The history of Spanish Town dates back to 1534 when it was settled by the Spanish and established as the nation’s capital city. The original name was Villa de la Vega (city on the plains). Captured by the British in 1655, it was renamed St Jago de La Vega and continued to serve as Jamaica’s capital for another 217 years. Today, the town remains one of the oldest continuously occupied places in the Western hemisphere.
The Spanish Town of today is but a shadow of its former splendour, but there are still several places of interest for those of us who love a bit of history. Let’s explore some of Spanish Town’s historical treasures!
The former town centre, now known as Emancipation Square, consisted of four important buildings. The square was severely damaged by fire as well as the 1692 earthquake, but parts of the buildings have since been restored and put to use.
- Old Kings House was constructed in 1762 as the new official residence for the Governor, on the site of the Old Spanish Hall of Audience. The mansion was designed in the popular Georgian style of the day. In 1838, the Emancipation Declaration was read from its steps. The structure was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1925, leaving only the main eastern façade and the stables. The façade has been renovated and the stables now house the People’s Museum of Craft and Technology.
- The Old House of Assembly was also constructed in 1762. After Kingston became the island’s capital in 1872, the Old House o f Assembly was used for miscellaneous purposes. The structure now houses the St Catherine Parish Council.
- Rodney’s Memorial was created to honour celebrated Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney, who led the British to victory over a French fleet that had attempted to invade Jamaica in 1782. The memorial is said to have cost £31,000. Today, the Jamaica Archives – the greatest repository of the island’s written history, is housed in the building behind the statue.
- The Old Courthouse was built in 1819. The site was originally a cemetery and later a Chapel. It was then made into an arsenal and later a courthouse. The upper level of the building was used as a Town Hall. A point of interest is that all the buildings constructed on the the site have been destroyed in one way or another – rumour has it that the cemetery was built with a warning: “ill to anyone who uses this site for any other than its originally intended purpose.”
The Spanish Town Cathedral also known as St Catherine Parish Church or the Cathedral Church of St James, was built on the site of the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Red Cross, which was destroyed when the British seized Jamaica in 1655. The church became the first Anglican cathedral outside of England in 1843 and is the oldest one in the English-speaking Caribbean. Today, the Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Jamaica.
The white Cenotaph that stands directly opposite the Cathedral was erected in honour of the Jamaican soldiers who fought in World Wars I and II.
The historic cast iron bridge spans the Rio Cobre river at the eastern end of Spanish Town. The bridge, which is the oldest of its kind in the western hemisphere, was designed by British engineer Thomas Wilson, cast in 1801 and shipped to Jamaica in prefabricated parts which were assembled and mounted on stone abutments. At one point, it was placed on the UNESCO list of endangered world sites, but it is currently being restored. The bridge has been declared a National Monument by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.