About the Parish of Saint Thomas Jamaica

About the Parish of Saint Thomas Jamaica
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St Thomas Jamaica

 

St Thomas Jamaica is situated at the southeast end of Jamaica with Portland on the north and Saint Andrew on the west. It is the birth place of The Right Honorable Paul Bogle, one of Jamaica's seven National Heroes. The capital of the parish is Morant Bay.

No one is 100% certain how St Thomas Jamaica got its name. Before 1655 the area was known as Hato de Morante, or Ranch of Morante, the name of a large Spanish ranch. But when the British took control, the parish was probably named after Thomas Hickman (Lord Windsor) who was Governor of Jamaica in 1662. Between 1675 and 1866 it was called Saint Thomas-in-the-East to distinguish it from another parish - Saint Thomas-in-the-Vale.  In 1867, the parish was enlarged to include the parish of St. David which lay to its west.

With a population of 92,000, St Thomas Jamaica is mostly a rural parish. Other major towns in the parish include Port Morant, Yallahs, Seaforth, Golden Grove and Bath. The parish is home to one of Jamaica’s two famous mineral spas (Bath Fountain).

St Thomas Jamaica

This is the ninth largest of Jamaica’s parishes, with an area of about 287 square miles. It is a very mountainous parish; its northern border is the Blue Mountain range and other ranges are the Port Royal Mountains, the Queensbury Ridge, and Yallahs Hill with an elevation of 2,394 feet above sea level. The coastal area of the parish between Yallahs and Hector’s River is made up of some swampy wetland areas. And there are some lovely beaches.

Saint Thomas also has three main rivers – Yallahs River (22.9 miles), Morant River (16.1 miles), and the Plantain Garden River (21.9 miles) which is the only river on the island to flow eastward. The parish has deposits of high-grade gypsum and marble, with talc and asbestos occurring in the Bath area.

stokes-hall-great-house-st-thomas-jamaica

Ruins of Stokes Hall Great House, c.1710, near Pleasant Hill, St Thomas Jamaica

Saint Thomas has an interesting history. When Christopher Columbus first set foot on Jamaica in 1494, the Saint Thomas area was already densely populated by the Arawak/Taino Indians. The Spaniards established cattle ranches at Morant Bay and Yallahs (which also became the site of the first Baptist church in Jamaica in 1822). In 1655, when the British captured Jamaica, they invited residents from other British colonies to settle here. About 1,600 colonists, mainly from Nevis — including Governor Stokes of Nevis, his wife and children — settled in Morant Bay. In a short time, however, two-thirds of them died of fevers, including Governor Stokes and his wife. Their children, however, survived and became quite wealthy. They built two imposing houses, Stokes Hall (the oldest known existing great house and probably the oldest existing structural foundation in Jamaica, c.1710) and Stokesfield. The ruins of both remain.

In 1674, the French Admiral Du Casse sailed from Santo Domingo landing at Morant Bay to wreak havoc on the settlers there, killing many and carrying off their slaves. The French attempted other attacks but were fought off successfully. Later, bands of Maroons settled in the mountains of St Thomas and eventually joined with the Maroons in Portland to form the Windward Maroons.

paul-bogle-statute-morant-bay

Edna Manley’s 1965 Paul Bogle monument, which stood for 40 years in front of the Morant Bay Court House.

But it was the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 that secured the parish’s place in history books. Slavery had ended by 1838, but most blacks remained extremely poor. Although they now had the right to vote, high voting fees were beyond their reach. Economic conditions were bad because of a drought from 1862-1864. Jamaica was in a very poor state but Governor Edward Eyre refused to acknowledge the poor conditions. The Queen, apparently swayed by his opinion, declined to send help, telling the poor to work harder. George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto politician and businessman, encouraged the poor to make themselves heard. One of his followers was a church deacon named Paul Bogle.

Paul Bogle had become angered by a recent trial in which a black Jamaican was imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation. Protestors had broken the man out of prison but warrants were issued for their arrests. A few days later, Paul Bogle walked a small group of farmers 45 miles to Spanish Town to bring their grievances to Governor Eyre but they were denied an audience. So the group went armed with sticks and machetes to a meeting scheduled at the Court House. Panic ensued; people in the crowd threw stones and volunteers fired back, killing seven black protesters. The crowd attacked and then eventually dispersed. They returned later to set fire to the Court House and other buildings.

They continued to riot in the following days, roaming the countryside, killing two white plantation owners and causing others to flee to safety. George William Gordon tried to argue in the Jamaica House of Assembly on behalf of the workers but this angered Governor Eyre. The governor sent troops to Morant Bay to hunt down the rebels and bring Paul Bogle in for trial. Gordon was taken to Morant Bay, tried for conspiracy and hanged on October 23. The next day Bogle was captured by the Maroons, handed over to the authorities and was hanged as well.

bridge near hagley gap st thomas jamaica

Bridge near Hagley Gap, Saint Thomas, Jamaica (Photo credit: nicholaslaughlin)

The governor’s retaliation for the rioting was brutal; there was little resistance but his troops indiscriminately killed blacks, many of whom were not involved at all. Over 430 people were killed by soldiers or executed and 354 more were arrested and executed, many without a proper trial. Over 600 were flogged or imprisoned for long terms. Soldiers burned over 1,000 homes. When news of this brutality reached Britain, a Royal Commission was formed to investigate the events, resulting in Governor Eyre’s recall to England. He was never prosecuted. The result, however, was that the powers of the local government were revoked and Jamaica became a British Crown Colony, governed directly from England. In 1969, The Right Excellent Paul Bogle was named one of  Jamaica’s seven National Heroes along with George William Gordon.

Note: The above photo is Edna Manley's famous 1965 Paul Bogle statue. While there is controversy over Manley's likeness of Bogle, there was also controversy over whether the most well-known photo of Bogle was actually him.  This mystery appears to have been recently solved. Read this Gleaner article and this Gleaner article to find out more!

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Bananas (Photo credit: taxing)

Agriculture is vitally important in this parish and Saint Thomas prospered in the 19th and 2oth centuries, particularly from the banana trade. Both Port Morant and Bowden were important banana shipping ports. Today, the Saint Thomas Sugar Company has one of the eight factories in Jamaica that still produce sugar. Eastern Banana Estates operates from Golden Grove. Coconut plantations have recovered from Hurricane Gilbert and a lethal yellowing disease so the copra industry has recovered as well (Coconut oil is extracted from the dry white coconut meat). Serge Island Dairies maintains a large cattle ranch and produces its own commercial milk brand. There are also numerous coffee plantations. Many small farmers produce domestic and orchard crops in this parish, and this is the main source of employment.

Saint Thomas is the birthplace of reggae artists Dwight "Bushman" Duncan, born in 1973 in Prospect Beach, Natty King (born 1977), Stevie Face (born Anwar Owen Hanchard in Yallahs on February 12, 1976), Winston Blake OD (Morant Bay, November 19, 1940), and is the parish Morgan Heritage calls home today.

For a fascinating look at land ownership in Saint Thomas in the 19th Century, check out the 1840 Jamaica Almanac. Keep in mind that Portland parish was created out of Saint Thomas-in-the-East in about 1723, so some of this land is now in Portland. Also check out the 1670 Jamaica Census for both Saint Thomas and Saint David (which later was absorbed into Saint Thomas parish).

 

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2 Comments

  1. Though the history presented here is fairly accurate, the author neglected to mention that what is now the western section of St. Thomas used to be the parish of St. David. It is unfortunate that many people are unaware of this fact considering that St. David along with St. Thomas in the East were two of the first parishes to be founded by the British. It is further unfortunate that more is not done to inform the public of these facts.

  2. Great. I worked in Jamaica at Serge Island Dairies for five years – best job ever – My wife and I still rank Jamaica as the topmost place in the world (and we have lived and worked all over the globe).

    As well as working at Serge Island, we have holidayed three or four times on the North Coast, and visited friends in St Thomas whilst on the island

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