About 60,000 Arawak Indians were living in Jamaica when Columbus landed in 1494, but they were exterminated by disease and enslavement during the Spanish occupation, which lasted from 1509 to 1655, when the island was seized by Great Britain. The British tried to populate the island with convicts and indentured servants from England, Scotland, and Ireland; they also persuaded buccaneers like Henry Morgan to establish their base at Port Royal, which became the center of trade for loot captured in raids on Spanish ships. Yeoman farming, with cocoa as the principal crop, soon gave way to cattle ranching and sugar, coffee, cotton, and pimento (allspice) estates and plantations. About 750,000 Africans were brought in to work the estates, but resistance to slavery was strong, and the society was in an almost constant state of revolt; a permanent population of runaway slaves (Maroons) established communities in the mountains. Production of sugar cane, the principal crop, peaked in the mid-eighteenth century, when Jamaica was regarded as England's richest and most valuable colony, but it began to fall in 1774. The declining economy and an increasingly influential antislavery movement in England led to the abolition of the slave trade by an act of parliament in 1807. A serious slave revolt, the "Baptist War" of 1831, and shocking reprisals against missionaries for their alleged involvement in it, encouraged passage of an emancipation act in 1833, but full freedom did not come until 1838, after a period of "apprenticeship." Many of the freed slaves left the estates, moving to the towns or becoming small farmers, and indentured servants from India (and later China) were brought in to replace them. After 1866, some abandoned sugar estates were turned over to the production of bananas, which rapidly replaced sugar as the leading export. The process of decolonization was set in motion by serious and widespread labor disturbances in 1938 that inspired nationalistic sentiments and led to the formation of the island's first trade union and political party. Large deposits of bauxite ore (the basis for aluminum) were discovered in the 1940s, and by 1960 Jamaica had become the world's leading producer of bauxite and aluminum. Many factories were built in the 1950s, and the value of manufacturing reached that of agriculture by 1960. The tourist industry also began to grow at a tremendous rate in the 1950s. Jamaica received its independence in 1962.
The island was a British colony for over 300 years, and many of its institutions (particularly legal, governmental, and educational) and ideals (for example, monogamy and the patriarchal nuclear family) are essentially English. Jamaican society was initially "pluralistic," embracing the African cultures of the slave majority and the English culture of their masters, but "creolization"—the gradual reshaping of English traditions by African traditions, and vice-versa—led to the emergence of a syncretic, indigenous culture. The African influence is particularly evident in language, cuisine, folklore, folk medicine, religion, and the arts, but rarely does it survive in true form.