River rafting near Ocho Rios

River rafting began when plantation crops were transported to fishing villages like Ocho Rios; credit Jamaica Tourism Board

Ocho Rios History

Like most of the Caribbean Jamaica’s first inhabitants were the Tainos, an Arawak Indian tribe originating from South America several thousand years ago. The peaceful Tainos greeted Christopher Columbus when he first arrived here in 1494. Of course the Spaniards had larger unknown capitalistic aspirations for their island. Initially, the Spanish after Columbus settled near St Ann’s Bay, but eventually moved to Villa de la Vega, now called “Spanish Town” to become the island primary port of governance. Disease, inter-marriage and skirmishes ultimately wiped out the Tainos.

By the 1650s in their many wars with Spaniards, the British captured Jamaica from Spain. In the last act of defiance against their British conquerors, the Spanish settlers freed and armed their slaves, who sought refuge in the island’s interior. The Maroons, as these ex-slaves came to be called, continuously defied the new British colonizers. Jamaicans can proudly boast that they have one of the few armies to prevent a complete British takeover of their island. Maroons still exist in Jamaica.

Under British governance and enslavement of Africans by the 1700s, Jamaica produced nearly a quarter of the world’s sugar on vastly-scaled plantations. Anyone who knows about sugar plantations can attest that the vilest of slavery practices existed on those plantations. As a result of such oppressive slavery and the Maroons, Jamaica conducted more slave uprisings than other Caribbean islands. Frequent slave uprisings coupled with brutal reprisals by the plantation owners, troubled the European Christian conscience.

In time, anti-slavery sentiments grew strong in Europe. So Jamaica played a strong role in the Emancipation Act of 1834 to free all slaves under the age of 6 and others were to serve a period of apprenticeship for 4-6 years. But plantation owners continued to abuse their apprentices, triggering full emancipation to all all Jamaicans in 1838. Many former slaves and apprentices left the plantation to settling in other areas of this large island.

With the drop in sugar productivity and profitability Jamaica to diversified its economy. Plantation owners recruited indentured workers from China and India. After their period of indenture, many Chinese and Indians stayed on the island, adding to Jamaica’s eclectic mix of cultures. Bananas and coffee also became cash crops, as other industries emerged in Jamaica’s economy to overtake agricultural exports.

Jamaican politics also transformed with the end of slavery. In 1866, the island implemented the crown colony system of government from Great Britain. Under the new system promises of education, health care and social reforms a newly freed generation build their hopes. But decades later, hopes turned into disappointment and civil unrest, heralding the birth of the trade union movement.

Translated in Spanish the name Ocho Rios, means “eight rivers”, but there are not eight rivers in town. The confusion began in 1657, when the English fought off visiting Spanish troops. The battle took place near Dunn’s River Falls. The Spanish called the site las chorreros, meaning river rapids. The English misunderstood the Spanish reference as eight rivers. Therefore, the English interpretation became Ocho Rios, which sounded close enough. Despite rounds between the British and Spanish, rather than become a port of commerce, Ocho Rios was primarily used by pirates as a port of operations until the mid-1800s.

Ocho Rios continued as a sleepy port town until the 1940’s when Reynolds Jamaica Mines, built a deep water-pier west of town. An overhead conveyor belt carried ore open-cast mines at Lynford over 6 inland miles to the port. Then universal adult suffrage arrived in Jamaica in 1944 and independence from Britain came in 1962, so a democratic Jamaica could finally emerge. Hence, today the scenic bay of Ocho Rios is only disjointed a bit by the legacy bauxite loading facility, since Reynolds pulled out of Jamaica in the 1980s. With Jamaican economic innovation since then, Ocho Rios has grown from a small fishing village with a mining operation to a world-class tourist destination. A good place to get your bearings is Shaw Park Gardens, which offers a bird’s eye view over Ocho Rios.

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