There are of course no photographs from eighteenth century Jamaica, and while there are portraits of members of the Plantocracy and some lovely early nineteenth century watercolours of Jamaican landscapes, such as those by Hakewill, it is hard to get close to the lives of enslaved and free mixed race Jamaicans in the early part of the island’s history. By the mid-nineteenth century the advent of photography and the arrival of tourism means there is a legacy of wonderful images such as those in the Jamaica Nostalgia galleries.
At the turn of the twentieth century many photographs were being taken for the booming postcard industry. While often they were of the hotels a tourist might stay in, or the landscape they saw, there are quite a number showing the lives of ordinary Jamaicans.
This picture in a banana plantation was clearly posed. In one version a small boy peers out from the leaves at the top of the tree. The white man in the distance appears to be wearing a dog collar and is perhaps the local vicar.
This hand coloured image of ropes of tobacco at a local market has a more natural feel about it.
Captions often reflected the attitudes of the time, referring to ‘native’ people, but in spite of the sometime patronising tone the images do provide glimpses of the lives of the majority of Jamaicans.
Street scenes like this one were probably photographed before the earthquake of 1907. You have only to imagine removing the telegraph poles and wires to have a scene largely unchanged for a hundred and fifty years.
It is frequently difficult to imagine the sights and sounds of the world of our grandparents let alone that of three hundred years ago. In the lifetime of my grandmother, born in 1883, she saw the development of the pneumatic bicycle tyre, the motor car and aeroplane, modern telecommunications, the launching of satellites and men on the moon. In the lifetime of her grandparents the developments of the industrial revolution had changed the world. But in the early twentieth century there were still many corners of the world in which ways of life persisted as they had done for centuries before. Subsistence agriculture powered by horses, mules and oxen, harvesting by hand, processing food and clothing by traditional techniques all continued.
These postcards of life in Jamaica at the turn of the twentieth century sometimes allow us to glimpse the island’s earlier past.