Whither historic Spanish Town?
Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
MANY PEOPLE are afraid to go to certain sections of St Catherine's Spanish Town and its environment, night or day. This is because these areas have developed a reputation for violence and criminal activities. This ill-repute has stymied the development of the town, a popular place during its heyday.
Yes, Spanish Town has had its glory days, when it was the seat of the colonial government in Jamaica. It became Jamaica's principal town in 1534, when the Spaniards moved the capital from Sevilla de Nueva in St Ann. They called it Villa de la Vega, which was laid out as a grid around two squares. The English tried to capture it a few times, but it was finally ceded to them after 1655 when Admiral Penn and General Venables invaded Jamaica.
In 1660, The Jamaica Assembly and court system was relocated to Port Royal, mainly because of its proximity to the sea. Access to Port Royal itself was problematic, and the administration was returned to Spanish Town or St Jago de la Vega as the English had renamed it.
Spanish Town thrived under the British, who had rebuilt many grand structures on the foundations of destroyed Spanish buildings. The main square was a place for pomp and pageantry. On the steps of the portico of the governor's mansion, Governor Sir Lionel Smith read The Emancipation Proclamation on August 1, 1838.
Over time, Kingston, located beside a natural harbour and not far from the seaside town of Port Royal, eclipsed Spanish Town in terms of popularity, and in 1871, it permanently became Jamaica's administrative capital. This move led to the decline of Spanish Town in many ways. Successive governments have failed to rekindle interest in this historic town and many of its historic edifices have fallen into ruin.
Red brick buildings
Today, Spanish Town has scores of red brick buildings, some of which are still functional. Many are abandoned and still crumbling. Among them are buildings that are much newer by decades, but they, too, have fallen into advanced stages of dereliction. The grid on which the town was originally laid out has morphed into winding lanes and streets. Old Spanish Town is truly a hodgepodge of historic buildings and unflattering 'modern' structures.
The best preserved part of the town is the administrative square at the centre of which is a well-kept park. The façade of the old King's House, built in 1755, and which was once governor's mansion is to the west. On the compound, there is a museum of craft and technology. The old House of Assembly, built around 1762, now houses the St Catherine Parish Council local government offices. The shell of the old courthouse is supported by wooden braces. The monument in honour of Baron Georg Brydg Rodney is to the north. The National Archives are right behind it.
Old Spanish Town represents a significant part of the evolution of Jamaica's politics and heritage. Swathed in antiquity, it is waiting for some attention. This it might get soon as there are plans to turn old Spanish Town Square into a heritage tourism showpiece.