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Jamaica roots trip

Published:Saturday | April 6, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Members of the Bell family, from left, Beverley, Marjorie, Rena, and David after planting a tree at the graveside of patriarch Herbert McLean Bell in Richmond, St Mary.-Contributed photos
From left: Carolyn Smith hosts members of the Bell family at her Mandeville home: Rena, Beverley, Herb (Jr.), and wife Phyllis. Carolyn's father, Cecil Bell, 104, is seated.
Bell family poses for the camera at their ancestral property in Richmond, St Mary.
David, Marjorie, Beverley, Rena, and Herb vacationing in Jamaica.
Church of the Epiphany in Richmond, St Mary.
Church bell tower.

David V. J. Bell, Contributor

RICHMOND, St Mary:IN LATE JANUARY 2013, all four of my siblings and I travelled to Jamaica to visit our ancestral home, the birthplace of our father, Herbert McLean Bell.

Herb Bell was the middle child in a family of 13. He was born on February 18, 1897, in the village of Richmond in St Mary, which is located on the north shore of Jamaica near the eastern end of the island. The parish capital and largest town, Port Maria, is on the sea coast. Nearby stands the hill-top home once owned by Noel Coward, and not far away, Ian Fleming wrote most of the James Bond novels.

Since my siblings and I were staying near Montego Bay, at the other end of the island, our trip to Richmond by van took more than three hours. Most of the road was good highway. We stopped in Port Maria to look at a beautiful oceanfront cut-stone church that we were told, erroneously, was founded with a substantial donation from our grandfather. We soon found out that the church he did help establish was a more modest, but still very attractive, building near Richmond.

Many of my childhood memories flooded back to me as our van drove along the coast to Port Maria, which turned out to be much more scenic and beautiful than I remember. From my aunt's house where mother and I stayed overnight nearly 60 years earlier, there was no view of the ocean, though I seem to recall a small river nearby. The house was a simple frame dwelling that was quite crowded and unattractive. I did not like the food we were served - salt fish and ackee, which I hated, fried plantain, which was okay if a bit greasy, and breadfruit, which was very bland.

I was glad that the next day we continued our drive - harrowing at times given the narrow winding mountain roads - across the island toward Kingston where my comparatively wealthy Uncle Claude lived. But that's another story for another time.

Travelling in the van with me when we left the stunningly beautiful Allamanda Villa in Montego Bay were my two oldest sisters, Rena, and Beverley, and our driver, Junior. Scheduled to make the trip, but too sick to come along, was my brother Herbie, who was staying at a resort near the airport with his wife, Phyllis. We stopped at the Hilton just east of MoBay to pick up Bev's daughter, Leslie Salmon Jones, and a farmer friend of hers named Rowan, who brought along three trees from his farm for us to plant at the gravesite of our ancestors.

Bumpy road

An hour later, we pulled into the Silver Seas Hotel in Ocho Rios where my sister Marjorie was waiting to be picked up with her friend Paul Upshall. So there I was with my niece, farmer Rowan, Paul, and my three older sisters.

Just east of Port Maria, we turned off the good coastal highway and travelled along a narrow, bumpy road that twisted and climbed into the hills to the south east. We reached a small town called Highgate. We pressed on a few miles until we reached the village of Richmond. I was the first to spot the street sign on our right that said "Bell Heights Rd."

At the intersection of Bell Heights and the highway was an elevated building site that had a very old mango tree on the front corner. This is where the Bell family home stood for nearly a century. It was a large- frame house that had disappeared decades ago. It had a verandah across the front of the house and a separate building with kitchen and toilet facilities.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my father to grow up in such a tiny village more than a century ago. There would have been no electricity. I assumed that all travel would have been on foot or possibly by donkey or horse. In that case, a trip to Port Maria and back would have taken at least one day. But my assumption was wrong, as I found out from my friend and colleague Franklin McDonald, who commented on an earlier draft of this piece.

Thanks to the 1896 opening of a railway link provided by the Jamaica Railway Corporation, both Highgate and Richmond were well connected to Kingston and to the north shore. The Gleaner newspaper arrived by rail from Kingston hot off the press, reaching readers in these towns quicker that some parts of Kingston! So Richmond was much less remote a century ago than it appears today.

From his hometown, my father travelled as a young man first to Egypt with the Jamaican army (he served with the Jamaica Reserve Regiment from 1914-1916); then to New York and Boston, where he was studying engineering before deciding to come to New Brunswick in order to enlist in the Canadian Army in August 1918.

After enlisting, he travelled with his unit by rail across the country for further training in British Columbia. There, he became part of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, which left Victoria on December 26, 1918, for a three-and-a-half week sea voyage to Vladivostok, ostensibly to help the White Russians in their civil war with the Reds, who, of course, were the ultimate victors.

War-time experiences

That winter, temperatures plummeted to -60°F. Father told us almost nothing about his war-time experiences, so most of this information was gleaned from his war record and recently published accounts of the campaigns in which he participated. But I remember the odd, flint-like appearance of his toenails - one visible consequence of frostbite suffered during that cold Siberian winter.

Bell Heights Road is less a road than a partially paved path that climbs up the hill a total distance of less than a hundred meters. Halfway up on the left is a neglected graveside of half a dozen Bell family members who had been buried there in the last century or so. In 1974, Marjorie and her husband Brian visited the site. Marjorie carefully recorded in a sketch the grave's location and inscriptions.

Jane Bell (Mother, died 27 Jan. 1936, Age 82, Asleep in Jesus )

Henry William Bell (21st Nov. 1918, Age 60 years. Now the labour Task O'er, No more his mortal body ... )

Gertrude Silvera (1st July 1933 Age 52 R.I.P. )

Willie Bell (12 May 49 Age 58 R.I.P.).

An unmarked grave below Jane is likely to be that of Hilda Bell. By the time of our visit, only one of the gravesites still had a legible headstone. It was for a "Harry Bell", who died February 18, 1924, at age 40. He was one of my father's older brothers.

We walked up to the site, the youngest members of our rather curious-looking entourage carrying the three potted trees. We had been joined in Richmond by an "honorary cousin" named Carolyn Smith and her brother Barry (Byron Clarke), both of whom had been raised by Cecil Bell, still alive at 104 years old.

The day before our trip to Richmond, Rena, Beverley, and Herbie took the two-and-one half hour drive from Montego Bay down to meet with Cecil, who now lives with Carolyn in Mandeville - in the south-west region of Jamaica. For decades Cecil had lived in Richmond and taken care of the family homestead of 14 acres, a former banana plantation known as "Arcadia Pen Estate". Our paternal grandfather willed that the entire "estate" on which we were now standing should be equally divided among his 13 children. Each of my siblings and I were entitled to one-fifth of our father's portion.

Inherited land

It was about 40 years ago that we were informed that we had inherited land in Jamaica. It sounded pretty wonderful. But we were also told that the land was not very attractive and was located across from a prison farm. We - and all our cousins who also had inherited some of the land - were then encouraged to sign off on our individual portions so that the entire 14 acres could be consolidated under a single owner.

Marjorie and her late husband Brian made a visit to Jamaica shortly thereafter to check out our legacy and confirmed that it was not worth keeping. This conclusion was shared by all the other Bell "estate" heirs, so ownership passed to our uncle Harry Bell of New York, who continued to retain Cecil as property manager. Now, Barry manages the property, which means that he collects the rent from the 40 or so families that have homes on the property. Average annual rent is about J$5,000 (equivalent to about US$50).

The land is hilly, rising fairly steeply from the main road. Most of the homes, appear to be on the fringes of the property rather than in the dense forested interior. Like many poor Jamaican homes, these were connected to the overhead power lines by a web of improvised lines, called "throw-ups", indicating that many of them were probably taking electricity "informally".

Not far from the property on the east side is indeed a low-to-medium security prison farm, which we drove to and stopped in front of. I started to take a picture of the prison, but one of the guards shouted at me that this was "not allowed". Barry said that security at the farm was tighter now than it had been when he was growing up in the village. We arrived during visiting hours on this Sunday afternoon, and there were a number of mainly female visitors who were likely spouses, sisters, and mothers. Some of them had young children in tow.

From the prison farm we drove across the top of the property where a few more houses looked down over the hillside. A few miles further along this road was the pretty church which did, indeed, have a plaque commemorating Henry William Bell as a "pioneer" of the Church of the Epiphany. Outside the church - a concrete structure with wooden louvre windows and a beautiful wooden ceiling - stands, appropriately enough, a small bell tower which had not been well maintained and is leaning slightly to one side. The large brass bell - still in place despite the decrepit condition of the tower - bears a strong resemblance to the bell insignia used in the logo for my father's automotive repair company, Bell Motors, which he ran very successfully from 1924 to 1948. It was originally located at 129-131 Queen Street East in Toronto and then moved around the corner to 163 Church St.

We left the church and headed back to Montego Bay to a Super Bowl Party Leslie and her husband Jeff hosted at the Allamanda Villa. Along the way, we picked up brother Herbie and his wife Phyllis at the Sunset Beach Resort where they were staying. We were joined by some friends of Les and Jeff's, who had been attending the Caribbean Yoga Conference at the local Hilton where Leslie had presented several workshops.

The supper that night was delicious, as were all the meals prepared for us at Allamanda by our chef, Derval Todd. Derval is a graduate of the culinary arts programme at the nearby community college and worked at the local Ritz Carleton before being lured away by the owner of Allamanda, a friend of Beverley's named Michele McDonald. Derval served delicious salt fish and ackee, completely reversing my childhood dislike of this dish. I even enjoyed some tasty breadfruit brought to the party by farmer Rowan, who had roasted it to add flavour.

The next morning, Beverley, Rena, and I headed off to the Round Hill Hotel and Villas for beach relaxation and swimming in the ocean. The resort is a collection of 28 privately owned villas and a small hotel located on a 100 acre private peninsula. All of the villas - except two - are rented out except when the owners are in residence. The exceptions are the two villas owned by board member and decorator-in-chief Ralph Lauren, who we saw relaxing on a patio in front of the hotel swimming pool.

I flew home Tuesday, February 5, just ahead of one of the largest snowstorms to hit Toronto in the past decade. It had quite devastating effects along the United States seaboard north of New York. The Massachusetts Governor banned all cars - except emergency vehicles - from the streets in and around Boston. Tropical memories of this brief escape to my father's beautiful "island in the sun" were the perfect antidote to the cold and snow.

David V. J. Bell is professor emeritus in environmental studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. Send comments to or