The story of Manchester part III — Porus


Monday, July 14, 2014    

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WHEN slavery came to an end in the British West Indies in 1834, the colonial power instituted a six-year transformation period known as the Apprenticeship to, as they reasoned it, ease ex-slaves into a life of freedom. In the aftermath of this period, missionaries founded 'free villages' in which ex-slaves became landowners. This was how the community of Porus, in eastern Manchester, was founded.

Even though they were no longer slaves, the landed gentry that dominated the vestry supported local laws that were intended to keep the emancipated Jamaicans on the plantations in a near-servile status. Those who exercised their freedom by leaving the clutches of the plantations were invariably faced with routine reduction of their wages and an increase in their rental fees, which caused them severe financial burdens. They needed to be property owners; a necessity that the missionaries recognised.

When the Apprenticeship period came to a premature end in 1838, missionaries started to purchase tracts of land which they divided into parcels for the purpose of selling back to the ex-slaves. Manchester was not as populous as other parishes and so after emancipation, many ex-slaves migrated here to grow coffee and other crops. In the early 1840s, a missionary named James Phillipo assisted a number of ex-slaves to acquire tracts of land which he organised into a free community named Vale Lionel in honour of the sitting governor of Jamaica, Sir Lionel Smith. The name has however, not survived the test of time as the conglomerate of districts that constituted Phillipo's community is now known officially as Porus.

Porus is a community of many districts and a place of many characters. Even the stories about the origin of the name are fascinating, each deserving its own illustration. One version has its origin in the visit of Christopher Columbus to the area when he and his entourage encountered a group of Taino Indians (formerly called Arawaks) who it is said thought that the Spaniards, riding on their horses, were angels. The experience caused Columbus to name the place Trinity. After a short trek, Columbus proceeded to name another place "Poras", in honour of his travelling companion. In this instance, "Porus" is a corruption of "Poras".

Geology may also have contributed to the community's name since the type of soil that is common there is porous, allowing water to pass through.

In the third version, as the story goes, ex-slaves who became property owners in the post-Emancipation period lamented their dire situations with the ominous words "poor us", when hard times threatened to force them back onto the plantations. As this version unfolds, during the construction of the railroad, the men, who were allowed usually to go home fortnightly had their passes revoked because of slow progress. A helpless worker summed up the collective exploited feeling of his comrades by carving the words "poor us" on a prominent tree.

Though the origin of the name remains elusive, and the reason 'Porus' was chosen over 'Vale Lionel', the community continues to survive, more than 170 years after its founding.

The profitable coffee production that the ex-slaves and their descendants expected to continue, never materialised. In the end, the districts making up the community of Porus came to be defined by large properties of between 55 and 2,050 acres, as the small farms were gobbled up by the larger ones, weakening the displaced farmers' economic power. With the expansion of mining operations by the bauxite industry in the second half of the 1900s, bauxite companies gradually took over the practice of buying off most of the large properties and some of the small ones. For example, about 75 per cent of the land in Ramble, Porus was sold out for pennies on the dollar to an agent of a bauxite company.

Porus has been home to a honey factory, two bakeries, and a beverage plant that made strong liquor like Cock Spur, wines, and soft drinks. In the 1930s, Mandeville and Porus were linked by Hampton Road, the first main road that linked the two centres via Royal Flat. The link between the two towns was also manifest through the Porus Pumping Station -- the first to supply Mandeville with water. During that decade, the Porus Market was more popular than the one in Mandeville. And why not? Porus was a major terminus for the railroad after it made extensions from Old Harbour. It remained in that capacity for years while the railway warehouses provided jobs. These limited employment opportunities were supplemented by the production and sale of small quick-cash crops and labouring jobs in the bauxite industry.

As the Church played an influential role in the founding of Porus, it remained so throughout the life of the community. Wesley Methodist, Whitfield United, Trinity Baptist, St Augustine Anglican and other monumental church buildings stand as living witnesses to the life and times of Porus. They point to the community's past and present religious diversity. The basic school that is located in the St Augustine Church yard was reputedly started by a Baptist minister.

On July 4, 2014, the 121st anniversary of the birth of national hero Norman Washington Manley, Porus had an extra special reason to commemorate the birthday of the native of Manchester. He was christened at Porus Methodist Church as an infant. He made his indelible mark on Porus in 1939, when he opened the Porus Community Centre as one of the first in Jamaica. It is the most prominent place in the community, where social and sporting events are held. When bauxite company Alcan expanded operations in the 1970s and needed skilled personnel, the necessary skills were taught at the entre's Norman Manley Training Centre.

Today, Highway 2000 threatens to bypass the community of Porus and this could add to its economic woes. In spite of its numerous challenges, however, Porus remains a beacon of hope. The people are resilient and creative, and the land continues to produce delicious fruits and foods all year round. The succulent sugar loaf pineapples, citrus, star-apples, naseberries, and jackfruits are only a few of the fruits attractively displayed on roadside stalls that continue all the way to Scott's Pass.

Determined entrepreneurs from the area also take advantage of some of the naturally-occurring water holes, and the river to create wonderful opportunities for social encounters. Talented musicians, potters and

artists add to Jamaica's artistic landscape. For the adventurous, too, a visit to any of the Taino sites located nearby is always an option.

Manchester will observe the 200th anniversary of its founding on December 13, 2014.

Donald I Blair is a historian





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