The original Arawak or Taino people from South America, first settled on the island between 1000 and 400 BC. They became virtually extinct following contact with Europeans.

Jamaica was claimed for Spain after Christopher Columbus first landed there in 1494. Columbus used it as his family's private estate. The English Admiral William Penn (father of William Penn of Pennsylvania) and General Venables seized the island in 1655. During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became the world's largest sugar exporting nation and produced over 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 - 1824, which was achieved through the massive use of imported African slave labor.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Britain's heavy reliance on slavery resulted in blacks outnumbering whites by a ratio of almost 20 to one, leading to constant threat of revolt. Following a series of rebellions, slavery was formally abolished in 1834, with full emancipation from chattel slavery declared in 1838.

Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom, and in 1958 Jamaica became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation between all the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.

However, the initial optimism following Jamaican independence for the next decade or so vanished as Jamaica became a victim of the international economic system. Rising foreign debt under the government of Michael Manley, who was determined to alleviate Jamaica's severe economic inequality, led to the imposition of IMF austerity measures. Deteriorating economic conditions led to a desperately fraught re-election campaign between Manley's People's National Party and the main opposition, the Jamaican Labour Party. Both political parties became linked with rival gangs in Kingston which were duly armed. This policy, along with the increasing emergence of Jamaica as a smuggling point for cocaine during the 1980s, led to recurrent violence and only served to increase the impoverishment of a large section of the Jamaican populace. The ultimate result of this cycle of violence, drugs and poverty has been the brutal gun warfare seen on Kingston's streets from the mid-1990s onwards. The Jamaican police force has also been accused of complicity in this murderous side of the island. It must be noted however that the rural sections of the island, especially in and around the resort towns of Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, remain quite safe.

Former capitals of Jamaica include Port Royal, where the pirate Governor Morgan held sway, and which was destroyed by a storm and earthquake, and Spanish Town, in St. Catherine parish, the site of the old Spanish colonial capital and the English capital during the 18th and 19th century.