Port Town Revival: Jamaican hospitality in Falmouth

By Andrew Findlay

Ladonna Findlater and I walk among the weathered headstones and tombs surrounding the austere ramparts of William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church. This cemetery would be fit for a gothic thriller if it wasn’t for the reggae music floating on a soft Caribbean breeze from a nearby house, which is festooned in the black, yellow and green of the Jamaican flag. Here, in 1838, on the steps of this church in historic Falmouth, the crusading minister and abolitionist William Knibb shouted to a euphoric crowd gathered on the grounds: “The monster is dead!” His emphatic declaration heralded the end of slavery and the emancipation of Jamaica’s black population.

Today the churchyard is peaceful and quiet. Findlater, my vivacious, impeccably attired young tour guide, knows her history. Falmouth, 37 kilometres east of Montego Bay, is where slaves were freed and ships docked to fill their holds with sugar cane at what was once the busiest port in the Caribbean. It’s a town that had running water before the city of New York did. It’s also a living museum of classic Georgian architecture, a symmetrical style that proliferated throughout colonial Great Britain between roughly 1720 and 1840; characterized by meticulously planned town squares and fountains, two-storey stone manors and civic buildings detailed with elaborate cornices and decorative moldings. Falmouth is also the capital of Trelawny parish, at one time the most productive district on the island for sugar cane. Today, it’s better known as the birth- place of sprinting superstar Usain Bolt (legend has it that there’s something special in the yams grown here that produces sprinting sensations like Bolt).

I have come to Jamaica’s north coast to explore a fascinating past, when sugar cane was king and Falmouth was the cultural and economic powerhouse of the Caribbean. The town’s Georgian buildings are in various states of restoration, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Falmouth Heritage Renewal society. After leaving the Baptist church, Findlater and I wander together along bustling streets. Two young men pass by and share an inside joke with my guide.

“Friends salute me because they think I look like a police officer,” she says.

We pause across from Franco’s Nice Time Bar, whose whitewashed exterior is punctuated by rickety wooden shutters on the windows. The dark interior has seats for a dozen or so souls.

“It’s the oldest bar in town. Upstairs there was a special room where sailors would go to sober up,” Findlater says.

Farther on, we pause outside the old military base, Fort Balcarres. An interpretive sign explains the fort’s function to protect Falmouth “from Spanish and drunks.” Next stop is the commanding court- house. Though it’s a replica of an original 1815 structure that was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, with its impressive four columns above the grand entrance- way and mustard-yellow-and-white paint job, it remains the pride of Falmouth.

“The courthouse was the centre of Falmouth society,” Findlater says as we climb the stairs for a view over the port. It still is. A trio of lawyers congregate on the steps, engaged in heated conversation, before Findlater distracts them from serious business.

“Yeah mon,” one of them says to Findlater and I, deploying that characteristic, laid-back, gender-neutral Jamaican greeting.

They chat in colourful Jamaican patois, to which my ear is slowly becoming accustomed. When the lawyers step back into the courthouse, Findlater reverts to an idiom I can understand.

Standing here in the early 1800s, one would have gazed out upon a harbour crowded with ships provisioning for the return voyage to the Old World. In modern times, a different kind of mariner is arriving—cruise shippers. In 2012, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines commenced docking at Falmouth after the completion of a US$220-million joint venture with the Port Authority of Jamaica to build a cruise ship terminal, complete with shops and boutiques meant to emulate the Georgian style of the town’s architecture. Today, a massive ship is in port and has just unleashed its complement of thousands on the duty-free zone and the less polished streets of Falmouth beyond the gates. Vendors and touts are doing brisk trade. Opinions on the arrival of such behemoth cruise ships in tiny Falmouth vary, but there’s no doubt the approximately 10,000 passengers per week are having a significant impact on the town’s renaissance and its efforts to leverage history into tourism.

Early in the afternoon, I leave Findlater and the bustle of Falmouth, chauffeured by my friendly fixer from the Jamaica Tourist Board, Wayne Sterling. He sings along cheerfully to some synth-heavy dancehall music playing on the radio, exuding that gregarious Jamaican charm, rhythm and confidence. We’re headed for Good Hope Plantation.

Plantations are as integral to the history, landscape and culture of Trelawny as Falmouth is to the country’s former colonial might. At the height of the plantation era, the parish was home to more than 80 great houses, each one a hilltop jewel in the plantation owner’s crown. Today they are at once symbols of a troubled slaving past and lovely pastoral monuments to a different time.

At the town of Martha Brae, we branch off the north-coast highway A1 and then follow a potholed road that winds toward Cockpit Country, the rugged, sparsely inhabited interior of Trelawny and neighbouring St. James Parish. The Martha Brae River flows languidly next to the road, and riotous hedges of blossoming bougainvillea surround tidy homes. Soon we arrive at Good Hope and are greeted by host Odette Hawthorne.

Sun filters through big leafy trees and a diesel truck chugs past packed with oranges, now the primary crop grown on the plantation. After meeting Hawthorne, we drive through a gatehouse flanked by huge lime- stone blocks inscribed with the words “Good” and “Hope.” From there, a gravel road spirals up to the elegant centrepiece of this 809- hectare estate, Good Hope great house, built more than 250 years ago from limestone blocks that came to Jamaica in the form of ship ballast. A small statue of the Buddha sits on the edge of the front lawn, incongruent with its history but indicative of the current owner’s spiritual leanings and the building’s modern repurposing as a venue for artist and yoga retreats, as well as other private functions. As oxymoronic as it sounds, one of the original plantation owners, John Tharpe, was a slave trader with a heart. He earned a reputation for kindness and compassion in an era that for people of colour didn’t have much of either. At its peak, 3,000 slaves toiled at Good Hope. Tharpe built a 300-bed hospital for their care.

“Even though he was very exhausted at the end of the day, Mr. Tharpe would try to shake the hands of as many slaves as he could. That’s why the great house was spared during the slave rebellion,” Hawthorne says as we explore the airy rooms of the manor, stopping to observe the two-metre-long, lead-coated, wood-fired bathtub where Tharpe soaked to soothe his arthritis. “He may have been the first person in Jamaica to have hot and cold running water.”

The following day, Sterling and I drive serpentine country roads to the former Hampden and Long pond sugar estates, which date back to mid-1700s and are now owned by Everglades Farms. The air is ripe with fermentation. Not far away is another vestige of Jamaica’s colonial past: 567-hectare Braco Estate. One the way there, we drive through the sleepy hamlet of Duncans, home to a severe-looking stone Methodist Church dating back to 1882. Goats graze in the shade of the belfry. Jamaica has many claims to fame, among them reggae music, world-class sprinters and rum. Sterling informs me of another one: The country supposedly has more churches per square mile than anywhere else, a claim that’s on full display in the parish of Trelawny. When family patriarch Winston Parnell purchased Braco in 1920, it had already evolved from sugar cane farming to cattle ranching. Parnell was an entrepreneur. Before he died in 1992, he converted an idyllic seaside portion of the property into a resort, and his grandson Adorjan Fitzroy later returned from teaching in Hungary to help further develop tourism with horseback riding, cycling and historical walking tours.

I find Fitzroy and one of his employees, Garey Kenlyn, at the reception building. They offer to take me on a mountain bike ride through the estate.* It’s mid-afternoon and sweltering, prime time for beachside cocktails—not physical activity. But we ride uphill along a bumpy road that’s shaded, to my relief, by dense forest. In 20 minutes, we break out into open pastures dotted with pimento trees, the source of fragrant allspice seasoning. Fitzroy pauses and stoops down to pinch a handful of greenery between his thumb and forefinger.

“Lemongrass,” he says, holding it up for me to smell.

Eventually the road ends at a small shelter overlooking Maria Buena Bay and a scene of Caribbean geographic clichés that encapsulate Trelawny: leafy trees, rolling deep green hillsides and scythes of sandy beach lapped by turquoise sea. Kenlyn, not a natural cyclist, leans his bike against the fence and lights a smoke while Fitzroy shares some of Braco’s history.

“Recently we found a record book in the great house from the 1830s. It showed who was working on the plantation and how much sugar cane was cut. They took meticulous records back then,” Fitzroy says.

Late in the afternoon, after another long day of exploring Trelawny, I check into my hotel suite. It’s a warm, seductive evening when I sit down for a cappuccino, listening to the boisterous chatter of recent hotel arrivals planning a night out on the faux town, which for a contrived resort setting is surprisingly quaint. A family of four, skin as white as snow on an Albertan prairie, poses for a photo in front of a Winston Parnell bust erected on the steps of the replica courthouse. At the hotel restaurant, a talented band lays down note-perfect Bob Marley covers and the dance floor is already filled, mostly with resort staff. Jamaicans love to move.

Early in the evening I again meet up with Wayne Sterling of the Jamaica Tourist Board, and we return to Falmouth for the Pirates of the Caribbean nighttime extravaganza that was somehow pencilled into my final night’s itinerary. I surrender. But when we drive into Falmouth I convince Sterling to make an off-script detour to Franco’s Nice Time Bar for a frosty Red Stripe.

“Yeah mon,” the bartender says to me and then turns to Sterling for a quick exchange in that lyrical Jamaican patois I never tire of hearing. I imagine the drunken sailors of 250 years ago being carted upstairs to sober up while their ships were filled with sugar cane down at the port. Afterward, we stroll the evening streets of Falmouth, along the Albert George Market, through the town square, where palm trees rustle in the wind accompanied by the sound of maracas, and past the courthouse. We walk through the gates to the duty-free port, where a massive cruise ship looms above old Falmouth, its cabin lights twinkling like Christmas ornaments against the darkening sky. Soon Sterling and I are lined up to board a pseudo pirate ship, next to a cruising couple from Lethbridge.

Pirate ships and Falmouth? Historically it’s a stretch. No doubt the firebrand preacher William Knibb would have scoffed at such frivolity. But why not wrap up my trip into Falmouth and Trelawny’s fascinating past with a little lighthearted fun?
After all, Sterling seems excited, as we’re led by a young woman with the lithe physique of a sprinter, dressed absurdly in pirate garb.

“I hope you like to dance mon,” Sterling says, already swinging his hips.


*Editor’s note: at press time, Braco Estate was no longer open to the public