Get the facts right
In the departure lounge of the Norman Manley airport in Kingston is a wall-sized mural declaring “twenty interesting facts about Jamaica.” They may be interesting all right, but not all the assertions are facts.
One assertion is that Jamaica was the “first in the Western World to build a railway – only 18 years after Britain and before the United States.” The assertion is false. The first railroad built in Jamaica opened in 1845 and connected Kingston to Angels. The first operational railroad in the United States opened in 1830 and connected Baltimore to Ellicott City, about 14 miles away. By the middle of the 1830s several railroads operated along the northeastern seaboard. Outside the United States Cuban sugar planters opened a 30-mile section of railroad tracks between Havana and Güines in 1837. Jamaica therefore was the third country in the Americas to build an operational railroad.
The claim that apart from “the United States, Jamaica is the country which has won the most Olympic and world medals” is patently false.
The Golf Club in Manchester cannot be the oldest hotel in the western world if it was established in 1868. There are many definitions of hotel. Taverns and inns have from distant antiquity accepted guests. In the United States several hotels boast of being the oldest in the country. The Rose Hotel in Elizabethtown, Illinois, opened in 1812 and accepted customers until 1967. The Desoto House Hotel in Chicago opened in 1853 and counted among its illustrious guests Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant and PT Barnum. Certainly, those two hotels preceded the opening of the Golf Club in Manchester.
If the origin of hotels is difficult, so is that of post offices. In England the postal service goes back to at least 1516 when Henry VIII created a postal service between London and Edinburgh. The Spanish sent letters and other official communication between the courts and port cities of Iberia and the ports and various administrative centres of the Americas. For English America, the closest to an organised regional postal service came with the monopoly granted by King William and Queen Mary to Thomas Neale in 1692 to accept and deliver letters and packages throughout the American colonies. Before that, several colonies had organised postal services within their territories. And of course Benjamin Franklin set up the United States Postal Service in 1775.
How can one argue that “Jamaica is the world’s first commercial producer of rum” when the Mount Gay distilleries in Barbados have been making rum since 1667 and vending the product since 1703? But commercial production of rum goes back to the Middle Ages, to the Levantine Mediterranean. Before Columbus arrived in the New World, distillers in Madeira were making rum and using it to fortify their wines. What is important about Jamaican rum is not that it was the first commercially produced rum in the world, but that it remains the standard by which great rums of the world are compared.
The sad observation about these false “facts” is how falsity diminishes both the intrinsic interest and the importance of the assertions. Jamaica does not have to be first in everything. Shred of the misguided hyperbole, the assertions remain inherently interesting within the proper context. For a small country Jamaica has a distinguished enough history that propels it into the top level of important countries anywhere in the world. Before we go plastering walls with selfpromoting statements, we should ensure that we get the facts right.
Franklin W Knight
Baltimore, Maryland USA