Portland is located on Jamaica’s northeast coast with Saint Thomas to the south and Saint Mary to the west. The capital is Port Antonio, which has natural double harbors. Portland is one of the most rural parishes of Jamaica and home to some of the island’s most spectacular beaches. It extends from the highest peaks of the Blue Mountains at 7,402 feet above sea level down to the Caribbean Sea. It is said to be Jamaica’s most beautiful parish and, having been there many times, I most certainly agree!
Portland parish was formed in 1723 by merging the former parishes of Saint George and Saint-Thomas-in-the-East. It was named after Henry, Duke of Portland, who was the governor of the island at the time. The main town was Titchfield Town, but it was superceded by Port Antonio, originally named Puerto Santo Antonio by the Spanish in 1685.
Portland covers an area of about 314 square miles, making it Jamaica’s 7th largest parish. With a population of 82,000, about 15,000 live in the capital city. Some of the other major towns in the parish are Buff Bay, Hope Bay, Manchioneal and Saint Margaret's Bay. In the direct path of northeast trade winds, the Blue Mountains trap the moisture, causing the parish to have the highest rainfall on the island. The John Crow Mountains lie to the east. Much of the interior of the parish is inaccessible because of thick rain forests and lush vegetation.
The coastline of this beautiful parish is dotted with caves, bays, rivers and waterfalls. There are 14 caves, including those at Buff Bay, Orange Bay, Hope Bay, Port Antonio, Boston Bay, Long Bay, Innis Bay and Nonsuch. There are 17 rivers, the largest being the Rio Grande, Buff Bay and Hector’s Rivers. Some of Portland’s beautiful waterfalls can be found at Reach Falls and Somerset Falls. The parish also boasts the Blue Lagoon, believed to be the crater of an extinct volcano.
Portland's settlement was very slow. In 1721, people were given land grants as encouragement to settle in this northeastern part of the island. The Maroons (descendants of the slaves left behind by the Spaniards and runaway slaves) constantly raided the fledgling plantations. An Act passed in 1725 attempted to control rampant tropical diseases in Portland. In 1729 Fort George was built and in 1739 a treaty with the Maroons was signed. Settlers started to go to Portland to establish sugar estates but the climatic conditions were not suitable and, of the 138 sugar estates established by 1800, none remained a century later. Much of the land was taken over by peasant farmers who grew bananas, which had been introduced by the Spaniards, and other subsistence crops.
A devastating hurricane in 1871 brought Lorenzo Dow Baker, fruit shipping magnate, to Jamaica. His success in promoting the export of bananas put Port Antonio on the map and the town expanded rapidly, as did the planting of bananas island-wide. In the mountains of Portland, the abeng (the Maroon cow horn used for sending messages over long distances) was used to alert farmers in remote areas about the buying of bananas and the arrival of the banana boats.
But the bulk of the new wealth remained in the hands of the wealthy. The Boston Fruit Company, which initiated the industry, eventually merged and became the United Fruit Company and dominated the banana trade in the West Indies and Latin America. By the 1930s the trade slowed and Port Antonio again became a sleepy rural town.
Today, Portland has focused on eco-tourism to boost its economy. Because of its natural beauty, tourism flourishes in the parish. It is noted for its fabulous beaches like Boston, Dragon Bay, Frenchman’s Cove and Winnifred’s. There are several parks and protected areas. It is a favorite spot for the international jet-set, many of whom own property there.
Agriculture remains the economic mainstay of Portland parish. Bananas, coconuts, mangoes, breadfruits, ackee and coffee are grown for export as well as for local consumption. Portland has the richest, most fertile, land on its coastal strips and it is suitable for any kind of cultivation, so lots of domestic crops are produced. However, bananas have never returned to the former levels of production.
Several notable people were born in the parish of Portland, including Trevor Berbick (Port Antonio, 1955-2006), a Jamaican heavyweight boxing champion, Rosie Allwood, an Olympic sprinter who represented Jamaica in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Games, Arthur “Duke” Reid OD, owner of Treasure Isle records and one of the founding fathers of the Jamaican music business, Michael Lee-Chin, a Jamaican born Canadian billionaire whose successes have enabled him to make substantial investments in his home parish, Michael George "Mikey Dread" Campbell (Port Antonio, 1954-2008) who was a reggae music innovator, and Wayne Wonder (born Von Wayne Charles in Buff Bay, 1972), the Jamaican dancehall and R&B artist.
The most famous foreign-born resident was probably the Australian film star, Errol Flynn, who arrived in Portland in 1946 when his yacht, Zaca, ran aground in bad weather. He fell in love with the area and made Portland his home. Just ask and you will hear a million stories about the antics of Mr. Flynn and the famous Hollywood pals who came to visit him here; some will be factual and others just urban legend! Errol Flynn's Estates start at Boston and include 3,000 acres of coconuts and cattle pasture with a large herd of Jamaica Reds. The properties are still managed by his widow Patrice Wymore Flynn, one-time winner of the title Champion Farmer of Jamaica.
Portland parish is literally packed with interesting things to see and do whether you're interested in history, culture or spectacular natural beauty! Check them out here.