Layers of grey cloud descended over us, soft blankets that would roll down and then occasionally back again, to expose the dim wetness of the land. It was clearly not going to be a good day to go out of town and up to the North Coast for a cultural tour. We needed some color, and there was none.
We turned off the main road at the sign, and drove slightly uphill along a winding, narrow country road through the tufted green meadows and drystone walls that are a feature of the St. Ann landscape. We were in the “Garden Parish,” and we tourists for the day (quite a small group from Kingston, in our small bus) were going to visit Seville Great House and Heritage Park.
Now, I must confess at this point that guided tours are not really my thing. I am easily distracted, and have been reprimanded in the past by strict guides who didn’t seem to approve of my body language. I prefer to wander off and explore by myself, rather than trotting around behind a (usually rather bossy) man or woman. Nevertheless, our guide was very nice, and I tried to pay attention like a good girl.
While preparations were being made for our tour, I heard strange rustles and clicking noises in a nearby tree. Several John Crows (turkey vultures) were settled in its lower branches, looking like big black umbrellas. They occasionally soared out for a moment or two across the lawn. Perhaps they were waiting for the storm to pass.
The Jamaica National Heritage Trust, the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation, the Tourism Enhancement Fund and the CHASE Fund have expended considerable effort (and funds) to turn the Great House into a museum that reflects the slow passage of time and events over several centuries of settlements on the site. The house itself is in good condition, resting long and low at the top of a slope looking towards the sea – which was hardly visible that day, just a blur. Some 300 acres of land surround the building; the estate was once much larger. The top floor of the house apparently blew off in a hurricane in the 19th century, and was never replaced.
So, the guide invited us to enter a dark room, painted that gloomy crimson you see in spooky film sets. There were closed-off, dark wood doorways, and no natural light. We processed slowly through windowless rooms, filled from the floors to the low ceilings with exhibition boards. The boards began with the Taino, the first people who were living there in a village called Maima when Christopher Columbus and his crew landed and upset everything. Each room progressed to a different stage in the history of the site (established as the first Spanish capital of Jamaica, Nueva Sevilla in 1510). We moved on to the English, and slavery, ending on a more cheerful note with “Freedom.” The boards were artistic, and well designed. It was a potted history. The guide kept inviting us to move forward; our group stood back around the edges of each room. I too felt overwhelmed by the exhibition boards, confronting us on every turn. The effect was claustrophobic.
Interspersed among the boards were exhibits of artifacts, samples of what had been found on various architectural digs at the site. Considering the riches that the site had apparently yielded, these pieces seemed modest and not especially evocative. Items used by the slaves, in one box, included a small piece of chain.
It was a relief to get out into the daylight again. My mood brightened as we made our way to look at some replica Taino houses and a replica slave house. I glanced back from there, to the side of the planter’s house. It had the look of holding its secrets closer to its chest. As rainclouds moved slowly over the sea and the wind moved among the trees, making its way unhurriedly from St. Ann’s Bay, we pinched and smelled the spicy leaves of a pimento tree and chatted. As the thunder murmured louder, we visited the wattle and daub slave’s house, where darkness closed in on us. I looked up at a thin point of light where there was a hole in the top of the thatch roof. We would rather sleep outside, we concluded.
The slaves buried their dead under the floor of their houses. For their owners, everything was kept at a distance.
Now, there is mention of the Heritage Park. We saw nothing of this except for the slaves’ grave, and those of the last owners of the house, the Hoskins. The JNHT bought the house after Henry Smallwood Hoskins died in 1915. Also in the park are a copra kiln (a building I did not recognize), the Peter Martyr Church (the first stone church in Jamaica – where?) pimento barbecues where pimento was dried, Spanish wells, an English sugar factory, an English warehouse, a Spanish mill with giant waterwheel, a Spanish governor’s castle and a cattle pen. We saw none of these, although the ruins we passed were the houses of the overseer (the man who cracked the whip) and the book keeper (the man who ensured that money was made).
I would have liked to wander through the estate. Unlike the airless, Great House the ruins, the trees, the tufted grass breathed. I wanted to listen to the breathing, and to what the roughened, torn landscape beyond the house’s manicured lawns could tell me. Where was the Spanish governor’s castle? How far away did the slaves live? Could their owner see their dank huts, smell the smoke of their fires, from his verandah, where he smoked his pipe and drank his wine? Which path did the slaves take to the fields each day? Where was the Taino village? A map of the whole estate, and where everything is, would have been a good thing to take away. Also, for me, history has to be more than exhibition boards. It is humanity. What of the humanity that lived there?
The storm arrived, but with the gentlest of rainfall. We sat in a corner of the long verandah, and waited for a while before departing.
We were back on the main road, with its speeding coaster buses and landscaped roundabouts and hotels, in no time at all. Hundreds of years had fallen away behind us, in the rain.