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The Capital City
A Historic Look At Kingston

Quiet Kingston harbour of centuries ago.

IT CAN be said that the city of Kingston was founded first out of disaster and then out of trickery. In 1692 when a massive earthquake destroyed Port Royal, long the seat of the island's trade and a large residential area, the land across the harbour known as the Liguanea Plain after the giant iguana, began to look more attractive. After witnessing the massive destruction and sinking of Port Royal, the desire to rebuild that town was lukewarm at best. At the time of the Port Royal earthquake, there were probably only 8 or 9 houses on some 530 acres of the Liguanea Plain ­ all related to Colonel Samuel Barry's hog pen or hog crawle as it was more commonly known. Sometime in the early 1660s Barry sold the land to William Beeston so that in June of 1692 when a new town was needed to provide homes for former Port Royal residents, Nicholas Lawes, acting on Beeston's behalf, sold 200 of the 530 acres to the Jamaica Council (the island's governing body). The total cost was £1,000. When Beeston returned to Jamaica as Lt. Governor in 1693 (a post he would hold until 1700), he declared the sale of his lands illegal and repossessed the property, which by that time consisted of some 800 lots, most 150 ft. long and 50 ft. wide. Beeston resold the lots at a large profit, well aware that future profit was in store as he owned the 330 acres surrounding the new town.

Soon after, the Jamaica Council instructed an English surveyor to draw up a plan for this new town on the southeast section of the island. The town, as orig inally drawn by John Goffe and eventually laid out by engineer-general Colonel Christian Lilly, was a chessboard-like parallelogram running one mile in length from north to south (Port Royal Street to North Street) and half a mile wide from east to west (East Street to West Street). These four streets formed Kingston's original boundary and were regularly traversed by other streets and lanes that alternately crossed each other at right angles. In the centre of the parallelogram that was Kingston the main street ran south to north and was known as King Street. It was intersected in its centre by Queen Street and a four-acre square area around that intersection was the site of a military camp known as Parade.1 Like many other English colonial towns, it came to be known as Kingston (possibly from King's Town).

Around Parade, in addition to the military camp, was the Parish Church and later a playhouse, the Theatre Royal. The commercial buildings and the courthouse were found closer to the sea. Wealthier residents favoured the eastern section while poorer residents made do with the west, many living on land owned by the merchants John Hannah and William Rae, which was close to swamps. One of the island's first burial grounds, May Pen Cemetery, lies near this area. Hannah Town would become one of St. Andrew's first residential settlements. Many regarded Kingston as having been well laid-out with wide streets of varying widths. (See map attached.)

Kingston was made a parish in 1713. It had a natural harbour, massive defences in its ring of forts, fertile soil and access to water supply.

By the mid-1700s, Kingston had grown from a seaside town with 6 miles of waterfront to a city which was awash in houses, stores and wharves. Clearly the island's commercial capital, it was said to be strange to see less than 200 vessels in the bay before the town at any given time. In 1774 the Chamber of Commerce, one of the first in the New World, was formed. By the end of the 18th century, Kingston's population reached 25,000.

In the early 1800s, Kingston was regarded as the great port of the Caribbean, just as its predecessor Port Royal had been a century earlier. In 1802, during the reign of George III, Kingston was granted a Charter as a Corporation, winning formal recognition as a city. John Jacques, Commander of the People's Militia, was elected mayor. Michael Scott's popular adventure hero, Tom Cringle, writing about early 19th century Kingston, noted in his log: "everything appeared to be thriving....the hot, sandy streets were crowded with drays conveying goods from the wharves to the stores...the appearance of the town itself was novel and pleasing; the houses, chiefly of two-storeys, looked as if they had been built of cards, most of them being surrounded by piazzas, gaily painted in green and white...the streets unpaved, and more like dry river courses than thoroughfares in a Christian town...." (as cited in Johnson, 1993, p. 69).

In 1834, the year that marked the abolition of slavery on the island, publication of The Gleaner, which has become one of Jamaica's main newspapers and certainly the oldest one still in print, began in Kingston. By mid-century there were 24 newspapers in print in Jamaica; 19 were published in Kingston. Mico Teachers College was started on Hanover St. in 1836 and St. George's College at Winchester Park in 1850. Following the full emancipation of slaves in 1838, more and more schools and hospitals began to be built all over the island.

In 1872, Kingston was named capital of Jamaica, formally transferring this title from Spanish Town. As the beginning of the 20th century approached, Kingston was a natural choice to host the 1891 Great Exhibition ­ an international showcase for the island's natural beauty and talent. Magnificent hotels were built in Kingston including the Myrtle Bank on Harbour Street and Queen's at the corner of Heywood and Princess Streets, to house visitors to the Exhibition and they marked the beginning of Jamaica's tourist industry ­ today the island's most substantial earner of foreign exchange.

Kingston continued to grow until January 1907 when another earthquake, followed by a catastrophic fire, brought it to a sudden halt. Much of downtown Kingston was destroyed. Almost 1500 people were said to have died and over a million pounds of property damage was incurred. Trying to recover and rebuild, people wanted to move out of the old city and they looked to the merchants who owned much of the land bordering the city. These merchants were sitting on a gold mine -- the foundation of much of what is today known as residential Kingston.

The entire Liguanea Plain was built on between 1907 and 1957. Buildings were now made of concrete as a result of a new building code, which remains among the strictest in the world. This time no
particular plan was followed. Instead the city's growth was influenced by business people who created neighbourhoods based on the running of tramcars, which started in 1876, and the expansion of the water supply system.

1 Still colloquially known as Parade, this section now goes by the formal title of St. William Grant Park.

Rebecca Tortello 

Kingston today
Plan De La Ville De Kingston.
Plan of Kingston by Jacques Nicolas Bellin, Paris 1764.

TODAY, WHAT was the original town of Kingston is now a part of the capital city's commercial area. In 1923 the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew were joined to provide better administrative management of each. Together they constitute the Corporate Area. Kingston then became both a parish and a city. Although St. Andrew is a much larger and more populated area with similar conveniences and commercial centres, today many Jamaicans still refer to locations in St. Andrew as part of Kingston ­ so vast is the influence of this small historic section of the island.

Much of the country's poor still live in Kingston's narrow, and now crowded streets and lanes. A great number of Kingston's streets are named after former Governors and army personnel.

These narrow streets and lanes speak silently of prosperous days gone before. Much of the rich musical
heritage for which Jamaica is renown was born here. Out of this area came Ken Boothe, Higgs and Wilson, The Blues Busters, Prince Buster, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. Close by in Trench Town, St. Andrew, emerged the voices of Robert Nesta Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer who built on the Jamaican musical forms of ska and rocksteady to create reggae, a musical style that would forever change the face of Jamaican and world music.

Although perhaps not as handsome a city as in the past, Kingston today remains no less vital. The population of Kingston and St. Andrew numbers over 700,000 ­ almost 30% of the island's population of over 2.5 million. Kingston remains a centre of commercial, political, religious, athletic and cultural activity. The Coronation Market, The Jamaica Conference Centre, numerous shops carrying a vast range of goods, Gordon House the present House of Parliament, and Headquarters House, the former House of Parliament, and a number of government ministries and historic places of worship including the Scots Kirk Church, St. George's Cathedral, Coke Methodist Chapel and the Jewish Synagogue, as well as Sabina Park, the National Gallery of Art, the Ward Theatre, St. William Grant and National Heroes Parks, can all be found within its domain.

Bryce, W. (1946) Ed. Reference Book of Jamaica, B.W.I., Burns, H. S. (1952) "The Press" in The Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAP) Official Souvenir Sesqui-centennial Anniversary of the City of Kingston, B.W.I, 1802-1952. pp. 42-43, 58. Kingston: KSAP., Cundall, F. (1926) Handbook of Jamaica for 1926, Cundall, F. (1971). Historic Jamaica. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp. The Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAP) Official Souvenir Sesqui-centennial Anniversary of the City of Kingston, B.W.I, 1802-1952. (1952). Kingston: KSAP The Gleaner (1995). Geography and History of Jamaica. 24th Edition. Johnson, A. (1993). Kingston ­ Portrait of A City. Kingston: Tee Jay Ltd.

Coming May 20: This series explores the Montego Bay Riots of 1902.

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Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
Jamaican Rum - A kill-devil of a drink
Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
Lewis Hutchinson: The Mad Master
A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
Frazier versus Foreman on the Sunshine Island 1973
The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
The Case Of The Shark Papers
Katherine Dunham - Matriarch of Modern Dance
Money - The Roots of Jamaican Currency
Simon Bolivar: El Liberatador
Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs
Recollections of World War II
Place Names - A Window to Jamaica's History & Character: Wnat's In A Name?
The History Of Spanish Town
A Cultural Explication Of Empire: Lady Nugent's Journal
The History Of Falmouth: Boom Town Of The 19th Century
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
Colourful Characters - Jamaican Birds
The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
In this place dwelt Horatio Nelson
Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
Somewhere beyond the sea
A fascination with football
Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
A Time to Die Death rituals
Deadly superstitions

Feedback To the Series

"I have found your articles on the Pieces of the Past most entertaining and interesting to read. For me as a historian these pieces come at a time when Jamaicans need to reconnect themselves with their past and the Gleaner's efforts through this medium is quite commendable.

I have found especially today's article on the 1780 hurricane to be quite of interest to me as I am currently involved in bringing to light the role of natural disasters in the development of Jamaica's history, culture, society, economy and politics and the article on the "Hurricane of 1780" has greatly aided in this direction. Keep up the good work and I look forward to more interesting and historically significant pieces from this series." - Kerry-Ann

The First 500 years in Jamaica

We're taking you for a stroll down memory lane for the next six months. Along this journey,we will relive several events which
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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted May 7, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com