The Blue Mountains of Jamaica, the history of Holywell and the story of the breadfruit

Sometimes things connect in the most fortuitous way. Yesterday, Holywell launched its new logo, up in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park (which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). I should have attended in person, but at least I did via their livestream on Instagram.

Dr. Susan Otuokon, Executive Director, Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, expresses her appreciation to Conliffe, one of JCDT’s volunteers, at the event on November 20.

The occasion was not only a logo launch, but also a recognition of the work of the diligent and enthusiastic volunteers, who have given of their time and seemingly boundless energy over the past year. Launched in August 2020, the volunteer program was a bit of a struggle getting off the ground, given the COVID-19 situation. Long periods of curfews and other restrictions, plus a huge landslide on the access road, were setbacks – but it seems only temporary ones, as the volunteer team continues to forge ahead undaunted. Dr. Susan Otuokon, Executive Director of the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT), which manages the Park, recognized them accordingly at the event. Pats on the back and lots of “bigging up” were in order!

Projects Officer Abimbola Haughton (in yellow) and volunteers fixing up a sign with the new logo at Holywell yesterday.

The volunteers have been busy (no, not clearing the landslide – that daunting task was undertaken by the National Works Agency). They have been supporting the Park Rangers in visitor management at Holywell, besides admin work in the office (there is always that!) and work on the ongoing Trail Project. More details anon.

One never would have guessed. Our Holywell up in the mountains (formerly Monmouth Mount Estate) was renamed by James Wiles after Holywell Hall in Lincolnshire, England, where he was born, in the servants’ quarters.

So, let’s look at those connections. I had never thought of Holywell in the same context as breadfruit trees before. However, yesterday we were treated to a live talk by Michael Morrissey, an Honorary Professor at the University of the West Indies. Michael lived in Jamaica from 1968 to 2006, when he moved to another beautiful island, Bali in Indonesia (technology is so great sometimes). Now, there are connections, too, between the West Indies and the East Indies, which Michael has thoroughly researched, and the breadfruit, a “superfood” in its own right, is there in the forefront. I should also point out that Michael supports the Trees The Feed Foundation, a brilliant Jamaican NGO, which I have written about before.

So, where do we connect the dots between the arrival of breadfruit in Jamaica and Holywell? There’s much more to it than Captain Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty. Please read on – this is an excerpt from Michael Morrissey’s book “Breadfruit Stories: A tree’s journey from Tahiti to the West Indies, 1760s to 1840s” published in October and now available on Amazon.

Joseph Banks, London-based driver of the late 18th century Breadfruit project, chose the garden boy of one of his friends for the position of First Gardener on Bligh’s second breadfruit mission in 1791. Bank’s friend was Richard Salisbury, a botanist; his property was near Leeds in England.

For the young employee of Salisbury, James Wiles, just 23 years old, a gardener like his father before him, this was a huge opportunity; James had never left the English Midlands. Nor had he ever been to sea! He was given an 18-month contract by Banks.

James Wiles survived the difficult one-year voyage to Tahiti, played an important role in the collection and potting of breadfruit, and then voyaged to St Vincent and Jamaica. Within a few days of his arrival in Jamaica, Wiles “jumped ship”, with the Commander Bligh’s permission. He accepted appointment of the Governor of Jamaica to oversee the 105 precious breadfruit plants that were to be landed at Port Morant for the Bath Botanical Garden and the sugar estates of the east of the island. This was indeed rapid promotion – in just two years – from garden boy to the superintendent of an important part of the British imperial enterprise.

It was Wiles, too, who wrote the obituary for Pappo, the Tahitian, which I posted earlier. Indeed, it was Wiles who saved Pappo from Commander Bligh’s order for the Tahitian to be thrown to the sharks when he was discovered stowed-away on HMS Providence.

It was a lucky move for Wiles – for without Pappo’s knowledge of breadfruit, he might not have kept almost 700 suckers alive, of the 2000 plants which were taken on board in Tahiti.

So, what happened to James Wiles?

Wiles rose astonishingly rapidly in the Jamaica of the times, becoming Island Botanist by 1803, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Governor’s Militia, a Magistrate of the parish of St Andrew, a coffee planter – and a slave-owner. He purchased two adjacent coffee estates on the south-facing ridge of the Blue Mountains, Monmouth Mount and Mount Edward, in 1805.

The coffee business was booming in Jamaica from the 1790s until slavery was outlawed in 1834. Coffee was produced competitively with enslaved labour. In 1814, Jamaica accounted for 30 per cent of world coffee exports

James Wiles claimed compensation for loss of “ownership” of his “property” of 88 enslaved Africans with the Act of Emancipation, and the British Government awarded him over $1650 in 1837 – the value of that payment in pounds would be around £2 million.

In spite of this windfall payment, Wiles was recorded complaining in a Parliamentary survey two years later about the cost of labour post-slavery…Wiles died in 1851 at thus estate, Monmouth Mount, at the age of 83.

What is the connection with Holywell, you might ask?

The connection is that James renamed Monmouth Mount estate to be Holywell. And why? It was because James was born at the property Holywell Lincolnshire, England in 1768. James’ father was Head Gardener Holywell Hall.

So, next time you are enjoying rambling at 1000 metres above Kingston, at Holywell, remember you are at the former property of James Wiles, a man who was part of the naval expedition to bring the first breadfruit suckers to the West Indies.

Holywell Hall is a 17th-century country manor built on the site of an older medieval manor house. There is a venerated well on the grounds, which gave the site its name, and a chapel dedicated to St, Wilfred.

Breadfruit Stories: A tree’s journey from Tahiti to the West Indies, 1760s to 1840s, by Michael Morrissey
Welcome to Holywell! The new logo displayed here was designed by National Park Volunteer Demi Walker (EnDemicJA).

Support the JCDT, which is doing valuable work! If you would like to volunteer, or subscribe to their monthly newsletter, please contact them below… Take a look at their Facebook page.

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