Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Where the Country Meets the Town: Spanish Town, Jamaica, and the Urban Roles of an Inland West Indian Town

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Where the Country Meets the Town: Spanish Town, Jamaica, and the Urban Roles of an Inland West Indian Town

Article excerpt

Introduction

When it comes to assessing the economic and social functions of Caribbean towns, academic appraisals remain skewed towards port cities, trans-shipment points where the tropical products of plantation economics could be shipped out to metropolitan markets and metropolitan goods unloaded for local sale.1 These entrepôts were the hubs for English, French, Dutch and Danish imperial rule, while the great ports of Spain's Caribbean empire - Havana, Santo Domingo, and San Juan, along with Vera Cruz, Portobello and Cartagena - provided Spain's many rivals with targets for numerous invasion attempts, military, missionary and mercantile. In founding such towns royal councillors and would-be colonial investors hoped to strike the jackpot and establish new ports de grand commerce.2

Subsequent administrators and merchants, along with ships' captains and tourists, all continued to harmonize on the same tune: ports appeared the best locations for ambitious colonial centres. In 1683 Port Royal's partisans argued confidently that "because the trade of the Country consisteth wholly of Planters and Merchandizing, the one sort whereof living scattered about the Country as Farmers do in England, and the other dwelling in the Seaport Towns there is no occasion in the Inland parts for such a Community of Men to dwell together". However, their campaign to transfer the seat of government to Jamaica's principal port failed. Seventy years later, in 1755, these mercantile criteria were revived when supporters of the then governor's decision to relocate the island's capital argued that "it is so natural a thing for the seat of Government to be the Chief place of trade", while Kingston, Port Royal's successor as the island's major port, was "certainly the properest place in respect to its situation".3 Successive generations continued to characterize the island's principal trading port as "the chief seat of trade, and consequently the general mart or warehouse of all commodities necessary for the support of the island". There was plenty to praise in a settlement "which, for conveniency, regularity, and situation, surpasses most towns in that part of the world; and whose spacious and commodious harbor can be hardly excelled in any country". As Kingston has thrived, despite a succession of major fires and a devastating earthquake and fire in 1907, its utility has appeared self-evident.4

With the terms of the debate appearing so clear-cut, other types of settlement have remained outside the ambit of Caribbean urban studies.5 Jamaica's Spanish Town, for instance, was an urban community founded in 1535. It became the administrative hub for what was by then an agrarian colony, fitting the criteria later formalized in Spain's Royal Laws of the Indies that such settlements should be located well away from the sea. Despite such precautions, the English seized it during their conquest of the island in 1655 and then retained it as the seat of government for another two hundred years.6 It was hardly surprising that visitors from England had difficulty recognizing it as an urban centre, primarily because it remained an unfortified market venue. Back in England they had similar problems acknowledging some unwalled centres of this sort as towns.7 Spanish Town never fitted into familiar criteria. Modern academics may employ a more arid technical jargon, but their analyses remain shaped by the comments of successive colonial administrators, merchants and tourists, who all noted the long drive from Kingston and then grumbled at the place they found once they arrived. For such transient but vocal critics the town they visited was simply a centre for the island's government - and, as far as they were concerned, one sited in the wrong place. Successive would-be reforming governors of Jamaica wrote back to London promising lower overheads and greater efficiency if the island's seat of government was transferred to Kingston. In 1872, Crown Colony rule allowed Governor Sir John Peter Grant, who, unlike his predecessors, was not obliged to take local opinion into account, to push through this long-deferred "reform". …

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