Fire! Fire!! Fire!!!

A section of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake and fire (Public domain)

This past week’s fire at Wisynco, one of the largest private companies in Jamaica, and the March 2015 Riverton fire in Kingston that raged for days, causing millions of dollars in damage, remind us that fires are a constant threat. A good number of fires affected the island, especially Kingston and Port Royal, in earlier centuries.

The most well-known fire in Jamaica’s history raged after the January 14, 1907, earthquake that devastated large parts of Kingston. J.F. Wilson, writing in 1910, reported that “ten minutes after the first [earthquake] shock, flames burst out in the ruins and raged for three hours before any efforts were made to check them.”

He said “among the distressing features of the entire disaster was the burning of the Military hospital in which 40 soldiers were burned to death before any effort could be made to save them.” It appeared aftershocks and fire happened simultaneously. “A second, third, fourth and fifth shock followed in close succession. By this time flames had broken out in six different sections of the town and began eating their way through the ruins, and many people were roasted alive. Their cries could be heard above the roar of the flames. Pandemonium reigned supreme.”

The 1907 fire and quake left an indelible mark on Jamaica’s capital for years, accounting for the death of about 800 persons. But this was not the first. The first known major fire to strike Kingston was in 1780. The town “was severely stricken by a great fire which broke out at about 2 o’clock in the morning of the 16th May and continued until the following evening,” so said early editions of the Handbook of Jamaica, first published in the late 19th century. “The large and closely built portion of the town lying between King and Orange Streets was burnt down, the destruction of property being estimated at £30,000,” or £1.9 million in today’s currency.

At least three significant fires occurred in the 19th century, roughly 20 years apart. On August 26, 1843, fire “devastated a large portion of the city…. Many of the best dwellings and much valuable property were consumed and a large number of persons were left in utter destitution.”

Another occurred in March 1862, “by which the commercial division of the city was devastated,” including “nineteen of the principal stores in Harbour and Port Royal Streets, three wharves, and the extensive and well-built three storied house in which the Commercial Hotel was kept.” Damage was £90,830 or £4 million today.

Kingston fire 1882
An artistic overview  of Kingston after the 1882 fire (Courtesy of

On December 11, 1882, “a calamitous fire occurred in Kingston… by which the greater part of the business portion of the town was destroyed, much valuable property consumed and great distress occasioned to the poorer classes,” the Handbook of Jamaica recounted. An eyewitness, Pursey Coffey, alleged the fire started “in Feurtardo’s lumber-yard on Port Royal Street.”

The fire seemed to have benefited from strong wind. The New York Times on December 22 reported that “the flames seemed to spread with great rapidity. The wind was blowing from seaward at the time, and burning pieces of wood were carried up in the air and distributed in all directions to leeward.” After a lull in the wind, it “then changed into a strong land breeze” that “drove the flames down toward the water’s edge.” This was significant as a large segment of the town had gathered on the wharves to escape the flames, but the fire followed them. Hundreds were saved by ships docked in the bay.

At least 12 persons were known to have died. Some 689 houses were severely damaged or destroyed affecting some 6,000 persons. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, situated on Princess Street (more about the Jews in Jamaica in a future blog post), lost everything with the “exception of one register book of Births, Marriages and Deaths.”

Estimates of the damage varied. The Handbook of Jamaica and other sources reported the damage at between £160,000 and £200,000 or £7.7 million to £9.7 million in today’s currency. The New York Times put it at £2.5 million or more than £120 million at current rates. This is a massive discrepancy. In any case, the 1882 fire was far worse than those in either 1843 or 1862. Then, within another 25 years, earthquake and another fire devastated the city.

Port Royal, that much beleaguered town, had a major fire in 1703, believed to have begun in “crowded warehouses where a quantity of gunpowder was deposited.” This fire, occurring just over 10 years since the massive 1692 earthquake that destroyed much of that town, led to mass evacuation. It appears the 1703 Port Royal fire was the catalyst, following on the earthquake there earlier, for Kingston becoming the urban center it is today, as “the disheartened inhabitants went in large numbers to Kingston.” The Jamaica Assembly provided generous terms to colonialists who relocated to Kingston, providing tax free land and residency for up to seven years and mandating that St. Andrew owners of slaves provide labor for the building project to house the evacuees.

Yet other Port Royal fires took place in 1728 and on July 13, 1816, the latter at about midday, “which in a few hours destroyed nearly the whole place, including the naval hospital; and left many of the inhabitants utterly destitute.”

With so many fires occurring in Kingston and Port Royal and elsewhere across the island, it is not surprising that insurance companies took an early foothold in Jamaica. Jamaica’s governor, John Peter Grant, was patron in the founding of the Jamaica Cooperative Fire Insurance Company in 1873. “The Company was formed with the object of reducing the rates of Fire Insurance in this island and of retaining in the island the large amount of money annually sent away as premiums,” the Handbook recorded. It appears activities in the fire insurance market was hectic indeed. By the early 20th century there were about 25 local agents for overseas insurers.

Other towns such as Savanna-la-Mar in 1779 and Montego Bay in 1795 and 1808 were devastated by fires. Several reasons accounted for why so many fires happened back then and why these fires caused so much loss and damage – overcrowding, population density, fragile structures, the presence of flammable and volatile materials in high population areas and in commercial centers, lack of emergency response personnel and equipment, poor training, etc.

The Wisynco fire last week and the costly March 2015 Riverton fires remind us of destructive fires of the past.  As a Wisynco manager promised, the company will bounce back; in the same way the city of Kingston and other towns rose from the ashes many times before.

Jamaica the beautiful

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I have traveled to nearly 30 countries. Except for Oahu of the Hawaiian Islands, no other place, in my experience, matches the beauty of Jamaica, though I’ve yet to see what I’ve heard to be the gorgeous scenes in New Zealand and Switzerland.

Visitors to Jamaica have always been struck by the arresting beauty of the place. Jamaica is stunning.

The first time I flew from Montego Bay to Kingston, (it was always a trip I took by road), I was fascinated. The undulating hills were breathtaking. Others in the plane gasped. One man blurted out in delight.

I’ve also hiked the Blue Mountains twice, and though both hikes occurred some 30 years ago, the memories still linger. Driving along the coast in Portland, such as in St. Margaret’s Bay, is a special experience.

The grandeur of Jamaica’s beauty has always been acknowledged. It is alleged that when Columbus got lost and landed there in 1494, he is supposed to have called it “the fairest isle that eyes have beheld.”

Similar encomiums have been recorded by others who visited the island. Sibbald David Scott, writing in 1875 on his trip to Jamaica, described what he saw upon approaching Kingston Harbor while on the ship’s deck. “The aspect of the island is beautiful—almost everything looks beautiful under a powerful sunlight…. On looking upwards there are such hills, or rather mountains, clothed to their summits in luxuriant verdure.”

In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, just below Gordon Town, Scott said “nature was in full luxuriance here: so rich a prospect my eyes had never feasted on before.” As they traveled on, “the air feels purer and cooler as we ascend.” The treacherous but spellbinding journey through small, winding paths and close to steep precipices had him declaring, “It is in truth a garden of Eden run wild.”

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907, wrote the following while at Farm in Montego Bay:

There is a fascination in Jamaica which grows on you. Before me now are the great mountains, with their tropical tree-covered sides. I see the cocoanut (sic) palms waving in the breeze, and hear the pleasant rustle which accompanies the movement of their graceful leaves. The blue sea is beyond. It is very beautiful.

He called Bog Walk “a little Switzerland,” described it as “entrancing,” and declared “it the most attractive place in the Island, and a photographer’s paradise.”

Of the famous Bog Walk Gorge, he said, “the river enters a magnificent gorge—its massive fern-decked rock walls rising on the right almost perpendicularly about nine hundred feet, the water rushing along the rocky bed below.”

More than 100 years ago, Leader said “St. Ann has been well named ‘The Garden of Jamaica’” and that “earth has nothing more lovely than the pastures and pimento groves of St. Ann.” Port Antonio, he declared, “is very pretty from the sea.”

Whether morning, afternoon, evening, or night, Jamaica is bathed in beauty.

Of the sunset, Leader wrote.

A strikingly beautiful and, to me, altogether novel phenomenon occurs here occasionally after a cloudless sunset. Within a few minutes of the sinking of the sun below the horizon, long streamers of pale crimson light, radiating from the point of the sun’s disappearance, form, and gradually extend entirely across the sky from west to east; the impression given is that of a huge open fan, with its alternate pale crimson and blue shafts projected upon the heavens.

The night was no different:

And then, the languorous day over, comes the charm of the nights (as after dinner we sit out in the piazza overlooking it all, having a quiet smoke), the brilliance of the stars and new constellations, the hiss of the cicada (a lizard-like insect), the cackle of the tree toad, the hum of innumerable insects, and the thousand other strange sounds which reach one, together with the sweet scents, the myriad fire-flies darting hither and thither like little points of electric light, and the almost continual sheet lightning. (I don’t think a day passes but we see the latter.) There is an irresistible witchery in it all.

And the sunrise:

Sunrise is beautiful indeed: the sky tints not gorgeous as at sunset, but more delicate, pale blues and rose and mother-o’-pearl blends prevailing; and in the valleys below you see the mist clouds rolling up and slowly melting. Everything then is deliciously fresh, sweet, and quiet.

The Englishman, entranced by it all, exulted, “there is always something to admire, something novel to be seen, in the course of a ride or drive in this beautiful Island.”

An old poem by a Jamaican under the nom de plume, “Tropica,” captures the Jamaican evening best:

Subtle perfume of some flower —
What it is, no one knows,
Myrtle or orange or logwood —
Jasmine, coffee or rose ;
Flashes of light and of colour —
Firefly flames in the trees.
Murmurs of minor music
From water and birds and breeze;
Tropical earth-laden odours
Coming up from the ground;
A chorus of evening insects
And—twilight falleth around.”