A Visitors paradise

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The rolling hills of the Jamaica Blue Mountain range

Jamaica led the way in the development of Caribbean tourism. Blessed with lush forests, breathtaking mountains, indigenous species of birds, insects and plants, and beautiful white sand beaches, Jamaica, from very early, became a magnet for travelers.

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.”

Edith Blake, in her article, “The Highlands of Jamaica” for the North American Review in 1892, opened her account by declaring, “What most surprised me after a residence in Jamaica long enough to enable me to form an opinion of the climate all the year round, was its comparative coolness.” Speaking of the higher elevations, she said, “The climate of these uplands is perfect, resembling the most lovely English summer weather, with a fresh, exhilarating feeling in the air that recalls Switzerland and the Alps.”

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907, echoed Blake’s sentiments. 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.”

Jamaica International Exhibition

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Jamaica International Exhibit, January-May 1891

The Jamaica International Exhibition from January 27 to May 2 in 1891, was an important contributor to Jamaica becoming a tourism destination.  Jamaica’s governor, Henry Blake, said the exhibition would be “an event of very great importance for the West Indies generally, and one that must have a singular interest for the United States, with its many millions of colored citizens.” England’s Prince of Wales attended the opening.

Conceived in 1889, the exhibition was planned in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, though that occurred in 1838; and to increase and improve the marketability of Jamaica’s products.

Governor Blake said the original intention was to hold a local exhibition in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and then to make it part of the Colonial Exhibit in London in May 1891. The Jamaican support was so great however, and the enthusiasm level so high, that the Jamaican event itself became an international exhibition.

Significantly, while the government gave its backing, it offered no guarantees. There was no paid staff. The work was done entirely by volunteers. “Architects and engineers came forward, designed the buildings free of charge, and undertook to carry out their erection,” Governor Blake said. “Everybody with technical knowledge on any subject freely offered his services to the committee.”

Support came from local donors with three providing guarantees of £15,000, or about £1.74 million in today’s money. In all, £30,000 worth of guarantees were received or £3.48 million in current money. Much of the PR work was done through the churches and schools to get the involvement of small farmers and rural folk.

Parts of the island underwent an overhaul. Bridges were built in St. Thomas and Portland. The Public Works Department took charge of and upgraded various roads. The Railway Company expanded its fleet and tracks. Hotel construction was encouraged through the Jamaica Hotels Law, passed in 1890. According to the Jamaica Tourist Board:

The Government offered to guarantee the capital at 3 percent interest, for all approved hotel construction and maintenance of approved hotels and also that all building materials and furniture required for such hotels be admitted into the island duty free.  As a result several hotels were built not only for the Exhibition, but for those who, having been introduced to Jamaica, would come again and bring others.

Among the hotels built because of government incentives was the majestic Myrtle Bank Hotel, the Queens, Hotel Rio Cobre, the Moneague Hotel, the Titchfield Hotel and the Mandeville Hotel.

The Exhibit venue itself was on what is now the Wolmer’s Girls School.

Different forms of agricultural products, farm animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats and bees, and items made by artisans, silversmiths, craftsmen and craftswomen, were on display. “There is nothing which you grow or make which will not find a place in the exhibition,” the governor said in his invitation sent around the island. Some 90,000 copies of his message were distributed island wide.

More than 300,000 persons attended the exhibition, with between 13,000 and 14,000 present at the closing session that ended with fireworks. The Jamaica International Exhibition brought a boom to the Jamaican economy. The financial year, March 31, 1891, ended with a handsome surplus of £172,000.

Government incentives
The next phase of Jamaican and Caribbean tourism development occurred in the 1920s when the industry became more formally organized. The government established the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1922, which was merged with the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1926. Government spent annual sums to promote the country as a tourism destination, collaborating with hotels and shipping companies. This led to a sharp rise in the number of rooms available, and Montego Bay on the northwest coast of the island became a favored destination.

The 1930s saw further growth. A travel tax was imposed to help finance promotion. Political problems in nearby Cuba led visitors to choose Jamaica as an alternative vacation destination. Airlines such as Pan Am expanded and improved international air travel, which increased even further after the end of World War II.

With tourism now big business, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) was formed in 1955, displacing the Tourist Trade Development Board. JTB offices were opened in major cities such as New York, Miami, Chicago and London. The Jamaica Hotels Aids Law of 1963 allowed duty free importation of materials for the construction of new and the expansion of existing hotels.

Some wealthy and well-known personalities, such as the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and British author, Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond franchise, bought property in Jamaica and lived at least part time on the island. Flynn, who owned the Titchfield Hotel in Portland in eastern Jamaica, helped to develop the tourism industry in that part of the island. It was he who popularized river rafting on the Rio Grande as an attraction for visitors after witnessing banana farmers transporting their products on bamboo rafts from their farms down river to the port.

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Negril Beach in western Jamaica

Today, tourism is Jamaica’s largest single business. More than 50 percent of the country’s income is earned from tourism, which employs some 25 percent of workers. Massive hotels now grace the north coast from Negril in the west to Ocho Rios in the east. Other large properties are slated for development, with the largest yet, Harmony Cove in Trelawny to be built on 1,400 acres, still on the drawing board. A mega resort and casino, Harmony Cove is projected to have as many as 5,000 rooms.

It could be argued that though Jamaica gets some three million overseas visitors per year, more than the country’s population, the majority do not get to see the most beautiful parts. Restricting their stays to the coasts where they laze on the beaches, they do not see or experience what so enthralled Sibbald David Scott, Edith Blake, Alfred Leader and others in the early days: the lush forests, the breathtaking mountains, meandering rivers and invigorating mineral springs.  Perhaps that is just as well. Massive crowds at such venues and locations may just water down the experience.

Personal accounts of 1907 quake

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Destroyed rail system and other structures in Kingston, Jamaica, after the January 1907 earthquake. Photo courtesy of www.tramz.com

Each January, seismologists never fail to remind us that Jamaica is overdue for another massive earthquake, perhaps bigger than those of 1692, which destroyed Port Royal, and at approximately 3:30 p.m. on January 14, 1907, which devastated Kingston. Essentially, we are told that Jamaica is living on borrowed time with respect to another earthquake hitting the island.

While there were personal testimonies coming out of the 1692 event, there is a rich storehouse of individual accounts in the wake of the 1907 devastation. In a previous blog post, I wrote that “the 1907 fire and quake left an indelible mark on Jamaica’s capital for years, accounting for the death of about 800 persons.”

I further noted:

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.

Another account shortly after the earthquake gave slightly different details:

On the afternoon of January 14 Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, a city of about 80,000 inhabitants, was practically destroyed by earthquake and fire. The deaths number over 1,000. There were about 10,000 houses in the city and parish of Kingston, of which about 96 percent were wholly or partly of brick. Not one hundred of these buildings was in a habitable condition after the calamity.

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A bird’s eye view of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake

In Through Jamaica with a Kodak, Alfred Leader, writing several months after the earthquake, declared, “recent troubles arising from the hurricane of 1903 and the earthquake of 1907 have undoubtedly caused distress, difficulty, and anxiety, and have hindered the progress and prosperity that had begun to develop.”

Myron Fuller of the United States Geological Survey toured the island, starting in March 1907. He reported on eyewitness accounts he received:

The earthquake was accompanied by a loud noise, described as a deep crushing sound, somewhat suggesting distant thunder but with less boom and more of a roar. Intermixed with the natural sounds proceeding from the earth was the crashing of the buildings and the cries of the people, the two together being described as almost deafening.

According to Fuller, darkness caused by dust followed the quake:

One of the phenomena described by all eye-witnesses was the notable darkness following the shock. The local mortar, rather poor at the best, which was used in most of the buildings, pulverized quickly, and was projected into the air together with other dust in immense quantities as the buildings fell, saturating the atmosphere until it was almost impenetrable to the sun’s rays. After the cessation of the shock it slowly settled, covering everything with a thick white mantle of fine calcareous silt.

Fuller noted something peculiar:

One of the striking features of the earthquake was the few windows which were broken. In many instances the window frames, without a single pane broken, were seen where the brick walls surrounding them had crumbled and fallen. This immunity seems to indicate that while there was much shaking there was relatively little tortional or crushing movements in the walls.

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Many Kingstonians took refuge at Knutsford Park Race Course after the 1907 earthquake. The park has since been transformed into what is now New Kingston, Jamaica’s main business district. 

Horace Russell, in Much to Live On, recounts the experiences of Terrence Haddon Duncanson, who was to become a longstanding Baptist missionary to Panama several years later:

He had just returned to the workshop from the Savings Bank where he had deposited a shilling when the earthquake struck. At the first shock he took to his heels and was able to make it outside the building before the aftershocks. Others were not as fortunate and he later discovered that several of his workmates died when the workshop collapsed on them. Panic stricken, he kept on running, trying to make it to the Kinkeade‘s Drug Store where his brother worked. As he ran it seemed to him that the whole city was in ruins around him and he could hear the groans and cries of people trapped, injured and dying in the collapsed buildings and rubble. For a while he lost his bearings because the usual landmarks were gone but he knew he had to run towards the east and he knew where the east was. He eventually found his brother and together they made their way to the Kingston Race Course on the edge of the city.

The Kingston Race Course is now New Kingston. Those who know the city are aware that this was a fairly long trek, going north toward Cross Roads before reaching the racetrack.

Russell, who is perhaps the leading church historian from the English-speaking Caribbean, wrote:

Those who could instinctively made their way to the Racecourse since it was the largest available open space. The earthquake was followed by a fire and what the earthquake did not destroy the fire did. Added to which there was also great fear of a tidal wave as the sea had retreated well beyond the Palisadoes during the shocks and was expected to rush back at any moment. It was awful.

The events of that fateful day left an awesome imprint on Terrence’s mind. In recalling the happenings of the time he would often say that there were two things he would never forget. The first was how he did not remember that there was choir practice that evening at church and the second was a line he had repeated involuntarily as he ran to save himself. He had learned it in elementary school and it had remained a constant reminder of the power of Nature and the helplessness of Humankind before its terrors.

One touch of Nature makes all the world kin.

…. For the next two weeks his brother and he with hundreds more lived in tents at the Kingston Race Course. They were destitute and had to depend on handouts of food from the government, the churches and the goodwill of the more fortunate.

A version of the actual earthquake was given by Fuller, whom we mentioned earlier, in his report published on October 1, 1907. It was based on observations he made and “upon interviews with government officials and others who were present in the city at the time of the disaster.”

“The principal shock, which was the only one producing any, serious damage, took place at 33 minutes and 6 seconds past 3 o’clock in the afternoon of January 14, 1907, and lasted about 30 seconds,” Fuller wrote. “The vibrations were not of uniform strength, but were marked, according to descriptions, by at least three recurrent pulsations of alternating low and high intensities.” The weather, he said, was clear.

Another explanation, also written in 1907, gave reasons for the devastation of Kingston:

Mr. Charles Davison, formerly Secretary of the British Association’s Earth Tremors Committee, calls attention in the London Times (weekly edition, January 25, 1907) to the fact that the foundation of Kingston consists of beds of sand and gravel, brought down from the northern mountains. It is on ground of this kind that earthquake shocks attain their maximum intensity.

It further states:

He urges that, if Kingston is rebuilt on its present site, it may again be visited by great earthquakes, and that their effects will be all the more serious on account of the low-lying position of the town and the loose and friable nature of its foundation. There is no other harbour in the island to compare with the extensive haven between Kingston and Port Royal, and the new town will certainly not be far distant from its shores.

Was this making a case for Kingston not to be rebuilt on its current site? I’m curious as to what seismologists say.

A quasi-scientific reason was offered by Fuller with obvious reservation as to its veracity. “The shock occurred near the date of the new moon at which period, it is claimed by some, the Jamaica earthquakes are particularly likely to occur, owing to the supplementary attraction due to the conjunction of sun and moon.”

Kingston was, however, rebuilt. H.G De Lisser in his 1913 book, Twentieth Century Jamaica, made the interesting observation that “Kingston has had the advantage (my emphasis) of being destroyed by fire two or three times, and of being shaken down by an earthquake in January, 1907. Except for that little matter of the corrugated iron roofing, it has benefited much by these catastrophies (sic), having improved itself on each occasion as far as the means, tastes, and ambitions of its inhabitants would allow it to do so.”

For instance, De Lisser said in reference to King Street in downtown Kingston:

Since that year (1907) the city has got at least one street of which it has good reason to be proud, a street which as a business and commercial centre is the finest in all the West Indies. It is well paved, well served by electric cars, taxi-motors, and horsecabs; the buildings on either side are strong, earthquake proof, and sufficiently commodious for the purposes they are intended to serve; in this thoroughfare, too, are the new public gardens, and the colonnades in front of the stores enable the pedestrian to walk nearly the whole length of lower King Street without being roasted by the sun.

Kingston did bounce back, but while Jamaica waits for the next big quake, one hopes lessons learned from 1907 are being applied.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Small country, big punch

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Jamaican Bob Marley, an internationally recognized global super star

Jamaica punches way above its weight. An island of about 2.8 million people, its name and influence reaches far and deep.

There are the well-known facts. Jamaica gifted the world with reggae music and before that, ska; the Rastafarian name and culture is widely known, largely due to the intertwining of Rastafarianism and reggae music, a global phenomenon; Jamaica is a track and field sprinting powerhouse and, next to the United States, has the highest number of sprinting medals, of all colors, among Olympians; Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is among the most prized, and expensive, in the world, fetching upwards of US$30 a pound.

There are the lesser known facts. Jamaica was the first country to impose economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa; Jamaica was the first country in the tropics to enter the IOC Winter Olympics; Jamaica was the first colony England acquired by conquest rather than settlement; Ian Fleming wrote 10 of his James Bond novels in Jamaica, where he had taken up residence; Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally; Jamaicans are the largest group of American immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean; during the 1970s and early 1980s about 15 percent of the population left the country.

There are the facts that are almost never known: Jamaica has more multiple (two or more) live births than anywhere else in the world (lots of twins and quite a few triplets); Jamaica is the first country to sign a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grant agreement; Jamaica was the first British colonial territory to establish a postal service, in the year 1688; Jamaica and Mauritania are the only countries whose flags do not share any of the colors of the American flag; it was the first country in the Caribbean to have a website, www.jamaicatravel.com, launched in 1994; chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica; 200 species of wild orchids grow in Jamaica, 73 of which are unique to the country; it is claimed that AT&T, the American company, copied Jamaica’s telephone system.

And there are the facts that are mostly forgotten. Jamaica was the first country in the Western world to construct a railway, even before the United States; Jamaica was the first commercial producer of bananas in the Western hemisphere; Jamaica gave birth to Caribbean tourism; the Manchester Golf Club in Jamaica, established in 1868, is the oldest in the western hemisphere; Jamaica, it is alleged, had electricity and running water before the United States.

Bob Marley
I never knew how big a deal Bob Marley was until my graduate studies in the US in the 1990s. Upon learning I’m Jamaican, students would invariably mention Bob as the one identifying feature of the country they know. His name and fame has not diminished. At a global event in Hawaii a few years ago, I and a Bangladeshi, in our quest to find a food court, solicited the help of a kind young woman whom we met during the search. Recognizing we were not Hawaiians, and likely not Americans, she asked us where we were from. “Bangladesh,” my companion said. She puzzled a look, “Where is that?” After he informed her that Bangladesh is in Asia, I said to her, “Well I’m sure you’ve never heard of my country, Jamaica.” She expressed surprise at my ignorance. “Of course, Bob Marley.”

Bangladesh has a population of almost 170 million people, the eighth most populous country in the world. Jamaica, with 2.8 million, is ranked at 139.

That Marley has made a significant, unique, and decisive contribution has been supported by scholarship. Masa-Hide Kato, in a doctoral dissertation done at the University of Hawaii, found Marley to be a revolutionary figure “in the age of global transnational capitalism.” Marley’s music and message, he argues, was part of the “trans-popular culture” that was part of the decolonization process that challenged “the age of global transnational capitalism.”

Harold Preston Coleman’s 1998 PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa finds Marley to be a charismatic authority “within the social and cultural milieu of the period during which (he) was recording and performing 1973-1981,” and even after his death.

And Grant Aubrey Farred’s 1997 Princeton University PhD dissertation declares Marley on “Organic and vernacular intellectual” in the struggle for “black liberation and political independence.” Farred’s claim that Marley made an important contribution to the struggle for “black liberation and political independence” is of course not related solely to Jamaica. It is well known that Marley’s music and message served as an inspiration to various independent movements in Africa in the 1970s, most notably in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as struggles in Mozambique and Angola.

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Marcus Garvey heavily influenced Africans in Africa and the Diaspora

It need not be said that Marcus Garvey is deeply revered by Africans and elements in the African American community. A Ghanaian immigrant in the US felt, upon meeting me, that he was in the presence of someone special, not because of me of course, but because of Garvey. “Africa would be very different today if we had followed Garvey,” he said in reverential tones.

Jamaicans are everywhere. It is an arresting experience, a very pleasant one, to deplane at an airport in Dubai or in Singapore and one of the first things you see in the arrival terminal is a huge photograph of Usain Bolt.

A group of us Jamaicans were walking in Amsterdam when we saw a fellow, on his cell phone, speaking, in not very soft tones, in clear Jamaican lingo. We all walked up to him. “Whey yah do yah so?” We asked. Ending his call, he recalled for us his family’s journey from St. Thomas in Jamaica to Coventry in England to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

At an event in Jordan, (Jordan!) I noticed a woman on the outskirts of the audience, trying to get the best camera angle of my Jamaican colleague, the main speaker. Accompanied by her daughter, she made sure to find us at the end of the ceremony. Having not a clue who the speaker was, she discerned, upon hearing his voice, that it must be a Jamaican. She had been living in Jordan for more than 20 years, where her daughter was born.

We attended meetings in Panama whereupon one of the Ecuadorian delegates made it a point to introduce herself. Her grandfather, she said, got converted, many decades earlier, under the preaching of a Jamaican at a railway station in Ecuador, a Spanish speaking South American country. That fateful encounter changed the course of her family’s trajectory and history.

We were at an event in Havana, Cuba. Our translator had a very English maiden name, “Lawrence,” whereupon we made known our curiosity. “My father’s family is from Jamaica,” she said, explaining that she still has relatives in St. Mary.

We likkle but we tallawah. We small but we big. We are a dot in the ocean that has sent ripples across the globe. In boxing parlance, we are of featherweight size but punch like a super middleweight.