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FULL TITLE: Kingston – A Cultural and Literary History

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Kingston wrestles with the legacy of its colonial past, a tradition of political conflict and the occasional outburst of modern-day turf rivalry. Formerly the hub of Britain’s Caribbean Empire, the Jamaican capital provides an intriguing mix of political social and cultural excitement as one of the region’s great cities.

The notorious “ghettos” form but a small part of Kingston’s complex and vital presence, which extends far beyond the city’s tenement yards. Proud of their city’s renown as the birthplace of reggae and dancehall, Kingstonians have led the world in innovative music and performance art.

David Howard charts a course through Kingston’s urban contradictions, from the stark divisions between uptown modernity and downtown deprivation, to the lively interweaving of local legends and international popular culture.


David Howard is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh and has lived and worked in the Caribbean.

Excerpt from Kingston: A Cultural and Literary History


“Already the fascination of city life had seized her, and from that hour henceforward, no matter what hardships she might have to face in Kingston, that city was the place above all others in Jamaica that would most appeal to her.”
Herbet de Lisser, Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica (1913)

“It would be difficult to imagine a place whose general aspect depresses one so much as Kingston.”
Charles Rampini, Letters from Jamaica: The Land of Streams and Woods (1873)

Kingston’s clearest markers — literary and literal — are those of uptown and downtown. Socially and economically etched on the urban landscape, the different styles of those who live south of Half Way Tree and those who live above, their residences fanning out through the foothills of the Blue Mountains, sharply divide the city into two. Pockets of poverty are found uptown, and a few, very few, affluent households may be found uptown, but by and large the city lives apart from itself.

The waterfront developments aimed to rejuvenate a flagging port area, but have been thwarted by the uptown moves of wealthier inhabitants, pulled by the social and business boom of New Kingston and pushed by the suicidal politics of turf war during the 1970s. The very poor majority, the sufferers of West and east Kingston, were left continued to live different lives in two seemingly separate cities nominally banded together as Jamaicans. Writers and poets have delved deep into this apparent social and spatial partition, exposing the capital’s energies, attractions, and simmering tensions.

The following pages move on from the former dockside to explore the surrounding downtown neighbourhoods; a source of wealth during the eighteenth century and a focus of fear for much of the twentieth. Two destructive earthquakes in 1692 and 1907 forced physical tremors through the ever-changing social and architectural fabric of Kingston. They first gave birth to the city itself, as Port Royal was swept away. The latter led to the widespread rebuilding of the commercial are and older parts of town, yet for all its turbulent transitions, the downtown area covers an intriguing labyrinth of corrugated-iron walled yards, crumbling ornate mansions and resplendent Victorian edifices.

Two Jamaicas

The city’s beginnings were far from salubrious, and as much induced by the ill fortune of Port Royal as by opportunities of location. Colin Clarke’s history of Kingston recounts the decision of the Council of Jamaica to investigate suitable sites on the Liguanea Plain as a replacement for Port Royal: “Having rejected Delacree Pen, where the ferry connecting Port Royal to the Liguanea Plain and Half Way Tree deposited passengers in a marshy, unhealthy tract, they settled for a hog crawl farther to the east which had access to the deep water of Kingston Harbour.” The early days of the new settlement were fraught with civil rivalry. Firstly with Port Royal, whose remaining residents ably battled to rebuild the town until a fire in 1703 confirmed Kingston’s primacy. Secondly with Spanish Town, whose citizens resolutely campaigned for its status to remain as the seat of colonial government, until finally relinquishing the title to the burgeoning trade centre of Kingston in 1872. The latter had been designated as the capital in 1755, only for Spanish Town politicos to reclaim the appointment in 1758. The expanding new town, however, proved an irrefutable lure for the Jamaican legislature.

During the seventeenth century Kingston’s population increased six-fold. The growth of the town, fuelled by rural migration and a steady birth rate, was quite phenomenal. Although the motor of the colony’s economy was plantation-based, emphasis on trade and the eventual demise of a rural-centred slave society meant that urban matters were of prime concern. The population doubles between 1920 and 1940, and again between 1960 and 1990. Today a third of the island’s population of around two and a half million people live in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, which consists of the old parish of Kingston and much of St Andrew parish.
Kingston’s appearance had seldom inspired the fairest of literary visions or courted the most eloquent of penned praise. Anthony Trollope was sure that he would not live there is forced to choose.

Were it arranged by Fate that my future residence should be in Jamaica, I should
certainly prefer the life of a country mouse. He town mice, in my mind, have but a
bad time of it. Of all the towns that I ever saw, Kingston is perhaps, on the whole,
the least alluring, and is the more absolutely without any point of attraction for the
stranger than any other.

Philip Curtin, writing one hundred years later, described the mid-nineteenth-century settlement as “a dirty, hot, bedraggled tropical town set at the foot of a long sloping plain against the backdrop of the Blue Mountains. It was the most important town in the British West Indies, but not in appearance.” James Anthony Froude also lamented the town’s limited attractions, placed squarely in comparison with alleged English virtues: “But there is nothing grand about the buildings, nothing even handsome, nothing specially characteristic of England or the English mind. They were now dingy. Shops, house, wharves, want brightness and colour.”

Beyond physical attributes, the enduring legacies in Kingston during the twentieth century were often those of British design, shaping the social and cultural mores of many inhabitants. Curtin was the first to describe “two Jamaica”, as apt for Kingston as for the country at large, namely the separation between the European and African aspects of life in Jamaica. He placed much emphasis on the “Old Colonial System” with Kingston as the pivot for Jamaican high society, mopping up fashions fed through from London:

Just as the system as a whole centred on the Imperial trading centre in London, the
Life of the island centred on the island trading centre at Kingston. And by virtue of its economic supremacy, Kingston was also the social, intellectual, and cultural centre of
the colony. As the chief port, it was the window on the outside world — a world where
most of the Jamaican ruling class would rather have found themselves.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s description of a social club in 1950s Kingston emphasizes the melancholic mentality of the colonial old guard:

The members on the verandah were all English, but most of them, it appeared from the conversation, had alighted in this little backwater after a lifetime in India. Elderly
ex-soldiers and civil servants meditatively contemplated the golf links over their whiskies
and sodas, exchanging stories of Rawalpindi, Simla and Darjeeling and half a dozen
outposts of empire that had cruelly pre-deceased them. They were joined in their reminiscences of khitmagars and khansamahs and the Saturday Club by an elderly
mensahib, sadly dethrowned and transplanted. The verandah was heavy with nostalgia.
It was all rather moving and sad.

Victor Stafford Reid, author of New Day (1949), which recounts a nineteenth-century rebellion against British rule and heralds an emerging Jamaican identity, laments the cultural straitjacket that restricted new movements: “We danced the European quadrilles under the tropical sun, sang the European madrigals beneath the mango trees, sat at European Afternoon teas belted and brass-buttoned in our wollen suits in the flaring heat.”

The glance back to Europe of sense of colonial nostalgia has raised much literary ire. V.S. Naipaul criticized what he saw as the Caribbean’s cultural dependence in characteristically dismissive tones: “Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him [sic] who he is and where he stands.” Rachel Manley writes more subtly of the colonial legacy in her poem, “First World (for my father)”.
Like memory
it kept us real, and it kept us back.

Remembrances can shape the present without obscuring the future. A walk through downtown Kingston cannot fail to evoke memories of the city’s past, and impressions of its troubled present. Benjamin Zephaniah foretells a more ominous path for those not wary of history’s injustices in “A Modern Slave Song”:

Remember where I come from, cause I do.
I won’t feget.
Remember yu got me, cause I’ll get yu.
I’ll mek yu sweat.

Colonial Remnants
Kenneth Pringle, writing thirty years before Jamaica gained independence, stirred up both past and present when he cuttingly exclaimed, “Jamaica is that pride of the orphanage, a Crown Colony.” The ghosts of colonists past roam not only in the downtown building and streets, but haunt the descriptions of many writers’ accounts of contemporary Jamaican life.
Jamaican patois or patwa, famously celebrated in the poems of Louise Bennett and the prose of Carolyn Cooper, is described by Anthony Winkler as “rich in idioms and aphorisms that crisply sum up social situations with an elegant economy, and its hybrid vocabulary of Africanisms and English is spoken with a inflection that invariably strikes the foreign ear as sing-song.” Wryly, but pointedly, he comments on the constraints of formal English in a country where the vast majority speak Jamaica talk:

When Jamaica was under English rule, the colonial Englishman was as every bit
caricature of what bad Hollywood movies now imagine the nineteenth century
Empire-bound Englishman to be, and his speech reflected eccentric mannerisms he
had picked up on the playing fields of public schools. He spoke with a precise and
rigid emphasis on enunciation which included the rat-a-tat rattling of his “r’s” on
the tip of his tongue and the gusty aspiration of all initial “h’s” said pardon
incessantly, observed picky and knee-jerk rules based on Victorian syntax and
sprinkled his words with colloquialisms that we now see as stuffy. Because he was
our colonial master, the notion spread throughout Jamaica that his English was the
authentic and superior one, and that any departure from this accent, his syntactical
patterns, his vocabulary, even his low-keyed and muted gestures, were barbarianisms,
corruptions, or simply uncouth.

British men and women brought their linguistic and cultural predilections as accompanying baggage for what was primarily an economic mission. To make money; to make it fast and to retire across the Atlantic, leaving a manger to oversee properties and to forward the revenue. Jamaican plantations existed, by and large, to provide the upkeep for estates in the British Isles. Not all colonists were planters, not all monies were easily transferred to overseas coffers. Many of the townsfolk and country squires built up debts at home in order to pick immediate profits from their colonial holdings or businesses. Barbadian Frank Collymore’s poem “Triptych” runs deep into the make-up of Jamaica’s social mix:

I see theses ancestors of ours:
The merchants, the adventurers, the youngest sons of squires,
Leaving the city and shires and the seaports,
Eager to establish a temporary home and make a fortune
In the new lands beyond the West, pawning perhaps
The old familiar acres of the assured competence;
Sturdy, realist, eager to wring wealth from these Barbados
And to build trade, colonize, pay homage to their King,
And worship according to the doctrines of the Church and England.

Outside the elite, he also pictures working-class whites who migrated freely as indentured labourers or servants, and the slaves, twelve million of whom were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas:

I see them, these ancestors of ours;
Children of the tribe, ignorant of their doom, innocent
As cattle, battered for, captured, beaten, penned,
Cattle of the slave-ship, less than cattle;
Sold in the market-place, yoked to servitude;
Cattle, bruised and broken, but strong enough to plough and breed.

While the majority of slaves worked on the rural plantations, many worked in Kingston as labourers or within the homes of the wealthy. A broad three-fold division was apparent on the streets of Kingston, in the work places and at the hotel bars, the legacy of which has been well charted by social commentators. Before emancipation in the 1830s, Jamaican society was legally divided between the citizens, freemen and freewomen, and the slaves. The middle group were the former slaves who had been granted or bought their liberty or were the former slaves who had been granted or bought their liberty or were born from sexual relations between the owners and enslaved women. In downtown Kingston, the freed slaves lived in yards on Duke, Barry, East and Rosemary Streets. Despite their freedom from slavery, lives were harsh and remote from the hierarchical status of upper-class white. In 1808, James Stewart commented that “vile hovels and sheds are inhabited by free people of colour who keep petty huckster’s shops and by low white people who vend liquors and give rise to many disorderly and indecent scenes.”
At the start of the nineteenth century, Kingston’s population of 33,000 consisted of 10,000 “whites”, 5,000 free “coloured and black. While these categories had no formal or legal standing, such labeling opened and closed cultural worlds, allowing and denying access to livelihoods and lifestyles.