An ass of a story

Of all animals, the donkey is perhaps the most important in rural Jamaica, certainly for small farmers in the interior for whom the donkey is an indispensable means of transport to and from their small plots in the hills and mountains.

I first realized how significant the lowly donkey is when I lived and served in hilly, rural Clarendon in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. On the weekend, two dozen or more donkeys would be “parked” in the Rock River town square as the farmers descend from the hills to make purchases at Mr. Alty’s shop and other outlets, and to enjoy some good Jamaican “whites” at the bars.

Evan Jones’ poem, Banana Man, captures well the importance of the donkey to the Jamaican rural farmer:

Banana day is my special day,
I cut my stems an I’m on m’way,
Load up de donkey, leave de lan
Head down de hill to banana stan

Donkey and owners - Kingston -1900 - Library of Congress Online Catalog
A donkey and its owners in Jamaica, 1900. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Online Catalog

The Christian Work and the Evangelist: Volume 76, published in January 1904, made declarations steeped in the prejudices of the times, but depicted accurately, how important the donkey was:

…in the beautiful island of Jamaica, the donkey is the chosen companion of the black and colored people, for it is nearly four hundred years since his first asinine ancestor was introduced there, a short period in advance of the African himself. Without the ass, indeed, the black man in the tropics would feel himself lost, unable perhaps to transact the humble business which fills the measure of his days. Living in the hills and mountains, far distant from the markets of town and city, he could not so well transport the products of his gardens and provision grounds as he now does with the assistance of his four-footed friend.

The same January 1904 issue of The Christian Work and the Evangelist noted:

One of the most interesting sights in Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica, is that of the long procession of black and colored women coming in from the country districts with the donkey-loads of charcoal, bananas and sweet potatoes…. They live far distant, in some valley of the Blue Mountain range, usually at least ten hours’ travel out on the northern coast; but they start at midnight, or even at dusk of the day previous to market-day, and always reach the city just as the sun begins to come up from the sea.

The donkey is so deeply etched in the psyche in rural Jamaica that donkey folktales are not that uncommon. There is, for instance, the Anansi story of The Donkey, the Cat and the Lion’s Head as well as The Race Between Toad and Donkey, which begins thus, “One day, Master King decided to have a race and he would give a big prize to whoever won. Both Toad and Donkey decided to enter, but Toad got Donkey angry with all his boasting about how he’d win…”

In common parlance, in Jamaica and elsewhere, the donkey stands for both stubbornness and stupidity, and is referred to or seen as “the beast of burden.” These ideas are reflected in some Jamaican proverbs and sayings, which use the donkey to convey words of wisdom and advice: Donkey bray say dis world no level; Every day yu goad donkey, some day he will kick yu; Every donkey hab im sankey; Every jackass t’ink im pickney a racehorse; Every man no dribe dem donkey same way; Every time donkey bray im member something; When yu go a donkey house don’t talk about ears; Patient man ride donkey; Mek wan jackass bray; No mek wan donkey choke you; Donkey gallop soon over.

While Jamaica city and towns people think, know or care little about the donkey, there appears to be a mini-crisis as there is a scarcity of donkeys on the island. “It’s the hardest things these days to get donkeys,” one person told the Jamaica Star in August 2016. The donkey shortage is affecting rural small farmers.

The plight of the donkey seems to be global. “Some are ill-treated through the ignorance of their owners, some are mistreated through cruelty, and others are simply ignored and forgotten about,” notes Robin Marshall, writing for Horse Talk out of New Zealand.

There is a Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom to rescue these animals as well as the International Donkey Protection Trust (IDT), which estimates some 57 million donkeys worldwide. The IDT, founded in 1976, seeks “to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules and people worldwide through greater understanding, collaboration and support, and by promoting lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships.”

Among other things, IDT works “to reduce the suffering of sick and injured donkeys and mules” and to provide “welfare and care” for donkeys. It built a clinic for donkeys in Ethiopia. “One of the worst problems in the country are saddle sores, and donkeys dropping from exhaustion at the markets,” Marshall of Horse Talk states. Mobile units for donkeys have been set up in Mexico, India and Kenya.

Donkeys are useful animals in various ways. Marshall writes:

Farmers have found that having a donkey among a herd of stroppy bulls settles the bovines down. Donkeys tend to “rule the roost” when they run with young bulls.

Donkeys also make kind and gentle pets for children – and adults — and have been many a horse rider’s first mount.

Many children have had their first experience of farm animals while taking a donkey ride on seaside visits in England.

Donkey race in Negril, 2013. Photo courtesy of

In Jamaica, donkeys are sometimes used for comic relief on a sports or fun day, such as the annual Negril Rotary Donkey Races in Westmoreland and the Donkey Races Festival in Top Hill, St. Catherine. At the Jamaica Zoo in Lacovia, St. Elizabeth, visitors can take donkey rides.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

The trains no longer run

Jamaican railway has had a long and troubled history. Launched in 1845, it was the “first railroad outside of Europe and North America,” making it one of the oldest in the world.

Neither government nor private operators have found the formula to make the Jamaica rail system economically viable. Throughout its roughly 150-year history, railway operations in Jamaica changed hands several times and underwent other changes until, finally, everybody just gave up. Except for bauxite companies that began running their own private rail service to transport ore, trains in Jamaica ceased operating in 1992.

There are those who claim that politics is at the heart of Jamaica’s railway problems. That some of those placed in charge of Jamaica’s transportation sector have no incentive to see a vibrant and healthy rail system in the country. It is alleged that some at the highest levels owned haulage contracting companies and viewed trains, which move cargo as well as passengers, as unwelcome competition.

Comparisons are made with the argument used to disband the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), the main transportation system in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and nearby towns. Both JOS and the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), it is claimed, were a strain and a drain on government resources. Thus, JOS buses were removed from off the roads in 1983. It is alleged that those who presided over the death of the JOS were owners of private passenger buses eager to replace the JOS, resulting in a chaotic transportation sector.

It is stated that the same people, some of whom owned fleets of tractor trailers, wanted the demise of the railway, and so they killed the railroad system. The JRC essentially became a holder of the assets of the defunct system, overseeing the upkeep and maintenance (of sorts) of lands and the lines and the buildings and stations, all mostly disused, that still belonged to the corporation.

Several attempts have been made to revive the Jamaica railway. Someone who was in a position to know told me that the deal struck with an Indian company in the early years of the 21st century to resume rail operations was a good one. Too good in fact, and so those who feared the competition killed the deal after they regained charge of the system.

It is heartening to see that another attempt is being made to restart rail operations in Jamaica, this time with American investors. The government-run Jamaica Information Service announced in December 2016 that “a sum of US$250 million will be invested in the resuscitation of the country’s cargo and passenger rail service by the Government and several investors, including United States (US) company Herzog International.”

We wait to see if those who have much to lose will allow it to see the light of day.

While some of its history is checkered, railroads were a vital part of the Jamaican landscape, especially to the interior of the island. It was the most efficient means of moving cargo and people over longer distances and it had relatively limited impact on the environment. After the rails closed, increasing numbers of giant 18-wheelers started traversing Jamaica’s narrow, hilly roads. Who has not encountered an 18-wheel monster jackknifing on Mount Rosser, blocking traffic going both ways? Or causing chaos on the Junction Road?

When the railroads were closed in 1992, inland (as against coastal) towns such as Balaclava in St. Elizabeth, Porus in Manchester and Bog Walk in St. Catherine, were never the same again. The railway brought life and vitality to these and other towns in terms of trade and commerce but they experienced marked decline after rail operations ceased.

Railway launch
Jamaica was among the first places to get a railroad when, in 1843, “The Assembly of Jamaica approves a 12-mile track between Kingston and Spanish Town and a 2½ mile branch line to a sugar estate in Angels.”

Construction on the track, stations and other facilities ended in November 1845. “The completion of a line of Railway from Kingston to Spanish Town, in Jamaica, is a most gratifying instance of colonial enterprise,” The Illustrated London News reported on January 31, 1846.

The opening took place on Friday, the 21st of November last. The event had been long and anxiously anticipated; and, in order to invest it with the just degree of importance, his Excellency the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the several heads of departments civil and military, the hon. Members of the Council and Assembly, and a large number of the more wealthy and influential members of the community, were invited to attend the ceremony; and a most propitious day rendered this attendance very general and numerous. An enormous crowd of spectators was collected all around the stations, and several very extensive booths were filled with well-dressed females.

Led by the governor, a large retinue took their first ride in a celebratory atmosphere. According to The Illustrated London News, “the train, consisting of some eight or ten well filled carriages, started on the first railway excursion in the British West Indies; the excellent band of the 1st West India Regiment taking its stand in the last, third class, carriage, and playing lively airs.”

It drew curious onlookers who “were densely thronged on both sides with crowds of wondering citizens, who loudly cheered the novel exhibition as it passed before them. These crowds were more or less to be seen along the whole line of railway.”

Economic importance
Economic factors drove railway expansion on the island. Sugar, mainstay of the Jamaican economy, was no longer king. At least two developments led to increase in the cost of and hence decline in sugar exports. The British government raised duties on imports of sugar from its colonies, including Jamaica, in 1846, and the end of enslavement in 1838 raised labor costs. With costs rising and income decreasing, the railway became the least expensive form of transporting goods and produce on the island.

Recognizing the importance of rail to the Jamaican economy, the colonial government nationalized the company in 1879, buying out the interests of its private investors and owners. Almost 200,000 British pound sterling were spent on both purchase (just under £94,000) and upgrade (about £100,000). This amounts to approximately £18 million or just about US$24 million in today’s money.

jamaica railway - Porus opening -1896
Launch of the railway station and line in Porus, Manchester, in 1896

In the first half of the 1880s, increased investments in and improved markets for sugar and banana led to the expansion of the railway from Old Harbour in St. Catherine to Porus in Manchester, and from Spanish Town, the capital of St. Catherine, to Ewarton and Bog Walk in the same parish. By the end of the 1880s, work began on the lines to Montego Bay, St. James, in the west, completed in 1894, and Port Antonio in the parish of Portland in the east, finished in 1896.

By this time, banana had overtaken sugar as Jamaica’s major export crop. Railway expansion benefited entities such as the American corporation, United Fruit Company, which had its biggest footprint in the parish of Portland, the hub of Jamaica’s banana production and export.

In the 1950s, another boost to Jamaican rail occurred with the mining of bauxite ore in the interior of the island. Transporting bauxite ore became the railway’s biggest cargo business up until the time of its demise.

There have been many setbacks along the way. The West India Improvement Company, which bought the government’s stake in 1890, went bankrupt by the end of the decade and the government had to step back in to retake control 10 years later, in 1900. Hurricanes in 1951 (Hurricane Charlie) and 1988 (Hurricane Gilbert) caused extensive damage.

In some sense, Jamaican independence in 1962 was a mixed blessing for the railway corporation. As several entities with failing economic health came under the control of the young nation, funds earmarked for rail maintenance were diverted to help keep these other entities alive. By 1974 the May Pen to Frankfield line, and in 1975 the Bog Walk to Port Antonio line, were closed due to lack of maintenance.

Scene at the railway crash on September 1, 1957, in Kendal, Manchester. One of the deadliest rail crashes in the world up to that time, it claimed the lives of almost 200 and injured upwards of 700 more.

By far the biggest tragedy to affect the railway was the crash at Kendal in the parish of Manchester on September 1, 1957. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust said:

The worst railway disaster in Jamaica’s history, happened close to this spot on September 1, 1957. At around 11:30 p.m. a train carrying some 1,600 passengers derailed its tracks. Close to 200 persons lost their lives. Varying accounts indicate that between 400 and 700 persons sustained injuries in what was described as the worst transportation system tragedy in Jamaica’s history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at the time.

Eight of the 12 wooden cars were wrecked. There were:

Dead and injured inside, underneath and on top, and bodies and body parts strewn over a wide area. Some persons died on impact, many died from being spiked by splinters from the wooden coaches, and various other injuries. Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave behind the crash site.

The tragedy led to the replacement of “all wooden coaches with metal coaches, and the Jamaica Government Railways, was reconstituted and renamed the Jamaica Railway Corporation.”

The long-term troubles of attaining economic viability in the face of tragedy, competition and political ineptitude and interference, led to what some regard as its inevitable demise. However, some argue not only the importance of Jamaica having a rail service, but that Jamaica’s success may depend on having a well-run railway transportation system for passengers and cargo. In a study conducted on the Jamaica railway and published in 1985, John Due, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States, wrote:

The railroad has consistently operated at a deficit. But it makes substantial contribution to the bauxite industry, and its passenger service is much cheaper and satisfactory than the mini-bus type otherwise available. Externalities in terms of road congestion and costs of road improvement and encouragement to economic development warrant continuation of and improvement to the railway.

While more than 30 years have passed, the conclusions of that study may still be valid.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel