Jamaica was inhabited by Arawak Indians when Christopher Columbus reached the island in 1494. The first Spanish settlement in Jamaica was established in 1509. The Spanish enslaved the Arawak, who soon died out. They were replaced by slaves from Africa. Jamaica did not flourish until after its capture by the English in 1655. Port Royal, near present-day Kingston, became a headquarters for buccaneers.

Jamaica prospered during the 18th century as a slave market and producer of sugar and rum. Blacks were given their freedom in the 1830's, but the island's economy, based on the plantation system, suffered. In 1865 there was an uprising of poor blacks. To maintain order, the British assumed direct control of Jamaica, making it a crown colony. Dissatisfaction with social and economic conditions, however, continued into the 20th century, occasionally erupting in violence.

Jamaica gained independence in 1962. In 1972 the People's National Party, led by Michael Manley, came to power and introduced socialist programs. High unemployment, political violence, and public dissatisfaction with government policy led to the defeat of Manley's party in 1980. Edward P. G. Seaga, leader of the Jamaica Labour party, became prime minister and introduced policies reversing the socialist trend. Jamaica, however, continued to experience deteriorating economic conditions and political unrest. Elections held in 1989 returned Manley to power. He stepped down in 1992, but his party remained in power through the 1990's.