The Scottish West Indies

February 16, 2007

It has been claimed that the Scots created modern civilisation as we know it (see Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World). Certainly, Scots played a disproportionately large and influential role in the British Empire, making their mark across the globe as British army officers, administrators of colonies, plantation owners, missionaries, doctors and traders.

Jamaica is a case in point. The island had been a British colony since 1655, a fact witnessed, for instance, by the naming of its three counties as Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey. By 1817, an estimated 23.5% of the white population were Scots. Once slavery was finally abolished in Jamaica in 1834, the colony underwent an economic slump for several decades, during which the fortunes of the Scotch and other British planters suffered a severe decline. Investment from UK and America picked up from the 1860s, sugar was progressively replaced by bananas as the principal cash crop, and the country began to rally by the 1880s. By the time of the 1891 census, the year after the BT27 passenger list series begins, the population was 639,491, of whom only 14,432 (2%) were enumerated as being white.

The two main ports in Jamaica were Kingston (the port there was actually called Port Royal, but this name does not seem to appear on passenger lists) and Montego Bay. However, many passenger lists refer simply to “Jamaica” as the destination, the inference being that the ship would be calling at the capital Kingston. Most passenger lists of the 1890s and 1900s for Jamaica contain many Scottish names.

The first image attached is a page from a 1904 passenger list for a voyage of the Port Kingston. In common with many lists of the date, it seems that the ship’s purser paid little heed to the Board of Trade’s request to divide British passengers into English, Scotch and Irish: all on this page (and elsewhere within the passenger list) are counted in the English column and yet it is difficult to believe that at least some of the passengers named Mackenzie, Mackay, Meldrum, Mitchell, Tod and MacTavish were not native Scots.

The second image shows a solitary passenger, Donal Morrison, aged 23, single and a musician, sailing from Glasgow to Kingston in 1891 and bringing the very best of Scottish music to the Caribbean.