Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Jamaican legislature in the British Atlantic world, 1660 to 1840

Ahead of tonight’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, we hear from Dr Aaron Graham, a Research Associate on the ERC Horizon Project ‘The European Fiscal-Military System, 1530-1870’ at the University of Oxford. He spoke at our previous session on 11 February about his study of the Jamaican legislature between 1660 to 1840…

‘Any person that shall inspect the minutes of our assembly and peruse only the titles of those acts which they annually frame, alter or amend’, wrote the planter and Jamaican historian Edward Long in 1774, in his History of Jamaica, ‘will be convinced that our claim of legislation … is grounded in reason, just policy and the necessity of the case’.

In doing so Long praised the extensive legislative output of the Jamaican colonial legislature, the house of assembly, which was based in the King’s Square in the island’s capital of Spanish Town. He also identified the mundane yet necessary and useful quality of this output of acts:

[as] the greater part of them are merely local or provincial, some calculated for only temporary ends, others to take effect as probationary, and to be rescinded again or gradually enlarged and amended, according as experience may determine their good or evil  operation.’

King’s Square, Spanish Town, 1820-21 from James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825)

Long was celebrating a phenomenon that would have been familiar to his counterparts in Britain in the eighteenth century, the upsurge in acts produced by the Parliament at Westminster and the growing importance of legislation in the management of the British economy and wider society.  My research argues that both were indicative and representative of a wider movement within the British Atlantic, as territories on both sides of the ocean employed their respective legislatures to reshape their local conditions.

The initial studies of British legislative output, which were undertaken by Julian Hoppit and Joanna Innes, catalogued and quantified the 20,000 or so bills introduced into Parliament between 1660 and 1800. They employed statistical techniques to demonstrate the rising amount of legislation, the growing levels of success rates, and the growing efficiency of the legislature, measured as the number of bills produced or acts passed per day of sessions.  The Irish Legislation Database at QUB has employed a similar methodology and found similar results, with a major rise after 1782 and the removal of British checks on Irish legislation. 

Entering the 6,000 or so bills in the Jamaican house of assembly between 1664 and 1840 shows the same trajectory, with a rise in legislative output and efficiency that remained below the levels of success or efficiency found in Britain, but not considerably so.  Jamaica was therefore part of a wider legislative revolution which was mirrored in the remainder of the British Atlantic.  Counting acts passed by all colonies in British Caribbean and the British North America between 1692 and 1800 with the help of published collections and the British North American Legislative Database, 1758-1867 shows a general rise in legislation across the board, especially after 1740 and 1755. 

On the eve of the American Revolution, colonies were therefore producing more legislation than they had ever done.  However, there was no clear connection between legislation and rebellion.  Viewed in terms of population per acts, most colonies in the British Atlantic were converging towards an average of 6,000 people per act, suggesting that there were very few long-term political or legislative causes of the revolution, and that its origins lay elsewhere.

Legislative output, and the impact of legislation on Jamaican society and economy, therefore increased across this period, pointing to an increased willingness among interest groups in the island to make use of this powerful tool to advance their own aims. 

In Britain, bills related to ‘public’ business such as taxation, warfare, law and order accounted for 25 per cent of legislative initiatives, with ‘private’ or personal business relating to another 25 per cent, and the remainder economic and social legislation, including enclosure, canal and turnpike acts.  In Jamaica over 50 per cent of bills related to public business, and nearly 10 per cent to slavery. However, as in Britain, the remainder related to economic and social business, often of a highly mundane nature that had little to do with grand imperial issues of slavery, trade and defence, and everything to do with local ‘parish-pump’ issues such as roads and bridges. 

This is supported by the pattern of over 7,000 petitions presented to the assembly in the island, many from individuals or groups below the level of the Jamaican elite, and sometimes even free or enslaved people of colour.  Petitioning and legislation rose and fell largely in step, demonstrating the link between interest groups and laws.

This can be seen in the case of the Rio Cobre bridge, which lay on the main road between Spanish Town, the political capital, and Kingston, the economic capital.  Long complained about the general condition of roads in Jamaica: ‘good roads add a lustre to any country and enrich it’, he wrote, but those in Jamaica were of poor quality:

[and] one great object therefore of a patriotic legislature will be to conquer these obstacles and improve the roads for carriage as much as possible … by a judicious and well-regulated expenditure of an annual grant, and seconded by new highway laws.’

A series of acts were passed converting the road into a turnpike, on the English model, but a bottleneck remained at the Rio Cobre just outside Spanish Town, where the river ran through a steep gorge.  Numerous acts were passed from the late seventeenth century for building a bridge, culminating in an act of 1799 appointing commissioners and giving them power to raise money to build a stone and iron bridge. 

Bridge over the Rio Cobre, Spanish Town, from James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825)

The Rio Cobre bridge was the first such bridge built outside the British Isles, only twenty years after the first ever such bridge at Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire.  It still stands, and exemplifies not only how far Jamaica remained at the forefront of industrial development in this period but also the long-term impact of legislation on the development of the social and economic infrastructure of the island.


Our next seminar takes place at the IHR on 25 February at 17:15 in N202, when Anna Harrington will be speaking on ‘William Wilberforce, a Lettre and An Appeal: abolitionism between campaigns, 1807-1823’.

Read reports from previous IHR seminars here.

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