Click here to print page

Back mus' know when him shirt a drop off

Lance Neita

Sunday, October 01, 2017

“The fairest isle that eyes have ere beheld,” exclaimed Christopher Columbus when he first caught sight of Jamaica's north coast.

The view was awesome. “Mountains and the land seem to touch the sky,” he wrote in his journal, as his ship breasted the horizon and headed for safe shore on his second voyage into the Caribbean in 1494. Columbus, in an elusive search for spices and gold, and on a so-called 'discovery mission' for the king of Spain, was overwhelmed by Jamaica's beauty, speaking in glowing terms of the island's “majestic mountains, with the land all full of valleys and fields and plains”.

We learn from the historian Bernaldez that on this first visit to Jamaica he dropped anchor in Santa Gloria (now St Ann's Bay), but got a hostile reception from the Taino population and was forced to stay on board his ship.

He then went west in search of a closed port (believed to be Rio Bueno), but after reconnoitring along the coast he returned to another port “which from its commodiousness he called Puerto Seco, noting that 'it was in the shape of a horseshoe'.”

Bernaldez's Histories says that Columbus put into Puerto Seco which, “though good to take shelter in against a storm, has not fresh water”. Hence the English translation into Dry Harbour which it maintained for years. The name Dry Harbour stuck with the village with employment provided mainly through fishing and mini shipping activities for agricultural products from the Bull Pen and Aloha (now Old Folly) jetty. It also boasted at one time a British military barracks (established in 1777) on the eastern point of the harbour “which cost the country 10,000 pounds”.

There were also several large estates in the vicinity including Hopewell Pen where we are told “a very tolerable claret was made from fine grapes near Dry Harbour”.

It wasn't until 1949 that tourism development started with the opening of a 34-bed luxury hotel, the Columbus Inn, and a name change to Discovery Bay agreed on to complement the villages' new image.

To have a hotel of Columbus Inn's high star rating in 1949 was something that Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett would have been proud to officially open. “It had luxury suites in the soft but elegant lines of modern Swedish apartments adapted for tropical comfort by the famous Macy's of New York, all overlooking the north fresh water pool which, high on the mountainside, sweeps in its glorious crescent.”

In 1956 Kaiser Bauxite Company bought Discovery Bay Estates from the developer. The property included Columbus Inn, which they converted into their administrative offices. It also included Puerto Seco Beach, which was immediately opened to the public.

Kaiser operated the beach for some 40 years as a gesture of good corporate citizenship. During that period the beach was renowned as a first choice venue for fun day picnics and family outings for people from all over Jamaica. Back in my Sunday school picnic days we looked forward to truck back and bus trips from Clarendon, across central Jamaica, to Puerto Seco. It was one of the most popular holiday spots for Jamaicans, who crammed the village and the beach on weekends, public holidays, and especially during the summer.

The bauxite company maintained the white sand beach and the acres of manicured lawns, allowing free entry to schools, charitable organisations, local groups, and sponsoring camps for scouts, girl guides, and Red Cross branches.

The company's purchase of Discovery Bay Estates also included outlying beaches beside the main Puerto Seco Beach, one section of which was donated to the Red Cross in 1980.

The village has always been proud of Puerto Seco. Once again changes are taking place in ownership, and lack of communication about these changes led to a fear that the community would lose access, not only to this facility, but to the other public beaches in Discovery Bay as well. More anon on this.

Today the community still uses Puerto Seco as a reference point for what they call the “Kaiser days” when bauxite and community forged a strong partnership that had earlier been threatened by doomsayers who had predicted that the coming of the bauxite industry into the town would be a serious drawback for development and the environment.

Indeed, the story of the Norman Manley Referendum in Discovery Bay in 1958 has acquired legendary status, told over and again by senior citizens like Bertie Barrett, one of the survivors of a conflict of interest that created an unforgettable spectacle in the fishing village years ago.

As the story goes, not everyone had welcomed the advent of a large industrial operation in an area accustomed to a more genteel, easy-paced, north coast lifestyle. Kaiser had closed its south coast bauxite operations in St Elizabeth in 1966 and, as the company began the transfer of its business to St Ann, tourism interests and plantocrats were lining up to do battle to keep the heavy industry out. In fact, business interests and landowners began to wage a campaign urging community residents to speak out against the industry, and a small group from the so-called 'owner class' went as far as to urge their employees to picket the industry.

But the residents, fully aware of whose interests were being protected, refused to comply, and a group including Bertie Barrett and the National Workers' Union's Lloyd Chin, decided to invite the Chief Minister Norman Manley to intervene.

Utey Green, now a retired government official and civic leader, recalls the excitement in the village when they heard “Mr Manley was coming”, and the feverish preparations made in his house the night before to prepare banners and posters for the meeting.

The following morning a large banner reading “We Want Bauxite” was stretched across the main road to welcome the chief minister. And so it was that in one of the great untold stories of the industry, Manley drove up in his Studebaker and was met by a huge crowd who ushered him into the market and hoisted him onto a market stall.

“It was unforgettable,” recalls an eyewitness, “as people from every district, including Content, Old Folly, Queenhythe, Keith, Dumbarton, Farm Town, Top Bay, Thicketts, Bethel Town, and Woods Town cane out to give support.”

Manley went straight to the point explaining the huge benefits that would accrue to the area from bauxite “in partnership with tourism” and, as he wound up his address, he asked for a referendum on the question: “Do you want the bauxite industry to come to Discovery Bay or not?”

The answer was a resounding yes. The meeting broke out into cheers and applause, and the question of stalling the industry's passage was put to a convincing rest. And so it was that Manley, who had wanted it that way, won his first referendum.

The industry, of course, has been through many other challenges, not the least of which is the present debate which argues that mining (presumably not just bauxite) should not be allowed in the Cockpit Country. The real debate, of course, should start with the delineation of the Cockpit Country, as there have been various boundaries put forward by different interests.

This is not surprising, as the Cockpit Country is still largely an area of “me no sen, you no come” with vast tracts of this important cultural and heritage treasure still protected and veiled from even the eyes of many of the environmentalists who are championing its cause.

The truth is that bauxite companies are not as exploitive as some are led to believe, and the industry has a record of partnership and respect shared over the years which would include respect and care for the rich biodiversity of the heart of what should be a world heritage site.

The example given of Puerto Seco Beach and other corporate sharing in Discovery Bay, for example, includes the donation of the site which houses the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory operated by The University of the West Indies, and which continues to host students and researchers from around the world.

I would add that the industry's close ties with higher education encouraged Alcan and Alpart to establish two chairs at The UWI in 1999 — a chair of professorship in hydrogeology and a chair for water management. A chair for the West Indies Centre for Environment and Development was sponsored by Alcan in 1992.

A lesser-known story is that in the early days of the University College of the West Indies, Kaiser Bauxite was one of the first companies to respond to an appeal for funding led by Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice, who was the aunt of Queen Elizabeth II, and who was the first chancellor of the university. In 1955 Kaiser made a grant of 15,000 directed to the “setting up of facilities for courses leading to an engineering degree”.

So that you don't accuse me of dwelling on the past, let me add that the industry's educational partnerships continue into this decade. For example, the bauxite company's donation of the fabled Columbus Inn building to the Ministry of Education to house the Discovery Bay Campus of the Brown's Town Community College. This is significant in terms of property and value, while the partnership was recently expanded with the addition of a Community Skills Training Centre at the campus built by Noranda Bauxite in 2012.

I make the point as the bauxite industry and the Government are obviously not unmindful of the concerns over mining in and around the Cockpit Country, and the country would benefit from a proper and balanced presentation of all the facts (which have so far not been forthcoming) on this matter, and even a debate between all stakeholders, before rushing into any conclusions influenced by bias on one side or the other.

There is much at stake here where the country's future is concerned. With sugar on the decline, for example, and the recent media story of Clark's Town in Trelawny “turning into a ghost town” with the demise of Long Pond Sugar factory, a loss of both bauxite and sugar industry would cripple the economic future for thousands of Jamaicans.

As old-time Jamaicans used to say, “Back no know seh him a wear shut till shut drop offa him.”

Lance Neita is a public and community relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.