The jankro (john crow) and other birds of Jamaica

The baldpate, the most prized by bird shooters

If you grew up on an 800-plus acre property as I did with two months out of school during summer each year, bird shooting is a major pastime. We had acres and acres to roam and hours upon hours to do so. Not that I was any good, just decent at best. But my brothers! One, in particular, was as good with a slingshot as Sohrab in The Kite Runner.

This may have prepared him for what he did for about a decade or so as a member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. He never really talked about what he did on the job, but I later got a hint from a member of my church who happened to have belonged to the same unit at the Mobile Reserve as he was. My brother had, by then, left the force years before. After expressing his surprise at the discovery that his erstwhile colleague and I are brothers, the church member let the puss (cat) out of the bag. “Your brother, he was one of our sharpshooters!” meaning he was a sniper. Pointing to somewhere on his upper body, he said, “sharpshooters wear this insignia on their uniform. He was one of the best.”

I guess having the skill to pick off a baldpate (we said bald plate) from way up at the top of a tall tree with a slingshot prepares you for sniper duty.

As summertime bird shooters, we were familiar with many varieties of birds, which ones to shoot and which not. We always aimed for the prized ones. The baldpate was the most prized; the largest, the rarest and the most difficult to find, and just as difficult to shoot down with a slingshot – you have to hit it in the head or aim for the heart. Next to the baldpate were the peadove and the whitewing (lapwing), the former more common, the latter much less so. One of the easiest targets was the loggerhead, which seemed to court death by being easy to find and sitting on low branches. It could, however, be fierce if it had young, in which case we would not bother to try and shoot it if we knew this.

The bird we feared the most was the pitchary, related to the loggerhead. It attacked without even being provoked, swooping down toward your head and seemingly aiming for the eyes.

Perhaps the hardest bird to take down, next to the baldpate, was the woodpecker. Tough as nails and difficult to see against the bark of a tree, where it often lodged itself. Its red head would give it away. No matter how well you hit it, even in the head, it seems to never fall. To take down a woodpecker was a feat, prized primarily because taking it down shows prowess with a slingshot.

jamaica slingshot
We boys made slingshots like this while growing up

Visitors to Jamaica seemed to have long been fascinated with its birds. As early as 1847, Philip Henry Gosse published a full volume titled, The Birds of Jamaica. W. T. March’s Notes on the Birds of Jamaica came out in an 1864 journal; W.E.D. Scott published, Observations on the Birds of Jamaica, West Indies in a journal in 1891; and Notes on the Birds of Port Henderson by G.W. Field was part of a larger volume in 1894. You get the picture.

Perhaps because of this interest, legislation was passed to protect birds and to regulate the shooting season. One such piece of legislation was Law 32 of 1886. It protected a host of birds – the Jamaica black bird, canary and the finch, except for the jack sparrow. The hummingbird, robbin red breast, swallow, solitaire, nightingale, flycatcher, warblers , john tewit, anteater , troopial, banana quit, blue quit, orange quit, mosquitto hawks or gi-mi-mi-bits, and the oldman or rain bird all made the protected list.

I remember shooting the various “quits” without knowing they were once protected. On this protected list were loggerheads and woodpeckers!

The law protected “certain birds which were being rapidly exterminated on account of the value of their plumage as well as others that are especially useful to agriculture as insect destroyers.” As an example, B. Pullen-Burry, writing in 1905, said “the parrot, with its gaudy plumage, and the macaw almost cease to exist.”

The 1886 law mandated a close season for bird shooting from March to July or August, depending on the species of bird or location in the island. The species to which this applied were specially named, among which were the much sought after baldpate along with the blue pigeon, ringtail, parrots, parrakeets, peadoves , whitewing, ground doves, hopping dicks, glasseyes, coots, white belly, mountain witch, partridge and pitcharies.

Law 4 in 1887 empowered the governor to add other birds to any of the two lists, the protected and the regulated, and Law 16 of 1899 authorized the governor to extend the close season.

john crow
The infamous john crow. Early English settlers mistook it for turkey and tried to eat it.

One bird comes in for special mention: the John Crow. Even though I did not see it on the list of protected birds in the 1886 law, Sir Archibald David Scott, writing in 1875 on his trip to Jamaica, said:

These birds are ugly, but useful in consuming carrion and other impurities. They are, therefore, protected by law; a fine of £3 is attached to the wanton destruction of them. In consequence of their immunity they fly almost within arm’s reach of us; a peculiarity which strikes me about these birds is, that they never seem to flap their wings.

Yes, the famous (infamous?) Jamaican john crow/jankro/jranko was protected. I wonder if it still is.

We are aghast that the early English settlers mistook these carrion eaters for turkeys and actually tried to consume them:

The Jack Crows (sic) sitting on the housetops with outspread wings fit in with other objects in the tropical landscape. Sir Hans Sloane said when the English first landed they mistook these birds for turkeys, “by their bareness and colour of the skin on the head.” He narrates that some killed them, labouring under this delusion, “but the offensiveness of their lean bodies soon deceived them” (B. Pullen-Burry, 1905).


Is Port Royal cursed?

Previous posts in this space mentioned the many vicissitudes the once richest and “wickedest city in the world,” Port Royal, faced over the centuries. Those who know anything about Port Royal are aware it was once the capital of Jamaica, the stomping ground for pirates and the playground of Henry Morgan, perhaps the most famous of the many pirates to have set foot in Jamaica.

It is also well known that Port Royal was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1692. The assumption of many, including me, is that Port Royal fell into general disuse after that earthquake. But while it became a shadow of its former self, Port Royal continued to play an important role, especially as a port of entry and as a marina for ships and boats, and as a naval base for soldiers.

View of Port Royal Jamaica. Richard Paton (1717-91), c.1758.

But, for whatever reason, Port Royal faced disaster after disaster, as if the city was cursed. Even though some of what is written here was mentioned in previous blog posts, I thought it would be interesting to include it all in one article, to set a clearer picture of the trials and tribulations faced by the city.

Hurricanes and storms attacked the city again and again, causing substantial damage in 1680, 1683 and 1686, doing enough to cause jitters before the 1692 earthquake. Other hurricanes devastated the place in 1722 and 1744, setting back the earthquake recovery further. Others followed in 1880 and 1903, which dealt severe blows. A total of at least eight severe hurricanes. There were others that passed off the coast that affected the city without making a direct hit.

There were a number of devastating fires, such as in 1703, which, according to the records, destroyed the town, causing the most serious setback to the earthquake recovery that occurred just a little over a decade earlier. Yet another large fire sparked on July 13, 1816, destroying nearly the entire place. “Since the occurrence of this fire the town has ceased to be a commercial center and Port Royal is now of importance only as a naval and military station,” the 1895 edition of the Handbook of Jamaica indicated.

Port Royal was a beachhead for diseases and infections, partly due to its status as a port of entry. This at a time when infectious diseases had few known cures and no vaccinations and traveled from place to place via modes of transportation, such as shipping vessels. Cholera decimated the population in the period 1850-1852 (the records differ on the dates the outbreak actually occurred, though the consensus suggests 1851). Several outbreaks of yellow fever emerged in the early 20th century from about 1902 to at least 1905, including among soldiers that were quartered there.

Port Royal - 1891 -photo by James Valentine and Sons
Port Royal in 1891 – James Valentine and Sons

Despite all that, Port Royal continues to exist, a monument to resilience. It is a pity, however, that the town, a mere runt of what it was, continues to languish. Cursed or not, Port Royal has much value that goes beyond the many historical artifacts and structures of the place. Having been to Williamsburg in Virginia, the first capital of the United States, I realized the possibilities of a place like Port Royal that our planners, leaders and investors continue to miss. At Williamsburg, they do constant reenactments of what life was like back in early colonial times. This is a major draw for tourists. People dress the part. They put on shows. There are displays. Souvenir shops sell items that supposedly represent what things were like back in the 17th century. It is all a piece to present a part of American history as it purportedly was back then.

Why not Port Royal? Robert Stephens, for years, beat his head against the wall to get both government and investors interested in the potential of Port Royal, without much success. Am I a dreamer to think that tourists, for instance, would pay good money to dress up as pirates on a ship that traverses the bay at Kingston Harbor? Knowing Americans as I think I do, they would absolutely go for it, in good numbers and for a good price.

At a time when Jamaica needs to diversify its tourism product, the bread and butter of the country, surely some enterprising person or persons can see the possibilities and take action, ensuring that the current residents benefit from the developments and are not left out, or worse, get displaced, because of it. The entire town could be a tourism mecca unlike anything else in the Caribbean.

Diseases and pestilences

Who of us who lived through early 1980s Jamaica can forget the stir caused by Michigan and Smiley’s song, Diseases, released just before a polio outbreak in the country?

Min’ Jah lick yu wid diseases
The most dangerous diseases
I’m talking like the elephantitis
The other one is the poliomyelitis
Arthritis and the one diabetes.

Some regarded the song as prescient, even prophetic. Thankfully, the spread of polio was controlled through the quick and authoritative action of the health authorities.

As an island with multiple entry points, Jamaica has always been susceptible to the possible “importation” of diseases and epidemics. The country, therefore, has become highly sensitive and edgy even at the mere threat of diseases and outbreaks.

A few years ago, a young immigration officer at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay got testy with me after I declared, as required, that I had been to Haiti just several weeks before. Haiti, at the time, suffered from a cholera outbreak.

After I protested her decision that I go through a health screening before being granted entry into the country, she blurted out so that all within earshot could hear, “You wan’ go Haiti and bring cholera inna di country!”

This sensitivity to the entry of diseases goes way back. In earlier centuries, the main concerns were over cholera and yellow fever.  The publication, Jamaica in 1896: Handbook of Information, said “Asiatic Cholera visited the island” in 1850. “The deaths were estimated at 32,000.” This was out of a population of roughly 400,000, according to John Bigelow in his book, Jamaica in 1850, originally published in 1851.

In 1852, medical doctor John Parkin wrote an extensive 82-page Statistical Report of The Epidemic Cholera In Jamaica in which he, among other things, said the disease, “in the course of a few months, decimated the Island of Jamaica.”

Parkin’s report stated:

The Epidemic Cholera, as is well known, commenced in the Island of Jamaica, at Port Royal, on the 8th of October, 1851, and, in a few weeks, carried off a third of the population. It had been prevailing at Chagres, and on the Isthmus of Panama, for some time previously; and it was stated, that the disease had been imported into this Island by one of the American steamers, which touch here on their voyage from the above port to New York.

He said “the disease soon spread to Kingston, on the opposite side of the bay carrying off 6,000 out of a population of 40,000” after which it “spread with unusual rapidity to other parts of the Island.”

One is left to conjecture if Jamaica in 1896, published by the Institute of Jamaica, which said the cholera outbreak was in 1850, and Parkin’s book, which said it happened in 1851, referred to the same outbreak or whether there were two just a year, or even a few months apart.

A debate in the parliament of Britain in June 1852 put a different spin on what transpired in the colony. “Affairs in Jamaica were now looking so awfully ruinous, and prospects so mournfully distressing,” a parliamentarian and Jamaican plantation owner stated. Based on remarks made in that session, the cholera epidemic occurred in 1851 and a smallpox outbreak happened in 1852: “The successive and calamitous dispensations of Providence—the ravages of the cholera last year [1851], and of the small-pox this year [1852], bade fair to deprive the colonists of the legitimate stock of labour to which they were entitled.”

It would be helpful that a historian with a handle on the facts explain the obvious discrepancies in the records.

It appears the Jamaican Assembly was tardy, perhaps even uninterested in providing assistance to help those affected by the outbreaks. Sir George Grey, speaking in the British parliament on July 7, 1854, expressed regret that “the House of Assembly at Jamaica had declined to provide the funds for sending the requisite medical and other assistance” while, at the same time, failing to make requests of the British government for assistance.

Remains of the Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt 1818 - 2
Remains of the Old Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt in 1818. Port Royal was one of the main entry points for diseases into Jamaica. (Photo courtesy of UDC).

Much of what we learn of the action taken during outbreaks came from reports made by United States consul officers in Jamaica, who made regular dispatches to the State Department in the US. For some reason, Port Royal appeared to be ground zero for entry of diseases into the country. A dispatch from Kingston on April 1, 1901, by Ethelbert Watts, US Consul, read, “I have the honor to report that a few days ago I learned incidentally from a friend that several cases of yellow fever existed at Port Royal, this island, and in consequence the white troops stationed there were ordered up the hills.”

Just about a year later, on March 6, 1902, Consul William B. Sorsby wrote to the US Assistant Secretary of State that “there were several cases of yellow fever at Port Royal” and that “the superintendent of the island medical office who told me that three cases of yellow fever had developed in the barracks among the troops at Port Royal.” Once again, “the troops had immediately been sent to the mountain.”

The constant threat of cholera, yellow fever and other infections eventually led authorities to take decisive action to prevent disease entering into the colony. Threat levels seemed to have been high early in the twentieth century. On July 6, 1903, a commercial agent in Port Antonio said “ships arriving from Philadelphia are now detained by quarantine on account of smallpox.” US Vice-Consul Orrett reported on August 9, 1905, “by an official publication the governor of this island has declared New Orleans is, as well as the Republic of Panama (including the Canal Zone), to be infected places within the meaning of the quarantine laws, in view of the prevalence of yellow fever in those respective places.”

In an August 2, 1911, report, a Dr. Geddes mentioned the “measures against importation of cholera” into Jamaica. He said “the port quarantine authorities have decided that all vessels arriving from New York must, before coming alongside their piers, pump out all water that may be in any part of the vessel.”

US Consul Dreher reported on June 28, 1912, “that strict quarantine regulations have been established by the Government of Jamaica against Porto Rico on account of the outbreak of bubonic plague in that island. During this quarantine no vessel from Porto Rico will be allowed to land at any port in the island of Jamaica.” Dreher, in an update in August of that year, reported from Port Antonio “that the quarantine regulations put in force against arrivals from Porto Rico have been extended to apply to vessels coming from Cuba.”

During the SARS scare in China in 2002 and that of the global fear over swine flu in 2009, Jamaica was placed on high alert. The country battled the outbreak of the Chikungunya virus in 2014 and it now faces the threat of the Zika virus. With all this happening, we are reminded that the fear of outbreaks and infestation is nothing new. It goes back centuries.

Killer Hurricanes

It is June, which means we are officially in the Atlantic hurricane season where islands of the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas brace for major storms.

I remember a common saying heard during my childhood, often spoken by an adult to an adolescent. “You a young bud, you nuh know hurricane.” It was usually a retort to beliefs or steps or actions taken by a youngster who is unaware or unmindful of the risks or the dangers involved.

Literally speaking, this held true, for Jamaica went for 37 years without a direct hit from a major storm – Hurricane Charlie in 1951 and Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The operative term is “direct hit from a major storm,” for the island did suffer from the effects of various cyclones in the interim, such as Hurricane Hazel in 1954 that caused 32 deaths from rain and flooding.

Some of the destruction Hurricane Gilbert caused Jamaica in 1988. Photo courtesy of

As “young buds,” we really did not know hurricanes. I recall my father being annoyed with a nephew of his who, at the prospect of Hurricane David landing on Jamaica in 1978, declared his desire to “know what a hurricane is like.” David sliced by Jamaica without hitting it directly, though there was much rain and a few uprooted trees, including a large “cuscus” breadfruit tree in our yard. My father used the exact words to his nephew (my cousin), hinting at the danger a hurricane poses, “You a young bud, you nuh know hurricane.” Hurricane Allen gave us a better taste of a major storm in 1980, slicing to Jamaica’s north at 130 mph without landing directly on the island, causing much damage from flooding, wind and landslides.

I already had the sense of danger of what hurricanes were like, for my father regaled us with his experiences during the 1944 hurricane and Charlie in 1951. And even though Charlie was the hurricane most talked and written about, he insisted the 1944 storm was the worst of the two.  Years later, I learned that the 1944 storm mostly affected the northern portion of the island, where we lived in St. Ann, while Charlie caused more widespread damage throughout the island. Both were of similar strength. 1944 had wind speeds of 120 miles per hour while Charlie attained 125, but Charlie killed 154 and left some 50,000 homeless.

I lived through two hurricanes prior to leaving the country, Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Since then, Hurricanes Dean in 2007 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have landed on the island’s shores.

Great hurricanes of past centuries
Jamaica has long been susceptible to, and suffered much from a good many hurricanes. There were hurricanes almost back to back in 1571, 1574, 1577, 1578 and 1579 and another in 1597. The latter part of the 17th century saw storms in 1683, 1686, 1689, 1690 and 1692. Some 12 hurricanes landed on the island between 1712 and 1804, including the “great hurricanes” of 1712, 1722 and 1780. There were hurricanes in 1812, 1813 (two in August of that year), 1815 and 1818, with others also in 1874, 1880 and 1886.

The early 20th saw quite a few, 1903, 1912, 1915 and 1916.

Gable at Mico College blown down in Hurricane 190
A building at Mico College in St. Andrew damaged by the 1903 hurricane. Photo courtesy of

Of the 1597 storm, Francis J. Osborne, writing in the History of the Catholic Church in Jamaica, said:

The first sign of impending disaster came during the previous day when an ominous stillness filled the atmosphere and not a leaf stirred on the trees. The morning sun was reported to have changed to an awesome orange hue in the late afternoon, while several hours previously storm winds began to stir, mounting in intensity as time progressed until black clouds darkened the heavens with heavy rains driven by the fury of the storm. Gusting up to one hundred miles an hour, the hurricane swept through the streets of Santiago de la Vega (Spanish Town), driving the rain with such force that it entered every crevice, lifted roofs from their supports, and hurled them miles away, while walls collapsed like paper.

Jamaica in 1896: Handbook of Information, published by the Institute of Jamaica, mentioned a hurricane in 1711 rather than 1712, in opposition to other sources. It said the “severe storm in the western part of the island, the parish of Westmoreland alone sustaining damage to the extent of £700,000.” That is, Westmoreland was devastated to the tune of more than £140 million or more than US$204 million in today’s currency.

Among the major landmarks affected by the 1712 hurricane was “the old Cathedral… called the Church of St. Catherine’s, and is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Jamaica.” The cathedral, which is still a major landmark in Spanish Town in St. Catherine, was restored in 1714 and its tower added in 1817.

According to the Handbook of Jamaica, the August 22, 1722, hurricane did extensive damage to Port Royal. It “swept the greater portion of the buildings into the sea and destroyed a number of lives.” Of the 50 vessels that were docked in the harbor, only “four men-of-war and two merchant ships alone rode out the storm,” and even these lost their masts and sails.

The hurricane in 1744 “can never be remembered without horror” for the damage it caused in Savanah-la-mar in Westmoreland and elsewhere. “The sea bursting its ancient limits overwhelmed that unhappy town and swept it to instant destruction, leaving not a vestige of man, beast or habitation behind. So sudden and comprehensive was the stroke,” one Bryan Edwards reported. “I think the catastrophe of Savanna la Mar was even more terrible, in many respects, than that of Port Royal.”

Pullen-Burry in his 1905 book, Ethiopia in Exile: Jamaica Revisited, reported that “Admiral Collingwood, the friend and companion of Nelson, was in 1781 wrecked in the good ship Pelican, off Morant Cays, in a hurricane.” The Morant Cays, part of Jamaican territory, lie to the east.

Jamaica in 1896 claimed that in 1784, 1785 and 1786, “the island was visited by very severe storms, and a large number of Negroes perished from famine.”

As a child, we had a rhyme that went: “June too soon, July standby, August you must, September remember, October all over.” This supposedly summed up the regular hurricane season, but this was not always so. The 1670, 1726, 1744, 1780, 1786, 1812, 1815 and 1844 hurricanes all occurred in October. Those in 1818, 1874 and 1912 occurred in November.

We were told “the island was afflicted with a hurricane (November, 1874) by which many of the provision grounds of the peasantry were destroyed.”

Port Royal seemed to have been especially affected by natural disasters. Jamaican history speaks much of the 1692 earthquake that destroyed the city. But hurricanes seemed to have played a part in its demise as well, including those that occurred in 1680, 1683 and 1686. We spoke earlier of the devastation caused to Port Royal in 1722 and that town and Savana-la-mar in 1744. Other hurricanes pounded the once “wickedest city in the world,” including one in 1880. “Port Royal suffered severely in the hurricane of the 18th August 1880, and very many of the houses, then wholly or partially destroyed, remain in a condition of dilapidation,” the 1900 edition of the Handbook of Jamaica recorded. The monster hurricane of 1903 did not help.

The devastating hurricane in 1903 seemed to have rivaled the destruction caused by Hurricanes Charlie and Gilbert. It packed winds of 120 mph and affected much of the colony. “On 11th August the Island was visited by one of the most disastrous hurricanes that have smitten Jamaica for many years,” the Handbook of Jamaica recorded.

Wide-spread destruction was caused to growing crops and buildings. The devastation was wholesale in the banana-growing parishes of St. Mary, Portland, St. Thomas and the plains of St. Catherine, and the money value of the crops, including the coconut groves of St. Mary and Portland was estimated at several millions sterling. The pimento crop was also swept away, and it is estimated that fully one half of the pimento trees was uprooted or blown down. It is believed that over 65 deaths were more or less caused directly by the storm.

The August 13, 1903, issue of the Daily Telegraph in England reported the loss at £2 million, which is £220 million in today’s currency or more than US$316 million.

Alfred Leader, in his book, Through Jamaica with a Kodak, published in 1907, reported that:

On these journeys you frequently see evidences of the effects of the great hurricane of 1903, the many broken cocoanut (sic) palms, which one finds in places along the coast, showing the path of the gale. A member of one of the churches built on high ground, in describing the terrible experiences of that time, said that the people flocked to the church (built by themselves) for protection, thinking their last hour had come. Their church, although in so exposed a position, weathered the gale admirably.

A special law was passed to assist those who were severely affected. “Law 47 — The Hurricane Loans Law, 1903, providing for the issue of Government Loans to persons whose cultivation has been destroyed by the hurricane of the 11th August, 1903.” The law led to the appointment of a special “Hurricane Loan Officer” to handle claims and assistance.

For hundreds of years, Jamaica and Jamaicans have bounced back hurricane after hurricane. As things are, with climate change, global warming and all, the island will likely face more storms to come.