PORT ANTONIO, JAMAICA - ONE OF A KIND
Where else in one place does one find the intermingling of the histories of such disparate groups as the Tainos, the Maroons, the Spanish/French/British, American business and leisure, the birthplace of Caribbean tourism, the start of the international banana industry, plus the rich and famous of the entire 20th Century?
Why, Port Antonio Jamaica, of course!
The town of Port Antonio is situated in the northeast corner of the island of Jamaica. It sits on beautiful twin harbours, guarded to the south by the majestic high ridge of the Blue Mountains and the entire area east and west of the town is dotted by coves and beaches carved out of the primordial rock by the eternal caresses (or bashing) of the waves from the Caribbean. Lush foliage fed by its numerous emerald mountain rivers and streams and plentiful rainfall make Port Antonio and its environs the place you always dreamed about in the Caribbean.
Jamaica’s original inhabitants the Tainos lived here and traces of their ancient civilization have been found in the caves of the limestone hills and along the plentiful waterways.
Columbus found Jamaica on his second voyage to the Americas and the Spanish named the port “Puerto Anton” after the son of an aristocrat. The Spanish did little else in the area.
Jamaica was taken by the British in 1655 and they retained the town’s name and made it the capital of the parish of Portland so-named for the Duke of Portland, a favourite of the king. Captain Morgan during his tenure as governor used the hills around Port Antonio for look-out posts due to it's strategic location on the passageway between Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica that scanned the sea for the approaches of Spanish or French invaders. The British developed agriculture mainly sugar, coffee, cocoa, coconuts, annotto and cattle ranches. Fort George on the Titchfield peninsula and Navy Island across the inlet dividing the 2 harbours was the base for the Royal Navy and the fort was manned right up to the 1960’s.
In the early days of British occupation Port Antonio and in fact all of the eastern end of Jamaica, were under threat of attack from within by the Maroons. The Maroons (from the Spanish “cimarron”, for “wild”) were released Spanish slaves later joined by slaves that escaped their British masters and formed communities in the high Blue Mountains and were clever and fierce opponents, eventually forcing the British to sign a peace treaty and designate them as a separate nation within the colony, free from further molestation. It was the Maroons that developed the technique of cooking and preserving meat by cooking feral pigs using low smoke (to escape detection by the British) on barbecues made from pimento (allspice) wood which we now know as Jerk. A yearly festival commemorates this uniquely Jamaican cuisine phenomenon in Boston east of Port Antonio.
Americans began arriving after Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker made his first visit to the island in 1871 looking to fill his empty freighter in order to make his return trip to the US profitable. Baker found bananas, and was soon back as were others as the “yellow gold” boom began bringing exotic tropical fruits in quantity to US markets for the first time and making Port Antonio the wealthiest town in Jamaica after Kingston. Dow’s Boston Fruit Company eventually had 40 banana plantations and this was the beginning of one part of what became the United Fruit Company that grew bananas all over the West Indies, Central and South America which became known as Chiquita years later.
So, how did tourism come to begin at Port Antonio? Simple, the fruit steamers also had staterooms for passengers and the steamship lines supplemented their earnings by advertising for holiday makers to enjoy the salubrious climate of Jamaica, “Island in the Sun”.
Soon the grand Titchfield Hotel was build on a bluff overlooking the harbour, the town and up to the highest peaks in Jamaica. This brought the new Hollywood royalty of silent films, Broadway and the West End. Wealthy and famous people from the arts, business and sciences began to arrive and some built homes, such as the daughter of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The world’s newspapers followed their exploits and travels so that these style-maker’s holidays in the tropics began to be lusted after by the wider public.
Fast forward past both World Wars and two similar visitors from vastly different parts of the British Empire turned up, Ian Fleming and more important for Port Antonio, Errol Flynn. Flynn sailed into Port Antonio after being shipwrecked in Kingston and stayed off and on for 20 years. He became part of the local scene and brought his pals from all over the globe co-opting the banana rafts for their Rio Grande river excursion picnics and giving an iconic activity to the visitors of the area which continues to this day.
In the late 50’s Frenchman’s Cove resort was built on a coastal plain east and an iconic beach east of Port Antonio which drew several dynasties of European royalty, stars of stage and screen, business tycoons, artists, musicians etc, in other words the jet-set had discovered Port Antonio. Some people returned year after year and began to build vacation homes in the hills and coves around Frenchman’s Cove, named San San, Alligator Head or the Blue Hole.
Today the town is being renewed, infrastructure being renovated, Trident Hotel and Castle has been re-imagined and the long promised investment in Port Antonio appears to be close to reality, keep your fingers crossed!
Port Antonio has retained much of its original charm, and we urge those who are curious to enjoy a real Jamaican Caribbean experience, so, come catch Portie fever.