Sat | Mar 23, 2019

Jamaica's Spanish connection

Published:Saturday | July 14, 2018 | 11:10 PM
Albarello vase
Olive Jar

The history of Jamaica has been described as a rich and vibrant one, which speaks to experiences of hardships and prosperity; and the growth and determination of a people. Jamaica has seen many chapters in her history, one of the shortest but no less interesting, being the story of the Spanish in Jamaica. On the evening of May 5, 1494 Christopher Columbus, the European explorer, and his crew spotted the island of Jamaica. Columbus and his men described the island as 'a pure dark green' against the evening sun. Happy with their discovery Columbus baptised the harbour 'Santa Gloria', later Santa Ana (St Ann), because of the 'extraordinary beauty of its glorious landscape' (Padron 2003).

Shortly after Columbus cast anchor, the indigenous inhabitants of the island, who according to Padron were naked and seemed to be dyed in thousand colours. Set off from the shore with seventy canoes full of armed men who hurled their spears which fell short of the ships. Eventually the natives had no choice but to retreat from their attack.

The Spaniards, who eventually claimed the island for the King and Queen of Spain, enslaved the indigenous population, over worked, ill-treated them and introduced illnesses that the indigenous population had little to no resistance to. These factors led to the rapid decline of the indigenous population of Jamaica.

Fifteen years after their discovery of the island, the first Spanish colonists came to Jamaica under the Spanish governor Juan de Esquivel in 1509 and first settled in the St. Ann's Bay area. The first town was called New Seville or Sevilla la Nueva. The towns that were established by the Spaniards developed into little more than settlements. The only town that was truly developed was Spanish Town, which was the old capital of Jamaica, then called St. Jago de la Vega. It was the centre of government and trade and had many churches and convents.

The island remained poor under Spanish rule as few Spaniards settled on the island. Bryan (1992) states that the Spanish Monarchs were strongly opposed to the creation of a strong powerful nobility in the New World, and that every effort was made to curb their powers within Spain as well. This was done presumably by the Monarchs to ensure that no rival power developed.

The little attention the colony received from Spain soon led to a major reason for internal strife. The governors were not getting adequate support from home and quarrels with church authorities undermined their control. Frequent attacks by pirates also contributed to the weakening of the colony. Jamaica served mainly as a supply base: food, men, arms and horse were shipped here to help in conquering the American mainland.

By the time the British Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables led a successful attack on Jamaica on May 10, 1655, the Spaniards surrendered to the English after 161 years of occupying Jamaica. The Spaniards freed their slaves and then fled to Cuba, leaving behind whatever of the little belongings that they had. Two of these objects will be discussed today, these being the Alabra Vase and the Olive Jar.

The 'Alabra' or 'Albarello' vase, was a tin-glazed earthenware jar made to store Spanish apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs. According to the Science Museum, "this shape was developed so that many jars could be put on one shelf, to save on space, but the jars could still be safely removed by grasping them around the middle".

Parchment or paper was tied around the rim and served as a cover for the jar. Albarello Jars came from the Near East and were made in Spain after the 8th century Almoravid conquest. It was produced in Italy after the 15th century. This type of decorated pottery is known as maiolica (or majolica) and is believed to be named after the island of Majorca, where the finest pots of this type were said to be made.

According to the Wilson (2016), "Miolica is an Italian invention which expressed many of the key values of the Renaissance period, particularly its emulation of antiquity. Images were taken from Greek and Roman History and mythology, as well as from ancient coins and mural decoration, but miolica designs were rendered in brighter colours than those used in ancient pottery and augmented with decorative motifs born in the stylistic melting pot of the medieval Mediterranean."

This decorative feature was done on plates, bowls, jars, jugs and sculptures. The Spanish and Islamic influence is apparent in the decoration of early 15th-century Italian albarellos (as the one pictured), that are often blue on white, combining heraldic symbols and scrollwork and inscribed with the name of its content. It is unclear where this particular specimen was found in Jamaica as "Spanish Majolica-ware has been recovered not only from the King's House site at Spanish Town, but also from the archives site there, as well as from White Marl and Winsdor Hole," (Buisseret 1983).

According to Goggin (1960), "from the earliest days of the Colonial period until Republican times the Spanish New World was supplied with much of its necessities by the mother country." Spain had many ways of transporting liquids to her colonies these included wooden casks, leather bags and botijuelas (earthenware jars) which are commonly referred to as Olive Jars. Olive jars came in many different sizes and shapes. They range from small eggs shapes with small mouths to jars that also had a small mouth, larger rounded bodies with conical bottoms.

While the exact place of manufacture of these jars are unknown, Marti (1933) states that the shape of the vessels clearly indicate that they are the descendants of a tradition of pottery making which had their beginnings in the Eastern Mediterranean. Goggin points out that remains of Olive jars and their whole companions have been found where ever the Spanish were present. Locations that jars have been found include various Caribbean islands, along the seacoasts of the mainland, from Florida to Venezuela, in land in Mexico, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

The main liquids that were transported include olive oil, olives in brine and wine. It must be noted however that both glazed and unglazed olive jars have been found. Scholars have speculated that the glazed and unglazed jars were used depending on the liquid that they were transporting. Records show that peas, beans, lard and honey were also transported in these vessels. Sources have also indicated that these jars had a secondary use a water jar.

Goggin also highlights the fact that many of these jars because of their "globular form and well fired body" were used in the construction of roof vaults in many Caribbean Churches and other buildings there were used as a light substitute for heavier stone and brick.

The olive jar has been identified as belonging to the 'late style of Olive Jars'. The late style of olive jars are said to be the most difficult to identify because of the major variations in shape and surface treatments. This particular jar (pictured) is described as having an attenuated egg-shape with a small flat bottom. Jars with this form were said to be made on a potter's wheel in two pieces and joined together This Olive jar (pictured) is one of the many important artefacts that was excavated from the underwater city of Port Royal, during the 1967 excavations led by Robert Marx.


Albarello vase, Italy, 1520-1580. Science Museum Brought to life, Exploring the History of Medicine.

Bryan, P. (1992). Spanish Jamaica. Caribbean Quarterly (June-Sep). Vol (38). Nos. 2/3.

Buisseret, D. Fresh light on Spanish Jamaica. Jamaica Journal 1983, Vol (16) No 1. Institute of Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica.

Goggin, J.M. (1960). The Spanish Olive Jar. Mintz, S. W.& Rouse, I. (Eds), Papers in Caribbean Anthropology. New Haven, Yale University, Dept of Anthropology.

Jamaican History. Jamaica Information Service (JIS)

Marti. G.M. (1933). Ceramica Espanola. (Barcelona)

Olive Jar. (1983). Jamaica Journal Aug-Oct 1985 Vol (18), No 3. Institute of Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica.

Padron, F.M. (2003). Spanish Jamaica. Ian Randle Publishers. Kingston, Jamaica.

Wilson, T. (2016). Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yale University Press.

Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica