Expanding the Frontiers of Western Jamaica through Minor Atlantic Ports in the Eighteenth Century

By Hunt, Nadine | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Expanding the Frontiers of Western Jamaica through Minor Atlantic Ports in the Eighteenth Century


Hunt, Nadine, Canadian Journal of History


I. Introduction

After the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655 by English forces, the development of ports on the island was centred near St. Jago de la Vega or Spanish Town, the former Spanish capital of the island. (1) However, Spanish Town was located inland and did not have direct access to the Caribbean Sea. (2) While English colonists adopted and maintained Spanish Town as Jamaica's capital, they sought to use the enclosed harbour at Port Royal, which had a steep drop off, and allowed ships to anchor alongside the quay. (3) Franklin Knight and Peggy Liss note that "port towns and cities were the most important nodes of the European expansion into the Americas after 1492. This should hardly be surprising since the western Europeans were a maritime people and the expansion was largely achieved with the aid of small sailing ships." (4) The historiography of port activity in Jamaica is centred primarily on studies investigating Kingston. (5) By mid-eighteenth century, Kingston was Jamaica's major port, while Port Royal increasingly faded away as a commercial port, but took on a military role to protect the island's most prized harbour. (6) This article examines three minor ports located in western Jamaica. Map 1 illustrates that two of the ports are located on Jamaica's north coast, specifically Lucca in Hanover parish and Montego Bay in St James parish. Savanna-la-Mar is located on the southwest coast of Jamaica in Westmoreland parish. The three ports under investigation did not achieve the same level of commercial activity as Kingston, and thus qualify as minor ports in the Atlantic world. While some research has been carried out by historians and local residents to assess the scale of port activity of Montego Bay and Savannala-Mar, the eighteenth-century planter-historians Edward Long and Bryan Edwards continue to be a main source about historical ports in Jamaica. (7)

This article sheds light on several aspects of how daily life in Jamaica was affected by three minor ports. It argues that the minor ports, as represented by Lucca, Montego Bay, and Savanna-la-Mar, became important places to trade after the passing of the Free Port Act of 1766. (8) The status of "free port" allowed for the further development of three minor Atlantic ports by increasing the level of trade, communication, and migration to western Jamaica. This article highlights observations made by visitors to and inhabitants of Jamaica in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It addresses the transformation of these ports into "slave ports." Finally, the article argues that the three ports were utilized to increase first, both British and West African migration to the island and second, the commercial interactions of western Jamaica with the Caribbean and Atlantic worlds in the eighteenth century.

II. Historical Origins of Lucea, Montego Bay, and Savanna-la-Mar

In 1766, Britain's Parliament passed the Free Port Act of Jamaica, which declared four ports--Kingston, Lucea, Montego Bay, and Savanna-la-Mar--as "free trade" ports, whereby merchants in Jamaica were legislated to interact without penalty with neighbouring Caribbean and American colonies. In addition, foreign merchants could also bring commodities and produce to sell to Jamaican merchants without penalty, provided that certain items such as sugar and coffee did not compete with Jamaican produce. (9) Jamaica's trade with non-British colonies was deemed as contraband before the passing of the Act. (10) After 1766, legitimate ports in western Jamaica were established with a custom house, naval officers, and increased fortifications. Consequently, the local vestries and British parliament invested funds to maintain forts, because ports had to be protected from foreign invasion. The capturing of Caribbean ports was a concern, for example, in 1762 British forces seized the port of Havana via Jamaica. (11)

Administratively, Jamaica was divided into three counties: Cornwall, Surrey, and Middlesex. …

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