Revealing the Silences of the Past

If you drive along the gently winding road, with mangroves and dark lagoons on one side and sandhills spiked with cactus on the other, you will reach the small town of Port Royal. It is perched at the end of a long, flat spit of land, between Kingston Harbor and the open Caribbean Sea. Just before you reach Port Royal, however (I would prefer to call it a “hamlet” really) you will see a long wall to your left, stretching along the side of the road. We have probably passed it  a hundred times or more, and never stopped there.

But this week, I did. This is Fort Rocky, and I was in the company of U.S. Fulbright Scholar, archaeologist and community builder extraordinaire, Heidi Savery.

Behind that mysterious wall, which gives away nothing, is a very large space, fringed with broken interior walls and rooms missing a wall. Here and there were knots of people in twos and threes, hunched in holes in the ground, writing on clipboards. They were students from the United States and from the University of the West Indies‘ (UWI) History and Archaeology Department in Kingston and their professors; as well as officials of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) and two officers from the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

This was the end of Year Two of UWI’s Archaeological Field School at Fort Rocky, and an opportunity for the students to gain hands-on experience on an actual site. Dr. Steve Lenik, who lectures at UWI’s Department of History and Archaeology, showed me a collection of maps from various periods, which help them to identify possible spots that could produce interesting material. They then divide the space up into grids at ten-meter intervals. They dig what are called “shovel test pits,” just 50 – 60 cm down, to see whether it is worth continuing to dig there.

So, what have they found at Fort Rocky?

Many buttons. Even the most corroded are lovely when cleaned up by the Heritage Trust restorers. Some show the military insignia of the West India Regiment, with the crocodile (and indeed there are real crocodiles living on the other side of the road, in the mangrove). One of the students, Zach Beier, found a drinking glass. They found ceramics, medicine bottles and glass dating back to the late 19th century.  Also clay pipes, some with lovely designs on the bowl. One had the initials “E.W.” carved on it. I wonder who E.W. was. Many nails of different sizes and other pieces of metal that were parts of fixtures and machines. There were once cannons at Fort Rocky, but those had long since disappeared…spirited away.

I met Zach, a graduate student from Syracuse University. He told me that he is actually from my home country – born in Lancaster, Lancashire; and that he has been working on a project at an eighteenth-century fort in Dominica (a small island in the eastern Caribbean that I would love to visit). Like most of the workers, he looked windswept and his face was smudged with dirt. One cannot expect to be clean, neat and tidy when digging, of course! I also met Elizabeth McCague, from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and her professor Liza Gijanto; and the ebullient James, also from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, who is a registered member of the Choctaw Nation.

Private Carmola of the JDF told me about the Military Museum at Up Park Camp in Kingston, which opened in 2006. He also told me that the day before had been a day off for the soldiers, as it was Victoria Cross Day (May 27) – a day taken seriously, with a grand dinner, a church service and a military holiday. I looked it up, and learned that one Jamaican has received the Victoria Cross: Sergeant William Gordon, of the First Battalion, West India Regiment, for his “heroic devotion” in saving the life of his officer during the British campaign in West Africa in March, 1892. The JDF also celebrates another Victoria Cross recipient, Private Samuel Hodge of the British Virgin Islands, who also performed braved deeds during the same campaign, in 1866.

As for Fort Rocky, it was in regular use until the end of World War II. According to the JDF website, it was built just before the First World War to replace the Victoria Battery, which had been badly damaged in the 1907 earthquake that rocked Kingston. At that time, it had five six-inch guns and could accommodate 82 soldiers. It also had a small railway system from about 1887, only two miles long, which ran along the Palisadoes spit to Port Royal. It was used to transport equipment over the light, sandy soil. Jamaica’s railway system – one of the great legacies of the colonial era – has, of course, been allowed to rot and no longer exists, except for a small private railway operated by a bauxite mining company. But then, that is another sad story.

And it is really a story of neglect, but also potential. As Heidi Savery explained to me, there are many and rich treasures to be found in Jamaica’s cultural heritage. Jamaica’s history has been painful in many respects, but that does not make it any less valuable; there is also much to learn and to seek to understand. As Jamaicans would say, “The half has never been told.”  For Heidi, who believes passionately in Jamaica’s people and its culture, the management of the island’s cultural heritage is all important – and it must involve the people. It is not just about conservation and the preservation of “things” to be put in a museum. It is also about a deeper, more spiritual connection, whereby the past is revived and incorporated into the present. It is a much broader concept. In her work in Bluefields, Westmoreland (where she has unearthed a large Taino development), Heidi believes the community has much to give back and much to learn from its past. The past is a living thing for the residents of this vibrant community, in a particularly beautiful spot on Jamaica’s south coast. More on Bluefields another time.

A number of music videos have been filmed in battered old Fort Rocky. Some graffiti daub the walls. A body had been found there. It is a lonely spot, with nothing but the sound of the wind in the thorn bushes, and the thump of the waves on the nearby shore. The city of Kingston, full of stories sad and old, past and present, is just a few miles down the road.

But Fort Rocky still retains, somehow, a whisper of its past.

Especially when you start digging.

Here are a few related articles. You can also check out my photo album on Facebook The Jamaica Defence Force as a cultural treasure: Gleaner Victoria Cross commemorations in Jamaica: JDF website Jamaica’s “wickedest city” Port Royal banks on heritage: BBC News The underwater city of Port Royal: World Heritage Convention/UNESCO 1692: Earthquake of Port Royal: Gleaner/Pieces of the Past Restoring glory: Bluefields residents work towards community and tourism

Looking across towards the entrance to the fort, and in the direction of Port Royal beyond.
Looking across towards the entrance to the fort, and in the direction of Port Royal beyond.
Max from UWI and Zach from Syracuse standing in the hot sun and breeze...
Max from UWI and Zach from Syracuse standing out there  in the hot sun and breeze…
Work in progress.
Work in progress.


The Jamaica National Heritage Trust's artist. From a higher vantage point on a wall, he was doing beautiful detailed sketches of the fort.
The Jamaica National Heritage Trust’s artist. From a higher vantage point on a wall, he was doing beautiful detailed sketches of the fort.
Elizabeth McCauge from Maryland is in up to her waist.
Elizabeth McCauge from Maryland is in up to her waist.
Some buttons retrieved. When cleaned up they will look as good as new.
Some buttons retrieved. When cleaned up they will look as good as new.


What's going on in here?
What’s going on in here?


James from Appalachian State University demonstrates his archaeological skills.
James from Appalachian State University demonstrates his archaeological skills.



7 thoughts on “Revealing the Silences of the Past

  1. Always love reading your stuff Emma ! And yes, you’re right, I’d driven past there hundreds of times and never gave it another thought. Recently tho’, been having a little love affair with our his-story and her-story. Bless !


    1. Thanks SO much, Elise! How is the beautiful Blue House? Would love to visit you again, soon…
      I hope all is well with you and best wishes too to your dear brother… Please keep reading, and commenting!


  2. Fascinating story (his-story; her-story) and lovely to hear of history brought to life in a very real way. So many tales untold, so many secrets unrevealed. Dry sandy soil is fertile for the imagination to run riot!


    1. I know. It’s amazing. When you spend some time there you start to “connect” somehow. I think that is part of the attraction of “digging.” And Fort Rocky has real atmosphere. The title comes from a comment Heidi made… She is very dedicated.


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