Recently, I was reading a discussion on the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society Facebook Group about the current state of Spanish Town. All contributors mourned its decline and the state of its historic buildings, but there are optimistic straws in the wind about what might be possible in future. Despite some people’s concern about the safety of the town, a large group made a walking tour in August 2012 photographing historic sites and buildings and educating each other about a shared history. Many of the photographs were posted on the Facebook Group, which also houses a huge collection of albums of pictures of Jamaica’s Great Houses and many other interesting images.
For those of us outside Jamaica, who may never be able to visit, James Robertson’s book Gone is the Ancient Glory, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1551-2000 provides an ideal history of the development of the town from Spanish colonial outpost, to island capital, to modern centre with the University of the West Indies Campus at Mona.
The book takes a chronological approach to the history of the town beginning with the reasons for its establishment as the Spanish capital after the abandoning of New Seville in the north of the island. One interesting feature of the early town is the relatively large number of free negroes. In 1611 there were 107 when adult Spaniard numbered 523 and there were 558 slaves. Also reflected in Jamaica’s early history were a significant number of Portuguese, and many Portuguese and Spanish Jews due to the absence of the Inquisition. Robertson describes the imprint of the Spaniards on the layout of Spanish Town and on the ecology of the island through their imported fruit trees and domestic animals. Indeed the cattle the Spaniards left behind provided a much needed source of food and hides in the early days of British conquest.
The imprint of Spain on Spanish Town in its layout, single storey houses and buildings facing inward to courtyards rather than outward onto the street, made the town seem very foreign to the incoming English in the late seventeenth century. Following the 1692 earthquake and the destruction of much of Port Royal, Kingston was laid out on a large modern grid pattern and Spanish Town would always suffer to a degree by comparison. However the location of Spanish Town still made it much more convenient for planters coming together for the Assembly and law sessions, and for the associated social life of racecourse, theatre and balls. Its primacy as island capital would be challenged by the Kingston merchants in the mid-eighteenth century, but not supplanted by Kingston until the mid-ninteenth.
One distinctive characteristic of Spanish Town, highlighted by Robertson, was the existence of clusters of slave huts within the town. Whereas in North America the enslaved were segregated and crammed together into buildings and outhouses on the owner’s land, there was legislation in Spanish Town to control the ‘Negro Hutts’. Although such groups of huts could house runaways, they did enable many to live some form of family life, and in turn the town benefited from produce grown in these yards or brought in from outside to negro markets, the sellers staying overnight in the huts with friends or relations.
Robertson describes how Spanish Town flowered in the mid-eighteenth century with the construction of the great municipal buildings, the Archives Building, Kings House and the Assembly around the central square. In many ways this was a high point and far less construction took place in the later part of the century although Spanish Town did win out over Kingston in the tussle to house the statue of Admiral Rodney. A further engineering high point was reached with the construction of the cast iron bridge over the Rio Cobre, which still stands today – probably the first and certainly the oldest still surviving structure of its kind in the western hemisphere.
The arrival of Protestant missionaries amid the struggle for emancipation at the start of the nineteenth century led to the building of new churches, and the street names in Spanish Town reflected the politics of the day – Canning Street, Duke of Wellington Street and Peel Lane demonstrating an identification of the property owning classes with the English establishment.
With the coming of emancipation in 1838 we have a number of prints showing the celebrations as a crowd of about 7000 assembled at the Baptist Chapel and marched to the Parade to hear the Proclamation read – commemorated today by a plaque.
Early Victorian times saw investment in the Island from outside, including the building of the railway between Kingston and Spanish Town, but by the mid-century international recession and a cholera epidemic rapidly followed by a smallpox outbreak resulted in Spanish Town suffering from lack of investment and becoming increasingly dilapidated. Eighteenth century architecture was out of favour with the Victorians, the railway was funneling trade in the direction of Kingston, the population of Spanish Town reduced, many falling into desperate poverty.
Following the uprising of 1865 and the establishment of Jamaica as a Crown Colony, the island’s administration was moved to Kingston and Spanish town was demoted to the status of an ‘inland county town’. Many buildings that had been leased to those attending the island Assembly were no longer tenanted and were demolished to make way for development of humbler cottages. The day of the eighteenth century town mansion was finally over.
All was not lost however and Robertson describes how ‘Architecturally Spanish Town retains a firm imprint from the revival of prosperity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.’ Much derived from the banana boom. Many small houses constructed in this period still remain, and the social mix included middle class professionals. With the banana boats came the first tourists and Spanish Town developed as a stop over between Port Antonio and Kingston, or for day trippers all arriving by by rail.
Moving into the twentieth century Robertson draws on oral history, accounts of the class structure, the myths and tales told by residents, memories of Spanish Town holding the island’s first cycle races. Then in the 1920s three disasters afflicted the town. In October 1925 the Kings House burnt down. Then came Panama disease, a fungal infection destroying the banana crop. A switch to a resistant strain which was thinner skinned and transported less well, had mixed success. Finally the Railway company racked up huge debts sucking money from the government’s allocation for capital investment. The Great Depression and riots in 1938 saw even more difficult times, and only in 1944 did Jamaicans finally achieve universal suffrage.
The final chapter of James Robertson’s book covers the development of Spanish Town from 1942-2000 and asks ‘Where are we now?’ Bounded by a new bypass, with bus passengers queuing in front the of the now closed railway station, there is more traffic, and fewer animals forage in the streets where taller modern buildings replace those of earlier times. Gradually Spanish Town and Kingston spread out to meet each other.
‘Despite all the demolitions of old buildings and infilling of original lots, the older gridded ground plans of the sixteenth-century settlement and its 1740s expansion still organize the heart of the town”. Spanish Town has now gained conditional acceptance as a World Heritage site but lacks the resources to fulfill the conditions for full acceptance.
I have only been able to scratch the surface here. James Robertson’s book, covering many aspects of the history of Jamaica, not simply of Spanish Town, provides ample material to back up its claim to be viewed and preserved as part of our World Heritage. It is a fascinating read.
 Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 2005. ISBN 976-637-197-0