How two families, one black, one white, built a town

One of the side effects (hazards?) of being an amateur historian (I’m neither an academic nor professional historian but I have a deep love for history) is that one becomes interested in one’s own heritage. No less in my case. I’m still in the course of discovery and have come across information that frankly, startled me. There was a time, going back 150 years or more, when for one small town in Jamaica, my paternal ancestors were a big deal.

A jerk center in Walkerswood

Walkerswood in St. Ann in northern Jamaica, not far from Ocho Rios, is most famous for its jerk sauce. As someone declared, “Walkerswood is the Jamaican Jerk sauce by which all others are measured.”

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods grew out of a community cooperative that took shape in the 1970s. Residents in the town and a few from surrounding communities began creating craft and other items.

Christine, my mom, became a member of the cooperative. She would take raw wool home and deputize the children in the house to help her to wash, dry and then weave the wool. She would dye the yarn and knitted these into hats, sweaters, table mats and other items. The cooperative diversified into food items. Mama would take home large quantities of crude cornflakes, oftentimes more than we could consume. It was nowhere close to the quality of imported brands sold in supermarkets. The first forays into jerk sauce occurred in about 1976.

From those humble beginnings, Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, with about 80 employees, is now an important niche exporter of about 20 varieties of spices and associated products such as pepper sauce, curry paste, barbecue sauce and various iterations of jerk seasoning. Its products are sold in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Teetering on bankruptcy several times, it was eventually bought and was transformed from the cooperative to a corporate model. It is a lesson in how community-based businesses struggle to remain true to their identity while trying to be profitable. The community link remains through the Walkerswood Co-operative Pepper Farmers Association, one of the company’s chief suppliers.

The town, Walkerswood, owes its existence and relative affluence to two families – the Pringles/Simsons and the Harveys/Henrys.

The Harvey/Henry story is not well known and it is something I knew nothing about while growing up. My older siblings were not familiar with it. Much of what follows is due to information gleaned by a brother by way of a much older cousin, in addition to further digging on my part. It is a story that needs further research.

The Harveys, a black family, came into hundreds of acres of land sometime in the 1800s. As to how and exactly when they did so is not yet clear. What is undisputed is that they owned the land before the 1880s. It was not common for black Jamaicans to own that much land at that time in Jamaica’s history so soon after the end of enslavement in 1838. While it is conjecture at this point, it seems that the Harveys may have come into the land as early as the 1840s or 1850s, and likely by the 1860s.

In March 1882, one of the Harvey girls, Matilda, 24, married Thomas Henry, 26. They are my great-grandparents. In March 1881, exactly a year earlier, Thomas’ older brother, Richard, 37, had married Elizabeth, 31, a widow who seemed to have previously been married to a Harvey. It was the second marriage as well for Richard, a widower.

Most of the land appeared to have fallen under Thomas and Matilda’s control. For reasons not yet clear to us, my great-grandparents sold off most of the land while giving some of it away. The schools, community center and several churches, such as the old Baptist church (that I attended as a child) , the newer Baptist church, and the Methodist church, were all built on Harvey land, likely given freely to the community and churches. Some of the land was later acquired by Reynolds, a bauxite mining company. Most were bought by residents who built their homes. One guess is that more than 50 percent of Walkerswood residential homes are built on land once owned by Harvey/Henry.

An uncle, Alton Henry, whose family and ours traveled to church together while I was a child, played a role in the early movement that was the precursor to the 1970s Walkerswood cooperative. This is the official story as told by Walkerswood Caribbean Foods:

The initiative that launched Walkerswood Caribbean Foods is rooted in the rich history of community action, which has characterized Walkerswood village from the 1930s.

Following the nationwide riots of 1938 for better working conditions, a partnership emerged between Alton Henry, Peter Hinds and other village farm workers, Thom and Rita Girvan, engaged in the Government’s Social Welfare programme and Minnie and Fiona Simson of the Bromley Great House. Together they formed the “Pioneer Club” in 1940 on three acres of land. Out of this grew the Lucky Hill Co-operative Farm, the first registered co-operative farm in Jamaica.

Martin Henry (no relation to us) passed on the story as told to him by Norman Girvan, a leading university professor and researcher in Jamaica and the son of Thom and Rita Girvan. Minnie Simson and her daughter, Fiona, owners of Bromley estate

had come in contact with moral rearmament (MRA) out of England. Bromley became a centre for MRA meetings, for development activism and for devotion…. There were these two men from the village, Peter Hinds and Alton Henry…[who] used to come to Mrs. Simson’s every Sunday morning for prayers, and right after prayers Thom [Girvan] would start talking to them and asking them what were their greatest needs. Out of that he formed the Walkerswood Pioneer Club with the two men as leaders.

Though the club was founded in Walkerswood in St. Ann, the decision was made to establish the first cooperative farm in Lucky Hill in the parish of St. Mary, less than ten miles away. Alton, my father’s oldest brother, moved to New Pen in Lucky Hill and oversaw the cooperative farm there.

Uncle Alton inherited much of the land not sold off or given away that were still in Henry hands in Walkerswood. He was “head cook” and “bottle washer” in the Baptist church of my childhood – organist, choirmaster, church secretary and deacon. Little did I know that he was scion of large tracts of land near to the church and on which the church was built, and in the Cottage area of Walkerswood.

The Pringles were an unusual Jamaican white family, possibly the wealthiest family on the island. A Scottish doctor, John Pringle, moved to Jamaica in the 1870s, married into wealth and privilege on the island, and gradually took ownership of several large properties, including Roaring River, Laughing Waters and Bromley, all in St. Ann, as well as Manor Park in St. Andrew.

bromley great house 2
Bromley Great House, Walkerswood

According to Martin Henry, “John Pringle brought with him to Jamaica, from his own experiences on the fringes of British society in the Outer Hebrides, a working social conscience which members of his family inherited.”

Toward the end of his life, Pringle was instrumental in the formation of the Jamaica Banana Producers’ Association (JBPA) in 1927, a cooperative and a forerunner to what has since become one of the country’s largest groups of companies, Jamaica Producers Group. Martin Henry said “the JBPA was a cooperative of big and small private banana farmers, formed to challenge the unfair dominance of the banana trade by the banana companies, particularly the American United Fruit Company and the British Elders and Fyffes.”

The Pringles, close friends of Norman Manley, one of the country’s political fathers, were involved in Manley’s creation of Jamaica Welfare, which has evolved into the Social Development Commission, one of the government’s most vital social agencies. They were, apparently, strong supporters and backers of black nationalist, pan Africanist and Jamaica National Hero, Marcus Garvey.

[Another John Pringle, grandson of the original John Pringle, quite possibly played the most decisive role in the development of Jamaica’s tourism industry. He was the island’s first director of tourism and laid the foundation to make it the country’s most important economic engine.]

Minnie Simson inherited the Bromley property from her father, the elder John Pringle and, along with her daughter, Fiona, was instrumental in the formation of the Pioneer Club in Walkerswood and the cooperative farm at New Pen in Lucky Hill.

The Simsons also helped to form the Walkerswood Community Council. Among the initiatives of the council was the creation of Cottage Industries, which later grew into what is now Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, currently located on land that was previously part of the Bromley property.

It appears Walkerswood would not be what it is today without the generosity of these two families, one black, one white, who acted independently of each other but whose lives also converged in unexpected ways to make Walkerswood a growing, thriving and prosperous community.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Disappearing fireflies

As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the night was dense darkness. When the moon doesn’t shine and stars seem absent, you cannot see the hand in front of your face. Light pollution be damned.

But this intense darkness would occasionally be broken by a small swarm of peeny wallies, Jamaican fireflies. They would go up and down, sometimes around, and the beauty of it was electrifying. To capture this artistry, we would grab jars or bottles, catch as many peeny wallies as we could, and admired the glow.

peeny wally2
Peeny wallies flying around in the Cockpit Country in Jamaica. Courtesy of

Peeny wallies, (also called click beetles as they give off a clicking sound with their head when you hold them in your hand) and their smaller cousins, the “blinkies,” whose lights go on and off, have virtually disappeared from the Jamaican landscape. No one explanation satisfies. Among the more common is the erosion of their habitats through deforestation, human residence and farming. Some blame it on pesticides, particularly aerial spraying of banana plantations that kill peeny wallies and blinkies, in addition to targeted insects and “pests.”

The disappearance of these creatures is not unique to Jamaica. A 2014 New York Times article notes, “Scientists have for years been warning that the world’s estimated 2,000 species of fireflies are dwindling, partly because expanding cities are altering water flow patterns and yielding more light pollution, which researchers say can hamper the mating rituals of the insects.”

Changing water flow and artificial light, such as street lights and motor vehicle headlights, are to be blamed, these scientists speculate.

There is such a thing as the International Firefly Symposium. Its 2017 gathering is April 24-27 in Taipei, Taiwan.  At its 2010 meeting in Selangor, Malaysia, the symposium declared:

Fireflies are indicators of the health of the environment and are declining across the world as a result of degradation and loss of suitable habitat, pollution of river systems, increased use of pesticides in agro-ecosystems and increased light pollution in areas of human habitation. The decline of fireflies is a cause for concern and reflects the global trend of increasing biodiversity loss.

In other words, as far as ecology and the environment go, fireflies, including peeny wallies and blinkies, are like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. A dead canary means those in the mine will all likelihood be dead soon if they don’t get out. As the 2010 symposium announced:

The habitats of fireflies are a refuge for many forms of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and numerous species of invertebrates. Conservation of these habitats, therefore, has the potential to conserve a wide range of fauna.

Does the almost complete disappearance of peeny wallies in Jamaica mean the island is in mortal environmental danger?

Scientific study
Clemson University in South Carolina in the United States runs a Vanishing Firefly Project, which includes a mobile app where persons may submit research data. There should be enough data on the species in Jamaica to be part of this or any other metadata project.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, have done extensive research on fireflies in Jamaica. They discovered some 200 species in Jamaica and Maryland alone. Other researches claim Jamaica has some 50 species of fireflies.

John Buck, part of the first Johns Hopkins team to Jamaica in 1936, found “ample firefly species” that led to “the first photoelectrically measured emission spectra from fireflies.” The field of his study, photoemission spectroscopy, was important to various applications, including x-ray technology, and the humble peeny wally and blinky made their own contribution to this field.

peeny wally
Peeny Wally, Jamaica firefly

Buck wrote that “the members of the Seventh Botanical Expedition of the Johns Hopkins University witnessed displays of firefly activity in the British West Indies as spectacular in their way as any reported from the Orient.”

Another Johns Hopkins researcher, Howard Seliger, a biochemist:

Helped other scientists harness bioluminescent molecules to identify key sections of DNA for genetic studies. And he used such fluorescent molecules to probe carcinogenic compounds in cigarette smoke. He also was able to see which potentially carcinogenic compounds became most dangerous by measuring the low-intensity light produced as the compounds react with enzymes inside cells.

The fireflies they studied were mostly at the base of the John Crow Mountains in the Blue Mountain range in eastern Jamaica, at just about 750 feet up. They said:

It is possible in Jamaica, in a relatively small area at the same altitude, to collect numbers of more than a dozen different species of firefly, which is a distinct advantage for the types of comparisons in which we are interested.

Firefly dresses and jewels
Jamaicans apparently put peeny wallies to some unusual uses. Bessie Pullen-Burry, writing in 1905, said “a strange historian,” whose name was Peter Martyn, “declared that the aborigines used to hunt the Indian conies by the light of fireflies fastened to their toes!”

Pullen-Burry recounted what she called “a more curious story.”  In 1903, some “Creole belle,” she said, “appeared in a dress covered with the beautiful insects alive and sparkling.” How was this done? “They had been carefully and separately fastened on to a net, and the effect was probably as beautiful as it was original.”

Harry Pariser in Jamaica: A Visitor’s Guide, claimed “fireflies are so huge that they were once captured and worn as living jewels by planters’ wives when attending elegant balls held on the sugar plantations.”

Visitors to Jamaica were fascinated by the peeny wallies. Albert Goodwin, spending a month on the island in 1902, was enthralled “by the phenomenon of fireflies lighting up the tropical foliage in the West Indies.” His diary of March 26, 1902, recorded the following during his stay at Montpelier, St. James, in western Jamaica:

Was woken up in the night by a sound like someone playing the piano; heard the bass of it and wondered who the nocturnal player could be. Then suddenly a light flared on ceiling and I realised the bass was the hum of a big firefly and the candle its light. Watched it flying about till sleep brought oblivion.

Some Chinese have recognized the value of fireflies. Josh Lew, writing for Mother Nature Network in December 2015, reports that “entrepreneurs are trying to revive the population of bioluminescent insects in special firefly parks.” One such park was opened in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in 2015. “Visitors can walk directly through a firefly habitat and observe the beetles from afar.” Activities are included as “the park hosts camping events, guided hikes and children’s nature activities.”

Can… would… Jamaica become as creative? One doubts it. But who is to know? Perhaps some enterprising person out there may take on this challenge. There’s nothing like a swarm of Jamaican peeny wallies in all their glory.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel