Guest Post: Research in Jamaica

Rounding off this week’s roundtable on travel to the archives, we are pleased to present a guest post by Dr. Aaron Graham, a Stipendiary Lecturer in History at New College, Oxford, and author of Corruption, Party, and Government in Great Britain, 1702-1713 (Oxford University Press, 2015). Aaron is currently working on corruption, finance and empire in North America and the West Indies during the long eighteenth century.

Archives in Jamaica and the West Indies tend to be overlooked. “There are duplicates of the whole lot in the [Public] Record Office in London,” one colonial official noted in 1928, “[and] researchers will work in London rather than here.”[1] My recent visit to the Jamaica Archives and National Library of Jamaica suggests this is not entirely true. The papers that were sent back to Britain tended only to be those of interest to the imperial government, and although large amounts of material have been lost or destroyed by the climate, what remains in Jamaica can shed important light on society in the West Indies from the colonial, rather than imperial perspective. Although there are frustrating gaps in all of these series, by the standards of other archives in the West Indies they are uniquely rich, and the surface has still only been scratched.

King's Square, St. Jago de la Vega.

Preparation

Preparation is particularly important, given the sheer amount of material and the fact that so little has been calendared. The main repository for government records is the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town, and there are large print and manuscript holdings in the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston.

There are surveys of Jamaican central and local government records in Bell and Parker, Guide to West Indian Archive Materials, in London and the islands, for the History of the United States (1926) and Frank Cundall, Bibliographia Jamaiciensis (1902), both of which have been updated more recently in James Robertson, “Jamaican Archival Resources” [see note 1]. Detailed surveys of manuscript sources (overlapping with the others but offering less detail on government records) are in Kenneth Ingram, Sources of Jamaican History, 1655-1838 (1976) and Manuscript Sources for the History of the West Indies (2000).

None of these resources provide much detail though, so a useful exercise is to “mine” other secondary work for references, which makes the process of ordering documents much easier and faster. Asking advice from other researchers who have been there and worked on similar topics is always useful.

Finally, make sure to make contact with the archives well ahead of time. Not only are they sometimes closed for public holidays, but the reading rooms are small (both only have spaces for around ten people) and although they were virtually empty when I was there they could become very crowded at certain times. Booking ahead avoids the worry of turning up to find that the archive is closed and the trip wasted!

Travel and Accommodation

Travel websites (including the FCO travel advice https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice) can provide advice about visas, safety and security. Travel insurance is a must.Most researchers chose to stay in the hotels in New Kingston, which is a 10 to 15 minute drive from the NLJ in downtown Kingston and 45 to 60 minute drive (depending on traffic) from the JA. Spanish Town itself is not really set up for tourists in the same way, with very few places to stay, and although the process of commuting can be frustrating—Kingston has bad rush-hour traffic!—Spanish Town is not a place to stay at night. Hotels are available in Kingston from the mid-range upwards, through travel websites, and booking was no more complex than anywhere else.

Transport is a bit more complex. Driving in Jamaica is not for the faint-hearted, and most researchers use taxis to get around, booking a driver who can pick them up at the beginning and end of the day, which costs about $30 or $40 per day. The hotels often have drivers they can suggest, or someone who has been before might be able to recommend someone they have used.

Using the Archives

Like any archives, the JA and NLJ have their own culture and idiosyncrasies, but there is a lot of common ground. They allow laptops or tablets, which are really the only way to get through a large amount of material at once, but also request an electricity charge of about $3 a day to plug in the laptop. The NLJ has wireless internet, the JA does not, and although the JA does allow photography there is a standing charge of about $3 per image which makes it rather expensive simply to rely on photographing documents, so it will be necessary to rely on notes and transcriptions. Plan accordingly!

Be prepared as well to work with documents that are fragile and, in some cases, quite literally falling apart. The condition of many records has been stabilised to prevent further deterioration, but some are nevertheless in fairly bad shape and may either be elsewhere for conservation or essentially unreadable. The Jamaica Archives have detailed paper catalogues, and a computer database available for on-site use, which can help to narrow down general references and also throw up related topics. The catalogue for the National Library of Jamaica is available online (http://198.170.76.2/natcat/) but does not give much detail, and the Jamaica Archives have summaries of holdings on their website. However, even these catalogues are not always detailed enough for some purposes, and sometimes it will be necessary (especially for legal records) to call up the original calendars and indices in order to track down specific names or cases. The staff were also friendly and ready to help out with tracking down items.

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[1] James Robertson, “Jamaican Archival Resources for Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Atlantic History,” Slavery & Abolition 22, no. 3 (2001): 109-40.

2 comments on “Guest Post: Research in Jamaica

  1. Great points. For people looking for hotel accommodations, I would suggest either Knutford Court or the Indies Hotel in midtown Kingston. They’re moderately priced, and both have a couple of decent restaurants and a shopping center within close walking distance. (Note: some of these hotels prefer cash.) I recommend bringing your lunch if you go to the Jamaica Archives. Aside from a food truck on the Archives property, there really isn’t much in Spanish Town.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the note that driving in Jamaica is not for the faint of heart, and is even more inadvisable if you are not accustomed to driving on the left side of the road. If you use a taxi, just make sure that it is an official taxi (they have red license plates). Only use private drivers if they have been recommended by someone you know or a hotel.

    Also, the reading room in the Jamaica Archives was *freezing.* Bring a warm layer. Even if it’s 100 degrees outside.

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