Fort Haldane's rich history
Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
UPON GETTING close enough, I see that the large imposing gate is padlocked and after taking a picture, prepare to turn away in disappointment when I realise that the side gate is open.
As I step through, the realisation that the yard is overgrown by weeds hits me and I start having second thoughts about investigating the property on Rectory Street, Port Maria, known as Grace Charity (Gray's Charity is the correct name) by most residents of the area. A peek into the building reveals a large room with a few pieces of old furniture in disarray.
Stepping around the corner with apprehension, I encounter a stranger as we startle each other. Recovering first, I tell him I am there to view the cannon, and in a split second he agrees, reaching for his rain cloak. My tour guide gives a running commentary about the guns, explaining that with the property overgrown, I might not be able to get a good enough view. Stepping through puddles of water as the rain pelts me, I begin to think it was wrong to make the trek in the rainfall. However, using his hands and knife, 'Jah Will' clears the first of two cannon and I catch my breath at its magnificence - I am impressed.
Waterlogged shoes and drenched clothing are but a small price to pay for this first-hand interaction with such an invaluable historical item.
The ancient weapon, mounted on a stand fitted with a track to facilitate the recoil whenever it is fired, is magnificent. Positioned as it is, facing seaward, the cannon shows very little sign of rust, despite having stood there for more than 250 years. I send a silent thanks to Gregory Scott who suggested I visit the site and find myself grappling with questions raised during our conversation. How, in 1759, did they manage to transport this Goliath to its current location and how much manpower did it require?
The other cannon located nearby is covered in moss and lichen, likely arising from the long time spent in the shade of a nearby tree. It is obvious from their positioning that these heavy-duty weapons once played a pivotal role in the coastal defence of the Port Maria bay.
Jah Will leads the way to a small building of brick construction, explaining that a larger building of similar style once stood on the area we are crossing. The building we examine is in good condition, even though the windows are gone and my tour guide explains that the walls are at least two-feet thick and it once served as a bomb shelter. The last bit of information I questioned but kept my thoughts to myself.
A plaque mounted by the Jamaica Historical Society makes clear that we are at Fort Haldane which was constructed in 1759 during the Seven Years' War and named after the Governor of Jamaica.
As the guided tour comes to an end, we encounter Mary standing guard over a coal stove with her meal cooking. From the shelter of what seems to be the back port of a building of newer vintage, she eyes me with suspicion. Even when Jah Will explains that his "friend" just wants to look over the property, Mary's wariness is undiminished. Still she manages to cough up an obscure acknowledgement - out of deference to Jah Will, I think.
A closer inspection of the newer building suggests that it was constructed by someone of means and this is confirmed by Custos of St Mary Bobby Pottinger. "Gray's Charity was a home for respectable ladies. In the old days, you had what you called the poorhouse or infirmary (for the destitute) and then the hierarchy of property owners and overseers left funds to operate a charity in which there would be adequate accommodation for their widows," he explains.
Reconstructed in 1948 when Governor S.M. Walker, O.B.E. was among the fund trustees, Gray's Charity has since fallen far from its glory days, with its original wards and administrators all long dead. Still, being housed on the site of historic Fort Haldane will ensure it lives on as part of St Mary's glorious past.