(by Margaret Morris) – The journey from Negril to Savanna-la-Mar takes less than half an hour – easy driving through a lush alluvial basin cultivated in cane. Nowhere else is it more obvious that the island’s history, its present and its destiny are inextricably linked with sugar – an industry that employs at least 50,000 persons.
The exit road past the Shell Gas Station and Police Station is normally crowded with an assortment of traffic and littered higgedlly piggedly with mechanic yards, tyre shops, cafes, bars, shacks and other enterprises including R Country Western Riding stables and L Paradise Yard restaurant, creators of Rasta Pasta and other indigenous specialties like Paradise johnnycakes.
The neat village of Sheffield is becoming a suburb of Negril. Here you will find L Negril Hills Golf Club with a gaudy clubhouse overlooking the Great Morass, Royal Palm forest and the abortive Nature Park built by government and now leased to the operators of Negril Cabins. The Nature Park has boardwalks and birdwatching towers in the swamp. Check Negril Cabins to arrange access.
Negril Spots, is a cattle and coconut estate belonging to the Jackson family, owners of Tree House and Golden Nugget in Negril. At the junction, a detour R leads to the villages of Revival, Homers Cove and Little Bay where there is accommodation, Run by the Sun for the adventurous. Canefields border the road and the view L is towards a tiny church in a sea of cane. Salabie’s Lumber Yard specializes in a local housing solutions: readymade board houses, small enough to be transported by truck or even mule cart.
Little London, a dormitory village for workers in Negril and Frome is heavily populated with East Indians. Their forbears were brought to Jamaica as indentured labourers shortly after the abolition of slavery when many of the ex-slaves migrated away from the sugar estates creating a shortage of labour. Living and working conditions for the Indians were very bad and many died. A number of Commissions of Enquiry did little to improve things and in 1914 the Indian government finally prohibited further migration of labourers to the West Indies. An early champion of the East Indians was an Anglican minister Rev. Henry Clarke whose protest about the conditions of the working classes and outspoken criticisms of the establishment made him extremely unpopular with the hierarchy. (A relative of his, Robert Clarke, was the father of Bustamante who used to warn “My name is Clarke but don’t call me so”). The Indian labourers were the first to introduce seeds of ganja (marijuana) into Jamaica. The descendants of the East Indian labourers (called “Coolies”) are still concentrated in the sugar belts. Much of their Hindu heritage has been maintained and aspects of it have been assimilated into local “grass-roots” culture. More recently a small group of higher caste “Bombay merchants” arrived in Jamaica and control the lucrative in-bond trade.
A detour from Little London takes you through canefields to the farming centre of Grange Hill and then to Frome Sugar Factory where there is a monument commemorating Labour leader Bustamante and the workers for their courageous fight in 1938 on behalf of the working people of Jamaica. The Frome factory was built in 1939 by the West Indies Sugar Co, a subsid-iary of the British corporation Tate & Lyle which owned 16 sugar estates in the area. The large central factory at Frome replaced 7 smaller ones which had become antiquated and uneconomical. Just before the opening of the new factory, Frome was the scene of labour disturbances initiated by a strike for more pay (at the time women were being paid 10 cents per day and men 15 cents per day). There were also fears that the new centralized system would cause unemployment. Canefield fires and rioting provoked police action resulting in four deaths.
Alexander Bustamante, who had recently emerged as the champion of the working man, rushed to the scene and attempted to mediate. A Commission of Inquiry into conditions in the sugar industry was appointed and Busta went on to found the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and ultimately the Jamaica Labour Party.
During the 1960s, when the West Indies Sugar Co. was threatening to scale down its operation in Jamaica, the government bought them out. Thereafter the government-owned factories lost money steadily for almost two decades. Recently all the government sugar assets were ‘privatized’ and Frome, Moneymusk and Bernard Lodge were all sold to a private consortium that includes J Wray and Nephew and Booker-Tate (formerly Tate & Lyle). Their intention is to spend US$40 million on refurbishing the factories and increasing production.
Frome processes all the cane grown in the parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland and dominates the economy of the parishes. Originally this area was a patchwork of individually owned sugar estates, many with fascinating histories. Bulstrode was the property of Bulstrode Whitelocke, a Roundhead who helped to draw up the charges that brought King Charles I to the executioner’s block. Banbury was owned by Colonel John Guthrie the man who negotiated with Cudjoe the treaty that ended the first Maroon War. Cornwall was owned by Monk Lewis, a celebrated nineteenth century author and friend of Lord Byron. Lewis’s humane treatment of his slaves astonished and annoyed his neighbours. His Journal of a West Indian Proprietor published in 1843 remains a valuable source book for historians. This detour will take you past George’s Plain into Sav.
Back on the Negril to Sav main road the swampy land around Meylersfield is a rice growing area. The second bridge spanning the Cabaritta is known far and wide as Big Bridge. The Cabaritta is the largest river in the parish and rises near Cascade in Hanover. Crocodiles have long since disappeared from its banks but the river offers good fishing and is noted for a small fish called “Godame”. Legend says that it was the last of all creatures to be named and when the Creator called out “Who is left ? Who is that out there?” the fish replied, “God it’s me” (“God, a me” in Jamaican). Godames can live out of water for several hours, even days, if kept in a cool damp place. Crayfish (otherwise called “janga”) are found here too: boiled and heavily seasoned they are transformed into Pepper Shrimps – a Jamaican delicacy. Pollution caused by effluent from the Frome sugar factory frequently affects this river.
SAVANNA LA MAR (the plain by the sea), otherwise know as “Sav” is capital of the parish of Westmoreland. Founded in 1730, the town has been inundated three times during hurricanes. In 1780 “the sea rose and left two ships and a schooner stranded among trees,” and in 1912 the schooner Lationia ended up in the middle of town. Great George Street is the broadest and longest main street in the island stretching one mile to the seafront and a market, ruined fort and erstwhile sugar pier. The fort was never completed and had started to collapse into the sea by 1755. Today it is a swimming hole. Midway to the sea is the Courthouse which boasts a filigree cast iron fountain donated by a civic-minded planter in 1887. Perennially dry, it hardly warrants the warning inscribed on all four sides: “keep the pavements dry”. The town’s diversified economic base comprising sugar, tourism in Negril, and marijuana has fuelled steady growth. Several mini-shopping plazas have blossomed. Fast-food outlets, video stores, discos, banks and furniture stores are in good supply.
Places of historic interest in Sav include Mannings High School which was founded in 1738 with a bequest of land, 13 slaves and cattle from Thomas Manning.
Jamaica National Building Society was originally the Westmoreland Building Society, founded in 1888 by the Rev. Henry Clarke, as part of his campaign to assist the “small man”. In 1971 it merged with other rural building societies to form Jamaica National. Currently one of the two largest home loan institutions in the Caribbean, JN now has its own merchant bank and real estate company and is a major shareholder in the island’s largest bank.
Places to stay: Hendon House on the edge of town, an eighteenth-century great house with gleaming wooden floors, a spiral mahogany staircase, modest rates and meals on request. Lochiel Guest House is set in lush pastures about a mile along the Ferris road. Formerly known as Heaven Below it is a tall eighteenth-century estate house of brick and timber. It has a lush garden and comfortable modern wing, modest rates and meals on request. Slightly more upscale is Orchard, a mile along the Petersfield road: a sprawling, cut stone guest house in a rural setting with a restaurant, bar, and swimming pool. It is owned by the legendary Mother Segre (one of Negril’s pioneer hoteliers) and run by her grandchildren.
Heading north out of Sav you come to a fork in the road known as Dunbar’s Crossing. Four miles along the L fork is the village of Petersfield which was named after Peter Beckford a rambunctious horse trader who arrived in the island in 1660, and broke his neck 50 years later trying to quell a riot in the Jamaica House of Assembly. He died leaving 24 estates and 4000 slaves. One of the original Beckford properties, Shrewsbury, is the source of the Roaring River where Freedom Village, a living museum in the making is well worth a visit. Turn L by St Peter’s Anglican and drive nearly 1 mile to a cross roads where water gushes from an old aqueduct, bear R and just before you reach the bridge turn R again. You’ll know you’re there by the group of guides, snack vendors and villagers at the approach to another small stone bridge. Just above here one source of the river surfaces quite abruptly beside the road, joins another stream and flows beneath the aqueduct to a filtration plant. The majestic Silk Cotton tree by the pool is at least 300 years old. Steps lead up a steep hillside to the mouth of a cave which tunnels into the cliff face. Admission fee for the cave covers the services of a guide. It is lighted, has many chambers and a spring. The journal of William Beckford, a descendant of Peter’s and founder of England’s Academy of Art, reveals that he used to escape from the wild parties up at the great house and come here for spooky meditations. Craft workshops and a restaurant in a meadow by the stream may be open by the time you read this. Among the craftsmen here is a personable Rastafarian artist called ‘Shaper’. Another source of the Roaring River lies 1.25 miles away via a well nigh impassable parochial road. Here you will find a large blue hole where the water bubbles up from subterranean caverns. It is encircled by the I-tal Herb and Spice Farm belonging to Ed Kritzler, a refugee from the New York advertising rat race. Cottages and campsites are available for rent and there is an I-tal restaurant specializing in herb teas.
At Dunbar’s crossing, the road R to Ferris is bordered by pastures and giant Guango trees. You will pass the Grace meat processing wazzu factory L and R Paradise Club at the top of a driveway lined with Royal Palms. It is available by reservation for weddings and other functions.
East of Ferris Cross there is a succession of fishing villages. Many of the boats are the traditional cotton tree canoes first used by the Arawaks. In contrast to the barren northcoast seas, fish are still plentiful off the southcoast although the fishermen have to go further and further out to maintain their catches. Goods offered for sale along the coast road include fresh fish, boiled lobster, limes, hammocks and fruit. At Cave the main road crosses over a pretty mountain and there is a fine view west towards Sav.
Bluefields is believed to be the site of Oristan, the earliest Spanish settlement. It is a matter of recorded history that a group of colonists was landed here by Juan de la Costa, a pilot and map maker who sailed with Columbus on his earliest voyages, and that the settlement on the southcoast predated Sevilla la Nueva. In the age of the buccaneers the safe anchorage and never failing stream at Bluefields made it a refuge and supply base for ships. It was here, in 1670 that Henry Morgan mustered his fleet and sailed off to sack Panama.
Climbing the hill towards Bluefields bay there is L a photogenic small church and R three luxury seafront villas available for rent. The long narrow Bluefields beach is always crowded on weekends and holidays. There are a variety of snack and craft stalls but minimal sanitary facilities. Bluefields House a short distance L of the main road opposite the Police station is still closed as we go to press. In 1844 Philip Henry Gosse, the famous British naturalist made his base here to research the books Birds of the West Indies and A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica. Further up the same road a former great house, Oristana, is the home of British artist William Fielding, known for his elegant water colours of Jamaica’s architectural heritage. On the same headland and advertised opposite the police station, Shafston Great House is approximately 2 miles inland with a stunning view and wild woodland setting. Road access is almost impossible and unless its format has changed recently, this hostelry is not for anyone with any pretensions to respectability.
Approaching Belmont and beside the Ocean Edge pub and restaurant is the headquarters of the vibrant Bluefields People’s Co-operative Association created by Terry Williams with the support of a ‘core’ group of local leaders. Terry, a former football star and sportsmaster in London is a repatriated Jamaican and committed environmentalist. The B.C.P.A. has attracted foreign funding and its next project centres around a model farm and agro forestry. B.C.P.A.ís mangrove nature trail is open to visitors.
Belmont has a fishing beach, cottages and rooms for rent and a brand new Inn called Closer to Nature. Jah Calo’s roadside craft shop advises Walk, Ride and Drive with Care and offers hand-painted T-Shirts and interesting woodcarvings. Friendly Jah Calo is a Rastafarian member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. He can also arrange snorkeling, birdwatching and boat tours to Black River with his friend Errol .
Auchindown, a cattle and pimento estate is owned by popular talk-show host Ronnie Thwaites, a man of many parts: lawyer, Catholic deacon, coffee and livestock farmer, deep sea fishing entrepreneur and embryonic tourism investor with plans for a restaurant and golf course, beach park and villa hotel. Archaeological treasures at Auchindown include the ruined seventeenth century castle and an Arawak midden. The beach and wetland opposite Auchindown is scheduled for a large hotel to be called Beaches to be developed by Sandals magnate Butch Stewart. As we went to press the project appeared to be on hold – much to the disappointment of local landowners but also to the relief of environmentalists and local fishermen who fear the impact of mass tourism.
In the nearby village of Culloden, Natania’s Guest House on Parker’s Bay is a small jewel: verdant garden, pristine seafront, airy architecture, and pleasant restaurant. The owner, Peter Probst, a ‘refugee’ from New York via Negril is still a partner in Rickís Cafe. He is also in partnership with Ronnie Thwaites to create a 7 acre beach park on the east of Parkers Bay plus a hotel and villa complex and ‘affordable’ town expansion on the hills overlooking it.
Whitehouse, a thriving village with a seaside housing scheme began to boom with rumours of impending tourism development. Traditionally, its economic base is fishing. The fishing beach here is the largest on the island and has more than 60 boats. The best fishing grounds are 80 miles offshore at the Pedro Banks. The beach hums with activity every morning as wives, children and higglers await the return of the fishermen or bargain in the adjoining market. Sad to say, the National Resources Conservation Authority and the Fisheries Department appear to be fighting a losing battle to control the overfishing and reckless harvesting of conch and lobster on the Pedro Cays.
South Sea park is a residential subdivision dotted with ornate homes many sporting the ultimate status symbol – a satellite dish. Accommodation options here include South Sea View guest house on the water’s edge.
Scott’s Cove is the place to buy fish and bammy. Bammy is a large thick pancake made from cassava. Soaked in milk and then fried, it is the traditional accompaniment for highly seasoned fried fish. Cassava was the main food crop of the Arawaks and bammy is one of their few legacies. The young vendors do not believe in the soft sell but rush the car thrusting their wares through the window and jabbering at you. Don’t be scared; they are friendly. The women stay on the beach and do the cooking. Cold drinks are on sale. The cove itself is hidden from the sea and almost landlocked. It is here that Spanish ships used to unload supplies for Ysassi and the few Spanish colonists who remained to fight the British.
Scott’s Cove marks the boundary between the parishes of Westmoreland and St. Elizabeth (see Mandeville section).