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The story of Manchester Part 4: MILE GULLY


Monday, July 28, 2014    

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FOR over 150 years after the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, the southern half of the area that would become the parish of Manchester was a part of the established parish of Vere. The northern half was shared between the population centres of May Day (Clarendon) and Mile Gully (St Elizabeth).

As Jamaica 's youngest parish prepares to celebrate its 200th birthday on December 14, 2014, Manchester recognises the contributions of the early citizens of Mile Gully.

As the British army made its final preparations to leave Jamaica to participate in the War of 1812, only to be defeated in the Battle of New Orleans by American General Andrew Jackson, the citizens of Mile Gully moved to create a political entity of their own.

Being located in the parish of St Elizabeth, the citizens of Mile Gully found the distance between them and the parish capital at Black River an encumbrance to meeting their administrative, social and ecclesiastical needs. Realising that the citizens of May Day and Carpenters Mountain had a similar problem, the citizens of Mile Gully took the initiative in organising their compatriots into one unit with a common agenda, a parish of their own. On December 14, 1814, their vision became a reality as the Assembly accepted their petition and the parish of Manchester was born.

Two hundred years later, Mile Gully is an established community with an economy that is dominated by agriculture, a trend set in motion by the Spanish when they were the masters of Jamaica. They introduced coffee to their New World possession and soon discovered that it did well in the hilly environs of Mile Gully. They also introduced cattle which shared a similar success, as did pimento. So, when the English became the new masters they found it prudent to build on the successes of their predecessors and continued those agricultural practices.

The preferred crop for the English would have been sugar cane but the hilly terrain of Mile Gully and its environs prevented the profitable cultivation of that crop. Either way, the English made sure that each colonist had enough land to survive and contribute to the welfare of the "mother country".

In Mile Gully, that was guaranteed through the distribution of land that seems to have varied in sizes from less than 100 acres to more than 3,000 acres per settler.

But even without the abominable sugar plantations, slavery still left its heinous mark on the Mile Gully region. Skull Point is on the outskirts of Mile Gully, in an area also known as Cottage. It is a common belief that the name commemorates the martyrdom of a slave named James Knight who was beheaded for preaching Christianity. As a warning to other such preachers, his severed head was impaled on a pole and left to the mercy of the elements until only his skull remained.

After Emancipation, two major changes occurred in Mile Gully, the founding of a "free village" and a shift in the agricultural economy. Following the end of slavery in Jamaica, a network of 30 villages emerged to form the Mile Gully community. Dispersed over the hills and the valleys, the villages were formed out of the original British-owned properties. In some instances the whole property emerged as a village over time, while other villages formed on its fringes. In this mosaic, the settlement pattern continued to include a few large properties but they now shared the region with many small holdings. Still, the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves were landless. Some missionaries, especially Moravians and Presbyterians, realised that land ownership was a key ingredient in the realization of freedom for the ex-slaves. Acting on this premise, Moravian missionaries bought land which they subdivided and sold to ex-slaves, creating a "free village" in Mile Gully. This settlement pattern influenced a change in the agricultural economy as the focus now shifted to the production of Irish potatoes, tobacco, citrus, and cattle.

The Irish potato was first introduced into Jamaica at Bethany in Mile Gully. The village got its name from the Bethany Moravian Church which has been serving its parishioners since May 7, 1840. Sixty-two years later one of the church leaders, Reverend Lopp, first planted a barrel of Irish potato seeds which he had imported from America. Since its introduction, the community has done very well in the crop's production and distribution and has contributed significantly to the founding of the Christiana Potato Growers Corporation.

With the discovery of bauxite in 1940, agricultural and economic decline set in as the multinational bauxite company bought the large properties and most of the small ones reducing the former owners to tenants until the start of mining operations. This practice increased the spending power of the former property owners while reducing their economic base. Decades later, a deal was brokered with the bauxite companies in which the Government bought back the land, leasing it to the companies under a special agreement for reclamation. However, after the completion of mining operations, reclamation has failed to return the soil's fertility and the high cost of production has forced most farmers to stop cultivating Irish potato.

One crop, however, continued to maintain the economy of Mile Gully well into the latter half of the 1990s. Up to the last decade of the 20th century, Mile Gully was recognised nationwide as the leading producer of citrus seedlings. It all started in the 1970s as the citrus industry became the main source for local employment in the nurseries and the orchards.

However, unlike its other agricultural cohorts, 500 years after its introduction cattle has maintained its importance in Mile Gully. The internationally accepted tropical beef breeds, Jamaica Red and Jamaica Black were developed at Mile Gully and Grove Place. Braccaria, Pangola, and African Star, the main fodder for the cattle industry, were introduced into Jamaica, tested and distributed in Mile Gully and Grove Place.

But there is another side to Mile Gully that has nothing to do with agricultural production. One hundred and seventy years after emerging as a group of villages with significant populations of illiterate blacks, Mile Gully continues to make significant contributions to the development and welfare of Manchester and Jamaica. In 2009, Mile Gully High School was selected to participate in the Centres of Excellence Project by the Mutual Building Society's Foundation.

In 1961, Mile Gully's native son Alfred Charles Reid, who incidentally was the great-great-great grandson of James Knight, famed Christian Martyr, was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church and would later serve as the Chaplain of the Jamaica Defence Force. Less than 20 years after being ordained a priest, Alfred Charles Reid was appointed the Bishop of Montego Bay. He served in that capacity until 2000, when Bishop Reid became the 13th Episcopal Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The Right Reverend Bishop Alfred Charles Reid, DD, OJ was inducted into the Manchester Hall of Fame.

Mile Gully also has a light side. At the centre of this light side is the infamous "Duppy Church" which is located on the outskirts of Mile Gully in the district of Weir. The building resembles something from a horror movie and has stories to match. According to those that circulate in the community, the church had to be abandoned because the duppies were creating havoc on the congregation. One story also has it that there was a parson who became very unpopular with many of his congregants, some of whom demanded that he resign. This he refused to do and when the cries for his departure became more strident, it is said that he hanged himself in the doorway of the building. Many claim that subsequently, mournful music would be heard coming from the building at varying hours of day or night, and soon the organ was removed to another location.

The church in question is the abandoned St George's Anglican Church which was completed around 1835. A look inside still reveals traces of its impressive architecture, and marble plates on its walls detail some of the area's rich history and highlight the contributions of many prominent citizens who were part of Mile Gully's past. Other historic landmarks in the vicinity include the Lyndhurst Plantation house site where the martyred James (John) Knight laboured as a slave and a spot in Comfort Hall where he received assistance on his escape bid.

Mile Gully is a community that is very rich in history. The community has been a major contributor to the founding of Manchester and its continued development. It has made significant and lasting contributions to the agriculture industry through its production of staple crops and cattle, and would have continued to prosper if not for the destructive practices of the bauxite industry. However, the same persevering spirit that made the early citizens pioneers and visionaries continues to reside in the community of Mile Gully and its environs.

Donald I Blair is a retired professor of history. He resides in Mandeville.





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