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

12 thoughts on “Scots in Jamaica”

  1. Carol Hamilton

    I am interested in researching my great grandfathers who were both from scotland. Their names were Robert Joseph Hamilton and James Agustas Mitchell.

  2. Anne Powers Post Author

    Hi Carol, You don’t say whether you want to research them when they were in Scotland or when they arrived in Jamaica. For the Scottish end you can try the Scotlands People website (tho’ you have to pay) or Ancestry (also subscription). For free searches mainly on baptisms and marriages try which now has a lot of Jamaican data and the actual images of many of the early parish registers.
    There is some more help on the Links page of this website, and for the Jamaican research try the links on Madeleine Mitchell’s web page

    Hope this helps.

  3. KJ Bracey

    Looking for great great grandfather who traveled to Jamaica from Scotland with his 3 brothers. Last name Forrester. That’s all I know.

  4. Anne M Powers Post Author

    Hi there, as you don’t give any first names or dates it’s difficult to help. However you might like to start with where there are many Forresters born in Jamaica. And of course if you have first names and an idea of dates you could also look for the brothers’ baptisms in Scotland on the same website, which is free to search. You can find Scottish records on the ScotlandsPeople website, but to access them to print out copies you would have to buy credits.
    Good hunting!

  5. John Wilson

    Interesting and informative site!

    My reason for thinking why Robert Burns decided to got to Jamaica was his pregnant future wife (Jean Armour) being in contact with her old childhood sweetheart, Robert Wilson. Both were living in Paisley and Jean’s parents had wanted her to marry Wilson, a well-to-do weaver. Word reached Burns about this Paisley situation and he thought he was going to loose his “Bonnie Jean” to Wilson. That is my theory as to why he looked at emigration to Jamaica!


  6. robet N

    I am a descendant of the Forresters in Saint Mary, Come see. One of my branches was William Forrester born in Scotland and married a Mulatto woman and had Sarah, William, William Scotland, Joseph, etc. If it rings a bell contact me on Username is Robet N

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