Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library


by Frederick J. duQuesnay

(written c. 1965)

What we know today as the Institute of Jamaica, comprising the museum and West India Reference Library, with its rare and valuable collection of books, maps, manuscripts, prints and paintings, had its initial beginning from the early part of the nineteenth century, and although none of the former repositories were known as the Institute of Jamaica, nonetheless their combined collection helped to form the nucleus of the present institution.

As early as 1846, there was a museum in Kingston called the Jamaica Society Museum, for Richard Hill took his friend Philip Henry Gosse, the English-born naturalist, on a visit there in that year, which event Gosse himself describes in one of his fascinating books about Jamaica, in which he tells us he inspected its collection of birds and plants.

In 1854 the Jamaica Society of Arts was established, but two years later its name was altered to the Royal Society of Arts of Jamaica. In 1864 this was amalgamated with the Royal Agricultural Society of Jamaica, when both became known as the Royal Society of Arts and Agriculture, with its museum quartered in a building at the north west corner of Church and Barry Streets. Later the museum was removed, and its new home was located at the south east corner of Harbour and Orange Streets.

In 1872 when the seat of Government was removed from Spanish Town to Kingston, a large dwelling was purchased on lower East Street to house the Library of the Jamaica House of Assembly. This house was Date Tree Hall, a once famous hostelry or Boarding House which, like its companion Blundell Hall close by on East Street, was characteristic of the dwellings offering accommodation to travellers throughout Jamaica during the nineteenth century.

Date Tree Hall was a large, solidly constructed two-storey building, with a sloping shingled roof, its facade lined by sash windows and jalousie blinds. It stood on a rising above the street, protected by a brick wall surmounted by a wooden fence set between alternate brick pillars and topped by a series of decorative wooden urns painted white. (A few examples of this type of fence can still be seen today on the upper streets of Kingston).

Date Tree Hall derived its name from the Date Palm which once flourished in front of the building, but I have seen no documentary proof that this tree ever produced fruit.

In 1873 the articles in the Museum of the Royal Society of Arts and Agriculture were handed over to the Government together with the Sawkins and Brown geological collection, and housed at Date Tree Hall where, together with the Library of the Assembly formed the nucleus of the many departments of our present Institute of Jamaica. Date Tree Hall was opened to the public in 1874, the same year in which its Date Palm fell victim to a hurricane.

In 1879 the Institute of Jamaica was founded by Sir Anthony Musgrave on the lines of the South Australian Institute. Sir Anthony, Governor of Jamaica from 1877-1883, had been previously stationed in Australia, a continent to which he returned later, dying there suddenly in 1888 while still in office.

Sir Anthony was deeply conscious of the inestimable role which art and culture played in the field of education, and the Institute was established primarily as an incentive for the better understanding and appreciation of literature, science and art in the colony.

This new-founded institution still continued operations at Date Tree Hall and did so until the building was destroyed by the earthquake of 1907. In 1891 Mr. Frank Cundall came from England to be the Institute's secretary, and by his keen interest and assiduous labour built up a library which today is considered unique in the entire world. Mr. Cundall also did a great deal of research into the island's past, and his writings are constantly consulted by the researcher today. His book, "Historic Jamaica" is an enchanting work and deserves to be republished.

The present Institute, that is the West India Reference Library, was reconstructed on the same site as its predecessor in 1911. The museum building at the corner of Tower and East Streets was erected much later.

The present newly opened West India Reference Library, a handsome modern structure, designed with an aim to later expansion, has been built on land which once housed the small zoo in the Institute gardens.

This building offers the public a modern air conditioned reference library, in which they can carry out research in an undisturbed atmosphere of peace and comfort. The structure has also been designed to protect as much as possible the valuable and unique collection from fire and hurricane.

Thus the Institute moves forward, guided by its Board of Governors and the sincere dedicated spirit of its director, Mr. C. Bernard Lewis, O.B.E., embracing new areas in Jamaica. Already the Folk Museum in Spanish Town, and the Indian Museum at White Marl have been opened, and there are many plans for future expansion, as it goes steadily onward, widening its functions for the advancement of literature, science and art in an independent Jamaica, the purpose for which it was originally established.

[The library is now named the National Library of Jamaica. See photographs of the Institute of Jamaica and the National Library]

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