Fall Of A Gentle Giant
The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
AT SOME point in
the first few decades of the early nineteenth century, a young man from
Scotland is said to have sat in the shade of a giant cotton tree that
stood on the
main road between Kingston and Spanish Town, not far from the then popular
Ferry Inn. He wasn't merely taking in the sight of what must
surely have been a dramatic natural landmark, nor was he relaxing, using
the tree as a rest stop along the way in his many travels. This man,
Michael Scott, sat. Perhaps inspired by the pervasive calm he felt in
the shade of the gentle giant, he wrote about his time in Jamaica, inventing
a dashing young character named Tom Cringle who had left his native
England on board a ship called the Torch, to seek his fame and
fortune. Scott based his writing on his own experiences, and he knew
the Jamaica of the 1820s and 30s well, for he too had arrived to seek
his fortune. While on
the island, he had worked in a mercantile house and as a plantation
Its fall marked the demise of a historical landmark. Reported to be one of the largest cotton trees on the island, if not the largest, Tom Cringle's tree had watched more than 300 years of Jamaican history go by. Like many other cotton trees, this one was known for its vast size and ability to dominate its surroundings. Witnesses said the mammoth tree fell apart limb by limb until the crown crumbled, causing a sensation not unlike a minor earthquake. One of the branches is said to have narrowly missed a truck. The National Trust indicated interest in seeing that pieces of the branches were made into souvenirs. All that remained was a small green stalk along one of the many roots for some, at the time, a symbol of hope that the tree would rise again.
A year earlier one of the Cringle tree's branches was removed to accommodate the highway. At that time representatives from the Institute of Jamaica, the Jamaica Tourist Board and the National Heritage Trust came together to plead for its preservation; Dr. Bernard Lewis, Director of the IOJ, made the fateful prediction that the tree did not have long to live.
The Cringle tree was also mentioned in Lady Nugent's Journal of her stay in Jamaica from 1801-1805 while her husband was governor.
cotton tree, called the 'God Tree' by the Asante, is native to tropical
America. Unlike most tropical trees it sheds its leaves and for several
months appears bare before creamy white flowers begin to bloom, followed
by new leaves. The Mayas of Guatemala regard the tree as sacred and
it is, in fact, the national tree of that country. In Jamaica, the Tainos
used cotton trees to make hammocks, as well as canoes, a tradition continued
by Jamaican fishermen. It is said that one should never take an axe
to a cotton tree without first sprinkling some white rum, for fear of
the spirits that lie within. Specific types of duppies known as 'Whooping
Boy' are said to dwell at the roots of cotton trees. Rumour has it that
at some point
Throughout Jamaican history, other cotton trees have given their names to places, including Spur Tree Hill and Half-Way-Tree (the latter named by the English for the tree's location half way between Kingston Harbour and Spanish Town; the tree, which no longer stands, was used as a marker between the three plantations once owned by the wealthy Spaniards, Liguaney, de Yalis and Lizama. It was also used as a resting place by slaves and English soldiers on long marches.
M. Scott. (1927). Tom Cringle's Log. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co. P.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted February 25, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com