Tag Archives: British Newspaper Archive

Jamaica in the 18th century British Press

I was searching the British Newspaper Archive last week and in an idle moment wondered just how much coverage there was of Jamaica. A search for the single word ‘Jamaica’ was revealing. Even bearing in mind the rapid increase in the number and size of newspapers, particularly during the 18th century, the increase in references to Jamaica is an indicator of its rising importance to the British economy, and sadly during the 20th century also its decline.

  • 1710-1749      5,703
  • 1750-1799    28,818
  • 1800-1849  169,096
  • 1850-1899  390,761
  • 1900-1949     74,838
  • 1950-1999          648

A further breakdown in the first half of the 18th century is also revealing (again bearing in mind that the number of papers was also increasing).

  • 1710-19        96
  • 1720-29      996
  • 1730-39    1,147
  • 1740-49    3,464

Incidentally re-running the search a day later produced a few more references, either due to minor vagaries of the indexing system, or to the addition of new newspaper scans. The ten year project to digitise the newspaper collections of the British Library is on-going, so as with many on-line sources it’s worth popping back from time to time to see if an item of interest is now available.

And like maps, I find old newspapers endlessly fascinating. Where else could you learn that in 1742 a clerk to a vinegar merchant in Hoglane, reputed to be worth £2000, a widower for thirty years and who had pass’d his Grand Climackterick five years had married a lass of nineteen!

More particularly for the family or other historian you may find mention of someone in an unexpected context – perhaps a house sale, or as victim (or perpetrator) of a crime.

For example I wrote a while back about the scandal involving Joseph Biscoe and his wife and found that not long after the court case Biscoe sold all the contents of the house he had owned in Derbyshire, from which it sounds as if he was getting rid of everything that might be connected with her.

Biscoe sale

But to return to Jamaica. Many of the early references are records of which ship has arrived and what the cargo was. On the 2nd of September1712 the Newcastle Courant announced that a galley called the Rapier had arrived from Jamaica carrying a cargo of ‘sugar, cocoa, indigo etc.’ Many announcements during periods of war related to British ships being captured, or enemy ships that had been captured and their cargo taken. For people anxiously awaiting news of the arrival of friends or family, or whose fortune was tied up in a particular cargo, the shipping news in the papers was a vital source of information, especially for those who did not live in one of the major ports.

It was through the British Newspaper Archive that I discovered a reference in 1768 to a box addressed to Joseph Lee being washed up on the shore near Penzance with a large quantity of mahogany presumed to be from a shipwreck. As I knew that Joseph Lee was visiting London at the time and the box was addressed care of Messers Thomas and Stephen Fuller, Merchants in London, I knew for certain this must relate to the Joseph Lee whose letters feature in A Parcel of Ribbons.

Sadly also there are sometimes adverts relating to runaways.

Missing black boy 1807

This one appears to be a boy who was free rather than a slave, but one wonders what it was that made John Thomas run away from his apprenticeship and offer himself to someone else. The age given is young for an apprentice, so was he in fact a slave whose master wished to disguise the fact at a time when emancipation and an end to the slave trade was very much under discussion?


Newspapers are an invaluable source of information I’ve only touched on the British ones here, but of course there were newspapers published in Jamaica, and you will also find many references in American newspapers.

Newspaper Libraries on-line

This is just a brief posting to alert those who have not yet discovered them to two on-line sources for old newspapers.

You can find the Jamaica Gleaner archives dating back to 1843 here.

The latest addition to the world of digital newspapers is the British Newspaper Archive which came on-line this week.

Both are subscription services – the Jamaica Gleaner offers a one day pass for $7.95 with reductions on quarterly and annual membership. Searching without having taken out a subscription displays the number of potential hits for your target but no detail.

The British Newspaper Archive operates a points system, searching is free and displays a brief few lines of context (often with optical character recognition problems which don’t affect the article when displayed). The charge to access the articles is points based, a two day 500 credits account costs £6.95 with subsequent reductions for a thirty day or annual subscription.

Unless you are going to need regular access, I’d suggest dipping your toe in with a basic package. I was amazed at how much I found out in a couple of days, including extra information about the Landovery that I included in the article about Stephen Blankett, and the bankruptcy of an ancestor that I’d had no idea had happened.

The earliest British newspapers date from 1700 and there are mentions of Jamaica from very early on. The organisation of early papers is very different from now and you will find brief news items of all kinds mixed in with advertisements for patent medicines, war reports and local news. If you are searching for Jamaican shipping news you will find details of the departures and arrivals and of ships that have been lost or captured by an enemy or by privateers.

Both sites offer the option of obtaining print-outs. The Jamaica Gleaner offers a full-sized reproduction of any newspaper page in the archive, and the British Newspaper Archive offers A1 sized prints of scans of any page printed on quality paper.