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Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica’s botanic garden beginnings

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Hope Botanical Gardens

While today, we consider Hope Gardens to be Jamaica’s best-known botanic garden, it probably owes its beginning to a remarkable past reaching back into the late 18th century when a former British naval officer lived at Cold Spring above New Castle in what was considered the highest mansion in the island.

Mansions? Yes, Mathew Wallen’s home consisted of 15 spacious rooms “every one of which the magnificent city of Kingston, with its slopping, Port Royal and intervening rich and fertile country met the eye; a spectacle so sublime and magnificent I certainly never did see …” so said William Hickey, a popular memoirist of the era.

He added that his bedroom had “a fine cheerful coal fire” and his bed two thick blankets. Not unusual, as the temperature at 4,200 feet was recorded as 55-65 degrees and had been known to fall as low as 44 degrees.

Mathew Wallen arrived in Jamaica in 1747, became a member of the Assembly for Port Royal, and between 1779 and 1787, pursued his enthusiasm for botany at Cold Spring. The Royal Society of London carried an account in its 1780 journal describing in some detail Wallen’s achievements. He was to grow a wide variety of botanic species of largely temperate climate origin, including fruits like apples, peaches, strawberries; and blackberries; flowers such as primrose, pansies, nasturtiums, honeysuckle and violets; and English oak trees.

Wallen’s botanic garden attracted the attention of eminent travellers and visiting botanists. Swede Olaf Swartz was one who, incidentally, noted Wallen writing to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, imploring him to get the government to bring breadfruit to the island, which Captain Bligh did shortly after. Bligh was awarded five hundred guineas for his contribution to the national diet, but Mathew Wallen’s role went unacknowledged.


Wallen died in 1797, but by then, hurricane had destroyed his estate. Swartz reported to Banks that the botanist had lost fifty thousand pounds. Hurricanes destroyed his mansion and only its foundations remained.

Many of the plants he introduced are common to the island today. Cold Spring is, significantly, the source of the Hope River and supplies the water that has been bottled and sold to thirsty Jamaicans in recent years.

Bryan Edward’s History of the West Indies, published in 1774, carried an appendix entitled ‘Hortus Eastensis’, listing 401 species growing on Hinton East’s property in Gordon Town. Of those, Mathew Wallen had contributed over 100 from Cold Spring, Jamaica’s first botanic garden.

In his day, Hinton East was known as “a creole gentleman”, born in Jamaica, as he was a relation of Captain John East who had received a grant of land in the Port Royal Mountains from Charles II in 1663. Educated at Oxford, East returned to the island and enjoyed a distinguished career ranging from deputy registrar of the Court of the Vice Admiralty, receiver general for all cargo entering the island; a member of the house of assembly and later in 1787 he was appointed judge advocate geared of the militia.

The 18th century was the beginning of the botanic garden in Jamaica as a utilitarian institution in Jamaica. Thanks to such gardens, a wide variety of plants were brought to countries far from their original habitats and naturalised.

Hinton East’s property in Gordon Town, nine miles from Kingston, comprised 193 acres to be known as Spring Garden. Of this, just four acres was a garden and another acre an orchard.


In his slim volume on Jamaica’s botanic gardens, Alan Eyre remarks on the demanding task of bringing plants by sea to the island: “Each plant had to be cared for in special cabins heated by stoves. Each plant had to be taken out for sun and air, then sponged carefully in precious fresh water to remove traces of salt spray, and then returned to the cabins.”

Eyre writes that East established 600 species. The previously mentioned Hortus Eastensis (published after East’s death) lists more than 400 of these originating from as far off as Japan, Tahiti, China, Egypt, Africa, New Zealand, Europe, Ceylon, and New Guinea and nearer, from Florida, the Carolinas, Honduras, and Chile.

His plants, shrubs, and trees included such surprises as asparagus and leeks, eggplant and watercress, jasmine and gardenia. Chocho was amongst his friend Mathew Wallen’s 108 contributions, while the ackee arrived on a slave ship. A Monsieur Nectoux presented plants from the King of Haiti in Port-au-Prince! Cinnamon and mango were among the potentially valuable additions off the French ships captured by Admiral George Rodney in 1782.

East’s enthusiasm seemed to have infected the island’s governor, Sir Basil Keith, who persuaded the Assembly to purchase Enfield in 1775, a substantial property next to Spring Garden. In time, Enfield proved to be too steep. However, a Thomas Clarke was employed as island botanist and was given the responsibility by 1779 to also begin a botanic garden in Bath in St Thomas.

Following on Hinton East’s death in 1792, his nephew, Sir Edward Hyde East, offered the estate to the government as a public garden. In due course, a botanist by the name of James Wiles, who had sailed with Captain Bligh on a number of scientific expeditions, was named superintendent of Enfield and Spring Garden Although it was open to the public, Jamaica’s first botanic garden, Spring Garden, was deemed a failure as Wiles let it run down and it returned to private ownership in 1810.

The garden once described as “perhaps the most magnificent establishment of its kind in the world” was devastated by an earthquake in 1907 and the house destroyed by fire after World War II.


- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to