A HISTORY OF THE PARISH OF PORTLAND

 

A HISTORY OF THE PARISH OF PORTLAND

 

By Damian Shirley

 

The parish of Portland and its capital, Port Antonio, has always seemed delayed in its development in comparison to other Jamaican parishes and their capitals. This was evident in the year the parish was created, as well as the efforts that went into its development and settlement.

 

The parish was formed in 1723, approximately 63 years after the English took control of Jamaica. It was named after the Duke of Portland who was a Governor of Jamaica between 1722 and 1726. Information from the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) explains that, in an attempt to attract settlers in 1723, a grant of 30 acres of land had to be offered by the Governor to every white person wishing to settle in Portland and 20 acres to free mulattoes, Indians or Negroes. Still failing to attract settlers, the Governor increased his incentives to include provisions of beef and flour and an offer to exclude the inhabitants from taxes and arrest for three years.[1] Initially, the offers were only extended to new arrivals to the island. It was, however, later extended to new arrivals to the parish that may have been elsewhere on the island. These grants were to be collected at Port Antonio. However, it was not until after the Maroon Peace Treaty of 1739 that the parish, and in particular the town of Port Antonio, really started attracting settlers who came to start sugar plantations.

 

Prior to this, the name “Puerto de Anton” was noted on late Spanish maps. This led writers, such as H. P. Jacobs, to argue that the name Port Antonio is rather an old one. He, however, believed that the town was originally meant to be called Titchfield by the English and further suggested that this name be officially used for some time. This is supported by maps found at the National Library which were created during the initial stage of the town’s development. The old name, Port Antonio, however, evidently triumphed.[2]

 

1790 map of the north side of Port Antonio showing East Harbour, West Harbour and the town of Titchfield. (Courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica)

 

With the natural beauty of Port Antonio and the ease in accessing it by way of its two harbours, one will no doubt question its reason for late development in comparison to the other parishes. This answer is two-fold. Firstly, and of extreme importance, is the fear of Maroon raids. Several writers revealed that the coastal town of Port Antonio was of no real value to the Maroons as, without settlement, there was nothing to plunder. Frequent raids by this group were therefore evidently aimed at discouraging settlement for their own personal security. The second major reason accounting for Port Antonio’s slow development was its climate and the weather pattern of the entire parish. After the parish was formed and subsequently inhabited, it struggled to sustain the interest of settlers as the climate and weather were not favourable to the traditional crops grown on plantations.

 

The signing of the Peace Treaty in 1729 between the English and the Maroons did, however, offer some sense of security to white settlers. Nonetheless, this was not enough for the town of Port Antonio to become developed as a reliable and adequate source of income was needed. This was not to be realised until the 1880s when Lorenzo Dow Baker was credited to have started the banana trade from the Port Antonio Harbour. The exportation of a new crop from Port Antonio was bound to put Port Antonio in a favourable position to garner wealth. Subsequent years thus saw growth in the planting and exporting of bananas from the Port Antonio Harbour. Baker then soon formed the Boston Fruit Company and later, after facing fierce competition which led to the purchase and acquisition of other companies, he formed the United Fruit Company. The headquarters for his company was placed in Port Antonio and he also built houses to accommodate the company’s employees.

 

In an attempt at increasing his profit, Baker soon started to transport tourists in his ships from the northern states of America to Port Antonio. He would then accommodate them in the houses built for workers. This move inevitably increased the wealth of Port Antonio as the town was now a major tourist destination. The Jamaica Gleaner in its “Pieces of the Past” wrote that during this period Port Antonio was regarded as the second most important town in Jamaica, after Kingston.[1] With the increase in tourist arrivals to the island, and particularly to the town of Port Antonio, there came the need for more accommodation and greater luxury. The construction of the Titchfield Hotel in the early 1890s was soon realised. This was constructed during the period of the passing of the Jamaica Hotel Law (1890), and the Great Jamaican Exhibition of 1891 which showcased Jamaica and the creative talent and industry of its people to the world.

 

The Titchfield Hotel was later rebuilt in 1905 and was regarded as one of the most luxurious hotels with conveniences such as elevator, electric lights, telegraph services and approximately 400 rooms. Though the town of Port Antonio had a late start, the introduction of the banana trade pumped new life into the town, and up to the early 1900s Port Antonio was a booming town with a world-class hotel and various other buildings and public spaces which contributed to it becoming a prosperous and growing town.

 

The Titchfield Hotel was rebuilt in 1905.

 

However, Port Antonio’s success was short-lived with the breaking of the 1900s. The Jamaica Gleaner reported that in August of 1903 a Category 3 hurricane hit the island, devastating the banana plantations in Portland. As surface feeders, banana trees are very susceptible to strong winds; therefore any storm of such category would have caused inevitable destruction to banana plantations. The Jamaica Gleaner, looking back at hurricanes, wrote:

“The storm, which many later called the August Hurricane, had no name, no gender and was brutal.  It came on a Monday night – August 10, 1903 … the country took a direct hit from the Category 3 storm … A report from Portland said … and the banana plantations simply vanished, livestock beaten and boats and ships were either damaged or destroyed. The capital, Port Antonio, was a wreck.”[1]

The banana trees that were left standing after the hurricane, as well as those which were replanted by farmers who were willing to start over, were soon struck by another disaster, this time in the form of a disease known as the Panama disease. This fungus not only infected and killed the plants but also infected the soil, which prevented the plants from growing in that area for years. H. P. Jacobs writing in the West Indian Review in regard to the effects of the Panama disease on Portland remarked, “The harbours presented the curious picture of seaports which apparently lived on nothing.”

 

There are various dates for the effect of the Panama disease. This could have been due to the fact that, unlike storms, diseases usually take a long time before they mature and devour plants. The disease, however, affected various banana farms between the years of the World Wars (between 1914 and 1939).

 

Both World Wars also had an adverse effect on the town of Port Antonio as the wars saw an inevitable reduction in banana export and tourist arrivals, both of which were the town’s main sources of income. A final blow to Port Antonio and Portland’s banana production came a year before the official end of World War 2 in the form of another hurricane in 1944 which devastated the eastern end of the island once again.

 

Regardless of the arrival of Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn in 1946 and the promotion of Port Antonio through Hollywood films and visits from various movie stars up to the 1950s, Port Antonio never regained its former glory.

 

Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn

 

 

 

 



[1] Luton, Daraine. “Preventing Extensive Hurricane Damage.” Jamaica Gleaner (August 14, 2006), http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20060814/news/news1.html. Retrieved March 20, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] The Jamaica Gleaner. Pieces of the Past: Port Antonio. The Jamaica Gleaner, June 03, 2001. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/story0027.html Retrieved January 05, 2014.



[1] Jamaica Information Service, Portland. Kingston: Jamaica Information Service, (Parish Profiles), 1991.

[2] Jacobs, H.P. “The Parishes of Jamaica: Portland.” The West Indian Review. July 1953: 12.

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