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A large and important collection of silver objects made in eighteenth century Jamaica, when it was subject to British colonial rule, was generously bequeathed to the National Collection by Robert Barker in 2021.

Content warning: this Explore page includes a quote from an 18th century document which contains offensive language.

The bequest is comprised of 57 individual items. Almost all were made in Jamaica apart from one, a sugar caster, made in Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola, which is the present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. At the time of this silverware’s production, the economy of these Caribbean islands was built on enslaved plantation labour.

The collection was amassed over 30 years by avid silver specialist and researcher Robert Barker, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1960. Barker began collecting as a boy, initially focusing on coins, before expanding to historic and contemporary silverware. He was not simply a collector, however, but a scholar. His interest in archival research led him to the rediscovery of an Assay Office in Jamaica founded in 1747. Assay Offices quality checked and marked all gold and silverware, and the existence of the rediscovered Jamaican Assay Office suggests that such items were being produced on the island. This knowledge had previously been lost.

Robert Barker. Image courtesy of Rosie Dodd.

The mark of quality, or assay punch, was that of an alligator’s head. Once Robert knew what to look for, he set out to locate and collect silverware which carried the Jamaican Assay Office mark. This led him to investigate a group of Scottish silver previously thought to be from Old Aberdeen due to the marks found on it. In 1986, he published the results of this research in an article titled ‘Jamaican Goldsmiths, Assayers and their Marks from 1665 to 1765’.

The article convincingly laid out the argument for the reclassification of this silver from Scottish to Jamaican-made. His findings were subsequently met with widespread approval amongst silver specialists which eventually led to museums, like National Museums Scotland, updating their collections information to reflect the discovery.

Closeup of a stamped engraving on the edge of a silver vessel. There are three stamps: on top, an alligator's head within a rectangle. In middle, the letters 'A' 'D' upside down. On bottom, the letters 'C' 'M' updside down.

The Jamaican Assay Office mark seen on the cover for a silver twin handled cup by William Duncan, Jamaica, c. 1750, and assayed by Assay Master Anthony Danvers (X.2021.26.3.2).

The Makers

The Scottish connection with this material runs deeper than the historic confusion over the Old Aberdeen silver. The creation of Jamaica’s Assay Office was brought about by the petition of two Scottish goldsmiths, Charles Allan and William Duncan, and the system that was adopted was akin to the one running in Edinburgh. Furthermore, around half of the silver in the bequest was made by Scottish goldsmiths who had emigrated to Jamaica, including William Duncan, Charles Allan, Archibald Campbell and John Roxburgh. The most prolific maker amongst these was Charles Allan who entered into a partnership with Archibald Campbell after he arrived sometime around 1742.

A silver vessel with exaggeratedly wide handles, a smooth cylindrical centre, and small engraving of a bird's head.

Cup by William Duncan, Jamaica, c. 1750 (X.2021.26.3.1)

A pair of silver candlesticks against a black surface. The silver is exceptionally shiny and fine. Each candlestick has a thick, square base, a thin square platform at the top, and three flared sections on the stick.

Pair of candlesticks by Charles Allan, Jamaican 1747-48 (X.2021.26.6.1 and X.2021.26.6.2)

Archibald and Charles were already known to each other from their time in Edinburgh. Their families had been friendly and when Charles was orphaned around the age of 13 it was Archibald’s father, Colin Campbell, who took him in and gave him an apprenticeship. This may have been due to a more intimate family connection given that Allan’s mother’s maiden name was also Campbell.

In addition to the Scots, there are nine other goldsmiths associated with this bequest. These include Abraham Kipp from New York, the Newcastle-trained George Hetherington, and Louis Dupont from London, who was the maker of the sugar caster from Saint-Domingue. It is thought that Louis’s father was the goldsmith Pierre du Pont from Poiters, France, and that the family were Huguenots. In 1747, Dupont declared bankruptcy and it was around this time that he ventured to the Caribbean. The motivations for a goldsmith to emigrate would have included push factors such political and religious dissent, but particularly economic hardship, as highlighted by Depont’s bankruptcy. The allure of a prosperous environment offered by the plantation economy, based on enslaved labour, offered great financial opportunities.

The silver

A white table within a storage facility with several dozen silver objects on it, viewed on a slanted angle. The silver objects include spoons, candlesticks, bowls, vessels with double handles, and chalices.

The full contents of Robert Barker's bequest at the National Museums Collection Centre.

The group is an excellent representation of the types of silverware that you would expect to see during the eighteenth-century in wealthy households. It includes a tea kettle, a large two handled-cup, spoons and ladles, candlesticks and candle snuffers, sugar bowls and salt cellars.

A very ornate silver tea kettle against a black background. The spout has scales almost like a fish, the handle is very delicate with an aristocratic figure on each side, and the body of the kettle is covered in engravings of trees and flora.

Tea kettle by Solomon Saldana, Jamaica, c. 1750 - 1760 (X.2021.26.1).

The tea kettle was made by Solomon Saldana and the plant decoration near the spout depicts a tea plant. His inspiration for this was remarkably located by Barker in the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure. This was a periodical designed to be “instructive and entertaining to gentry, merchants, farmers, and tradesmen ...", and it seems that the Magazine was important to goldsmiths too.

Two images side by side separated by a black line. On left is an old illustration of a tea plant, its broad leaves extending out from a branch emerging from a small mound of earth. On right is a closeup of a silver vessel engraved with a tea plant almost identical to the one on the left.

On left, an engraving of a tea plant in the Universal Magazine. On right, a nearly identical representation of a tea plant on Solomon Saldana's tea kettle.


Eighteenth century Jamaica was a centre of sugar manufacture with a commercial economy based on slavery. The goldsmithing industry was part of the colonial economy, enabled by the profits of slavery. It is known that silverware produced on the island was purchased by plantation owners and that some of the people who created it were originally enslaved.

Information surrounding this is documented in the correspondence between Charles Allan and members of the Dalrymple family. The letters are largely concerned with the fact that Allan borrowed a significant amount of money from Sir Hew Dalrymple, 2nd Baronet of North Berwick, and his brother Dr Robert Dalrymple, to help start his business in Jamaica. Allan later struggled to repay the loans. However, these letters offer a glimpse into the world of an eighteenth century goldsmiths in Jamaica, wherein profit was fuelled by the labour of enslaved people.

On 19 August 1746, Allan wrote to Sir Hew "I had at one time above ten white people who by there irregular life are all dead excepting one there deaths was a prodigious loss to me". Later in the same letter, he wrote "Besides my Negroes are all learning to work very well I expect in six months' time to be able to do all my affairs without the assistance of white people which will make all the odd in the world."

A shiny silver vessel, squate and wide with three legs made to look like lion's paws, engravings of lions with wide, circular manes alongside simple flowers on vines, and a heavy lid.

Sugar bowl by Solomon Saldana, Jamaica, c. 1750 - 1760 (X.2021.26.2.1).

Living on an island in the tropics proved difficult for many Scots and not all liked or survived their time there, and yet people continued to emigrate to Jamaica during the eighteenth century. The primary reason for most was to increase their wealth which frequently meant using an enslaved workforce. Allan’s letter highlights his own desire to use labour that would increase his profits and at the same time, indicates that he is training enslaved people to work within the elite craft of goldsmithing.

Collections such as this provide an opportunity to look deeper into the Jamaican manufacturing industry as well as the international trading systems that brought such objects back to the ‘home country’. They tell of highly trained artisans, enslaved and free, working on the production of gold and silverware on the island of Jamaica. Today their legacy forms part of the largest collection of eighteenth century Jamaican silver in Britain in public ownership.

National Museums Scotland would like to acknowledge gratefully the generous donation by Robert Barker of this fascinating and valuable collection.

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