Today, Loop News begins a series of articles on the parish of St Thomas, long dubbed the ‘forgotten parish’ locally, but now poised for significant infrastructural and economic development in the near future. The feature will cover the various facets of the parish, including historical, economic, political, social and futuristic elements of life there.
With much of its physical landscape, especially its major roadways and other public infrastructure, about to or now being rapidly improved, the parish of St Thomas appears to be poised for major economic and social development into the future.
Soon to be home to a long stretch of one of the newest highways that are being built across the country, the once ‘forgotten parish’, as it had long been widely labelled, is now sitting pretty amid the implementation of the Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project (SCHIP), which includes a major leg extending from Harbour View in St Andrew to Port Antonio in Portland.
St Thomas is also to benefit from major improvements to the Morant Bay to Cedar Valley roadway, bringing significantly improved road surfaces to parts of the interior of the parish.
The SCHIP, which includes wide-scale infrastructural upgrading along the corridors, is expected to sharply improve the economic base of the parish and, in the process, bring much in the way of opportunities to the local population.
Looking back to day one of the project, in November 2019, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and other officials broke ground for the commencement of the SCHIP.
As a part of the project, approximately 110 kilometres of roadway from Harbour View in St Andrew to Port Antonio in Portland, and 26 kilometres from Morant Bay to Cedar Valley in St Thomas, are to be rehabilitated.
Holness said the SCHIP is part of the Government’s strategic development plan to unlock growth prospects in the eastern end of the island.
The SCHIP was initially projected to cost US$384 million, but an escalation of that amount has already been communicated as being anticipated.
The prime minister said then, that the rehabilitation efforts are to be undertaken to increase commerce and spur economic growth and development in the south eastern section of the island.
With the completion of the SCHIP from St Andrew to Port Antonio, and the Highway 2000 extension from May Pen in Clarendon to Williamsfield in Manchester, and plans already announced for a further push into St Elizabeth, the vast majority of the island’s coastal main roadways will be along highways. This should mean much easier access to rural Jamaica generally, especially to the parishes closer to the capital city, Kingston.
But all the bright sparks of present-day expectations in St Thomas cannot be realistically disconnected from the long history of struggles, general hardships and stigmatisation among many of its citizens.
Once known as Saint Thomas in the East, the suburban parish that borders the Corporate Area heading further into the south eastern end of the island within the county of Surrey, is the birthplace of Paul Bogle, one of Jamaica’s seven National Heroes.
The parish capital bears the bust of Bogle who figured prominently in the historic Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865.
Paul Bogle’s statue mounted in historic Morant Bay Square in St Thomas.
Like Bogle, George William Gordon, a wealthy mixed-race businessman and political representative from his district, was tried and executed in 1865 under martial law on suspicion of having directed the rebellion. But importantly also, colonial Governor, Edward Eyre, was subsequently forced to resign, due to the controversy over his execution of Gordon and the violent suppression of the rebellion.
Gordon too, was designated a National Hero in 1969.
Now while the stigma of oppression and limited personal and economic opportunities, and traditional resistance to those ills, have somewhat been overcome over the years, decades and more than a century since the era of the Morant Bay Rebellion, the parish has hitherto not experienced anywhere near the levels of development that are desired and needed there.
But with the passage of time – in this case, much time – usually comes change, and in this instance, seemingly much change for the better.
All of a sudden, subsequent to the announcement and outline of plans for the SCHIP, more developmental attention has been focused on St Thomas than any of the other parishes.
That has brought an extremely sharp contrast to the parish from a long period of existence amid major challenges, stigma and other woes generally.
Historically, from being densely populated by the Ta?no/Arawak Indians when Christopher Columbus first came to the island in 1494, much of what is now St Thomas parish later became known for major cattle ranches that were established by the Spaniards mainly at Morant Bay and Yallahs.
But, in 1655 when the English captured Jamaica from the Spaniards, and the island was organised into a number of parishes, including St Thomas, the particular parish was then administering part of what is now Portland parish, which was not established until 1722.
Then, Saint Thomas, as the parish was formally labelled by the British, also did not include some of its present land mass to the west.
After a few years of development through mainly sugarcane plantations with the use of imported African slave labour, came some health and security challenges in the form of deadly fevers and violent infiltration by a powerful French naval officer who came and raided British settlers in Morant Bay and took off with their slaves.
That latter development led to some internal migration, including the settlement of a band of Maroons in the mountains of St Thomas.
With African slaves long constituting the majority of the population of the parish, in 1834 the British government abolished slavery, and ended it fully in 1838 after a four-year apprenticeship period.
But decades later, freed men were still struggling to gain land to cultivate, and had limited options to that of working at very low wages.
As for rights and influence, with them being generally unable to afford to pay the poll or head tax, many among the local population were excluded from voting.
In October 1865, the Morant Bay Rebellion took place in St Thomas, with formerly enslaved people and their descendants who were discontented with the social injustices they were experiencing, especially relative to land tenure, mounting stiff resistance to the colonial authority.
Baptist deacon and preacher Paul Bogle led a delegation of small farmers who walked 72 kilometres (45 miles) to present their grievances to Governor Eyre at the then national capital, Spanish Town, but they were denied an audience.
Further angered after a case in which a peasant was convicted of trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, on October 11, Paul Bogle and his followers, armed with sticks and machetes, marched to the courthouse in Morant Bay, where a vestry meeting was being held.
The authorities read the Riot Act, but the protestors ignored the warning, and a few people began to throw stones at the volunteer militia, who fired into the crowd and killed seven people.
Later the mob reorganised and returned, setting fire to the courthouse and nearby buildings.
When the Custos of the parish, Maximillian von Ketelhodt, and a number of others tried to leave the burning building, the mob killed them. A total of 25 persons died on both sides of the friction that day.
Over the next two days, the peasants took over St Thomas parish, and the governor responded by declared martial law in the parish, and ordered troops to suppress the rebellion.
More than 430 people were killed outright by soldiers in the suppression of the rebellion, and more than 1,000 homes were burnt to the ground, leaving thousands of people homeless.
More than 300 persons were arrested, with some being executed or otherwise punished, including many innocent persons.
Representative George William Gordon, who was in touch with Paul Bogle, spoke out for the distressed persons in the House of Assembly in Kingston, and in response, the governor ordered him arrested and returned to Morant Bay. There he was tried under martial law for conspiracy, and was hung on October 23.
Bogle had been similarly captured and handed over to the authorities, and was also hung.
Of its geography, St Thomas covers an area of 742.8 square kilometres (286.8 square miles), making it Jamaica’s ninth-largest parish.
It is very mountainous, with ranges that include the Port Royal Mountains, stretching from above Newcastle in St Andrew to Albion in St Thomas; the Queensbury Ridge between the Yallahs and Negro rivers; and to the extreme south, an isolated ridge called Yallahs Hill, with its highest elevation at 730 metres (2,394 ft) above sea level.
The Blue Mountains form the northern border of the parish.
A historical view of the rear of the celebrated Bath Fountain building in St Thomas.
The parish contains large wetland areas, comprising the coastal area between Morant Bay and Hector’s River, and there are many cliffs and beaches.
With three main rivers in the parish, Yallahs River, Morant River the Plantain Garden River, the parish has been a longstanding source of much building aggregates nationally.
It officially has a population of close to 100,000, with an ethnic makeup estimated at 88.2 per cent black, 7.6 per cent Asian, 3.2 per cent white, and one per cent others.
The parish is cited as also having a relatively youthful population, with approximately 54.7 per cent of its inhabitants being 29 years or younger: children 0-14 years accounting for 27 per cent of the population; and youths of 15 to 29 years accounting for 27.7 per cent.
The working-age population (15-64 years) accounted for 64.1 per cent, reflecting the national distribution. The elderly, 65 years and over, accounted for 8.9 per cent, with that figure being lower than the national proportion of 11.1 per cent that was reported by the Economic and Social Survey Jamaica (2010).
On the economic front, agriculture has played a vital part in the economy of St Thomas, with sugarcane and banana being the crops that were mainly produced there for export. But with the Golden Grove sugar factory having been closed in July 2019, most of the small farmers across the parish have since been producing mainly domestic and orchard crops, which for some time have been providing the main sources of employment.
The now celebrated team of Toni-Ann Singh, Miss World 2019 and budding artiste; and topflight entertainer, Popcaan, who are both high achievers from St Thomas.
Notably, St Thomas, which has long been yearning for better days both economically and in terms of its infrastructure, has produced some well-known persons over the years, including the following:
o Politicians Robert Lightbourne and Isaac Barrant
o Sound system pioneer Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake
o National Heroes Paul Bogle and George William Gordon
o Spelling Bee champion and coach, Hanif Brown
o Reggae artistes Bushman, Natty King, Popcaan, Skillibeng, Taurus Riley, Stein, Stevie Face and Chronic Law.
o Reggae band Morgan Heritage
o Olympic and IAAF World Championships medallists Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn and Hansle Parchment
o Len Garrison, co-founder of the Black Cultural Archives
o Journalist and attorney Dionne Jackson Miller
o National footballers Jermaine Hue and Alvas Powell
o Miss World 2019 and singer Toni-Ann Singh
Acclaimed painter Barrington Watson