As Jamaica’s capital city from 1534 to 1872, Spanish Town was the focal point of the island’s social, economic and political life.
During this time, the town witnessed the evolution of modern Jamaica. It welcomed the Spanish when they fled Sevilla La Nueva and observed as they developed its land. It watched the English invasion and subsequent occupation of the island, and later, listened while the governor read the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves, in its “Plaza Mayora.” In its prime, Spanish Town was a magnificent and impressive metropolis with stately red brick homes and grand monuments. Today, it is Jamaica’s third largest urban center with a population of approximately 87,000 people and, sadly, much of its grandeur has been lost to the ravages of time. Some shining examples of Georgian architecture still exist, however, as reminders of the town’s golden era.
To ensure you don’t miss any of these important sights, it’s best to have a local guide help you find your way through the town’s maze of streets and lanes.
Start: Spanish Town Methodist Church, White Church Street
Finish: Emancipation Square, at Rodney’s Memorial
Distance: Approximately 0.75km (0.5 miles)
1. THE METHODIST CHURCH
Opened in 1953, this small but beautiful chapel serves as the head of the Spanish Town Methodist Circuit, which was created in 1816 and consists of five churches.
Directions: Immediately facing the Methodist church, you’ll notice the massive western wall of the St Catherine District Prison.
2. THE PRISON
Formerly called the Middlesex and Surrey County Gaol, the St Catherine District Prison is one of Jamaica’s largest maximum-security facilities and has existed since the early 1800s. It is the only place in Jamaica where capital punishment may be carried out.
Directions: From the Methodist Church, walk northwards along White Church Street for 100m [110yards], until you arrive at the Cenotaph and Cathedral.
3. THE CENOTAPH
This white monument stands in honor of the Jamaican soldiers who fought in World Wars I and II. There is one in each parish capital.
Directions: The Cenotaph stands directly opposite one of Spanish Town’s most famous landmarks, the Anglican Cathedral of St James.
4. THE CATHEDRAL
The oldest Anglican cathedral in the Commonwealth (outside the UK), the Cathedral of St James is a visual repository of the history of Spanish Town. Originally built by the Spanish in approximately 1520, it was one of the first ecclesiastical buildings established in the New World. During the English takeover of Jamaica and the early decades of their rule, the Spanish chapel was destroyed. In the early 18th century, the British constructed an Anglican church on the foundations of the old Spanish chapel. Over time they renovated and expanded the building and, in 1843, it became the first Anglican Cathedral built outside of Britain.
Today, the Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Jamaica. As the final resting place of many of Jamaica’s luminaries, including governors and other dignitaries, it is also a living museum of Jamaica’s Colonial past. The dead are commemorated by marble plaques and sculptures, which adorn the Cathedral’s walls and grounds. Of special note are the commemorative pieces, created by John Bacon, one of the most famous British sculptors of the 18th century. The Spanish Town Cathedral houses the largest collection of his work in Jamaica.
Beside the Church rests the Cathedral Hall and a small, scenic square.
Directions: After you exit the Cathedral, continue northwards for approximately 200m along White Church Street, passing a vacant lot to your right, on which once stood a synagogue. As you stroll along, look out for colorful, but dilapidated, cottages with charming fretwork designs, jalousie windows and cornice moldings, typical of the Jamaican-Vernacular style of architecture, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Eventually, the road will narrow and open onto the most stunning Georgian square in the Caribbean, recently renamed Emancipation Square (1997). Standing in the center of the square is a small park with a fountain and several beautiful palm trees. On the southern side of the park are the burnt remnants of the Courthouse.
5. THE COURTHOUSE
Standing on the aptly named Constitution Street, the Courthouse was constructed in 1819, on the former site of a Spanish chapel and cemetery, rumored to have been built with the caveat, “Ill to anyone who uses this site for any other than its originally intended purpose.” The chapel was destroyed and the British erected an armory in its stead. However, the armory proved ill-fated, some say there were many unfortunate accidents, and so was replaced by the courthouse in the mid-19th century. The Courthouse, in turn, was destroyed by fire in the 1980s, leaving many to wonder if the location is truly cursed.
Directions: The Parish Council Building stands to the eastern side of the square.
6. THE PARISH COUNCIL BUILDING
Officially called the House of Assembly, this red brick, two-story building was the official meeting place of the local legislature for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, until 1872, when Kingston took over as the capital of Jamaica. During its tenure as the House of Assembly, the building witnessed many heated debates and momentous occurrences. One such event happened in 1710 when, it is said, during an attempted mutiny in the legislature, a councilman attacked the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Peter Beckford Jr. Peter Beckford. Hearing of the debacle, Peter Beckford Sr rushed to save his son, but suffered a heart attack and died en route. One of the foremost statesmen in Jamaica’s history, Peter Beckford Sr served as the first Custos of Kingston, first Speaker of the House of Assembly, and first Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. He was also the sponsor of one of Jamaica’s first high schools, Beckford and Smith’s school (1744), which was at one time housed in the Assembly building. Today, the old House of Assembly is used as the offices of the St Catherine Parish Council.
Directions: To the west of the Square stands the facade of Old King’s House.
7. THE RODNEY MEMORIAL
During the Battle of the Saints in 1782, Admiral Lord Rodney defeated Admiral du Grasse of the French fleet in the waters between Martinique and Dominica, saving Jamaica from almost certain French invasion. In February 1783, the government of Jamaica commissioned John Bacon, a renowned British sculptor, to create a statue of Admiral Lord Rodney, as an expression of their appreciation. The Assembly spent £5,200 on the statue alone and a reputed £31,000 on the entire project. Bacon sourced the finest marble from Italy to create the sculpture of the Admiral, dressed in a Roman robe. On its completion, the statue was fronted with a cannon taken from the French flagship in the battle.
Behind the statue, you’ll find the Jamaica Archives, the greatest repository of the island’s written history. The Archives house many important documents, including a few signed by historical giants, such as King Louis XIV, George Washington and others. The collection is considered one of the finest in the Western Hemisphere.
Directions: To the west of the Square stands the facade of Old King’s House.
8. OLD KING’S HOUSE
Built in 1762 at a cost, it is said, of £30 000, this stately mansion was used as the official residence of the governor of Jamaica for almost a 100 years. Noted historian Edward Long described the building as “the noblest and best edifice of its kind.” Constructed from stones dug from the Hope River in St Andrew, this residence enjoyed a front-row seat for the unfolding history of Jamaica. Captain Bligh, Lord Horatio Nelson, Admiral Rodney and Simón Bolivar are but a few of the noted personalities received here. The declaration of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies was read from the steps of its portico. National hero, Paul Bogle, led a historic march from St Thomas to the house’s front door, only to have his petitions flatly rejected by Governor Eyre. When the nation’s capital was moved to Kingston in 1872, King’s House was temporarily abandoned, but later became the home of Jamaica’s first university, Queen’s College. In October of 1925, a massive fire ravaged the building, destroying it almost entirely. Today, the front facade has been renovated and the People’s Museum of Craft and Technology is located in its stables.