniola to the north, was bequeathed to his son and heir Diego.
In many respects the Spanish were doomed in Jamaica. Their towns on the north coast, though beautiful, were near swamps that bred disease. For the first thirty years at Nueva Sevilla, few children survived and many adults died. The gold that they so desperately sought was nowhere to be found. And under bad governance—often by overseas Governors—the island was valued only for its central location, a strategic storehouse for Hispaniola and Cuba, a farm for cowhide and lard.
From the very beginning, the Spanish presence portended only ill for Jamaica’s native populations. The Taino, a proud people by Columbus’s own account, were forced into slavery. Distrust and disease cut through their number with fierce consequence. In less than a generation, the population was on verge of collapse. The Taino put up a pyrrhic resistance to the Spaniards, killing their children to spare them the suffering of life enslaved, poisoning their own crops, welcoming death in the hopes it would bring death to their captors as well.
In 1534, the Spanish left the north coast to establish a capital near the Taino villages of the southern plain. The new capital on the plain, Villa de la Vega (later, St. Jago and then Spanish Town), was far more successful than the first. With a grand square built in Spanish style—buildings included the Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega which still stands today—the town survived 300 years as the Spanish and British capital. It is certainly one of the longest continually inhabited towns in the Western Hemisphere.
“Spanish Jamaica,” Francisco Morales Padron (Ian Randle Publishers: 2003)
“Jamaica under the Spaniards,” Frank Cundall and Joseph Pietersz (Institute of Jamaica Press: 1919)
“History of Jamaica,” Clinton V. Black (London: Collins Educational: 1983)