The rich history of Old King’s House
Old King’s House in Spanish Town, Jamaica, has had a very long and complex history spanning colonial and post-colonial eras. The house has had the distinction of being one of the few residential sites of the post-Columbian world, with more than 450 years of continuous occupation.
According to ethnographic researcher and writer Olive Senior, the original building was the Spanish Hall of Audience to which successive British governors made changes and additions. In 1761, that building was demolished, and the following year, construction of a residence for the governor began though the entire complex was not completed until 1802. This residence remained the governor’s residence until 1827 when the capital was transferred to Kingston.
The majestic building and property as it was known met its demise in 1925 due to a fire. All that remained was the Stable which now house the People’s Museum of Craft and Technology and the eastern façade of the building, which now stands in ruins. The destruction of the building by fire resulted in plans to rebuild the building, and in 1971, the Institute of Jamaica and the Jamaica National Trust Commission (what we know today has the Jamaica National Heritage Trust) sponsored an archaeological programme in which the grounds of the Old King’s House would be excavated. The Old King’s House site was excavated between June 1971 and June 1973 by a team led by R. Duncan Mathewson and R.C. Ebanks.
According to Mathewson, the primary aim of the dig was to first systematically examine the stratigraphic deposits on the site prior to any reconstruction of the building. The other five objectives included an examination of the evidence of the Spanish occupation of the site, with particular emphasis on recovering information on the early settlement of Spanish Town and aspects of cultural contact between the Spaniards and pre-existing indigenous communities of the Southern St Catherine Plain.
Other objectives include the evaluation of the English occupation of the site, and the collection of information on the main structural features and building phases of the main period of English occupation, with emphasis on the recovery and close dating of many everyday household items from the 18th century. The final objective was the preparation of excavated finds for permanent display.
The pottery and other artefacts found at the Old King’s House when discovered were undisturbed, and most were found in the manner in which they had been deposited. They provided valuable information about the material culture of the plantocracy and of the African population during the colonial era. The excavations have turned up large quantities of the most popular European ceramics, Chinese blue and white porcelain and Wedgewood, and equally large quantities of Jamaican-made earthenware vessels, or Yabbas, made by, and for the use of, the African population. Also excavated have been interesting slipware, delphware, renish stoneware, salt glaze, brown and grey stoneware, wine glasses, and white tobacco pipes.
One very interesting artefact found at the space is a Yabba storage vessel dated 1800. ‘Yabba’ is an Akan (Ashante) term that describes earthenware pots and bowls. However, the type of Yabbas found in Spanish Town were made from local clays by enslaved Africans who used traditional African methods of pot making. At the same time, in order to satisfy the tastes of the plantocracy, they modified the shapes to a more European style. African clay pots are usually round and without handles, but many of the Yabbas in this collection are flat-bottomed and handled.
Another interesting find is a Chinese porcelain platter. Though broken, one can still see the delicate and very detailed hand-painted design on the outer edge of the platter as well as the very quaint garden scene with traditional Chinese buildings, which is the focal point of the image. It is very interesting to note that Chinese dishes found their way to Jamaica in the 18th century. Historical records have shown that during the 17th century, numerous blue and white pieces were made as Chinese export porcelain for the European markets. European symbols and scenes coexisted with Chinese scenes for these objects, and soon, owning Chinese porcelain in Europe became a symbol of wealth and status. Therefore, it is very possible that the many governors that lived at King’s House may have imported a large number of these dishes for their own personal use.
The archaeological excavation at Old King’s House is very important because not only does it enhance the historical interest and value of the site, it also provided an opportunity for the rediscovery of objects that would otherwise not have been obtained elsewhere.
Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica.