Tag Archives: Darien Disaster

Scots in Jamaica

Robert Burns, the most famous Scot who never went to Jamaica!


Family commitments over Easter mean this week’s piece will be a short one, but as I am half Scots I have a particular interest in the role of Scots in eighteenth century Jamaica.

It is sometimes said that most of the planters in Jamaica were English in origin whereas the Scots supplied the bookkeepers and overseers on the estates.  Like all generalisations this is only partly true.  There were Scots such as Hercules Ross, James Wedderburn, Colin McKenzie and others who were highly successful planters and merchants, just as there were English bookkeepers and overseers.  There were also many Scots doctors in Jamaica some of whom, in addition to providing medical services, were also planters.

The events that drove Scots to seek a future in Jamaica were however rather different from those motivating the English.  Deportations of Scots to Jamaica by Cromwell, and following the failed Monmouth rebellion in the 17th century, were augmented by three huge historical events that resulted in the young Scots arriving in Jamaica.

The first of these was the Darien disaster, a “noble undertaking” of Scots empire building that envisaged a New Caledonia linking the Pacific and the Atlantic in Central America.  Vast sums of money were raised in Scotland, and a large fleet fitted out.  When the whole affair ended in disaster and enormous financial losses to the backers in Scotland a handful of survivors ended up in Jamaica.  If you are interested in reading more, The Darien Disaster by John Prebble[1] provides an excellent account.

Scots also suffered from the failure of two Jacobite rebellions, in 1715 and 1745, both of which resulted in migrations to Jamaica.  James Wedderburn, already mentioned, left for Jamaica after watching his father hanged, drawn and quartered in 1746 following the defeat at Culloden Moor. The family estates were confiscated and sixteen year old Wedderburn was left to make his own way, something he did with conspicuous success, returning to Scotland a very wealthy man.

In this he was far from alone.  Edward Long in his “History of Jamaica” in 1774 wrote that:

Jamaica, indeed, is greatly indebted to North Britain, as very nearly one third of the inhabitants are either natives of that country, or descendants from those who were….. To say the truth, they are so clever and prudent in general, as, by an obliging behaviour, good sense, and zealous services to gain esteem, and make their way through every obstacle.

According to T.M.  Devine, in his book Scotland’s Empire 1600 to 1815[2], in the period 1771-1775 Scots accounted for nearly 45% of all probate inventories valued above £1000, and about 40% of personal property inventories were those of Scots.

Another book that tells the story of Scots in the Caribbean in the latter part of the 18th-century is Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1752-1820[3] by Douglas J Hamilton.

If you are searching for Scottish ancestors who may have been in Jamaica, you will find David Dobson’s book Scots in Jamaica 1655-1855[4] a very useful reference work.  It is an alphabetical listing with brief references to the sources of information on each individual, together with two pages of details of some of the ships that sailed between Scotland and Jamaica.

Oh, and in case you did not already know, Robert Burns was nearly lost to Scotland and poetry when he planned to migrate to work as a bookkeeper for Dr Patrick Douglas. Fate intervened, delaying the ship he should have sailed on in August 1786, until after the birth of his twin children and the sudden success of the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ of his poems.

[1] The Darien Disaster, John Prebble, Pimlico, New edition,2002. ISBN-10: 0712668535, ISBN-13: 978-0712668538

[2] Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815, T.M.Devine, Penguin, 2004. ISBN-10: 0140296875, ISBN-13: 978-0140296877

[3] Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1752-1820, Douglas J.Hamilton,Manchester University Press, 2010. ISBN-10: 0719071836, ISBN-13: 978-0719071836

[4] Scots in Jamaica 1655-1855, David Dobson, Clearfield, Baltimore, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8063-5540-5