Spanish Town – an 18th century History worth saving

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[1] 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.

[1] Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 2005. ISBN 976-637-197-0





2 thoughts on “Spanish Town – an 18th century History worth saving”

  1. Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins

    Dear Anne,
    I am very glad that you posted this short History of Spanish Town on your Blog, since this historic town and its Georgian architecture have been shamefully neglected by the Jamaican Government in recent years. This despite the fact that in the 1960s the Rockefeller Foundation strongly recommended that Spanish Town should be preserved and restored and could become another Colonial Williamsburg. Now this once elegant 18th Century Colonial Town, which many Architectural Historians compare to Bath, Charleston or Savannah, is surrounded by crime-ridden slums and considered to be one of the most dangerous places in Jamaica,

    Founded by Spanish Conquistadors in 1534 during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Santiago de la Vega was named after St. James, the Roman Catholic Patron Saint of Jamaica. It was the Capital of Jamaica under the Spanish Crown from 1534 to 1655, and following the English Conquest of Jamaica in 1655 by Cromwell’s Army under Admiral Penn and General Venables, it remained the Capital of British Colonial Jamaica from 1655 to 1872. In fact it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in Jamaica.

    St. Jago de la Vega, or Spanish Town as it eventually came to be known, reached the peak of its wealth and importance during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries. As the Seat of Government it was site of King’s House, the official residence of the British Governors, of the Privy and Legislative Councils and the House of Assembly, of the Supreme Court and the Courts of Chancery, Equity and Vice-Admiralty, the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Jamaica, Chief Justice, Attorney-General, Island Secretary, Provost-Marshal-General and all the other important Officials of the British Crown, as well as Members of the Privy and Legislative Councils and House of Assembly, and also a great many wealthy Merchants, Planters, Barristers, Solicitors, Physicians, Surgeons and their families.

    The grand and imposing Public Buildings in the Georgian style were erected in the 18th and Early 19th Century to reflect this wealth and importance: King’s House, the House of Assembly, the Supreme Court, Admiral Lord Rodney’s Memorial, the St. James Anglican Cathedral, the Barracks, the Assembly Rooms, the Theatre, the Dragoon’s Riding School and so on, as do the many fashionable 18th Century Georgian Shops,Town Houses and Villas and the scores of elegant 18th Century Neoclassical Great Houses on the Country Estates which one surrounded the town.

    Following the removal of the Capital of Jamaica to Kingston in 1872, Spanish Town fell into a decline. However the inhabitants of Spanish Town continued to preserve their 18th Century Georgian buildings, proud of their heritage and nostalgic about the faded glory of their past. The old aristocratic families of Spanish Town maintained a shabby gentility in their decaying Town and Country Houses, recalling the many Official Receptions, Grand Balls and Dinner Parties of former days. They spoke of the incredible Social Life that Spanish Town had once enjoyed, when Royal Princes were entertained at King’s House and St. Jago Park, of Costume Balls held in the moonlight amidst the fireflies, of lavish Banquets where Sangaree, Turtle Soup and Mountain Mullet, were followed by Black Crab Pepperpot, imported Quail, whole Roast Suckling Pigs and even stuffed Peacocks, and where as many as sixty people sat down to Dinner with a Slave Footman in Livery behind each chair.

    Something of the romance and gaiety of Social Life in Spanish Town in those old days lingers in the many stories that were passed down and still survive. Stories of rendezvous in secret walled gardens and scandalous midnight elopements, of handsome young British ADCs from King’s House riding Crocodiles in the streets and of Regency dandies fighting Duels at the first blush of Dawn. Tales of the Planter who filled his garden fountain with Rum Punch and of another Planter, FitzHerbert Batty, who watered his garden with Champagne. Not to mention the many ghost stories for which Spanish Town is famous.

    My Mother grew up in a stately 18th Century Georgian Town House in Spanish Town during the 1940s and 1950s, listening to these fascinating stories of old St. Jago. One indication of the nostalgia for those grander days was a saying handed down by my maternal Great-Great-Grandmother, Mrs. Robert Booth Ashmeade, who lived in Spanish Town during the 1850s and 1860s during the last days when it was the Capital of British Capital Jamaica. “You can always tell a Lady from Spanish Town, because she always knows how to Curtsey properly and the correct way to hold her Fan, having of course been presented to the Governor at King’s House”. Such is the stuff of memories and of a more gracious era long since past.

    Yours sincerely,
    Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins

  2. Anne Powers Post Author

    Dear Brett,
    Thank you so much for such a wonderful evocation of Spanish Town. Let’s hope that all is not lost and that Jamaica’s sporting achievements at the Olympics will help to produce a self-confidence in her past and enable the preservation of the best of what remains of her history.
    kind regards

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