Scenes in Kingston after the 1882 fire.
Kingston was founded in July 1693 after the earthquake that devastated Port Royal in 1692, the original section of the city which was situated at the bottom of the Liguanea Plains was laid out to house survivors of the earthquake. Before the earthquake, Kingston's functions were purely agricultural. The earthquake survivors set up a camp on the sea front. Approximately two thousand people died due to mosquito-borne diseases. Initially the people lived in a tented camp on Colonel Barry's Hog Crawle. The town did not begin to grow until after the further destruction of Port Royal by fire in 1703. Surveyor John Goffe drew up a plan for the town based on a grid bounded by North, East, West and Harbour Streets. The new grid system of the town was designed to facilitate commerce, particularly the system of main thoroughfares 66 feet (20 m) across which allowed transportation between the port and plantations farther inland. By 1716 it had become the largest town and the centre of trade for Jamaica.
The government sold land to people with the regulation that they purchase no more than the amount of the land that they owned in Port Royal, and only land on the sea front. Gradually wealthy merchants began to move their residences from above their businesses to the farm lands north on the plains of Liguanea.
The first free school, Wolmers's, was founded in 1729 and there was a theatre, first on Harbour Street and then moved in 1774 to North Parade. Both are still in existence. In 1755 the governor, Sir Charles Knowles, had decided to transfer the government offices from Spanish Town to Kingston. It was thought by some to be an unsuitable location for the Assembly in proximity to the moral distractions of Kingston, and the next governor rescinded the Act. However, by 1780 the population of Kingston was 11,000, and the merchants began lobbying for the administrative capital to be transferred from Spanish Town, which was by then eclipsed by the commercial activity in Kingston.
By the end of the 18th century, the city contained more than 3,000 brick buildings. The harbour fostered trade, and played part in several naval wars of the 18th century. Kingston took over the functions of Spanish Town (the capital at the time). These functions included agriculture, commercial, processing and a main transport hub to and from Kingston and other sections of the island. In 1788, Kingston had a population of 25,000, which was about a tenth of the overall population of the island. One in every four people living in Kingston was white, and there was a large population of free people of color there too, meaning that two out of every five people living in Kingston were free. The remaining three-fifths of Kingston's population was made up of black slaves.
The government passed an act to transfer the government offices to Kingston from Spanish Town, which occurred in 1872. It kept this status when the island was granted independence in 1962.
Bird's eye view of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake
In 1907, 800 people died in another earthquake known as the 1907 Kingston earthquake, destroying nearly all the historical buildings south of Parade in the city. That was when a restriction of no more than 60 feet (18 m) was instituted on buildings in the city centre. These three-story-high buildings were built with reinforced concrete. Construction on King Street in the city was the first area to breach this building code.
During the 1930s, island-wide riots led to the development of trade unions and political parties to represent workers.
The city became home to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies founded in 1948, with 24 medical students.
Not until the 1960s did major change occur in the development of Kingston's city centre. The international attention of reggae music at that time coincided with the expansion and development of 95 acres (38 ha) of the Kingston city centre waterfront area. These developments led to an influx of shops and offices, and the development of a new financial centre: New Kingston, which replaced the Knutsford Racetrack. Multi-story buildings and boulevards were placed within that section.
In 1966 Kingston was the host city to the Commonwealth Games.
The western section of the city was not the focus of development, and that area proved to be politically tense. The 1970s saw deteriorating economic conditions that led to recurrent violence and a decline in tourism which later affected the island.
In the 1980 general elections, the democratic socialist People's National Party (PNP) government was voted out, and subsequent governments have been more market-oriented. Within a global urban era, the 1990s saw that Kingston has made efforts to modernise and develop its city structure and functions. Various organisations such as the Kingston Restoration Company, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), the Port Authority of Jamaica and the Port Royal Development Company, among others sought to develop the urban structure of the city.