On This Day: Jamaica gains independence after three centuries of British rule
AUGUST 6, 1962: Jamaicans celebrated their independence after three centuries of British rule ended on this day in 1962.
The union flag was lowered across the Caribbean island before citizens hoisted up a new banner that had been selected following a public contest.
A British Pathé newsreel filmed the nation’s Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante, an eccentric native-born white trade union leader, welcome Princess Margaret.
The Queen’s sister, who had come on behalf of the monarch, who would remain technical head of state in Jamaica, was there to provide formal ascent.
She was filmed attending a massive stadium gala, which had unfortunately been deluged by a tropical downpour on the eve on independence.
At the stroke of midnight, fireworks were lit up across the nation as the citizens of the former slave colony became the masters of their own fate.
After the sun rose, Princess Margaret opened the country’s new parliament, which has an upper and lower house and works in the same way as the Westminster system.
Her speech was followed by an address by Bustamante, whose Jamaican Labour Party had fought for more power and had even spent two years in jail for his activism.
His cousin, Norman Manley, the mixed-race opposition leader whose People’s National Party was actually the more left-wing political group, also spoke.
The governance and freedom of the nation had come a long since the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834.
At their peak, Jamiaca’s African-born slaves, who were brought to the island largely to harvest sugar crops, outnumbered their white masters by a ratio of 20 to one.
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Jamaica, which was initially claimed by Spain after Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1494 - had long been plagued by forced labour.
The Spanish enslaved the indigenous Arawak and Taino peoples, who called the island ‘Xaymaca’ – meaning ‘land of wood and water’ – in their language.
Most of the native population were either worked to death or perished from disease – and those that remained intermarried with new black slaves brought from Africa.
In 1655 the English seized Jamaica during a war between the two European naval powers and many of those mixed-raced forced labourers escaped into the hills.
By 1796, following two successive wars with the new colonists, the majority of these ‘Maroons’ were deported to Nova Scotia and later moved to Sierra Leone in Africa.
In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade, but did not emancipate the roughly 290,000 people involuntarily bonded to plantation owners.
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However, with a mind towards eventual abolition, new laws were introduced that banned whipping and ensured that slaves could attend church and sell their produce.
To increase productivity, plantation owners, who were angered by Westminster’s intervention, imported Indian and Chinese workers as indentured servants.
By emancipation in 1834, there were 311,000 former slaves, along with 5,000 free blacks and 40,000 ‘coloured’ or mixed-race Jamaicans.
Yet the island’s 15,000 whites still controlled the island’s affairs because high voting qualifications meant everyone else was too poor to register.
Westminster’s anger over a brutal crackdown following the Morant Bay rebellion in 1864, when only 2,000 blacks out of 436,000 had the vote, helped increased their say.
But equal suffrage was only introduced in 1944. The following year, Britain’s new Labour government began an official decolonisation policy.
When Manley was elected chief minister in 1955, he led Jamaica into the West Indies Federation of five other crown colonies.
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They planned to merge into a single sovereign state when independence was granted - but Jamaica pulled out following a 1961 referendum and the union collapsed.
While Jamaicans are proud of their independence – and celebrate the act every August on their National Day – many people also wish to return to crown colony status.
In a 2011 poll, around 60% of islanders said they would like to become a British territory after citing years of social and fiscal mismanagement.
Yet, the following year, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller announced she wished the country to become a republic but so far there has been no referendum on the issue.