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Arnold Bertram | Montego Bay – a tale of two cities

Published:Sunday | October 30, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Arnold Bertram

Since the dismantling of the transnational organised crime networks based at Tivoli Gardens in 2014, scamming in all its forms has replaced the illicit trade in hard drugs as the major component of the criminal underground economy. In this new dispensation, Montego Bay and its environs have emerged in 2016 as Jamaica's crime capital, with more than 200 murders so far this year.

The lawlessness that overwhelms Montego Bay and threatens the viability and growth of the tourism sector has its roots in a pattern of development that has created two cities in the geographical area defined as Montego Bay. The 'first' city is the island's tourism capital, which continues to extend along the coast. The 'other' city is the proliferation of some 20 informal settlements that have spread across the interior. Over time, these settlements have become a fertile breeding ground for crime with the expansion of the age group 15-29, who are not working, not looking for work, or enrolled in any training institution.

Montego Bay's emergence as Jamaica's crime capital is rooted in the failure of rural development in St James. Plantation slavery had utilised the labour power of enslaved African-Jamaicans not only as field workers, but also as engineers, builders, welders, and wheelwrights in the production of sugar. The tragedy is that neither their skill as artisans nor their experience as independent producers and traders was utilised for the development in post-Emancipation.

Once the Emancipation Act was passed, the planters imposed 'wage slavery' by charging rentals for the provision grounds that were often as high as the wages paid. Those who refused to work for starvation wages were ejected from the provision grounds and replaced with indentured labour from India.

The planters also used their power of legislation to enact vagrancy laws that widened the definition of a 'vagrant' to include "an unemployed African-Jamaican walking the streets in search of work". Without either employment or access to land, and faced with starvation, some of the newly freed people chose migration first to Panama, where they risked their lives to work on the Panama railroad in a most unhealthy environment, and later to Costa Rica and Cuba. Those who remained began migrating from rural areas to the towns where they 'hustled' as best as they could. It was in these circumstances that Free Jamaica lost irreplaceable artisan skills as well as the opportunity to develop the countryside on the basis of both wage labour and peasant production. Within a decade of Emancipation, the introduction of free trade had Jamaican-grown sugar uncompetitive, and economic ruin now also faced the estate owners.


The Emergence of 'Meagre Bay' and 'Fat Bay'


It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that the economy of St James began recovering, with the planting of bananas for export and the growth of tourism. J.E. Kerr pioneered the banana industry on his Catherine Hall Estate and the establishment of Doctors Cave Beach as a health spa by Dr Alexander McCatty and his sons marked the beginning of tourism in Montego Bay.

However, the banana industry did not absorb the labour displaced by the decline in the sugar industry, and in its infancy, the tourist industry was racially exclusive. The displaced peasantry from the interior of the parish began moving to the town of Montego Bay, where, over time, they established an informal settlement on land now occupied by #1 Post Office, the library, and the courthouse, which became known as Meagre Bay.

With the introduction of rail service to Montego Bay in 1895 and the building of a road to Lucea, the informal settlement continued to expand with migrants from outside the parish and quickly became Montego Bay's first ghetto, where migrants lived in an increasingly antisocial environment and hustled in the town and on the docks. In proximity to this ghetto, the new economic elite lived well along what is now Gloucester Avenue, with the Fletcher House across from the fort as the dividing line between the two contrasting communities that became known as Meagre Bay and Fat Bay. In a real sense, these two communities created by the growth of tourism replicated the great house and the barracks of the sugar estate.


The 1902 Riots


By the end of the 19th century, poverty and discontent had become the increasing lot of the dwellers of Meagre Bay as a result of "the grinding, crushing weight of the taxes which they [were] unable to pay and of the prosecutions which [had] been recently instituted against them for not being able to pay". The pot overflowed on Saturday, April 5, 1902, as the Meagre Bay dwellers led some 2,000 people in a riot to protest the increase in taxes. They held the town of Montego Bay hostage for two days, during which time the Barnett Street Police Station was singled out for attack and the courthouse stoned. Reinforcements of 60 armed policemen brought some quiet the following day, but after church services, the rioters renewed their protest, this time with a marching band playing Onward Christian Soldiers.

When the riot ended, one person had been shot dead and a second died from sustained injuries. Four police officers were severely injured, and only 31 of the 70 policemen were in a physical condition to report for duty the following day. The Daily Telegraph, the mouthpiece of Fat Bay, described the rioters from Meagre Bay as "a horde of the worst and most depraved [who] joined the rush against law and order ... and the women of the pavement, loose, vile as corruption, hideous and shameless, egged on the men to violence".

The 1902 riots drove an even deeper division between Meagre Bay and Fat Bay. By the end of World War II, the banana industry had declined and tourism had become the driver of economic growth in the parish. By the end of the century, Fat Bay had expanded to become Jamaica's principal resort area, with one-third of the country's room stock, the Montego Bay Freeport, a 30,000-square-foot cruise ship terminal, an international airport, and an international conference centre.

While Fat Bay was emerging as the centre of Jamaica's tourism, Meagre Bay had also expanded, and by the beginning of World War II had found a leader in Allan George St Claver Coombs, the co-founder of Jamaica's first islandwide trade union in 1936. He made Meagre Bay his base, where he established another union, the Radical Workers Union, to represent the banana workers and to lead the hunger marches and strikes of that period.

Then came the 1944 general election, the first to be held under universal adult suffrage. The People's National Party did not enter a candidate, and Iris Collins, representing the Jamaica Labour Party, won comfortably. However, two of the candidates who contested those elections were Walter Fletcher of Fat Bay and A.G.S. Coombs of Meagre Bay. In that mini-contest, Coombs received 15.2 per cent of the votes and Fletcher 14.5. The end of Meagre Bay came shortly after the election when it was bulldozed to facilitate the expansion of commercial development, as well as infrastructure for tourism.


Informal Settlements


The end of Meagre Bay was the rise of Canterbury and Swine Lane. Simultaneously, the expansion of tourism created the demand for labour at all levels, and in the absence of affordable housing, many of these workers created their own accommodation in the informal settlements in Glendevon, Bottom Pen, Lilliput, Flanker, Providence, Norwood, Rose Heights, Comfort Land in Mt Salem, Retirement, Meadowvale, St Johns, Friendship, Hurlock, New Ramble, Anchovy Meadows, Red Ground, and Copper.

The Rastafarian uprising of Coral Gardens in 1963 and the disturbance in Flanker some three decades later were both timely reminders of the potential for violence and antisocial behaviour that inevitably comes with an antisocial environment. However, it is with the emergence of scamming as the centrepiece of the underground economy that crime in Montego Bay has spiralled. The increasing murder rate is evidence that the perpetrators are willing to risk their lives and kill others.




While a better-trained and better-equipped police force is indispensable to restoring law and order, as long as the breeding ground for crime continues to expand, we will continue to produce criminals at a much faster rate than we can either bring to justice or afford to incarcerate.

However, the solution must include a new paradigm for development. The Urban Development Corporation (UDC), established in 1964, has failed to provide any answer to the expansion of unplanned urbanisation islandwide. The publicly funded Department of Urban Planning at the University of Technology seems equally indifferent to this major challenge to orderly urban development. We must also ask what programmes have been implemented by the National Housing Trust (NHT) to provide affordable housing for the thousands of workers in these informal settlements who make their contributions to the NHT and who provide labour at all levels in the most important sector of the Jamaican economy.

The breeding ground for crime in these settlements can only be transformed over time by profound changes in the classroom learning environment; and this transformation can only be achieved by teachers who not only have the capacity to deliver the curriculum effectively, but also to inculcate the value of a clean and orderly environment.

How much longer will we wait for a programme of rural development to modernise domestic agriculture, integrate the food sector with the School-Feeding Programme, as well as the fare served to our visitors?

The polarisation that continues to characterise Montego Bay is a direct result of the failure to achieve inclusive economic growth. The people living in the informal settlements include some of the 638 budding entrepreneurs who offer shared accommodation on Air B&B in the Montego Bay area. Few measures, if any, would contribute more to the sustainable expansion of Jamaica's tourism product than a programme to upgrade and enhance the shared accommodation offered on Air B&B. In the process, Montego Bay could just become one integrated city.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. His most recent book is 'Norman Manley and The Making of Modern Jamaica'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and redev.atb@gmail.com.