Caribbean Port Towns

The islands of the British Caribbean were predominantly agricultural societies, filled with plantations and pens dedicated to the production of valuable crops by enslaved Africans. However, although Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada and the other British islands all depended on their port towns and cities, for these provided the vital link between the plantations and the outside world. British settlers and African slaves arrived via these ports, as did imported goods such as food, furniture, newspapers and everything else that could not be produced on the island, and all of the islands’ produce, from sugar and rum to tobacco, coffee and indigo was packed into large barrels called hogsheads which were then taken to the ports and loaded on to ships bound for Europe and North America. Virtually all towns and cities in the Caribbean were ports, because international trade in people and goods was their primary purpose.

In 1788 Jamaica had a total population of just over 250,000 people. Of these only just over 18,000 were white, and just over 9,000 were free people of colour. About 90% of the island’s population, more than 225,000 people, were slaves. Most lived and worked on plantations, and only just over 26,000 people (about 10% of the island’s population) lived in Kingston, Jamaica’s largest port town.

Kingston and other ports were busy places, with new ships, goods and people arriving and leaving every day.

Thomas Craskall and James Simpson, detail from ‘Map of the County of Surry in the Insland of Jamaica’ (1763). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Including in the new arrivals were slaves from Africa. Between 1600 and the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 over four million enslaved Africans were brought to the islands of the Caribbean, and more than 2.75 millions of these arrived in the British islands. Newspaper advertisements announced the arrival of new shiploads of Africans, and they were unloaded into the holding facilities of merchants, which were effectively prisons, and from there they were sold.

Antigua Journal (St. John’s), Tuesday 26 February 1799, pg.1. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

A British doctor described a ‘scramble’ in which white men scrambled in to choose the slaves they wanted to purchase. It was terrifying for the newly arrived Africans, who had no idea what was happening, or what fate awaited them.

As soon as the hour agreed on arrived, the doors of the yard were suddenly thrown open, and in rushed a considerable number of purchasers, with all the ferocity of brutes. Some instantly seized such of the negroes as they could conveniently lay hold of with their hands. Others, being prepared with several handkerchiefs or a rope tied together, encircled with these as many as they were able. It is scarcely possible to describe the confusion… The poor astonished negroes were so much terrified by these proceedings, that several of them, through fear, climbed over the walls… but were soon hunted down and retaken.

Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade… (London, 1788), pg. 34.

Once purchased by planters these slaves would be taken out of the port towns and on to the plantations where they would work for the rest of their lives.

Because of the constant influx of new people, these towns were remarkably diverse places: white people speaking English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish and Portuguese mixed with Africans from very different nations and places speaking an equally diverse number of languages. One new arrival from Britain wrote that ‘Instead of the Morning London Cries, of Old Clothes, Sweep, &c. my Ears were saluted with Maha-a, Maha-a, the Cries of Goats, kept in most Houses for their Milk. And presently I heard called the Names of Pompey, Scipio, Caesar &c. and again those of Yabba, Juba, Quasheba (Negro Boys and Girls, Slaves in the Family)… But how different did every thing appear to me… People of almost all colours! – White, black, yellow, in abundance. Many pale white, and great Variety in the Shades of Black and Yellow.’ (A letter from Curtiss Brett to his son, written in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1748).

The port towns were home to merchants, soldiers, sailors, shopkeepers and craftsmen, most of them white but some of them free people of colour. Working for them were urban slaves, whose lives and work was quite different from that of plantation slaves. On Port Royal Street in Kingston in the middle of the 1700s a visitor could see the full range of urban life and society. Newly arrived slaves from Africa were imprisoned in merchants’ yards by the docks, in preparation for their sale. Nearby were the homes of some of the wealthiest men on the island, such as the merchant Samuel Dicker or Robert Stirling who owned several sugar estates and some 750 slaves. Close by lived people such as the free black woman Phiba who owned one slave, the tavern keeper Philip Weston, the sailmaker John Kendrick, and the silversmith Daniel Silva. All together there were about fifty shops and businesses on Port Royal Street alone, and sailors, fishermen, joiners, coopers, wheelwrights, shipwrights, sail-makers, caulkers, block-makers, turners, cabinet-makers, tailors, cartmen, seamstresses, washerwomen and more filled this and neighboring streets.

James Hakewill, ‘Harbour Street, Kingston’ (1825).

While white people dominated the port towns, on Sundays, which was the one day off for slaves, many enslaved people flocked to urban markets. Once there they sold food they had grown on their small garden plots or goods like baskets that they had made, and they ate, drank, sang and danced. The former slave Olaudah Equiano remembered Jamaica’s largest such market:

When I came to Kingston, I was surprised to see the number of Africans who were assembled together on Sundays: particularly at a large commodious place, called the Spring Path. Here each different nation of Africa meet and dance after the manner of their own country… I saw all kinds of people, almost from the church door to the space of half a mile down to the waterside, buying and selling all kinds of commodities.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (London, 1789), pg. 101, 178.

Agostino Brunias, ‘A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies’ (1780). Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.


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