“Kingston is a dangerous s#*thole” said a relative of Julie’s who we won’t name. Having spent a few days there, we’d prefer to say “It’s a complicated place”. In some ways, it’s two cities in one. There’s Downtown and there’s New Kingston.
The life of Jamaica’s most famous export, Bob Marley, is something of a metaphor for the city.
Born in the north of the island, Marley moved to Trench Town with his mother at 11 years of age. Trench Town was a government public housing project built on land cleared of slums in the 1930s in the area now known as Downtown.
The tiny one-room residences were built in clusters around a central courtyard with communal cooking and bathroom facilities. Cramped living, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. They became known as the Government Yards of Trench Town, immortalised by Bob in the iconic No Woman, No Cry:
I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trench Town
And Georgie would make the fire lights, I say
A log wood burning through the night, yeah
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you…
As a teenager there, he teamed up with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Reggae was born. The government yard on the block where he lived is now the Trench Town Culture Yard.
Inside the yard, the former residences contain an exhibition on the history of Trench Town as a housing development, Bob-related memorabilia and information about other musicians from Trench Town. Ska, rocksteady and reggae all have their roots here.
We were shown the room where Bob lived on his own from about age 16. Each of the doors in the below photo is one residence.
They really are tiny. There’s just room for a single bed and a small shelf, as referenced in his song Is This Love:
We’ll share the shelter
Of my single bed
We’ll share the same room
And we also saw his first car.
Our guide seemed to have a well rehearsed and comprehensive spiel for the tour and we might have gleaned more had he not been so stoned he could barely articulate. It’s legal here. And it’s everywhere.
As an add-on, you can have a guide take you around the streets of Trench Town to see how the neighbourhood is now. Our new guide was lighting up his ‘medicine’ as we started off. He seemed very disappointed that we knew nothing of Jamaican football, but was enthusiastic about Australia’s prowess in cricket. He didn’t seem the netball type so we didn’t mention that Australia defeated Jamaica to win the gold medal at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
Contrary to some stories, the name is not because the housing was built over an old sewerage trench. It’s because the land was once owned by an Irish plantation owner named Daniel Trench.
This is a desperately poor area with an appalling record of gun crime and gang warfare. Under no circumstances should tourists wander around without a local. And this is definitely not one of those ‘poor but prettied up for tourists’ places.
20% of the city’s population still lives in slums. Jamaica has the dubious honour of having the fifth highest homicide rate in the world. A gun death occurs in Kingston on average every 17 hours. Ok, Julie’s relative has a point.
When we finished being escorted around Trench Town, the guide put us in a taxi – whose driving put us at greater risk than anything else we did in Kingston – saying it was too dangerous for us to walk from Trench Town to central Downtown. He also advised against visiting the market because ‘funny things go on, not a place for you’.
Central Downtown isn’t ideal either, but probably the biggest risk in the daytime is pickpocketing rather than violence. Still, best to stick to well frequented areas. This is the former historic heart of Kingston and home to some of the few remaining colonial buildings in the city.
The Ward Theatre was built and gifted to the city in 1912 by Colonel Charles Ward. There’s been a theatre on the site since the 1770s but serial earthquakes flattened the earlier ones. Sadly it’s fallen into dereliction, although there’s been talk of restoring it for years.
Coke Methodist Church references neither the fizzy cola drink nor the white powder. Built in 1840 in neo-gothic style, it honours Dr Thomas Coke, founder of the Methodist Missions to the West Indies on the site of the first Methodist chapel in Jamaica.
New Kingston is completely different. While the wealthy had moved away from Downtown long ago, with suburbanisation in the 1960s, the middle class migrated to New Kingston as well. Downtown became increasingly impoverished and the city became firmly demarcated on economic lines. And so it remains. New Kingston has its share of squalor, but overall it’s similar to many other second world urban centres.
In 1974, after he hit the big time, Bob moved uptown to a house in Hope Road, New Kingston. It didn’t prevent him being shot at home in 1976, most likely by Trench Town gang members opposed to a concert he was giving. Sometimes Downtown comes uptown. He survived but went into self-imposed exile, leaving Jamaica for a few years almost immediately after the concert.
The house is now the Bob Marley Museum. It’s fairly modest, but a palace compared to Trench Town.
He set up the original Tuff Gong recording studio here, where some of the Wailers’ best work was recorded.
Around the grounds are lots of murals honouring Bob.
Visiting the museum is by guided tour only. No photos are permitted inside but trust us – this place is a shrine. And the tour guides go completely over the top with lots of hollering ‘yah, mon’ and ‘whoa’ and singing big slabs from his songs while urging everyone to join in. Our guide had a fantastic voice and so much energy. The tour was loud, frenzied and exhausting.
Afterwards we headed down the road to Devon House, built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel. On touring the house, the guide told us George made his money by developing a mine after discovering gold in Venezuela. In reality, he started off in shipping with seed capital from his German father, and amassed his first fortune from the arms trade in the late colonial days in Cuba. This landed him in prison for a while, so he wasn’t exactly a cleanskin. Gorgeous house, though.
Also in New Kingston is Emancipation Park where an avenue is lined with pedestals topped with busts of famous Jamaicans and a quote from each. As we said in our post on Curacao, Jamaican political activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey, first coined the phrase ‘emancipate yourself from mental slavery’ in a speech in 1937, which Bob co-opted into his evocative and moving Redemption Song.
Just outside the park is a controversial statue entitled Redemption Song installed in 2003. The artist says the 11 metre statue of a black man and black woman staring skyward is symbolic of Jamaican black peoples’ rise out of the horrors of slavery. Ironically, many Jamaicans abhor it, believing the nudity and ‘generous’ body shapes are inappropriate for such a theme.
We caught a local bus from Downtown out to Port Royal. At the end of a thin peninsula of land which circles around the bay from Kingston, it was once the largest city in the Caribbean. A safe harbour for English privateers raiding Spanish merchant ships, it became notorious for its ill gotten wealth, rampant alcohol consumption and immorality. At its height, it had a tavern for every 10 residents. Pirates, publicans and prostitutes ruled. It was known as ‘The Wickedest City on Earth’. It’s also the city where Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl begins (although it wasn’t filmed here).
The population reached 6,500, with more than 2,000 buildings crammed close together on 51 acres. But like the foolish man in Jesus’ parable, they built on sand. On 7 June 1692, a massive earthquake rocked Jamaica. Two-thirds of Port Royal slipped dramatically into the sea. Most of the rest was smashed by the tsunami that followed. Around 2,000 people were killed. Diseases resulting from lack of housing, medicine and clean water killed another 2,000 in the following months.
Underwater archeological investigations have been limited but reveal the frames of many buildings complete with contents. A tavern with bottles, kegs and tankards. A cobbler’s shop with leather scraps, lathes and shoe soles. Houses with cutlery, crockery, cooking pots and other household wares. It would be an amazing site to dive, but sadly that’s prohibited.
Of the port’s five forts, only Fort Charles survived. The British remodelled it and its current form dates mostly to the 1800s. It’s open as a museum with guides to show visitors around and tell stories of the pirate days.
In 1907, the revamped fort was hit by another earthquake causing further devastation. The Royal Artillery House is a great example. Slumping into the sand, it’s now called Giddy House.
If you try to walk from one end to the other and turn, it really does induce a vertigo-like sensation.
As for the Port Royal town today, Lonely Planet describes it as a ‘dilapidated ramshackle sprawl of tropical lassitude’. That says it all, really.
Kingston certainly has its challenges. There’s crime, there’s poverty but there’s also music and history, and some damn good food. Jerk pork and chicken, goat curry, salt fish and ackee, and delicious deep fried dough balls with the delightful name ‘festival’. “I’ll have a serve of festival please”. It’s worth spending a few days here, and obligatory if you are a Bob Marley fan.