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Enchanting rhythms from the other side.

It has been said that going to the southwest of Jamaica is like entering another world. The island's proximity to the mainland of the United States has made it synonymous with sleek, all-inclusive resorts that provide exotic tropical delights mixed with modern urban comforts. It is no surprise then that this side of the island, where local myths and folklore permeate the virgin landscape, is unknown to the average visitor.

The southwest coast embraces three of Jamaica's parishes or states, Westmoreland, St. Elizabeth, and Manchester. Stretching from Savannah-la-Mar, in Westmoreland, to the Milk River Bath on the border of Manchester and Clarendon parishes, the coastal region is one of dramatic topographical contrasts and sweeping vistas. This sometimes rocky coastline is broken by white beaches that stretch alongside the communities of Bluefields, Auchindown and Whitehouse, while beige and black powder-fine sands wrap the shores of Treasure Beach and Alligator Pond farther east. A central mountain range follows the contour of the coast, providing a backdrop for the lush valleys which produce most of Jamaica's fruit and vegetables. This terrain changes abruptly into dry fields in the parish of St. Elizabeth, where the dramatic Santa Cruz mountains meet the sea at seventeen hundred feet, forming the cliffs known as Lover's Leap.

In this predominantly agricultural region, sugarcane production was the basis of the economy and is still cultivated today. Although the Spaniards introduced it in 1640, grand-scale production did not peak until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries under British rule. By 1814, Jamaica had produced 34 million pounds of sugar, making it the world's chief exporter of raw sugar. Plantations became human factories where alienated African slaves suffered deprivation by abusive overseers who managed the estates of the absentee owners. Slave uprisings and maroon guerrilla warfare plagued the English for centuries. From the onset, various religious groups - Baptists, Wesleyans, Moravians, Presbyterians, and Methodists - joined the cause of the slaves. By associating themselves with the antislavery movement in England, missionaries in Jamaica played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery. Their years of struggle finally influenced the British Parliament to pass the Emancipation Act in 1834. However, slaves in Jamaica were not actually freed until four years later. This period marked the beginning of the decline of the British plantation empire, although Jamaica continued to produce sugar, at times reaching world records.

For the first ten years after emancipation, religious leaders filled the vacuum of leadership and authority. The British even feared that the government would fall entirely into their hands. "Interestingly enough," observes a prominent social worker," Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any country in the world." He adds that "the country's history can be told through the role of its churches and past religious leaders."

The plantation mentality prevailed throughout the nineteenth century as the country moved towards a new social structure. The colored or mulattoes who had been educated in England gradually took on minor administrative positions, while emancipated blacks continued to farm, forging the agricultural infrastructure that exists today. Even as freemen, the blacks continued to occupy an inferior economic status. In the 1860s, workers from Asia and Eastern Europe began to replace what was once the black labor force on the plantations. The influence of these immigrant populations in the southwest is evident in the towns of Little London, with its East Indian community, and in the German settlement of Seaford Town.

Today's southwesterners are heirs to this complex cultural legacy. They communicate in patois - a language based on English and West African dialects, mixed with Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese which originated on plantations when slaves were forced to learn English. African customs still play an important part in daily life, untainted by the commercial values which predominate on the northern coast. Children are entertained by anancy folktales in lieu of television and colorful gatherings of farmers can be seen at the Saturday markets of Savannah-la-Mar and Black River. Religion, too, is an essential element of the southwestern culture as is evident in the approximately 200 different churches. Christian and African spiritual beliefs often syncretize in some denominations and, just as in colonial times, devout Rastafarians yearn to rejoin the spiritual land of their ancestors.




Referring to Jamaica's south, prize-winning poet and sociologist Margaret Bernal reflects, "the landscape brings you close to the past as well as to the future. When you look at the trees and the people, you find a rhythm of life that is very beautiful." The coastal road leading out of Savannah-la-Mar has been the principal lifeline of the region since colonial times when it was used to transport sugar to bustling ports. This road, winding east towards Bluefields, is bordered on one side by sweeping fields of sugarcane and on the other by centuries-old silk-cotton and guango trees towering over lush plains that stretch to the sea.

Amidst the dense vegetation stand abandoned "great houses," like sentinels guarding remnants of a bygone era. The splendors of Victorian times are captured in well-preserved houses such as Acton, a sugar estate, and Caledonia, a pimento and coffee estate. Magnificent gardens and comfortable interiors lined wall-to-wall with books, antique furniture, family heirlooms and portraits bring forth vivid images of a refined colonial lifestyle. Well-known English artist William Feilding has embarked in an ambitious project, recording in watercolors the area's great houses. He remarks that exploring these houses is "like a magical mystery tour." His own residence, Oristano, is an eighteenth century home which commands a magnificent view of Bluefields Bay. In these sparkling waters, fishermen in dugouts cast their handmade nets every morning at dawn as they have for time immemorial.

Bluefields was erected on the foundations of the 1519 settlement of Oristan, one of the earliest of three Spanish towns in Jamaica. During the Spanish occupation, Oristan became a port-of-call for galleons that stopped to pick up provisions on their way to Central America in search of riches. Bluefields Bay played an important role in Caribbean history as the point of departure for buccaneer Henry Morgan's sack of Panama in 1670.

Like many villages along the coast, the Bluefields community has remained virtually unchanged during the past thirty years. Locals make a living from fishing in the nearby towns of Belmont and Whitehouse as well as from subsistence farming inland. Residents of these small inland communities bathe and wash in the many streams crisscrossing the hills, since running water and electricity are just beginning to reach them. Many Bluefielders have gone to urban centers in search of jobs and opportunities, only to return disappointed by the promises of a better life. "Montego Bay is too fussy", explains Keith, a Bluefields driver and self-appointed jack-of-all-trades. "Over here I pick breadfruit and bananas from my trees. There, I have to pay for them".

Shamah, a local fisherman, specializes in weaving fish traps and carving dugout canoes in the tradition of his African ancestors. For centuries, dugouts used in the fishing industry have been built from the trunks of the silk-cotton trees. These giant trees were regarded with superstitious awe - it was thought that cutting their trunks would enrage the "duppies" or spirits of the dead. Tradition dictates that before cutting the trees, one should pour rum on the roots, while chanting songs to appease the spirits. When asked about this, Shamah smiles coyly, evincing his familiarity with "duppies", while adding with a mischievous grin that he doesn't actually cut the trunks, just carves them.

The people of this community come from a tradition of fierce independence. They also display a gentle reserve and friendliness characteristic of those in harmony with nature. Local folklore and rituals are of the utmost importance to the agricultural cycle. Crops such as yams, sweet potatoes and cabbage must be planted five to seven days before the full moon so that "they may start to root and catch the full moon and promise a good return." Papaya, locally called pawpaw, should not be planted near the house, as it is known to take the richness from the soil and sap the virility of men. A belief in the curative powers of some plants, and the evil powers hidden in others, is a part of daily life.

Passing Scott Cove, after the fishing town of Whitehouse, a multitude of fried fish kiosks signal the entrance to St. Elizabeth parish, the oldest in Jamaica. Here, the terrain suddenly changes. Groves of thatch palm, which provides the raw material for the straw work that has made this parish famous, stretch endlessly. Goats with "pato" collars feed on the dry, flat coastal plains dotted with limestone patches. Turning inland, a gravel road lined by papaya trees leads to the entrance of the privately-owned Browne estate, site of the Y.S. Falls. Visitors are transported in a tractor-hauled buggy to the majestic 120-foot, triple-tiered falls where they can swim in its pools or explore caverns covered by enormous hanging plants. Another natural phenomenon off the coastal road is Bamboo Avenue, a two and a half mile stretch. Here, the tall grass forms a cathedral-like canopy over the road. Legend has it that the British planted the bamboo for a paper factory that was never constructed.

Just as sugarcane brought fame to Westmoreland parish, logwood was responsible for the booming nineteenth century settlement of Black River, located further south at the mouth of Jamaica's longest river. Logs were carried in barges downriver to European-bound ships anchored in this Caribbean port. Used as a dye in textile manufacturing, the dark red or black extract of the wood was in great demand in Europe at that time. With the introduction of synthetic dyes in the twentieth century, the logwood export business all but disappeared. The port was officially closed down in 1968, although today pimento is still shipped from Black River. Reminders of the town's heyday are found in the quaintly sculpted gingerbread houses. Invercauld, one of these grand old homes, is currently being restored.

The great iron bridge, along with the logwood depot at the end of town, is the starting point of the South Coast Safari Ltd. tour of Black River led by Charles Swaby. Swaby, a well-known conservationist and breeder of crocodiles, explains in detail the interdependent ecosystems of the river as well as its economic importance to the entire south coast. Although the town may once again move into the limelight with the growing environmental movement, the folklore surrounding Black River remains unchanged. Visitors are forewarned that they might even sight a mermaid. These "Fair Maids" are said to live in deep holes in the rivers and comb their long black hair on its banks. "If a man sees a mermaid before she sees him, he is doomed; if one were to catch a mermaid, the river would dry. They cannot talk and will disappear the minute you spot them."

Farms throughout St. Elizabeth parish produce most of Jamaica's fresh produce. On the road to Treasure Beach, south of Black River, the countryside is patterned by rows of watermelons, peanuts, scallions, sweet peppers, carrots and mango trees. Here the soil has a distinctive reddish hue due to rich deposits of bauxite, the major industry in the region. Next to the farmers' homes one often finds tombstones. "Jamaicans believe that the best protection for the home are the family spirits from beyond the dead," says Father Sean Lavery, a Columban priest from Savannah-la-Mar. "When the house is ready, a plot is kept in reserve, somewhere in the garden." Great care is also give to the rites of the newborn. When a child is born in this part of the country, its umbilical chord is buried in the ground and a tree is planted. This tree belongs to the child and is called "the navel string tree."

The last stretch of this coastal journey takes surfing and spa lovers to St. Elizabeth's rustic Treasure Beach and Milk River Bath in Clarendon parish, near the border of Manchester. One of the oldest holiday sites on the island, Treasure Beach was used by English settlers who lived in today's bauxite-rich Mandeville, located in the hills to the north. In the 1930s, a beach hotel for tourists was erected by entrepreneurs in search of relief from asthma. Milk River Bath, a 19th century spa, boasts curative waters with a radioactive content surpassing that of France's Vichy and England's Bath.




The serenity of Jamaica's southwest coast - one of the last tracts of undeveloped land - has been well guarded by devotees who visit year after year. However, it is no secret to local residents that this unspoiled paradise could be disrupted by large-scale development already in the works. Three major hotel projects in blueprint will span from the outskirts of Savannah-la-Mar to Whitehouse. Although there is a general consensus in the community that increased tourism will bring many benefits - principally an improvement in the economic situation - there are still unresolved questions concerning the balance of development and conservation and the role of the local population.

As more and more tourists worldwide seek nature-oriented travel, conservationists are supporting development which fosters ecotourism in the region. Terry Williams, founder of a nonprofit organization called Bluefields Trust, firmly believes that training is the key to successful integration. "The community" says Williams, "should be involved from the beginning - from the construction phase to providing support services for these industries". A young London-educated Jamaican, Williams came to Bluefields in 1988 with Hurricane Gilbert and has stayed on. Responding to what he perceived as the need for better communication between the neighboring communities, he launched Bluefields Trust. Over the past four years, the dynamic Williams has obtained seed money and technical assistance from private and government organizations in England, Canada, and the United States, as well as in Jamaica. With technical assistance from the United States, the Trust is designing a two-acre Enterprise Park which will consist of a market for fresh fruits and vegetables, a fresh fish store, a restaurant with cabanas, and recreational facilities. The market will establish a center of business for five local villages. "This is the only town in the whole of Jamaica where the community designed their own facilities," says Williams proudly. Already in place is a sewing cooperative for young mothers with a day-care center for their children. The purpose of the Enterprise Park project is to provide livelihoods for the people of the communities while at the same time protecting the environment.

Deborah and Braxton Moncure, owners of the Bluefields Villas, four beachfront villas along the Bay, also support an ecologically balanced development plan. "Serious consideration has to be focused on the infrastructure of the south coast regarding water supply, waste management, roadways and traffic control," says Deborah. Already this year over 364 accidents have occurred on the coastal artery due to congestion, to say nothing of the accidents that are caused by cattle that regularly wander into the road. Deborah, who is an architect, recently designed the fourth villa, "The Hermitage," a magnificent modern structure with elements of the Georgian great houses. Like many residents, she firmly believes that new developments should incorporate existing architectural styles, having utilized local materials and artisans in the construction of the villa.

Currently, tourism on the south coast still operates on a personal level. The desire to bring visitors in touch with authentic Jamaican values and traditions led Diana Mclntyre Pike to establish the Central and South Tourism Committee in 1987. Based in Mandeville, the committee acts as an umbrella for small hoteliers in the region. Mclntyre is pioneering a new concept called Community Tourism which departs from the resort type package to offer a product that involves leaders in each of the villages. Another project, Country Style Vacations, is designed to satisfy various interests, among them horticulture, colonial architecture, ecology, health and fitness, and folk and culture.

As Jamaicans celebrate thirty years of independence, there is hope that an environmentally harmonious tourism will be achieved. Dialogue has already begun at both national and local levels and the question remaining is whether southwest Jamaica will take the lead in this particular field, setting an example for its Caribbean neighbors. Whatever the course of development, one thing is certain: the lure of duppies and mermaids will bring visitors back again and again.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Jamaica's Southwest coast
Author:Garfer, Pilar
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Voyages through absence and presence.
Next Article:On the tightrope to conservation.

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