Kingston is special to Vivian Crawford
Having been executive director of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) since 2000, with a break between 2012 and 2016, Vivian Crawford left a job that gave him great joy on Friday.
We spoke on two occasions, the first about his affection for the capital city – being himself a man “from rural”, he frequently reminded me – and the second about his proudest moments at the IOJ. It was during our first conversation that he stated, “Kingston is special.”
It sounded less like an opinion and more like an ex-cathedra declaration, for the office of the executive director in which he was sitting in is one hallowed by time and the distinguished persons who have occupied it. The IOJ has been a repository of the literature and artefacts of the island’s culture since 1879.
He elaborated: “It [Kingston] is an engine of our heritage and our history.”
Now, possessing as he does the memory of a historian and the craft of a storyteller, Crawford is generally acknowledged as a griot in matters concerning Jamaica’s heritage and history. But when he elaborated further, I discovered that his ancestral memory of Kingston extended back to 1891.
That’s when his grandmother, with 18 relatives and friends, went to the capital city for the year’s big event, the Jamaica International Exhibition set up on Marescaux Road on the land now occupied by Wolmer’s Boys’ School and The Mico University. Modelled on London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, it was designed to promote Jamaican industry and products and encourage investment. It ran from January 27 to May 2 and attracted more than 300,000 visitors.
Crawford narrated: “They left Moore Town at 3 a.m. [and] walked to Charles Town, another Maroon community, reaching 11 a.m. They ate with relatives, slept, then got up again at 3 a.m. to walk up the Buff Bay Valley.”
Chuckling, Crawford said, “I’ll never forget her telling me that she saw a white soldier. I knew she’d reached New Castle, where there’s a military camp. They then walked downhill to Papine and took the tram to the exhibition.”
Faithful to the storytelling format, Crawford added a twist to the wonder-filled tale. “In 1895, my grandmother repeated that journey to Kingston to buy her wedding outfit,” he said, “though not as many persons accompanied her.”
When Crawford asked her why she went to Kingston to buy her ensemble instead of shopping in Port Antonio, she replied that she was “topanaris (high class)”. Besides, she added, she would have picked up news for friends about the latest fashions in Kingston.
Crawford went to Kingston for the first time in 1949 when he was about nine years old. He was taken there on a market truck by a family friend, Matilda Osbourne, who had a special liking for him.
“When she told me about the trip, I was so excited that for the week, I couldn’t sleep,” he tells you. “We went to Coronation Market and spent the whole day there. I still remember the scent of the red plums.”
He laughed as he recalled, too, that when he went back to school, nobody could understand a word he was saying as he insisted on speaking the Standard English he heard Kingstonians using. He adds that his relatives living and working in Kingston also spoke Standard English when they returned home.
A female cousin, he said, who had been on the journey to the International Exhibition, worked with Mandeville-born Sir Colin McGregor in Kingston. The labour laws at the time were so strict that when her mother died, she was allowed only one day to go to the funeral and was expected to return the same night.
She was a day late and was not fired only because Sir Colin begged for her. She was a very good cook, he said.
Crawford revealed that he first went to Kingston on business in 1959 when he had to do the Mico College entrance exam. “At that time, there were no burglar bars. Houses had sash windows. The only crime was people taking clothes off the line and stealing chickens for Sunday dinner.
“You could walk anywhere – Jones Town, Rae Town … I never knew a door key until I came to Kingston. In the country, you just turned the door. The only fear we had was duppy,” he said.