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How and why Montego Bay has 17 squatter settlements

Shalman Scott

Sunday, October 14, 2018

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'Meagre Bay' corrupted to 'Maaga Bay' seems obscure and insignificant unless one knows the relevance of that name to the catalytic development, the social and political history of the city of Montego Bay — the capital of western Jamaica.

Meagre Bay, the area located around the Number One Post Office, the St James Parish Library and the Montego Bay Courthouse, commonly known back then as Gichie's Fishing and Bathing Beach from which the community mushroomed, was the first major ghetto and squatter settlement in Montego Bay. The name had a meaning behind its economic metaphor, as since Meagre Bay existed there exists also a “Fat Bay” elsewhere.

Adjoining Meagre Bay and Gichie's Beach were the Fort Street residential areas where upper middle class and rich families such as the Fletchers lived.

MoBay Proper Restaurant and Bar was Custos Walter Fletcher's official residence — situated across from Fort Frederick or Fort Montego which facilitated the second major craft market in the city, north-east of Sam Sharpe Square.

The contrast between the social status of those who lived on Fort, McCatty, Tate and Thompson streets and Gloucester Avenue, and those living at Meagre Bay evinced a name that is worth a thousand words. For in that name lies the metaphor for facelessness, poverty, hunger, dispossession and social deprivation. But also alongside this scenario existed unflinching defiance and agitation consistently from the people domiciled in this area.

The residents of Meagre Bay from all accounts were not docile and understood well their circumstances, and so they acted with collective mass pressure to effect social change in their lives and that of the wider Montego Bay society.

Meagre Bay provided the muscle for effective street demonstrations for various causes relative to social justice and an assault on the entrenched, economic inequalities and disparities that have been part of life in Montego Bay and the country spanning centuries.

Although no one living in Meagre Bay could work as a bank teller back then, it was Meagre Bay — when fully mobilised that incessantly marched on the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1956, causing that bank to employ its first black teller — Esroy Hamilton of Mount Carey — a graduate of Cornwall College. This was after 50 years of the bank's operating in the town after opening its doors in 1906.

Hamilton became a novelty, as passers-by would stop by the bank to look at him around the counter. Today the bank is seen as more progressive, enlightened and equitable in its operations.

The hunger marches in the mid-1930s and into the 1940s — led in these parts by Allan George St Clavers Coombs which yielded help for the underprivileged, coming from the Governor Authur Richards' office —were due mainly to the social clout exerted from Meagre Bay. This community gave mass support to World War I veteran A Bain Alves, who led the campaign to push for trade unions to be legalised in 1919.

The settlement was also actively involved in the national agitation for the passage of the law granting Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944, allowing for ordinary landless and moneyless people the right to vote.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey's first community meeting in Montego Bay and western Jamaica was held at Meagre Bay in 1927 after his deportation from USA.

Another early visitor of great renown was George William Gordon, the main speaker at the 'Underhill meetings' in the west organised by Sydney Lindo Levien, a MoBay-based newspaper publisher.

Levien was the first owner of Gichie's Printery on St James Street across from the Number One Post Office. Meagre Bay residents, though unschooled, understood a basic truth in the psychology of negotiation: that bargaining power is directly related to one's capacity to inflict injury. They understood the impact of the cost of consequences and the incisiveness of good timing …staging some of these street protests so closely to the 1938 riots which had engulfed the entire country.

Clearly, Meagre Bay suffered from no illusion that anything would be handed to them on a platter. Their tool of mass protest was accompanied by noisy beating of drums, tinkering symbols, tambourines,and the intermittent blowing of trumpets as they moved defiantly through the streets of Montego Bay.

When mobilised and on the march, Meagre Bay built its impact to a formidable crescendo and commanded the attention of both the high and mighty and the poor and lowly. Their rallying song: “We nah give up, we nah give up… we deh go round deh” was a statement of bullish resolve and stridency in determination.

Earlier in 1902 a riot led by Meagre Bay in the city left four dead and 24 persons injured. The specific attack on the Barnett Street Police Station left two policemen dead and nine seriously wounded. You will now understand why such a thick, fortress-looking wall, particularly from the Barnett Street side and Creek Street, was built around the station.

The warship HMS Pallas, in response to the disturbances and which arrived in Montego Bay from Port Royal after the hostilities started, kept the troubled area of Meagre Bay brightly illuminated for nights after, until calmness was restored by the police reinforcements and a company of the West India Regiment from Kingston. Which imports the question: What is new or different in Montego Bay as is so often, based on lack of previous knowledge, believed?

Years later severe flooding in Montego Bay, with the North Gully overflowing its banks, took place and Meagre Bay was most affected, as many shacks were washed away and 13 of its inhabitants were killed. Weakened by the calamity, Meagre Bay was caught where some politicians and the upper class people have always wanted. The bulldozers were unleashed on the people. A major newspaper reported: “In addition to the nuisances of noise and belligerency — habitual characteristics of its inhabitants, the flood was sufficient to have that community forcibly removed by a heavy contingent of police and soldiers in 1949.” (the official story). Strange, isn't it?

People were severely flooded out so the remedy was to have them bulldozed! But whose were the principal hidden hands behind the bulldozer's arrival?

More anon!

Weakened by the deleterious effects of the flood and hemmed in on all sides, the residents dashed to the Paradise Crescent, Blood Lane, Canterbury, North Gully areas. Despite the dispersal of residents of Meagre Bay, the original 'soldiers' and their descendants regrouped and were at the forefront of the fight for the capture of Glendevon, Hendon, Bottom Pen, Norwood, Quarry, Rose Heights, Flanker, among several other communities.

Author, photojournalist and university lecturer Wayne B Chandler, in his book Ancient Future which deals with the teachings and prophet wisdom of the seven Hermetic laws of ancient Egypt, observed that history ought not to be simply about dates or time of events, but the period of time for which the consequences of a particular event lasts.

Chandler went on to posit that within the context of the rise and fall of empires and dynastic rulers, the further back a student of life and history can look, is the further forward he or she will be able to see.

The names of the properties which became captured communities, listed earlier, all had as their owner — one slave-owning family. This family's refusal for decades to sell successive governments some of these lands in and around Montego Bay, to foster balanced and orderly development of communities, is at the root cause of the mushrooming of the over 17 squatter settlements, some extremely feared by their own inhabitants.

Ironically, after these properties were captured over time, successive governments were forced to pay for all those captured lands to the original owner. But an opportunity was lost for orderly development of these squatter settlements, and the long-term social consequences still persist to this day. One of those consequences is the intermittent spike in crime in the city.

Historian and visionary Professor Wayne B Chandler, in his offering, was spot on. So the crocodile tears, particularly from some quarters, about the many squatter settlements in the city of Montego Bay contributing to crime and placing constraint on economic development, have had a date when this process of social deterioration, due to lack of discernment, started and their consequences have lasted until even today.

ZOSO, despite its best efforts, cannot outlast the deep structural cause of crime in Montego Bay, which is grounded in economic inequality including the catalytic element of landlessness. And so the struggle will continue. Oh yes! Meagre Bay is the story of how the lost, least and left-outs challenged the citadel of wealth and power and created some space for themselves and generations to come.

It is not just another name… Meagre Bay was a social force that helped to irrevocably shape the future of Montego Bay. It was a story of how our people refused to bow to the overt and covert indoctrination of racial inferiority and the need to accept humbly their station in life through the colonists and their descendants' favourite maxim that “a humble calf sucks the most milk”. Such exhortation prevailed at a time when British imperial policy in the Caribbean and Latin America — enforced earlier by pirate Sir Henry Morgan, English Governor Thomas Modyford's right-hand man — was to 'shoot and tek weh'! Their main resonant language was cannon balls.

The wrongly spelt road sign “Megre Bay”, which had for many years left this street and area virtually nameless, was taken down, for some time now, but not replaced by a correctly spelt sign. The irony of this situation lies in the fact that this place in Montego Bay called Meagre Bay is the only street/place that is named after the least fortunate and economically deprived socio-ethnic grouping in the city… as a memorial to the poor and black people in Montego Bay. Why is this street/road the only one throughout the entire city without a sign?

Meagre Bay should mean something of significance, particularly to the hundreds of students who either congregate or pass by daily. They need to be reminded of their history, including that which was not 'approved' for them to know by the formal education system.

The respect for that history cannot begin with a wrongly spelt road sign in that area which, once removed, was not replaced with one that has the correct spelling. Does this situation arise only because the story of Meagre Bay is associated with the struggle of Negroes for space… in the place?

This act, on the face of it, is not just a small thing of replacing an incorrectly spelt road sign. The story of Meagre Bay begins with the story of the 'The Cage' — the first prison in St James situated in the heart of Sam Sharpe Square. This prison, a symbol of oppression, contained public devices of torture and whipping posts for our ancestors. The implements of torture were buried across the island at the time of Emancipation, August 1, 1838.

Meagre Bay, in its struggles and setbacks after Emancipation, ironically effected, though unplanned, a widening and expansion of Montego Bay for the descendants of slaves and others not privileged. This is not what was ever planned for by the vested interests, but our people stood up. However, the trend now seems to be that as the economic struggles for survival deepen amidst pointless public relation political stunts and manoeuvres … we are turning on each other rather than to each other, while blinded by party politics it seems or, is it the onset of nihilism?

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