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The Great Exhibition of 1891
Jamaica on Show

...IN THIS 1890 letter to the people of Jamaica, Governor Henry Blake attempted to rally support of Jamaicans to the cause of the
The Great Exhibition Hall was of glass and wooden structure of Moorish architecture. It was built on lands now occupied by Wolmer's Schools(click for larger image)

Great Exhibition of 1891. The Exhibition itself was the dream of native Jamaican A. C. Sinclair. One of the compilers of the annual Handbooks of Jamaica, Sinclair was inspired by the 1851 Great Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace. He tried in vain for many years to drum up support for his ambitious project. When Sir Henry Blake arrived as Jamaica's new Governor in March 1889 Sinclair managed to persuade William Fawcett, director of gardens and plantations and chairman of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) to help him present his cause to Governor Blake.

Governor Blake was so enthusiastic that at a public meeting on the 19th September he put three resolutions before the leading gentlemen of Kingston, one of which requested Jamaican gentlemen to act as guarantors to the extent of £10 or more. The response was so overwhelming that over £800 was collected at that same meeting. Soon after a special committee received over £10,000 in guarantees in Kingston alone; the country parishes raised nearly £17,000 additional by the end of June 1890.

Myrtle Bank Hotel was one of the hotels built to accommodate visitors to the Great Exhibtion
As early as April 1890 The Prince of Wales had agreed to serve as patron of the event and indicated that his son Prince George (the future King George V) would represent him and the royal family. An entire exhibition grounds needed to be constructed and the Kingston Race Course (now the site of National Heroes Park) was designated as most appropriate. The wooden exhibition building itself was to be built on lands now occupied by Wolmer's Schools by local architect, George Messiter. It was to cover 40,000 sq. ft., be of Moorish architectural style and expected to cost close to £15,000. In order to start the construction Governor Blake first approached the banks for an advance of £15,000 and was refused. Undaunted he managed to raise that same sum from three individual donors ­ Ernest Verley, a noted horse-breeder, George Stiebel, Custos of St. Andrew, millionaire owner and builder of Devon House, and Col. Charles Ward , the Custos of Kingston (who would later give £12,000 to rebuild the Ward Theatre after the 1907

The public treasury matched that £15,000 so that the £30,000 total estimated cost of the exhibition was secured within Jamaica itself.

The plan for the Exhibition site was fairly simple in design but grand in scope. Turrets would adorn the angles of the building and the grounds would be laid out with trees, fountains, ornamental walks, a bandstand, concert hall and a Jamaica village and pavilions. By August 1890 it became obvious that more space was required as Canada alone requested 50,000 sq. ft. for what would become 247 exhibits detailing everything produced by Canada that could have a market in the West Indies. An annex, exhibition hall and art gallery were added.

Five hotels were built ­ including the Queen's and Myrtle Bank in Kingston and the Constant Spring Hotel in St. Andrew. Roads, bridges and railways were improved and constructed to secure transport from the countryside.

Season pass for admission to the Exhibition.
Despite predictions to the contrary, this Exhibition billed as "the most extraordinary commercial event in the history of the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies," opened on time on January 27, 1891. According to the 1891-1892 Handbook of Jamaica: the light and airy character of the (exhibition) structure with its subdued and harmonious colouring, the rich and in many cases brilliant hues of the exhibits, the glitter of bright metal and glass, and the ever-moving, many coloured dresses of the visitors formed a scene never before witnessed in Jamaica and which could not fail to impress both the foreigner and the native. On opening day the grand assembly at Kings House proceeded to the Market Wharf downtown where the pier was decorated in bunting to greet the 25-year-old Prince George. Crowds assembled on all sides to welcome the royal visitor. Flowers showered down on the procession from Harbour Street as flags and banners with welcoming slogans swayed in the air. Nearly 8,000 people visited the Exhibition on its opening day.

Throughout the Great Exhibitions over four-month run, there were flower shows, a fine arts gallery (including famous Winterhalter portraits of the Queen the Prince Consort on loan from the Queen), plays put on by a London troupe and music by the resplendent West India Regiment and the Kingston Volunteers. For the kids there was a merry-go-round, a toboggan slide, a mystic vanishing lady, a ventriloquist, acrobats, a nine-winged Leviathan, and a giant maze.

Special coins were minted for the event. The front of the coin carried a picture of the Queen, and on the back, the Exhibition Hall
The island's main products ­ sugar, rum, coffee and cocoa ­ were on display in the Jamaica Village but emphasis was also placed on minor crops such as palm oil, potter's clay and sisal hemp which was seen to be the most promising of these new industries. An exhibit of cigars, cigarettes and tobacco won a diploma of honour. The IOJ received an award for its engaging displays of maps, minerals and botany that also included a working potter. Outside of the main building one could find a working dairy, an apiary, a model schoolroom, and an industrial village replete with potters, fishermen making nets, weavers making jippi-jappa hats, and small working sugar and coffee mills. Exhibition souvenirs including handkerchiefs, fans, jugs, plates, cups, mugs, and even sharks' teeth containing photos of the Exhibition and charms used by Obeah men and women were also on sale.

Foreign Exhibitions included lectures on Canada illustrated by Canadian scenery, a Canadian caribou head, American machinery and furniture, English dog biscuits and billiard tables, a Scottish piper and whisky, aqua vitae from Sweden, railway timetables and guidebooks from Switzerland, wire nails from Greece, champagne from France, Norwegian and German beer, Belgian lace, Russian liquors, and Dutch tulip bulbs. Most of the West Indian islands sent exhibits based on sugar and rum but St. Vincent's six basket-weaving Carib Indians were very popular.

After receiving 302, 831 visitors the Great Exhibition closed on May 2, 1891. Its attendance was estimated to be larger than that of any previous exhibition in Europe or America in pro-portion with the island's population. Between 13-14,000 people were said to have witnessed the brilliant closing fireworks display. Yet, despite its popularity, the Exhibition failed to pay its way, managing to lose over £4,500. It is said, however, that many who lent their money expected to lose it, neither regretting having lent a hand nor doubting the ultimate benefit Jamaica would receive.

Whatever its failures, the Great Exhibition of 1891, the realisation of Sinclair's dream and Governor Blake's persistence, did much for promoting Jamaica and awakening the world to the creative talent and industry of its people as well as the beauty and possibility of the land itself.

-Rebecca Tortello

Sources ­
K. Booth (1985, August-October). When Jamaica Welcomed the World ­ The Great Exhibition of 1891.
Jamaica Journal, 18, 3, 39-51.
Handbook of Jamaica, 1891-1892.

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted January 14, 2002
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