Charting the life of forgotten hero James Robertson who put Jamaica on the map

The story of how a young boy from a remote island grew up to become one of the most celebrated map makers of the 18th century has been unveiled in a new exhibition in Shetland.

James Robertson, who was born on Yell in 1753, was the first person ever to produce a full map of the island of Jamaica.

James Robertson

James Robertson

The son of a merchant in Gossabrough he had something of an entrepreneurial spirt, having spent much of his childhood watching his father import goods from Germany for wealthy Shetland families.

After graduating from Aberdeen University he joined thousands of Scots who sailed to the Caribbean to make their fortune on and around the plantations of the West Indies at the height of the sugar boom.

Jamaica was a hugely important sugar exporter and had been a British colony since 1655, only regaining its independence in 1962, and for young men like Robertson in the 18th century it was a land of opportunity.

A gifted map maker Robertson managed to convince the Jamaican House of Assembly in 1796 that a full map of the island should be made and that he was the man to do it.

It took him almost six years to produce a complete map of the island and three separate maps of each of the counties in Jamaica, a feat for which he was rewarded with more than £10,000, which is equivalent to about £300,000 today.

His maps were remarkably accurate, even by today’s standards, and provided an excellent insight into the island.

Now, some of the maps he created along with an assortment of the kind of primitive equipment he used, has gone on show for the first time in Shetland.

Robertson's map of Kingston

Robertson’s map of Kingston

The exhibition, entitled ‘James Robertson: The Shetlander who mapped Jamaica (1753-1829)’ runs until November 22 at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. It illustrates Robertson’s life and work and also presents a rare opportunity to view original maps by Robertson, held in the collection at the National Library of Scotland.

The exhibition also features unique artefacts illustrating the practical surveying equipment that Robertson would have used, correspondence with him, and original documents relating to his map of north-east Scotland. This shows a rural landscape undergoing profound changes and represents the most detailed mapping of the area before the Ordnance Survey work from the 1860s.

“Robertson’s maps of Jamaica allow us to visualise this British colony at the height of the sugar industry, and Robertson’s cartography was an important means for maintaining order and control of territory,” said Chris Fleet, Map Curator at the National Library.

“There were also important links with Scotland too, with many of the sugar estates owned by Scots, whose names and plantations are clearly shown on Robertson’s maps.”

Mapmaking in Robertson’s time brought together a range of skills — in mathematics and geometry, in practical measurement in the field, and in the artistic ability to represent landscape features with precision and consistency.

“This exhibition allows us to trace something of Robertson’s training and experience in these areas, and the difficulties he faced in gaining funding for his work.

“Mapmaking was rarely a lucrative profession, and although Robertson was very well paid for his work in Jamaica he struggled to find similar success back in Scotland,” said Chris.

After Robertson returned from the Caribbean he was feted for his work, wined and dined throughout London, lived in Pall Mall and was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society.

Robertson's map of Aberdeen

Robertson’s map of Aberdeen

However, he was never able to quite repeat the same level of success he had enjoyed in Jamaica back in Scotland.In 1810 he was commissioned to create a new map of Aberdeenshire.

Many of the items on show in the Shetland exhibition have been provided on loan from Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Aberdeen University Special Collections.

Unfortunately the committee that engaged him was hard to please and after more than a decade of work they complained his maps were full of mistakes. Robertson had to endure the public humiliation of having another engineer brought in to check his work.

The maps were eventually published in 1822 but it was a unfortunate end to a glittering career. Robertson died in 1829