Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Flamstead - The Historical Heavyweight

Published:Tuesday | February 7, 2017 | 2:04 AMKeisha Hill
Some old steps at the site of the Flamstead Great House.
Tony Francis carries bananas he reaped in the Flamstead community.
A section of the remains of the Flamstead Great House.
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Like sailors on the open sea, the Gleaner team began the journey into what was, for us, uncharted waters. It turned out to be quite an adventure as we left the hustle and bustle of Kingston and began our climb deep into the majestic hills of St Andrew. Tasked with visiting the deep rural community of Flamstead, some 4,000 feet above sea level, we prepared ourselves for any and every encounter.

The fresh country air was welcomed, but definitely not the narrow, meandering pot hole-riddled roads that took us through several communities, including Gordon Town, which began life as a staging post for Newcastle, and across the narrow bridge to Guava Ridge, a junction for Content Gap, and sights to the north, including Mavis Bank and Blue Mountain Peak.

Not ones for soaring to new heights, especially in such hilly terrain with cascading valleys on either side of the road, we gingerly made our way through the rough thickets and at times stopped to speak with the very few persons we saw on the stretch of road.

After more than an hour of driving, we wondered if we were still on the right track as we had made a turn on to what resembled a dirt track with very few houses or people in sight. It also became clear to us that if we continued on the same trajectory and were, in fact, on the wrong road, it would be a long way before we could turn back.

 

EENIE-MEENIE-MINNIE-MO

 

We pressed on! As luck would have it, we got to a crossroads and decided to continue following the dirt road and ended up in someone's yard at the foot of the mountain. Thankfully, we were able to turn around, and after much discussion and an eeenie-meenie-minnie-mo moment, took the straight road ahead.

A rugged multi-coloured shop on the right side of the road got our attention, and there, right in front of us, was a signpost that read: 'To Flamstead Great House.'

Slowly making our way on the overgrown grass path, we came to a dead end. It was as if the birds knew we were coming because much to our delight, a chorus of chirping went off in the trees ahead as if to welcome us. With fallen coconut branches blocking our way midway up the path, we decided to continue the rest of the journey on foot.

Unfortunately, the only remains of the great house were crumbled remnants of buildings and cottages that once housed a British admiralty base and lookout in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Flamstead was also used as a lookout point as far back as the Taino period in the 15th century and during the Napoleonic Wars.

Henry Morgan, the pirate who would become governor, also used Flamstead to signal fellow members on the whereabouts of British vessels and defences in the harbour. Flamstead became Port Royal's naval lookout, and several governors used it against the Spanish, the Dutch, and the French, as well as the pirates.

Contact with the ships, forts and batteries at Port Royal was maintained by signalling with mirrors and telegraphs from the Flamstead Glass House, an elevated post outfitted with a powerful telescope offering a wide view.

In 1681, under Governor Sir Henry Morgan, letters patents were issued for the area that became the properties known as Flamstead, Chatsworth, and Dallas. In 1751, William James Hall became the first recorded owner. Cottages were eventually built at Flamstead as a retreat from the heat and sicknesses of the Kingston plains that struck down many seamen.

 

RICH HISTORY

 

It was exciting to think that we were standing on a property that even the Spanish were said to have used to herald the start of the 17th century by lighting a bonfire.

In the 18th century, it was the planned location of an ambush of Jamaica's own Robin Hood, 'Three Finger' Jack Mansong.

It was also home to many colonial Jamaican governors, and for a time during the height of British colonial rule, it was known for hosting lavish evening parties and balls. In the 19th century, Governor John Eyre was in residence when the island was plunged into the Morant Bay Rebellion.

In the 20th century, the property was the site of intrigue as the home base of a German spy, who signalled German submarines off the coast prior to the start of World War II.

With such a fascinating history, members of the farming community beamed with pride as they showed us around this section of the hilly terrain.

Tony Francis, who has lived in the community for more than 27 years, said that most of the existing structure of the great house was left standing even after the extremely powerful Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

"Gilbert came and left it, but then it fell into ruins and what is left there is mainly dilapidated structures covered in bush," Francis said. Although disappointed that the members of the community who could share more historical information had died, Francis was still excited about us delving into the past.

The community, he said, farmed mainly coffee because the price for the product is higher than other items. However, he indicated that banana, turnip, carrot, corn, and sugar cane are also planted. "On Tuesday and Thursday, we take our coffee to the depot, bag it up, and the truck comes for it and takes it to Guava Ridge," he said.

During our conversation with Francis and fellow farmers Lloyd Creary and Kevin Wizard, we learned that the dirt road we traversed to get to the property was a project under construction by the United States Agency for International Development, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The residents also expressed a desire to have more street lights on the road leading into Content.

Quite an eventful day it was! A taste of history, intrigue, and, of course, the scenic journey into nature's untapped paradise.

Looking for something to do off the beaten track? Take a trip to Flamstead and other surrounding areas and experience this and other historical sites for yourselves.

keisha.hill@gleanerjm.com