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Tour 3 - Historic Spanish Town
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris

(on the way to the North Coast)

Getting to SPANISH TOWN, 13 miles from the city is quick and easy as long as you do not attempt it in rush hour. From uptown take the Washington Boulevard, from downtown take the Marcus Garvey Drive and Spanish Town Rd; both lead to the Nelson Mandela Highway. The land both sides of the dual carriage way belongs to Caymanas Estate and produces cane and livestock and is fast being gobbled up by the expansion of the city. Signs point L to CAYMANAS RACETRACK and R to CAYMANAS GOLF and COUNTRY CLUB. L of the roundabout 5.8 miles from the city, the Jose Marti School was a gift of the Cuban government and built by Cuban workers using a Cuban prefabricated technique. Take the R fork to visit the WHITE MARL ARAWAK MUSEUM and Spanish.

Spanish Town, founded in 1534 is the oldest continuously occupied city in the Western Hemisphere. It became the capital of Jamaica when the Spaniards abandoned Sevilla la Nueva on the inhospitable north coast and moved to the fat and fertile plains of the south. They called the new town St. Jago de la Vega. Today the Spanish period is recalled in street names: White Church St. where they built the Church of the White Cross, Red Church St. where they built the Church of the Red Cross and Monk St. where there was a monastery. In 1640 a British buccaneer who plundered the Spanish settlement described it as a faire town consisting of 400 or 500 houses built for ye most part with canes overcast with mortar . . . beautified with 5 or 6 stately churches and chapels and one monastery of Franciscan friars . . . situated upon a delectable and spacious plaine.

In 1655 a British expedition landed a few miles south at Passage Fort and proceeded to capture the city and the island with very little resistance from the Spaniards who packed up their valuables and sailed to Cuba. In a short time all the adobe buildings they left behind had been destroyed or replaced.

The square in Spanish Town was the heart of the island for over three centuries. Now it is a quiet backwater that can provide a free ride in a time machine. The Historical Foundation of Spanish Town has created a fascinating walking tour that includes all the historical highlights, a market stop and a visit to an old time tailor shop and a traditional Jamaican home. The tour, led by trained local guides, starts at CASA DE LA VEGA on Barrett St. a meticulously restored building with brick foundations dating back to the eighteenth century and with traces of earlier occupation. For information telephone 984-9684.

Under the leadership of local residents like historian Deryck Roberts, researcher Terence Goldson, and archaeologists Dr and Mrs Parent, the SPANISH TOWN HISTORICAL FOUNDATION has identified stratagems and some funding to assist with the conservation and restoration of what has been described as the best Georgian square on earth.

The northern face of the square is dominated by the RODNEY MEMORIAL. In 1782 Admiral Lord Rodney saved Jamaica from invasion by defeating the combined Spanish and French fleets at the Battle of the Saints in the Eastern Caribbean and dispatching half the invasion force of 6,000 men to a watery grave. The grateful Jamaicans voted three thousand pounds sterling to erect a statue in his honour but the final cost escalated to thirty thousand, nine hundred and eighteen pounds. The statue, by the famous English sculptor John Bacon, portrays Rodney in the garb of a Roman emperor with the story of the battle depicted in heraldic symbols on the pediment. The cannon on either side were taken from the French flagship and bear the motto of French King Louis XIV. When the capital moved to Kingston the statue was transferred there also. Shortly afterwards, enraged citizens of Spanish Town attempted to kidnap it. Subsequently Rodney was sent home to Spanish Town but, thanks to the fracas, minus one hand.

Behind the monument are the NATIONAL ARCHIVES. Among the documents preserved here is the will of Sir Henry Morgan who, while presiding at King s House, complained bitterly that each session of the House of Assembly cost him a thousand pounds since governors were expected to keep open house for the members. This and other source material can be perused at your leisure in the CLINTON BLACK ROOM named for the late Government archivist Clinton Black, author of The Story of Jamaica.

The Island Records Office is located here also, with information on all births, deaths and marriages. Currently the Mormon church is co-operating with the government by microfilming all records up to the present day. The practical advantages for the Jamaican government are obvious but some local residents find the Mormons obsession with family histories rather sinister.

OLD KING'S HOUSE on the western side of the square, was the residence of colonial governors for over a hundred years. The first governors occupied a building that had been the Spanish Hall of Audience and complained bitterly about its crudeness. King s House was built in 1773 and described by a contemporary as the noblest and best edifice of the kind either in North America or any of the British colonies in the West Indies. In 1838 the proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery was read from the steps here and the same day a hearse containing shackles and leg irons was paraded through the town before these symbols of slavery were buried a ceremony that was repeated all over the island.

Among many interesting residents of King s House was a sprightly American lady the wife of General George Nugent, governor from 1801 to 1805. Her impressions of social and political life are recorded in Lady Nugent's Journal. In 1925 a fire destroyed King s House, and the town itself was only saved by some quick-witted gentlemen who removed the stock of inbond rum from the adjoining stables. The colonnaded portico and facade are all that remain of the once magnificent building.

In the former stables of Old King s House, the FOLK MUSEUM displays tools and household artifacts tracing Jamaica s workaday history. You may also inspect the ruins of the brick mansion, including the remains of Lady Nugent s bathtub. In the centre of the square there is a formal garden shaded Silver Palms.

To the east, the old HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY now houses the Mayor s parlour and the offices of the St Catherine parish council. These brick walls have resounded to many a stormy debate. There was an occasion in 1710 when the Speaker, attempting to adjourn a rowdy session was forced at sword point to continue. His father, Colonel Peter Beckford, lately governor of the island, hearing shouts of murder rushed to the rescue only to fall on the steps and die a few minutes afterwards.

South of the square the former Courthouse with its domed Clock Tower was the victim of a fire in 1986. Plans to restore it may materialize in the not too distant future. This was originally the site of the Spaniards Church of the White Cross, which was believed to be connected to the Monastery on Monk Street by an underground passage.

Close to the square, on Barracks Street is the massive old MILITARY BARRACKS. It was erected in 1791 to house both soldiers and officers and there are only three buildings of this type in the world. A large underground passage has been discovered here, but its origin and purpose remains to be authenticated.

THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST JAMES, on Red Church St., was the first Anglican Cathedral outside of England. It was built on the ruins of the Spaniards Church of the Red Cross, which was razed by Cromwell's soldiers. The first Anglican building was destroyed by hurricane in 1712 and was rebuilt in 1714. In 1843 it was named the Cathedral of the Jamaican Diocese of the Anglican Church. A high, cool brick building in the shape of a cross, it is filled with interesting memorials including tombs of former governors (including Sir Thomas Modyford, Henry Morgan s friend), and even of a prisoner of war a U.S. naval officer named George Washington Reed who died in 1813, much beloved by his captors. There is a pleasant rather unkempt garden which ends incongruously at a tall brick wall topped by barbed wire and enclosing the St Catherine District Prison, the largest in the island. The juxtaposition is a reminder of a former British tradition which placed houses of correction under the shadow and influence of large churches.

The St Catherine District prison, built a century ago, is now vastly overcrowded. Up until recently it housed the highest number of Death Row inmates in the world. This changed in November 1993 when the Judicial Committee of the (U.K.) Privy Council reviewed the case of Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan and ruled that excessive delay prior to execution was cruel and inhuman treatment. The result was commutation of the death sentence for Pratt and Morgan and a recommendation for commutation of the sentences of over 100 other convicts all of whom had been on death row for longer than five years.

Other buildings of historical interest include the PHILLIPO BAPTIST CHURCH on the corner of William and French Sts which was founded in 1827 by James Phillippo, a missionary who campaigned fearlessly for the abolition of slavery. A fine Georgian building at the entrance to the town Town is being put to good use as a government clinic. It is believed that it was formerly the residence of the Provost Marshal.

Opposite here and somewhat hidden from the main road, the IRON BRIDGE spanning the Rio Cobre was cast in England and erected here in 1801. It was the first of its kind in the New World and is still used by


In Spanish Town you are less than 50 miles from the north coast via a scenic route through the BOG WALK GORGE and over MOUNT DIABLO.

At the roundabout west of the town, an interesting detour via Guanaboa Vale leads you L to the MOUNTAIN RIVER CAVE . Further along the same road is WORTHY PARK a sugar estate and factory and the subject of an interesting book, A Jamaican Sugar Estate by Robert Clarke, a member of the family that has owned the estate for more than a century.

The route straight ahead to the northcoast follows the RIO COBRE crossing it via the FLAT BRIDGE. The sides of the river gorge tower upwards: bare rocks miraculously covered with luxuriant vegetation. Heavy rains make the river rise to dangerous levels and sometimes cause the closure of this route. The alternative routes are from Kingston via Red Hills and Rock Hall to Sligoville then Bog Walk or from Spanish Town via Sligoville to Bog Walk.

The Bog Walk by-pass is thronged with citrus vendors. The highway also by-passes the little town of LINSTEAD with a market immortalized in the folk song Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market . Next you pass on your R the entrance to Jamalcan s alumina refinery. Past the small town of EWARTON the road starts a steep tortuous climb over Mount Diablo with occasional houses, churches, small shops and fruit stalls clinging to the mountain side. At Mount Rosser the cut-stone fortress L of the road was built by a celebrated naturopath (obeahman to the locals) now deceased. His balmyard famous for healing bush baths and unusual remedies used to attract patients from all over the island and from overseas.

Further on is one of the most spectacular vistas in the island: Alcan's red mud lake in a valley R of the road. Framed by feathery bamboos and cradled in blue hills it proves that pollution can be decorative. The red mud is a by-product of the alumina making process; fortunately, the same company has now pioneered a dry-stacking method to dispose of it. More importantly, physicist Dr. Arun Wugh has demonstrated that the mud can be used to produce bricks, tiles and other building materials. It remains for his research to be put to practical use.

The climb levels off then descends to FAITHS PEN where, thanks to road improvements, the former traffic hazard and colourful conglomeration of snack shacks has been replaced by a neat line of stalls plus adequate parking protected by a chain link fence. The rootsy fun of this pit stop has evaporated, but you can still get the same roast corn, roast yam and saltfish, cow cod soup, mannish water and other local delicacies. A popular stop for Jamaican travelers.

Descending now to MONEAGUE there is a vista R over the valley and MONEAGUE LAKE, an ephemeral lake which rises and fluctuates in size or disappears according to the level of the underground water table. There is a superstition that the lake stays up until it has claimed a life. It has been up now for many years. Campsites and fishing are available here.

The campus of the MONEAGUE TEACHER S TRAINING COLLEGE, founded in 1958, centres around the erstwhile Moneague Hotel which was built in 1891 by Governor Sir Henry Blake. Determined to develop tourism, Sir Henry arranged an international exhibition and had 6 hotels constructed to house the expected influx of visitors. It enjoyed brief popularity with affluent Kingstonians in days when the cool hills were considered more alluring than the beach.

The JAMAICA DEFENCE FORCE maintains a large training camp in Moneague the highway. From here the road winds downhill through the pleasant village of WALKERS WOOD and FERN GULLY to OCHO RIOS.

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