David Torrance is visiting every country in the world – we join him in the Caribbean.
I realised quite quickly I’d like Kingston, largely because lots of people warned me that it was a) boring and b) dangerous. Ostensibly boring and dangerous cities are always (in my humble experience) precisely the opposite, and so it proved in the sprawling capital of Jamaica.
I’ve long believed that it isn’t possible to get the measure of a city unless you’ve walked its streets, preferably for several hours. Only when that simply isn’t possible (in cities, for example, like Johannesburg) will I opt for open-top bus tours or the local equivalent, otherwise I plot a route, order a cab and begin my constitutional (as Roy Jenkins used to call it).
In Kingston, I began at the aptly named Fleet Street, home to colourful murals rather than vacated newspaper premises, then west along Tower Street towards “downtown”, a part of the city I was informed would have been off limits just a few years ago (the neighbouring Trench Town still has a bad reputation). This was full of surprises, the shell of a Wesleyan church and an engaging mix of 1930s architecture including the Institute of Jamaica, a sort of British Library and Museum rolled into one.
I was virtually the only tourist, for as one fellow guest at my hotel observed with amusement, tourists didn’t usually bother with Kingston. There were a couple at the National Gallery of Jamaica (the island has one of the richest cultural traditions in the Caribbean), but otherwise I had the place to myself. It also had an informal, unstuffy air unlike that of most urban centres. To give an example, I happened to pass the Jamaica Houses of Parliament and ventured inside, without an appointment, and asked for a tour.
This the “Marshall” (the equivalent of Serjeant at Arms at Westminster) was happy to provide as the House (laid out exactly like its UK counterpart) wasn’t sitting. Conversation inevitably turned to a recent visit from David Cameron, who got a hard time from both the island’s Prime Minister (she wanted him to enter talks on reparations for slavery) and campaigners (who wanted him personally to atone for the slave-owning wealth of a 19th-century ancestor).
“The dust,” the Marshall told me of the British Prime Minister’s visit, “still hasn’t settled.” Slavery is a sensitive subject in Jamaica for understandable reasons, and equally so for the UK Government, already under legal onslaught for reparations as a consequence of late colonial policy in Kenya, wary of opening a Pandora’s Box of litigation sparked by a formal apology.
Instead David Cameron offered funds to build a new prison in Jamaica but others, such as the “Flag Up Scotland Jamaica” campaign, want Scotland (as well as the UK) to formally acknowledge its slavery-derived wealth, particularly from sugar and other trade in the late 18th century.
As the historian Eric J. Graham observes in his contribution to a stimulating new volume edited by the historian Sir Tom Devine, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (Edinburgh University Press), Edward Long, Jamaica’s first historian, felt it necessary to dedicate a section of his tome to the Scots, as “very near one third” of its white “inhabitants are either natives of that country or descendants from those who were”.
He was writing in the mid-18th century, and indeed Jamaica held a particular allure for Scots, due to its large tracts of cheap undeveloped land, which the younger sons of lairds purchased in order to expand their horizons and fortunes. Many of them even remained in the Caribbean’s largest sugar island, becoming long-term residents rather than sojourners, settlers rather than colonists, becoming pillars of the island’s political establishment in the process.
The Jamaican businessman, magistrate and political activist George William Gordon (featured on the island’s 10-dollar coin), was the son of one of these Scottish planters and a mulatto slave, and became a prominent figure in the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865, an uprising arising from grievances more than 30 years after slavery was abolished. He was executed for his efforts.
But then violence has long been a fixture of Jamaican history, even decades after independence. While in Kingston I visited the Bob Marley Museum, the reggae singer’s former home and recording studio where, almost exactly 39 years ago, seven gunmen stormed the premises and wounded Marley, his wife and manager in a shoot out shortly before the Smile Jamaica Concert, an attempt to cool the country’s ever-tense political temperature.
Little was known about the gunmen, which has enabled the Jamaican writer Marlon James to construct his epic Man Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, around the incident involving “the Singer”, told in a myriad of voices – gunmen, drug dealers, CIA agents and even ghosts – perfectly capturing the heady atmosphere of Kingston then and now.
James is gay and perhaps as a consequence (this is conjecture on my part) lives in Minneapolis rather than Jamaica, for the island has a reputation as one of the most homophobic on the planet. The Saturday before I arrived (I was later told by an expat), one newspaper carried a story about how to deal with your child coming out, which involved fasting and praying lest the other side take hold. I also saw one television news report in which politicians appeared to be competing as to who could be the most anti-gay, but then the 16th-century “Buggery Act” remains on the statute book. The pejorative colloquialism “batty boy” punctuates A Brief History of Seven Killings, as it does everyday discourse in Kingston.
Also featured in James’ novel is Port Royal, a city – or rather what remains of a city – located at the end of the Palisadoes at the mouth of Kingston Harbour, and once renowned as the most decadent settlement on earth, a centre of piracy and shipping commerce. Susceptible to earthquakes, all that now remains is a Fort (once home to Lord Nelson), an Anglican church and an atmospheric naval cemetery full, naturally, of Scots.
In Kingston itself were two Scottish churches, one of which predated the Act of Union, but then the whole city struck me a fusion of English and Scottish culture, part of it forming the “parish” of Saint Andrew, which in turn comprised the “county” of Surrey, a reminder that in cities and ports across the British Empire, the colonizers created enduring monuments to the Anglo-Scottish Union. The reverse is also true: from now on I’ll view Glasgow’s Jamaica Street and Kingston Bridge in a very different light.