Half-Way-Tree — Jamaica’s crossroadsSaturday, August 13, 2016
Frank Phipps, QC
is what it says it was: a tree, a cotton tree that became a town and a catalyst for nationhood. Cotton trees have a quaint and fascinating history in Jamaica, including the folkloric tale: Duppy at cotton tree bottom set free when tree fall down.
While still a tree, it was a stopover for travellers and traders coming from different directions, halfway on the journey to and from the city to do business or indulge themselves in revelries and merriment. They met there and exchanged news of happenings from their different places before going forward, and to carry back news on their return home.
The spirit at the root of this cotton tree must have had many secrets from those meetings of what was happening both near and far. When the old tree died in 1866, the spirit was released to carry on the tradition for Half-Way-Tree to remain a meeting place for business and news, and occasional festivities. Those old enough can remember hearing of the Duppy Festival at Ferry, when Tom Cringle’s Log cotton tree came down.
Half-Way-Tree is the capital town of St Andrew parish, a town square geometrically designed with its principal roads running from the four cardinal points of the compass at the centre — north to Constant Spring, east to Hope Gardens, south along Half-Way-Tree Road to Cross Roads on the way to the capital city Kingston, and west along Hagley Park Road to Cockburn Pen farmland by Waltham Park Road. At the centre of the square King Edward’s memorial clock sits majestically on its imposing tower — in repose, recording time but not telling it.
This was where "Uptown" met "Downtown" for the commingling of culture and experience from the commercial hurly-burly and the official authorities of government with the pastoral unsophisticated rural peasantry. I remember a rum bar on Hagley Park Road at the south-west corner of the square with steps to the bat-wing half-doors at the entrance; the landing for the steps was the platform for Friday nights’ entertainment. The troubadours, "Slim and Sam", would come to give the latest news in mento form — strumming a guitar and singing to tell of the "dog war at Matches Lane (Matthews Lane)" or "fire deh a Cross Roads you cyaan go deh" — one penny for a printed copy. Following the tradition,
Half-Way-Tree is the title to the 2005 song by Anthony Cruz (see ‘Meet mi at Half-Way-Tree’ by Jamaican Echoes) and the place for many to watch the Olympic Games.
The capital had a police station, a post office, a tax office, and a courthouse to serve the parish, and three Chinese shops to serve the town. Lim Sue was the grocer my mother patronised with her little red book for her order delivered by a carrier bicycle with a crate at the front; and on Fridays there was an accounting and payment for the supplies. Percy Chang was a little way from Lim Sue on Half-Way-Tree Road, reputed to be the first supermarket in Jamaica where you would go behind the counter to select your items yourself and pay for them when leaving.
Half-Way-Tree Elementary School, beside the tax office on Hope Road, was one of the most outstanding institutions for primary education in Jamaica, led by the principal Wesley Spencer James and his wife, Edith Dalton James, a matriarch for political awakening in Jamaica. The old courthouse is where Deacon Bedward of August Town was declared insane to die eventually in Bellevue Hospital; the building stands on the same property as St Andrew Parish Church, one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Jamaica, established by early English settlers and still there, with church records dating back to 1666. And, by the way, the now no-longer-new building on Maxfield Avenue is the first courthouse I entered during summer holidays from school and sat down unobtrusively. While waiting for proceedings to start, the biggest policeman imaginable came up and ordered me out, saying: "This is not a place for children."
Half-Way-Tree was not only a place for entertainment, the area became the reality centre for shaping Jamaica’s nationhood on its political journey. A place where people gathered from all parts of the country to hear presentations and announcements bearing on the future of Jamaica, which made us pause in contemplation. This is the preferred place, not the only, for announcing the date for national elections — it was tried at Montego Bay, where "150,000 strong can’t be wrong" and we know what happened; the spirit from the cotton tree saw to that.
Far more significantly, Half-Way-Tree was where the West Indies Federation was put on a virtual deathbed when Jamaica’s premier and leader of the largest political party in the 10-nation union announced he would not offer himself for election to the federal house, which later inspired the comment: "One from 10 leaves zero." Withdrawal from the Federation was a pause for a new political approach to government of the future going it alone. But in what direction and with what equipment? So it is that the spirit from the cotton tree still haunts Jamaica on its political journey — stopping part way before finishing the road to complete independence.
Is it a failure of leadership that has left the country stranded without directions for achievable security and growth in Independence? Peter Espeut puts it succinctly (
The Gleaner, August 5, 2016), ‘Emancipendence — a work in progress’. He wrote, "We sing — truthfully — that legal slavery may be over, but mental slavery remains. If that were the only vestige of slavery, we might consider ourselves well off. There is much else around today from which we need to be emancipated." It is the "much else" Espeut refers to that demands attention, as present circumstances dictate to deepen and give meaning to Independence. In one view, to complete the journey, something more is needed to change the political leadership that puts the country in a tug-o-war or a see-saw where ‘I go up when you go down’, and five years later where ‘I go down when you go up’, with no improvement for sustainable development. Former Prime Minister, P J Patterson, sees it this way, "Politics is the fight for scarce benefits and spoils carried on by hostile tribes..."
In another view: Will the country fail because of the people’s unwillingness to assume responsibility for their own security and economic growth in Independence? My nephew, Richard, answers both questions in our exchange on crime:
"Get real, Uncle Frank, crime is one of the many social ills we face as a nation; maybe one of the most important. But, in my opinion, I think there is a more fundamental issue we have to deal with. Jamaica is supposed to be a democracy, with democratic principles and institutions. Unfortunately we do not have a citizenry ready and capable of operating in a democracy. I think a democracy demands responsible citizens for it to work. At all levels of our society we are ill equipped to work in a democracy. We have all the trappings of a democracy; the institutions, the laws, elections, change of government, etc. What we don’t have are people ready at this time to operate in a democracy. Crime is just one symptom of the underlying problem, and until we deal with this problem, I’m afraid we will be doing the same things over and over again. We call them different names, different programmes; elect different people, but until we acknowledge we have essentially failed as a democracy, we get nowhere. We have to stop pretending."
I wonder how many Jamaicans feel the same way.
Frank Phipps is a Queen’s Counsel in Jamaica who continues to service the field of law. Send comments to the Observer or to
Half-Way-Tree is the capital town of St Andrew parish, a town square geometrically designed with its principal roads running from the four cardinal points of the compass at the centre — north to Constant Spring, east to Hope Gardens, south along Half-Way-Tree Road to Cross Roads on the way to the capital city Kingston, and west along Hagley Park Road to Cockburn Pen farmland by Waltham Park Road. At the centre of the square King Edward’s memorial clock sits majestically on its imposing tower — in repose, recording time but not telling it
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