The following article was published in The Guradian in the UK and is reproduced here on Falmouth News for its historical content. The title may be a little bit harsh and controversial, but the post is not lacking in historical data.
When the devastating earthquake of 1692 ripped through Port Royal, aka the richest and wickedest city in the world, a very different Caribbean capital rose up in its place. But could Kingstons rigid grid plan impose order after the chaos?
Downtown Kingston, the conflicted heart of Jamaicas modern capital, was born of disaster. A battered pocket watch, its hands frozen at exactly 11:43, memorialises the moment on 7 June 1692 when an earthquake ripped through this English Caribbean colony. Mountains split, buildings shattered and a tsunami swept away uncountable bodies, living and dead, as the earths convulsions exhumed corpses from their graves.
The pocket watch was discovered in 1959 at the bottom of the harbour, where two thirds of the bustling commercial centre of
Port Royal was sunk by the earthquake and still lies preserved under water, like a submarine Pompeii.
A sketch drawn by the seafarer Edward Barlow in the 1680s gives an impression of this town before its destruction: a dense, fortified hub rising from the end of a 10-mile sandy spit. With tall houses built of brick shipped from England as ballast, Port Royal had been proclaimed the
London of Jamaica.
Seized from Spanish colonists by English soldiers under Oliver Cromwell in 1655, Jamaica was considered ideally located for trade and conquest. No island in the world lies like it for advantage, argued the 17th-century economist Carew Reynell, for whom it was the seat of riches and empire. Within a couple of decades, Port Royal had become the regions storehouse or treasury, according to the resident lawyer Francis Hanson, always like a continual mart or fair.
Mid-1700s map of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour. Illustration: Alamy
A pivotal site in the escalating businesses of slavery and sugar, Port Royal was also a hotbed of pirates. Even after piracy was officially outlawed, Jamaicas authorities were accused by local residents of winking at the buccaneers, in consideration of the treasures they brought and squandered away there. It earned Port Royal the epithet of the richest and wickedest city in the world.
It could also claim, as it turned out, to be the weakest. The English physician Hans Sloane, who came to visit Jamaica in 1687, reported that much of the land on which all this wealth and fame had been built a mere 53 acres was merely loose sand kept up by palisadoes and wharfs. The combination of heavily built-up urban fabric and insubstantial foundations was a disaster waiting to happen in this earthquake danger zone.
And on that fateful summer morning in 1692, the sand slipped away and the bricks came crashing down. One survivor, the Rev Emmanuel Heath, recorded how he had finished prayers to keep up some show of religion among a most ungodly, debauched people and was in the local tavern. As the floor began to roll beneath his feet, he ran outside to see the earth open and swallow up a multitude of people, and the sea mounting in upon us.
The eyewitness reports still make shocking reading today. The towns inhabitants were crushed in the earths clutches or by collapsing walls. Ships cast adrift rode over the rooftops of sunken houses, which became habitations for fish. So much sand was washed away that Port Royal in effect became a tiny desert island. The destruction was widespread across Jamaica, yet Port Royal had much the greatest share in this terrible judgment, according to Heath, who naturally interpreted the event as punishment from God. Roughly 2,000 people were
killed, with thousands more succumbing to disease soon after.
Wood engraving of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour, circa 1780. Illustration: Alamy
In a few seismic seconds, as the watch fell from a pocket and stopped, the fortunes of Port Royal changed for ever. Ideas for a deliberately different kind of town took hold: a gridiron plan designed to suit the white, colonial, slave-trading and slave-holding elite and to underscore its control of people and space. This would be the kings town, Kingston.
Refugees from the earthquake fled to the mainland and began occupying the broad, flat plain on that side of the harbour, writes Louis Nelson in his book Architecture and Empire in Jamaica. Relocating the city allowed Jamaican merchants to reimagine their urban fabric. The surveyor John Goffe drew up a plan of broad, straight streets providing easy access to wharfs along the waterfront, and lots were for sale by 1693.
Securely stored between the lines of this fledgling Kingston grid were the principal imports and exports slaves and sugar on which the rise of both the British empire and the 18th centurys quickly globalising economy would depend; its network of streets inextricable from the wider network of shipping lanes that stretched and intersected around the world.
Colin Clarke, a leading expert on Kingstons urban development and social change, points out that both streets and lots were designed to meet commercial requirements. The main thoroughfares, wider than the rest at 66ft, formed free-flowing transport routes between the port and plantations in the hinterland, while lots were oriented to maximise the number of frontages available in prime commercial areas.
Return of the wickedest city: a street in rebuilt Port Royal, circa 1895. Photograph: Alamy
Not everyone, though, was convinced about building anew on the firm land of the island, as Sloane described the site where Kingston emerged. In the years following the earthquake, Port Royal was also rebuilt along the same lines as before, albeit to half its previous size, and in the late 1690s its crammed and crooked streets remained a more desirable place to live than the town taking shape across the water. Port Royals association with London, and that citys recent resurrection after the Great Fire of 1666, help to explain its peoples attachment to the site, as well as their urge to rebuild.
But Port Royal was to suffer its own great fire just 10 years after the earthquake. Port Royal burnt, all but the Castle, a boat master recorded in his log in January 1703. An act was swiftly drawn up to prohibit the resettling of Port Royal and to move all its inhabitants to Kingston, sparking a heated transatlantic debate between Jamaica and England over the relative advantages of each site. Placating the colonists, London eventually resolved that both towns should be allowed to continue, with Port Royal serving as the outermost defence for Kingston and the wider island.
If Port Royal had meaning by association with the restored ancient City of London, the design of colonial Kingston has more in common with unused proposals for rebuilding London that envisioned an entirely new city. The grid plan markedly differentiated the city from its predecessor, Nelson notes of Jamaicas new port. In charts of the harbour drawn amid the debate over whether to rebuild or abandon Port Royal, the fluid, uncertain form of the latter contrasts sharply with Kingstons rigid, rectilinear grid.
The development of that grid was overseen by the military engineer Christian Lilly. With four main thoroughfares leading into the centrepiece Parade which combined military, civic and commercial functions the gridiron layout relates to other English colonial urban plans such as Londonderry in Northern Ireland (where Colonel Lilly had previously served in campaigns to crush Irish resistance) and Philadelphia in North America.
A satellite image of Kingston, Jamaica, taken in December 2013. Photograph: Universal Images Group North Ame/Alamy Stock Photo
However, Kingston was also intended as an improvement on the irregular grid street plan of St Jago de la Vega the Spanish colonys principal town in Jamaica, which the English had appropriated as their own capital in 1655 and as a rival to the French and Spanish Caribbean cities that Lilly knew from his involvement in military attacks and spying missions.
A Frenchman held prisoner in Jamaica in 1706, during war between England and France, took the opportunity for some military espionage of his own. In addition to Kingstons uniformity, he noted that the town had no fortification, only a long entrenchment to the north of the Parade which, with the houses on the other three sides of the square, formed a kind of strongpoint.
It took at least another century for this strongpoint to become Kingstons physical centre, yet the Frenchmans observation hints at the broadly defensive character of the citys plan. The wide streets and large lots served not only to prevent the spread of fire and reduce the destructive chaos of earthquakes or hurricanes which occurred with disturbing frequency but also to order and control the inhabitants and their activities. Noting that Jamaican port towns were rarely the sites of slave rebellion, the historian Barry Higman describes them as Janus-faced barriers as well as portals to profits and progress.
Michael Hays map of Kingston from 1740. Illustration:
Library of Congress
Michael Hays plan of Kingston c1740 was clearly intended to promote the ports profitability, with busy wharves and views of prosperous-looking houses. But the invisible background to Hays image is the conflict that had been raging for more than a decade between colonists and the islands maroon communities. These groups of African Jamaicans the descendants of slaves who had been freed by Spanish colonists as they tried to keep hold of the island in 1655, joined by growing numbers of runaways from the English plantations resisted the occupation from multiple mountain bases.
Hay dedicated his print to Jamaicas governor Edward Trelawny, who signed a treaty with the maroons in 1739 after a decade of intensified guerrilla warfare in which plantations were burned and settlements attacked. The gathering strength of the resistance gave Jamaicas enslaved population ideas of rebellion and freedom, while the white planter class feared the island would be lost to the nation.
This is the wider scene of disorder behind the visual and spatial ordering of Kingstons grid plan. The imposition of the grid may be seen as a response to the reality articulated by the Jamaican poet Kei Miller in his 2014 Forward Prize-winning collection that whole places will slip / out from your grip.
In Jamaica, Miller writes, history and its landmarks …
become unfixed by earthquake by landslide by utter spite.
Strikingly, the footprint of old, colonial Kingston survived intact through full emancipation in 1838 and
independence in 1962, and remains ingrained in Kingstonian minds so ingrained, Clarke suggests, that decolonisation of the grid has been impossible. The colonial past lives on in the names of streets and spaces: the Parade is still commonly known by that name, for example, despite being renamed Victoria Park in the 19th century, and then St William Grant Park after the 20th-century Jamaican labour activist.
But for Anne-Marie Bonner, executive director of the
Institute of Jamaica (based in downtown Kingston), the grid offers more opportunities than obstacles in reviving the city and its culture. Not only does it contribute to much-needed orderliness in modern times, it contains history worth preserving the former British army ground having resounded to the political speeches of Jamaican national heroes such as Marcus Garvey, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley. With efforts under way to have the city recognised as a historic district, the grid may yet gain a new lease of life.
I guess the grid pattern of the city is hardwired into me, says the Kingston-born writer Lorna Goodison, who has weaved the bandana plaid, as she describes the citys pattern, into her poetry and short stories.
Retracing the streets of Kingston in my mind always makes me feel more connected, more grounded, Goodison explains. However, it is the old Kingston I retrace; the one I grew up in in the 1950s and early 60s, when it was a vibrant, bustling place that was mostly safe for a child to walk around. Now my hope is that a new Kingston, which will manage to maintain some of the better things about the old Kingston, is somehow rising from the grid.
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