The north coast is sometimes referred to as “Columbus Country”, as the conquistador got his first sight of Jamaica at St Ann’s Bay. Sailing in during his second voyage in 1494 to claim new territories for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus was so impressed by its beauty that he named it Santa Gloria. He was rather less enamoured during his fourth and final voyage in 1503, when his unseaworthy caravels forced his crew to spend an unhappy year marooned here, awaiting rescue from compatriots in Hispaniola. Plagued by illness and worried by a partial mutiny, Columbus used bribery and superstition (his prediction of a solar eclipse led them to believe he was a god) to coerce indigenous Tainos into providing food for them.
Columbus died in Spain in 1506, but his son Diego was appointed Governor of the Indies. He directed Juan de Esquivel to establish the first Spanish colony on the island, Sevilla Nueva, in 1510. Situated on the site of the Taino village of Maima, Sevilla Nueva eradicated Jamaica’s Amerindian population in fifty years. The encomienda system of serf labour – the antithesis of the unfettered Taino lifestyle – was brutally enforced, and caciques (Taino chiefs) selectively murdered. With their society in tatters and forms of authority destroyed, the Tainos were easily branded and enslaved. Alongside Africans, transported to the island by the Spanish for the purpose, they were conscripted to build the new city. Less robust than the Africans, the Amerindians were unable to bear a life of slavery; ill treatment and European diseases soon eradicated those who didn’t commit suicide. But while the Tainos expired, New Seville rapidly developed into a sizeable town, with churches, irrigation and a wharf. Its occupation lasted only until 1534, however, when the marshy, disease-inducing environment was abandoned in favour of Villa de la Vega, or Spanish Town.