When Christopher Columbus landed on the island now known as Jamaica in 1942 he encountered the island’s indigenous Arawakan-speaking Taino people. They called their land “Xaymaca,” which meant “Land of Wood and Water”, or the “Land of Springs.” The Spanish soon colonized (which was particularly unfortunate for the Tainos) but in 1664 they lost control of the island to British Admiral William Penn (the very same Penn who gave rise to the British colony of Pennsylvania). When Penn took over most Spanish colonists fled, leaving a large number of slaves who escaped to the mountains to live with the few remaining Tainos and become Jamaican Maroons who fought for the next century against the British and eventually signed a treaty, still in effect, which granted them some autonomy over their territories. (Many Maroon descendants in Jamaica today still don’t consider themselves Jamaican citizens.)
By the early 1800s the British had brought so many Africans to Jamaica that blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of 20 to 1. There were many slave rebellions, as there were all over the Caribbean, but Jamaica didn’t become independent until 1962. Since independence Jamaica has developed a sturdy trade in beach-going tourists but its underlying economy never was able to sustain the growth. In the late ’70s Jamaican
leaders agreed to receive loans from the International Monetary Fund; today Jamaica, while still promoting itself as both a cultural mecca and an island paradise, struggles to maintain the interest payments on its crippling several billion dollar debt.