Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

St Thomas in the Vale (St Catherine), Jamaica Beggars Bush c.1830

The Jamaica Almanac 1840 records Edward Wright as owning 95 acres at Beggars Bush in the parish. There a number of ironic names recorded in the Almanac. The name does not appear in Higman B.W. & Hudson, B.J. Jamaican Place Names.

Because an earlier date cannot be proved I cannot say that this was another “frontier” site, such as County Offaly, Ireland, Charles River, Virginia or Albany, Cape Province. However, it has all the characteristics of such sites, being on the edge of the expansion of what would become the British Empire, marginal, dangerous and subject to attempts to plant settlers on unproductive land.

Prof Barry Higman (personal communication) writes “Maps do not show Beggars Bush until the late C19. The first reference is in a document of circa 1830. The earlier maps (back to 1660) do not show the place name but typically just give the surnames of current settlers. There is English settlement in the area from circa 1690. Almost certainly the name was used before 1830 but we can’t know for sure.” He also says “It is located in the parish of St Catherine (formerly in the now extinct parish of St Thomas in the Vale). This location is in the hilly/mountainous interior of the island and on the fringes of the plantation economy”.

The name must be dated after 1655 as the English did not capture the island from the Spanish until then. Jamaica was invaded then by “a motley mixture of discharged Cromwellian veterans and ill-disciplined adventurers” (Craton & Walvin, 1970, p.14). The poorly supplied expedition failed to learn how to prepare local food, and suffered high mortality. 50% were dead after six months; after two years only 1,500 out of 7,000 survived. They were subject to attack by the remaining Spanish and Negro inhabitants.

A Royal Proclamation of 1661 was intended to encourage settlers by offering 30 acres of land to anyone over the age of 12 who would undertake to plant them, subject to service in the militia. This curious frontier society was remarkably similar to that proposed by James Harrington in Oceana published in 1656 – Harrington used Beggars Bush in the literary form in a work in the following year. The allocation was insufficient, and most if the old soldiers turned to hunting wild horses, cattle & boar to sell in Port Royal, and spent the proceeds on slaves & drink.

From 1664 the new Governor promoted large scale sugar plantations. Planters were given 30 acres for each “servant” they imported, which the servant acquired if they survived for 4 years. Even though the workhouses and bridewells of England were scoured for servants the white population peaked at c.7,700 in 1673, falling back to c.1,400 by the 1690s. It was “as much an economic and social frontier . . . as Virginia had been half a century earlier” (Craton & Walvin, p.26).

The Parish of St Thomas in the Vale was carved out of the prosperous St John’s Parish between 1675 & 1700. The conditions there were described by Edward Long in his History of Jamaica (1774). Long’s family were fortunate owners of the Lucky Valley Plantation and had been involved the government of Jamaica since the 1660’s. His work has been described as polemical propaganda. He describes the parish as a valley accessed by a difficult road, and constantly wreathed in fogs, which, he assured his readers, were by no means injurious to health, and that the “West Indian colic or belly-ache” was less common than it had been. He was perhaps being more honest when he admitted that some of the early plantations had been less and less productive for want of regular manuring “till the proprietors threw them up as unfit” and that little progress had been made since 1740 except in the number of cattle brought onto the exhausted land.

When the climate, remoteness and dangers are taken into account a more appropriate setting for a Beggar’s Bush is difficult to imagine.


18’5′ 76’40’W


Craton, M. & Walvin, J. A Jamaican Plantation; The History of Worthy Park, 1670-1970, W H Allen, London, 1970

Higman B.W. & Hudson, B.J. Jamaican Place Names,  University of West Indies Press, Jamaica, 2009

Edward Long History of Jamiaca (1774) (Book II, Chapter VIII)


Prof Barry Higman

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Filed under: Places | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Leave a Reply