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Gone is the Ancient Glory

FULL TITLE: Gone is the Ancient Glory
Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1534-2000

PRICE: Paperback US$30.00; Hardback US$49.95


Spanish Town is an old town. As Jamaica’s capital for nearly 350 years and subsequently as a major urban centre, its streets and squares witnessed key political and social transitions. But although the once proud city has lost all its ancient glory, Spanish Town has a rich and textured legacy.

James Robertson guides the reader through the landmarks, identifying sites and scenes long lost and showing what is still there to be appreciated. His account of Spanish Town’s long history is firmly rooted in the streets and lances of the town, its nooks and niches, sounds and smells. The urban landscape he presents is a peopled landscape, inhabited by rich and poor, enslaved and free, notables and eccentrics, Africans and Europeans. He shows convincingly that the colonial capital provided both a cultural and political counterpoise to the colony’s merchants and plantations and that its diverse in habitants had created a ‘creole town’ as early as 1750 when they were still preparing to build Spanish Town’s splendid Georgian square in the midst of its multiplying yards.

The work is based on extensive research in scattered archives and is illustrated by a variety of rare and wonderful images.


James Robertson is a lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

Excerpt from Gone is the Ancient Glory

Heritage zones and heritage policies – Recognizing a distinct urban past in Spanish Town

Uncertainty about what to make of Spanish Town’s inherited buildings has helped define the town’s identity. How this uncertainty manifested itself varied. Shortly after the Second World War, a visiting author characterized Spanish Town’s empty streets as ‘full of sunlight and heavy with that late afternoon atmosphere which is peculiar to towns that have lost their importance.’ Winds of change were gusting through Europe’s imperial possessions and a description of Spanish Town’s dusty eighteenth-century splendour provided a suitably elegiac finale for a tour of the Caribbean.73 After another half century Spanish Town still retains the stamp of its ‘Ancient Glory’. The most elaborate buildings that shape the town were commissioned when it was the Seat of Government and it was at this juncture, too, that a local building tradition developed. Then alongside, and indeed interwoven with, the town’s distinctive built legacy is the affection that townspeople hold for the place.
Buildings in Spanish Town have lain near the centre of the continuing debates on the evaluation of Jamaica’s material heritage since the 1920s, when Lady Mary Swettenham and her committee tried to make a case for the old King’s House’s significance and why it should be restored. Not all of the arguments they presented then would appear persuasive today, but they were asking interesting questions. In the 1950s too, the ambitious proposals for Spanish Town to emulate Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, did not get particularly far, but these planners still engaged with the contribution that inherited buildings and monuments could offer to tourism in Jamaica. The People’s Museum remains a valuable legacy from this period. After independence, Governors retreated from these efforts and the Jamaica National Trust Commission now the Jamaica National Heritage Trust received the responsibility for setting general policies. With hindsight we will regret buildings lost, but the Trust’s 1964 Heritage Zone policy helped preserve many more. Furthermore, the Trust remains respected. A very rough poll undertaken in 1994 suggested that local residents might be sympathetic to a proposal floated in the Daily Gleaner to declare central Spanish Town a National Monument, even if this would constrain householders’ and businesses’ alterations and rebuildings. 74
The remarkable potential for urban conservation and heritage tourism projects in the town’s old centre is clear.75 Wider questions will continue to play out on these streets relating to the development of heritage policies in Jamaica and what criteria should shape official priorities. All attempts to explain why the town’s material heritage is so impressive still have had to work against the tide of neatly packaged descriptions told and re-told in shelves of guide books. Would-be preservationists must first deal with the long-standing fallacy that if something is not included in the guide book it cannot matter. Next comes the up-hill push to present alternative arguments demonstrating why a place or a building should repay consideration. It is not that the justifications proposed by long-dead tour guides are necessarily ‘wrong’, but the basic scripts these books repeat were composed in a very different era. They were not written to dictate cultural policies for modern Jamaica. An earlier generation of visitors may well have been cheered to be told that some buildings appeared ‘English’, but in making sense of the distinct creole architecture developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jamaica, invoking the relative ‘English-ness’ of a structure is not particularly helpful. Instead when appraising the old buildings that still line Spanish Town’s streets the issues to consider include the buildings’ construction, perhaps any borrowings from the African techniques that fellow artisans used, or the local materials employed, or else engaging with the expectations about forms and functions that builders and buyers brought to them. Turning away from our guide books to look up and down these ancient streets may mean foregoing easy answers – but there will be far more to see.76
Recognizing the distinctive architectural syntheses developed by artisans working in Jamaica can replace the earlier dismissals of so many buildings in Spanish Town as either ‘un-English’ or mere ‘shacks’. The wider significance of this architectural legacy was acknowledged in 1987 when Jamaica made a submission to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for the inclusion of three sites on the new World Heritage List: Port Royal, the seaport mostly submerged in the 1692 earthquake; New Seville, the island’s first Spanish capital; and Spanish Town.77 Only the proposal for Spanish Town won conditional acceptance. Before UNESCO could grant full approval, it required the local government to fill potholes, lay sidewalks and make infrastructure improvements. Funding these projects has remained beyond the reach of the parish’s over-stretched budget. However, the prospect of achieving full acceptance as a World Heritage Site does encourage local efforts at preservation. International grants have paid for a recent stabilization of the Iron Bridge, and a project funded by a European Community grant successfully refurbished the complex of late eighteenth-century administrative buildings on the north side of the main square. Further plans include continuing the archeological excavations on the site of the former Novéh
Shalom synagogue and refurbishing the shell of the late eighteenth-century barracks as storage and conservation facilities for the Jamaica National Heritage Trust’s Archaeology Division. The brick shells facing onto Spanish Town’s Square offer a challenge for imaginative re-use.78
New political initiatives may yet signal new opportunities. The Government of Jamaica recently decided to rename Spanish Town’s main square ‘Emancipation Square’ because the royal proclamation ending slavery in Jamaica was read from the steps of the old King’s House on 1 August 1834. Across the Caribbean monuments are proving catalysts for debates over the meaning of Emancipation and the place of slavery in nations’ pasts.79 These discussions may yet transform popular views of Spanish Town and its Emancipation Square. When it comes to declaring national monuments, understandings of what the ‘heritage’ of a nation consists of continue to adapt and are likely to keep adapting.80 The commemorative plaque could simply stay on the King’s House wall, but the decision to erect it and, indeed, the public subscription that paid for it, do suggest that another generation of Jamaicans will re-examine their island’s former capital. Here continuing research by historians and archaeologists should help to re-grind and polish the lenses in the spectacles through which the nation’s past is viewed.
Rather than Spanish Town remaining a dusty focus for long-departed colonial splendours, the town centre can be re-appraised in its own right as a remarkable architectural legacy. The town fully deserves its candidate status as a World Heritage site. Its Historic Area retains one of the most extensive surviving collections of Jamaican building craftsmen’s work from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Spanish Town also houses an impressive corpus of the work of local masons and carpenters during the town’s 35 years as the capital for a post-emancipation Jamaica and then from the development-driven economy of the Crown Colony generations. There is room enough for further research on both the ‘who’ of the people who built these shops, houses and public buildings and on the ‘what’ of understanding how the people who inhabited these buildings knew and used them. The former capital’s ‘Ancient glory’ may well have departed, as glories have so often departed in Spanish Town’s long past, but an impressive inheritance survives today. The town retains the potential to figure in modern Jamaicans’ comprehension of their nation’s development and their heritage, where its streets and squares can offer standpoints for examining the island’s past and a destination for Jamaican visitors. Preserving Spanish Town – St Jago de la Vega will maintain a legacy for future Jamaicans.