Georgian Jamaica: A new way of looking at a unique heritage, by Douglas Blain

For me, there are two quite distinct types of Georgian architecture to be found in Jamaica. The first, which one might call Colonial Classicism, imitates 18th-century prototypes as closely as possible. Familiar examples include the Rodney Memorial in Spanish Town and, on a more intimate scale, certain of the cut-stone ancillary buildings at Good Hope estate, Trelawny. The Good Hope buildings are pure Palladian in character, meaning that their design has been carefully worked out according to the classical principles laid down in the 16th century by Palladio, the great Italian architect. They are fine examples of mason’s work, to be sure, but they make no concession to their environment, so far in distance and in spirit from temperate England. Yet these buildings, and dozens like them, are important for two reasons quite apart from their value as treasured monuments of the distant past. The first reason is because they illustrate the strength of contemporary European architectural fashion in a remote colony like Jamaica at the height of the sugar boom. And, secondly, because they are a tribute to the craftsmanship of the black tradesmen.

Almost more interesting for me, however, is the other type of Jamaica Georgian – the ‘tropical classical’ vernacular which, whilst showing much evidence of the European tradition and adhering to its rules, is in fact more original, more imaginative, more characterful, strongly influenced by the local lifestyle, materials and, in particular, climate. This tradition is to be found in many of the early churches, slave hospitals, boiler houses and sugar factories, in the town mansions of the rich, in the great-houses of the (often absentee) 18th- and early 19th-century planters, in the smaller dwellings of their resident overseers and the humble cottages of their slaves. It can be seen echoed, often unconsciously, in the late 19th-century gingerbread houses, in the better beach bungalows of relatively recent times and even in some of the ritzy shingle-roofed villas which are beginning to dot the hills around Kingston and along the North Coast. But where did this local classical tradition begin? Was it borrowed from colonial North America, or imported, as some have suggested, from British India? My research over the past six or seven years, during which I have studied the correspondence and other writings of early visitors to the island, pored over the business accounts, wills and inventories of the pioneer settlers, studied estate maps, contemporary sketches and drawings, visited countless early buildings throughout Jamaica and made detailed surveys of dozens of them – all this suggests to me that the classical vernacular of the British Caribbean not only forms part of a worldwide Colonial Georgian style but is actually the root and fountainhead of it. In other words, it is my considered view that the plantation houses of Georgia and Alabama, the ‘raised cottages’ of Carolina and Louisiana, the shady homesteads of outback Australia and the early bungalows of British India, all owe their origin to the earlier and much more prosperous colonists of Jamaica, and, to a lesser extent, Barbados and Antigua. It is these pioneers who, in the second half of the 17th century, first began to adapt the classical renaissance idiom of their native country to an alien environment. Why did they do it? In my view, it was out of necessity; in the hurricane-prone, earthquake-ridden West Indian climate, they found they had to adapt or perish.

Later on I hope to show that it was by drawing on the experience of their Spanish predecessors that our forebears, whether as financiers or as artisans, created a unique language – a dialect, if you like, of Palladianism, but so soundly based that is still endures.

(This article was first published in Georgian Jamaica, the FGSJ’s newsletter, in September 1995)

(Part II: The Frantic Search for Shade will be available on the website at a later date)