From the Archives: The 1872 Jamaica diary of Fr James Splaine SJ

POST BY RSomerset

Black ink sketch of a chapel with palm tree

On 2 November 1869, Fr James Splaine SJ (1834-1901) travelled out as a Jesuit missionary to Jamaica, and remained there three years, until he left for the United States and then Canada.

Fr Splaine kept several detailed diaries and occasionally included illustrations to explain what he is describing. 

According to his obituary: ‘…he left England and began foreign mission work in Jamaica. Upon arriving at his destination, Father Splaine started afresh to build up another diary with renewed energy, and carried it on to the end of that chapter of his life with a thoroughness and a fund of acquired information on matters of scientific investigation and every-day practical life which suggests the diligence of some traveller seriously bent on bringing out a work of special study and research.’ [L&N,26,354]

Here are three illustrated extracts from Fr Splaine's 1872 Jamaica diary.






Black ink sketch of cane press in large tree


Extract 1: 

This is a sketch of a cane press, for making sugar, cut on the trunk of a mango tree by an African. The lever passes through the tree and rests on a projecting table on the top edge of wh two teeth are left (one is visible in the drawing) to keep the cane in its place while being squeezed. The liquor runs over the table and down the side into a gutter by which it is collected and directed into a tin.




Black ink sketch of hair styles described

Extract 2: 

Two ladies were seated on the ground having their hair, or wool, dressed by an elderly one who had all the appearance of an artist in the hairdressing line. But she had not got far on in the operation: she had merely teased the wool into this shape:

The next step is to plat it into pig tails like this: -

Or if the lady considers that she has ‘buckra hair’ it is treated in the European style parted, braided, etc, and the chignon mounted.


Black ink sketch of alligator trap describedExtract 3:

When I got back to the house I observed a [man] doing something in the water. The rains have made the rivers overflow its banks, and he had waded in some distance and was engaged fixing a couple of sticks in the mud. He told me an alligator had come after a duck yesterday morning as he was setting a trap for him. He had got a blackbird which he impaled on a wooden peg made in such a way that if the alligator tried to swallow it it would stick in his throat and kill him. He then suspended the decoy as above, within a foot of the water. I think it is still just as he left it.

Anyone interested in the experience of a missionary in Jamaica in the late 19th century, as well as those wishing to gain an insight into daily life there at this time as witnessed by Fr Splaine, would find this document a valuable resource.The diary is showing signs of wear and water damage resulting in some text being almost completely faded. The diary has been photographed and a digital copy made so that even if the original diary deteriorates further, the information and how it appeared will be preserved. If you would like to view this record please contact the Archivist to make arrangements.