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Place-Names ­ A Window To Jamaica's History and Character
What's In A Name ?

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
From Above Rocks in St. Catherine, to Zuassure Hill, Manchester, Jamaica has an intriguing mixture of place-names that reflect its history and character. The island's name itself is believed to pay homage to a particular historical period ­ the Taino period. Jamaica is said to mean 'land of wood and water' in Arawakan, the language of the Tainos.

Photos courtesy of Ray Chen from his book 'Jamaica'/ Periwinkle Publishers

Jamaican place-names can be straightforward, reflecting outstanding features of the natural landscape (eg., Above Rocks, St, Catherine). Or they can be historical, often either recalling events that took place, or famous people who lived, in an area (eg., Cudjoe Town). Many places are named after original landowners (eg., Nashville, Manchester, first owned by George Nash). Others reflect a sense of religion (eg., Mt. Zion, St. Thomas) or one of nostalgia for the places of origin of the many different immigrants (willing and unwilling) to Jamaica. For example, Kingston (from King's Town) is a popular name found throughout the former British Empire, Ocho Rios, St. Ann (eight rivers) reflects Spanish influence, Guanaboa Vale, St. Catherine is said to come from the Arawak word for soursop, guanaba. Denbigh, Clarendon is named after a place in North Wales and Whydad, St. Catherine is said to be named after a West African village. Still other place-names reflect a sense of matter-of-factness, eg., Shake-Hand Market, Portland, a square named for its use as a meeting place. Some also reflect a sense of whimsy such as Try See, St. Ann, a post-emancipation name inspired by the idea of having former slaves who received land "try and see" what could be done.

Inspired by the Land

* Annotto Bay, St. Mary: Presence of annotto trees.

* Bamboo Town, St. Elizabeth: Presence of bamboo trees.

* Cedar Valley, Trelawny: Cedar trees once said to have grown there.

* Cinnamon Hill, near Rose Hall, St. James: Cinnamon trees once said to have grown there. In the 1800s Cinnamon Hill was owned by the Barretts, relatives of famed English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

* Bath, St. Thomas: named after its mineral bath.

* Black Hill, Portland: the site of an extinct volcano.

* Bull Head, Clarendon: The bull head shape of the 3600 ft. mountain that stands as the parish's highest point.

* Canoe Valley, St. Elizabeth: Many years canoes were made from the trees there.

* Cockpit Country, St. Elizabeth: Large limestone craters or pits found in the area.

* Dolphin's Head, Hanover: When looked at from east to west, the 1789 ft. mountain resembles a dolphin's nose, face and fins.

* Fat Hog Quarter, Hanover: Large number of hogs that used to populate the area.

* Fern Gully, St. Ann: Large number of ferns found there ­ an amount said to be more than anywhere else in the world.

* Gold Mine, Clarendon: The Spanish are said to have washed gold there.

* Half-Way-Tree, St. Andrew: Is said to have been named after a large cotton tree that stood there prior to the 1655 English conquest. The tree marked the half-way point between Greenwich, St. Andrew a soldier base, to a fort in Spanish Town.

* Wait-a-Bit, Trelawny: The presence of the wait-a-bit thorn, believed to have been brought to Jamaica by African slaves. As a result of its hardiness, in Africa it was often used as hedges against wild animals.

Historical events and people
* Arawak, St. Ann: Named because of Arawak (Taino) remains found there.

* August Town, St. Andrew: The timing of full freedom for slaves, August 1838.

* Bloody Bay, St. James: The killing of whales there.

* Bull Bay, St. Thomas: Once known as Cow Bay, is testament to the island's connection to the time when buccaneers roamed the island hunting for wild cattle.

* Catherine's Peak, Portland: Named for Catherine Long, the wife of famed pirate-turned-governor, Sir Henry Morgan and the sister of well-known Jamaican historian, Edward Long. She is believed to have been the first woman to scale the 5050 ft. high peak.

* Independence City, St. Catherine: Jamaica's 1962 independence from Britain.

* Irish Town, St. Andrew: Originally settled by the Irish.

* Mandeville, Manchester,: Named for the title of the Duke of Manchester's eldest son, William, while the parish itself is named after the Duke who served as Governor of Jamaica from 1813-21.

* Miranda Hill, St. James: Former Spanish governor Alonzo de Miranda.

* Montego Bay, St. James: Has two possible origins. One has it named for the fact that the Spanish slaughtered many hogs there and loaded lard in jars to ship to Columbia. The Spanish word for lard is "mantega." The other has it named after Montego de Salamanca, an early Spanish colonizer.

* Nun's Pen, St. Andrew: First owned by Haitian Henri D'Aquin whose daughters decided to become nuns and led to D'Aquin's willing his land to the Catholic Church.

* Victoria Town, Manchester: Named after Queen Victoria.

* Yallahs, St. Thomas: Capt. Yhallahs, a privateer who frequented the area in the 1670s. Or it could simply come from the word 'yalos' meaning frost, because the cliffs in that area have been thought to give an appearance of frost.


* Admiral Mountain, near Newcastle: Was used by British Admiral Lord Nelson as his country residence while stationed in Jamaica at what is now known as Fort Charles from 1777-79.

* Appleton Estate in St. Elizabeth is named after its original owner, James Appleton.

* Bannister Bay, St. Thomas: Col. Bannister, Governor of Surinam, who brought English and Jewish colonists from Surinam in 1667.

* Bowden, St. Thomas: William Bowden, one of Lord Chancellor Oliver Cromwell's first 500 settlers in 1656.

* Carlisle Bay, Clarendon: The Earl of Carlisle, a governor of Jamaica from 1678-1680. It is known for being the site of the first major battle following British occupation of Jamaica when Capt. Du Casse of Santo Domingo attacked the island in 1694 and was defeated.

* Duncans, Trelawny: Originally a property owned by Peter Duncans in 1784.

* Falmouth, Trelawny: Sir William Trelawny, Governor of Jamaica from 1767-71 after the place in England from which he came.

* Grants Pen, St, Andrew: Sir John Peter Grant, said to have been one of Jamaica's most competent governors, from 1866-74.

* Guys Hill, St. Catherine: First owner, Richard Guy, said to have taken part in the 1655 Penn and Venables expedition that captured Jamaica for the English.

* Heron's Hill, Manchester: Alexander George Heron who owned the estates of Williamsfield, Chudleigh, Shooters Hill, Spitzbergen and Wigton. His wish was to be buried at the top of Heron's Hill so that he would remain in sight of his estates.

* Joe's Hut, Trelawny: Named after its first settler, a man called Joe who built a hut.

* Longville, Clarendon: Samuel Long, who arrived with the Penn and Venables 1655 expedition, its original owner. Long was appointed Speaker of the House of Assembly and later, Chief Justice.

* May Pen, Clarendon: Once part of an area of land owned by the Rev. William May, who came to Jamaica as rector of the Kingston Parish Church in the 18th century and was then transferred to Clarendon.

* Rose Hall, St. James: Rose Kelly, the first mistress of the infamous estate.

* Sanguinetti, Clarendon: First owner, Jacob Sanguinetti, an Italian Jew.

* Temple Hall, St. Andrew: First owner, Thomas Temple. Temple Hall is where Sir Nicholas Lawes, governor of Jamaica from 1718-22, who married Temple's daughter in 1698, introduced the cultivation of coffee to the island in the 1700s.

* Aberdeen, St. Elizabeth: Area in Scotland where owner Alexander Forbes came from.

* Ballyholly, Mandeville: Named after a place in Ireland.

* Bangor Ridge, Portland: Named after Bangor, Wales.

* Bengal, on the border of St. Ann and Trelawny, after a region in India.

* Berlin, near Munro College in St. Elizabeth: Named after the German capital, home city to its first owner, Henry Bleinheim.

* Calabar, St. Ann: The name of a place in southeastern Nigeria from which many slaves came.

* Goshen, St. Elizabeth: Named after a place in Egypt, listed in the Bible as meaning the "best of the land". In Jamaica it was first used as a church site.

* Lititz, St. Elizabeth: Name found also in Moravia, possibly used by Moravian Missionaries to name a church there, in 1754.

* Llandovery, St. Ann and Llanrumney, St. Mary (once owned by Sir Henry Morgan): Llan means holy place in Welsh, Morgan was Welsh and both are place-names found in Wales.

* Madras, St. Ann: Region in India, a reminder of the number of indentured East Indians who came to Jamaica in the mid-19th century to work on the sugar estates.

* Newmarket, St. Elizabeth: Newmarket in England as is Newcastle in the Blue Mountain Range named after the English, Newcastle-on-Tyne.

* Roxborough, Manchester: the birthplace of National Hero, the Rt. Hon. Norman Manley, is Scottish.

* Sangster's Heights, St. Elizabeth: Sir Donald Sangster, Jamaica's second prime minister.

* Stoney Hill, St. Andrew: Name of old house in Scotland.

* Vauxhall, St. Elizabeth: A popular London tavern.

* Wai Rua, St. Andrew: comes from New Zealand and means 'place by the river.'

* Ythanside, Portland: A place in Wales. Its first owner, William Espeut also owned Spring Garden Estate in Portland where he was believed to begin breeding mongooses (imported from India) to kill
rats on sugar plantations.

Whimsical and Not-So Whimsical Names
* Corn Puss Gap, St. Thomas: For the actions of hikers, who, lost in the hills, caught a cat, 'corned' it and ate it.

* Far Enough, Clarendon: Comes from the phrase "far enough from courts and kings," credited to a Scotsman.

* Flog Man, Manchester: Flogging as a method of punishment was meted out there.

* Friendship, Westmoreland: The site of a Scottish Missionary Society conference in 1837.

* Grateful Hill, St. Catherine: Baptist missionaries in gratitude for having been granted land by an English squire to establish a church.

* I-No-Call-You-No-Come, St. Elizabeth: Comes from the Maroon policy of maintaining a comfortable distance from those outside Cockpit Country.

* Judgment Cliff, St. Thomas: Burial of the house of an evil Dutchman after the 1692 earthquake.

* Labour-in-Vain Savannah, St. Elizabeth: The annual drought said to afflict that area.

* Lawrence Tavern, St. Andrew: Name of a tavern that used to be located there.

* Oracabessa, St. Mary: comes from the Spanish for 'aura' meaning 'air or breeze' and 'cabeza' meaning head, resulting in a phrase that could be read as 'fanciful'.

* Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland: Spanish meaning 'plain by the sea.'

* Tan an' See, Trelawny: means literally 'stand and see' a beautiful view of open land.

* Unity, St. James: derived its name from the story of two brothers. The younger of the two asked the elder to borrow £1000 in order to purchase land and the elder refused and their relationship deteriorated. Sunday came and the two went to church, encountering a sermon on the importance of unity. The elder brother felt it was a sign and raised a loan to help his younger brother purchase the land. They named it Unity.

Sources: I. Sibley (1978). Dictionary of Place-Names in Jamaica. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica.

Coming May 19: The series explores the history of Spanish Town.

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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

"This is an absolutely fantastic series. It is critical that we preserve these for the long term as well as continuing to share with upcoming generations so that they can understand and feel connected to the past and that it continues to have some relevance to their future." - Peter, USA.

"This article was heartfelt. I moved away from my home country, Jamaica, as a little girl and have missed out on some of the history that I was to have learned" - Cadiehead, Jamaica.

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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
significantly impacted on the social, political and economic development of Jamaica. As we travel share your experience with us...

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted May 05, 2003.
Copyright 2001-3 . Produced by Go-Jamaica.com