Great Exhibition of 1891
Jamaica on Show
...IN THIS 1890 letter to the people of Jamaica, Governor Henry Blake attempted to rally support of Jamaicans to the cause of the
Great Exhibition of 1891. The Exhibition itself was the dream of native Jamaican A. C. Sinclair. One of the compilers of the annual Handbooks of Jamaica, Sinclair was inspired by the 1851 Great Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace. He tried in vain for many years to drum up support for his ambitious project. When Sir Henry Blake arrived as Jamaica's new Governor in March 1889 Sinclair managed to persuade William Fawcett, director of gardens and plantations and chairman of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) to help him present his cause to Governor Blake.
Governor Blake was so enthusiastic that at a public meeting on the 19th September he put three resolutions before the leading gentlemen of Kingston, one of which requested Jamaican gentlemen to act as guarantors to the extent of £10 or more. The response was so overwhelming that over £800 was collected at that same meeting. Soon after a special committee received over £10,000 in guarantees in Kingston alone; the country parishes raised nearly £17,000 additional by the end of June 1890.
The public treasury matched that £15,000 so that the £30,000 total estimated cost of the exhibition was secured within Jamaica itself.
The plan for the Exhibition site was fairly simple in design but grand in scope. Turrets would adorn the angles of the building and the grounds would be laid out with trees, fountains, ornamental walks, a bandstand, concert hall and a Jamaica village and pavilions. By August 1890 it became obvious that more space was required as Canada alone requested 50,000 sq. ft. for what would become 247 exhibits detailing everything produced by Canada that could have a market in the West Indies. An annex, exhibition hall and art gallery were added.
Five hotels were built including the Queen's and Myrtle Bank in Kingston and the Constant Spring Hotel in St. Andrew. Roads, bridges and railways were improved and constructed to secure transport from the countryside.
Throughout the Great Exhibitions over four-month run, there were flower shows, a fine arts gallery (including famous Winterhalter portraits of the Queen the Prince Consort on loan from the Queen), plays put on by a London troupe and music by the resplendent West India Regiment and the Kingston Volunteers. For the kids there was a merry-go-round, a toboggan slide, a mystic vanishing lady, a ventriloquist, acrobats, a nine-winged Leviathan, and a giant maze.
Foreign Exhibitions included lectures on Canada illustrated by Canadian scenery, a Canadian caribou head, American machinery and furniture, English dog biscuits and billiard tables, a Scottish piper and whisky, aqua vitae from Sweden, railway timetables and guidebooks from Switzerland, wire nails from Greece, champagne from France, Norwegian and German beer, Belgian lace, Russian liquors, and Dutch tulip bulbs. Most of the West Indian islands sent exhibits based on sugar and rum but St. Vincent's six basket-weaving Carib Indians were very popular.
After receiving 302, 831 visitors the Great Exhibition closed on May 2, 1891. Its attendance was estimated to be larger than that of any previous exhibition in Europe or America in pro-portion with the island's population. Between 13-14,000 people were said to have witnessed the brilliant closing fireworks display. Yet, despite its popularity, the Exhibition failed to pay its way, managing to lose over £4,500. It is said, however, that many who lent their money expected to lose it, neither regretting having lent a hand nor doubting the ultimate benefit Jamaica would receive.
Whatever its failures,
the Great Exhibition of 1891, the realisation of Sinclair's dream and
Governor Blake's persistence, did much for promoting Jamaica and awakening
the world to the creative talent and industry of its people as well
as the beauty and possibility of the land itself.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted January 14, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com