Printing in Jamaica: jamaican history to the early 1700s. Printing began in 1718


Front page of the first Gleaner published on September 13, 1834.

THE PRINTED word can be traced back in Jamaican history to the early 1700s. Printing began in 1718 with the publication of the Weekly Jamaica Courant, which holds the distinction of being the second regular newspaper in the Americas. Unlike in the Spanish and Portugese colonies where printing was used as a means of spreading colonisation, in the British colonies where sugar was the primary focus printing arrived slowly, more as an administrative tool ­ a commercial vehicle.

In a 1717 dispatch to the British Council of Trade and Plantations Jamaican Governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes, describes printing as “of great use and benefit for public intelligence, advertisements and many other things…’ (Cave, 1975, p. 12). He noted the usefulness of local newspapers to commerce and advocated for the establishment of a Jamaican press, helping to make Jamaica a centre of printing in the New World. Lawes’ attitude marked a significant change in the perspective that had prevailed during the 1600s when printing was closely regulated by the government and restricted to London, specifically to Cambridge and Oxford Universities. During the latter half of the 17th century, following the Restoration of King Charles II, printing was severely controlled ­ all unlicensed books and printing equipment were regularly subject to seizure. It was not until 1693 that the Licensing Acts that had so strictly regulated printing were loosened, and within a very short time printers spread all over England. Local newspapers abounded. In the colonies, however, progressive attitudes like Lawes’ were slow to evolve. Many administrators were wedded to
attitudes such as that of Virginian Governor Berkeley, who in 1671 thanked God there are “no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years; for learning hath brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best of government. God keep us from both” (as quoted in Cave, 1975, p. 11.).


Harbour Street in 1844, a decade after the Gleaner began.

Not long after Lawes’ 1717 dispatch, Englishman Robert Baldwin established his printery on Kingston’s Church Street. Not surprisingly, Baldwin’s first publication is noted as “A Pindarique Ode on the Arrival of his Excellency Sir Nicholas Lawes, Printed by R. Baldwin in Church Street in Kingston, MDCCXVIII.” It is possible that Baldwin was awarded the sole licence to print on the island. He made a wise choice in locating his new venture in Kingston because it enabled him to have relatively equal access to both Spanish Town and Port Royal ­ the island’s two main towns.

Baldwin arrived in Jamaica with a wooden printing press with Dutch types. A meticulous man, he was conscious that the types might be hard to repair in Jamaica so he brought close to 20 cases of type with him. Some were still in use close to 3 decades later, long after his death. Baldwin also anticipated that paper supply would be a potential problem, so he also carried large stocks of paper of varying size. He did not arrive with any ink, however, which leads one to believe that he, like famed American printer Benjamin Franklin, made his own.


Joshua and Jacob deCordova, co-founders of the Gleaner

Baldwin began publication of the Weekly Jamaican Courant in May 1718 and it ran until 1755. Costing one bit or three half-crowns and modeled after the London Gazette, The Courant contained information common to many English colonial newspapers: prices of goods, slave auctions, and shipping news as well as advertisements. Any form of information of interest to the plantation owners and the merchants, the main audience, was deemed worthy of print. Notably, each issue had to be signed as having ‘Passed by the Censors’.

Examples of goods advertised include: “very curious pocket telescopes ­ reading glasses and machines to place in the breast, powerful cordial for use against gout, writing paper, rulers, ink, letter case and other forms of stationary.” Baldwin sold many of these items as well as books. Bookbinding and selling were to constitute a large part of his business at his Church Street shop (Cave, 1975, p. 15).


Occasionally, local news was reported. Big events such as the Hurricane of 1722 in which 400 people lost their lives in Port Royal when the eastern end sunk and the 1721 trial of Capt. John Rackham and the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Acts were also published including that of 1722 for the “More Effectual Suppressing of Piracy,” and of 1730: for the “Better Regulating [of] Slaves and Rendering Free Negroes and Mulattoes more Useful, and Preventing Hawking and Founders FirstGleaner Peddling, and Enlarging the Time for the Commissioners Collecting Outstanding Debts” (As quoted in Cave, 1975, p. 16).

Sale of the Weekly Jamaican Courant seems to have been well-organised. The Courant itself regularly included detailed instructions of where to get the paper islandwide: “in the parish of St. Dorothy’s,[The Courant] may be supplied by Mr. Booth, those in Clarendon, by Mr. Hancock at the cross, and those in Vere by Mr. Pallfreeman, near the church…” (Courant no 38., 11th Feb. 1718’119, p. 3, as quoted in Cave, 1975, p. 14).

Only a few copies of the Courant have survived and are now found in London’s Public Records Office. The two earliest HarbourStreet copies, interestingly enough, survived because they were essentially ‘waste’ copies and Baldwin used them to make pasteboard for a log-book for British Admiral Vernon. They are now located in the British Museum with the collection of Vernon papers.

Robert Baldwin died in 1722 and control of the business fell to his wife, Mary. She proved a wise choice and the business prospered under her direction. Mary was a forward-thinker and advertisements in the 1720s reflected her new business ideas:

To be sold at the printer’s… “these several sorts of garden seeds, viz, carrot, spinage, lettice, cowcumber, parsely, asparagus, cabbage, red-top turnip and very fresh spaw-water, common, Dr. Steven’s and Aqua Mirabilis, at reasonable rates. (Courant 22, June 1722).”


By 1734, however, Mary seems to have turned the business over to her sons, Peter and Robert Jr. No copies of The Courant published by them seem to have survived, however. All that remains of their work are two pamphlets of 1740 and an issue of another newspaper, the Jamaica Gazette printed in 1745. In the Gazette we learn that the Baldwin brothers seemed to have carried on the family tradition of solid business sense, parlaying their printing empire into a merchant banking house, employment agency and insurance brokerage. Both brothers, however, seemed to have passed away shortly thereafter. After two decades, printing in Jamaica not only moved on to new management but seems to have diversified.

Printing was not limited to newspapers or to Kingston and never to the government. By 1720 Spanish poet Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna, who fled to Jamaica in the late 17th century to escape the Inquisition, held the distinction of being the first Jamaican resident under British rule to publish a book. His book entitled, “Espejo Fiel de Vidas que Contiene Los en Verso, Psalmos de David, Obra Devota, Vtil, y Deleytable” turned the Psalms of David (which had helped him to survive much torture at the hands of the Spanish for his Jewish faith) into song. By the 1800s, with Falmouth established as a “boom town” due to sugar cultivation, at one point it boasted three newspapers in production ­ The Cornwall Courier, The Falmouth Post and The Falmouth Gazette. The newspapers advertised goods on sale and the comings and goings of this active
commercial port.


In the 1830s Jamaican newspaper history would be made when the deCordova brothers launched The Daily Gleaner. Started at a crucial moment in the island’s history, when the era of slavery was coming to an end, the paper grew from an advertising sheet the deCordova brothers used to publicise goods for sale. The first Gleaner, known as The Gleaner and Weekly Compendium of News was printed on Saturdays and sold for a subscription of ten shillings per quarter in the city and thirteen shillings per quarter in rural areas. The first issue included a mission statement of sorts with the editors promising to “please, amuse and to inform while holding domestic life sacred ­ no attacks on private lives would be made.”

Three months later the paper’s name changed to The Gleaner: A Weekly Family Newspaper devoted to Literature, Morality, the Arts and Sciences and Amusements. Two years later the paper expanded to 4 pages and was being published daily except for Sundays. Advertise-ment sheets were distributed for free and subscribers could get the paper by 6 a.m.

Although the paper became a public company in 1897, Michael deCordova served as managing director until 1948. By that time the Daily Gleaner was involved in charitable causes, and in book publishing, having started to print the “Gleaner Geography and History of Jamaica” in the1920s for use in schools islandwide. It also created its own imprint, Pioneer Press, which published books by Claude McKay and Tom Redcam, Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate. The Children’s Own started publication in 1950 and the Overseas Weekly Gleaner began in 1951 as did The Star.


The size of the island notwithstanding, and in true fulfillment of the old saying, “we likkle but we tallawah,” Jamaica boasts multiple newspapers, magazines and journals including the Gleaner, Star, Observer, and Herald, the Jamaica Journal, Skywritings, The Jamaican, various media and publishing houses and imprints, and numerous book and stationery stores. Each May, the island is also the proud sponsor of Calabash, Treasure Beach’s increasingly popular literary festival, showcasing local, regional and international talent.


Known today solely as The Gleaner, the Chairman and managing director is the Hon. Oliver Clarke, who assumed both posts in 1976. Operations are fully computerised, and it remains the island’s foremost newspaper group, employing close to 500 people in Jamaica, with offices in Kingston, Montego Bay, America, Canada and the United Kingdom. The Gleaner Company also continues its long tradition of public service, running an annual Newspaper in Education programme and CXC Exam Techniques Seminar as well as Spelling Bee and Honours Awards competitions. In addition, the company partners with other media houses to support Crime Stop, the Allman Town Redevelopment, PALS (Peace and Love in Schools), the United Way of Jamaica and the Century Club, UWI.

SOURCES: Cameron, L. D. (2000). The Story of the Gleaner ­ Memoirs and Reminiscences. Kingston: The Gleaner Company Ltd., Cave, R. (1975). Printing comes to Jamaica. The Jamaica Journal, 9, (2), 11-17, Richards, J. (1969). Early Jamaican printing. The Jamaica Journal, 3, (4), 7-11, jamaica/1700/laguna.html

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