Infant and child mortality in Jamaica

Mourning scene

A late 18th Century embroidered mourning scene for a young child worked on an ivory silk ground. The stylized scene includes a central tombstone with the inscription written in ink on silk: ‘In memory of Mifs Betsey Thomson who died Jun 29 1794 aged 4 years’*

I recently took some time off to look after a grandchild with chickenpox, and it was borne in on me how much things have changed even during my lifetime. A mere half century or so ago all children in the UK could expect to catch measles, mumps, whooping cough, German measles, chickenpox, and possibly scarlet fever or rheumatic fever, and to be vaccinated only against smallpox and diptheria. Many would die from polio and meningitis. Only when I was almost out of primary school did the Salk vaccine arrive from America to immunise against polio, which my sister had caught as a baby and I too had probably suffered from. In secondary school I was vaccinated against TB and tetanus, and already antibiotics were available to fight bacterial infections and pneumonia, saving many lives. My Scottish great grandmother lost only one of her twelve children – little Catherine died at eleven months of Cellulitis, Septicaemia of the arm an infection probably resulting from a small scratch or insect bite, which now would be easily treatable.

Now every child in the West, and many in the developing world, can expect to be vaccinated against virtually all of these childhood diseases and new vaccines are coming on stream all the time. However we should beware of becoming complacent since antibiotic resistance is becoming more and more common, and if it becomes entrenched we may find ourselves in a similar position to the parents of small children in 18th-century Jamaica.

There was for a time a strand of academic thought that claimed that because infant mortality in the past was so high, and so many pregnancies and infants were lost, that parents were inured to it and did not care for their small children unprepared to make any ‘investment’ in them until they grew up and were likely to reach adulthood.

I really do not believe this. Take for example the death of little Charles MacKay, which was mentioned recently on the Facebook group of the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society, following the discovery of some marble tomb fragments from a site that had been bulldozed. The gravestone had sadly been lost but it had previously been recorded and so we know that so precious was little Charles Mackay that he was not recorded as being simply two years old at his death but precisely two years five months and twenty-seven days.

Here lies Interred

The Body of Charles MacKay

The Son of

Hugh MacKay by his Wife Frances

Born on the 14th of November, 1751, Dyed on the 21st of May, 1754

Aged 2 Years, 5 Months and 27 Days

Oh! Early loss. Like some fair Flower, the pleasant Spring supplies, That gayly Blooms, but even in blooming dies. Memento Mori. O Death, all Eloquent you only prove, What Dust wee doat on when tis man wee love

Browsing through Philip Wright’s Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica (Society of Genealogists 1966) shows that many children were commemorated with their ages given to the day in this way.

It is hardly surprising that parents, faced with the repeated loss of children born in the British colonies, sent them back to Britain in the hope that their chances of survival would be greater. This was a practice not only among 18th-century Jamaican parents, but one which continued throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. My own grandfather and his siblings were sent back from India to school in England, not because the schools were so much better but because their health was likely to be improved.

More heartbreaking was the position of Lady Nugent, whose diary of her Jamaican experiences is well known[1]. Having apparently lost several pregnancies she had two children born in Jamaica with whom she returned to England. When they arrived her health had been so debilitated that she weighed a mere six stone, and when subsequently her husband was posted to India she left her four surviving children including a five week old baby behind in England for the sake of their health.

She wrote of her pleasure at her husband’s new appointment, But alas! I cannot help thinking of my children; and, while I am going through all the bustle of dinners, to meet East Indians, etc and while I am fatigued in both body and mind, with writing and various preparations, my whole heart is at Iver and at Westhorpe; for ten days ago, my dear little girls returned there, under the care of dear good Miss Dewey. I am impatient to get out of town to them…

And later she wrote, This book I shall seal up, and send to Westhorpe to be put into the desk, that is in the little breakfast room, where my dear children may find it, one of these days, should I not return; and along with it various little articles, as keepsakes, which they will value, I am sure, as relics of the father and mother, devoted to their interest and welfare.

The Nugents did return safely to England  and spent the rest of their lives with the four of their children who survived to grow up. Because of their social position and Lady Nugent’s Journal we know more about them than about many of Jamaica’s colonists and their children.

Often we can only deduce the deaths of children when we read a Jamaican Will that leaves an estate to nieces and nephews, distant cousins or friends, from which it can be assumed that no immediate heirs had survived. Such children were often buried on the planter’s estate in a family plot and it was not uncommon for the grave to be unmarked, the grave marker lost or the death and burial to have gone unrecorded in the parish register. This makes it difficult to estimate levels of child mortality. How much more difficult is it to estimate mortality among Jamaica’s slaves and their children, particularly in the earlier part of the 18th-century for which fewer plantation records survive.

What can be said with certainty is that malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, measles and other infections killed adults and children alike. Poor hygiene and a lack of knowledge of how infection was spread, or understanding of the role of mosquitoes in transmitting malaria and yellow fever, meant people were unable to take preventive measures and survival was often due to luck rather than a strong constitution.



[1] Lady Nugent’s Journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805. New and revised edition edited by Philip Wright, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston, 1966.

* from

5 thoughts on “Infant and child mortality in Jamaica”

  1. Frances from A Rebel Hand

    I hope grandchild is now well and no longer itchy. Oh, the calamine lotion…

    It seems so odd these days to learn that people thought that (for instance) the plague could be avoided by breathing in fumes and smelling herbs and flowers because it was carried in the ‘miasma’. But how could they know?

    And I agree, there is a great deal of evidence to show that (many? most?) parents loved their children, and mourned their deaths. I think that ‘investment’ theory is now pretty much out of favour – though maybe it was true of some.

  2. Anne M Powers Post Author

    Frances, I have often thought the ‘miasma’ theory was not so very far from the truth, after all miasma from raw sewage would have been associated with typhoid and cholera, while miasma in marshy areas would be associated with malarial mosquitoes. So in one sense there was an understanding of what constituted an unhealthy environment, but there was not the theoretical framework to create a proper understanding of the mechanisms of disease.

    Oh, and the grandchild is now fine, thanks, and apparently these days calamine comes as ointment rather than lotion and so does not leave you looking blotchy all over!

  3. Karst

    It seems that it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century to leave the children back in Europe, mostly with relatives. R. R. Madden and his wife Harriet did the same when Madden was sent out to the island as a Special Magistrate in 1830s.

  4. CeeJay Britain

    It was actually very common, in America at least, for ages to be recorded to the day, whether the deceased was an adult or a child. I have a ‘cabinet card’ memorializing the death of my great-great-grandmother, which includes her name, her date of death (September 24, 1898) and gives her age as “79 years 4 mon 24 days.” I have also seen many grave markers that record ages that way. I’ve always been curious about why they were so exact.

    I do agree, however, that parents in those times–and all times–grieve as we do now at the loss of their children. I don’t always add every sibling I find when doing my family history–it is work enough to keep track of the direct lines–but I usually add these lost little ones when I find them. I know their mothers would not want them forgotten, even though they were on earth for such a short time and left no trace, genealogically speaking.

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