Today is Independence Day in Jamaica.
Jamaica gained independence in 1962, and its first Prime Minister was Alexander Clarke Bustamante. A couple of years ago, I found out that there was a museum showcasing his life, at the site of the original home where he was born – a thatched house in Blenheim, an area tucked in the green hills above Lucea, in the parish of Hanover. Blenheim used to be owned by a Scotsman in the 19th century.
For all the times I’d visited Jamaica since 2007, I had never heard of Blenheim, nor been to this area to see this “museum” revealing the history of Bustamante’s trajectory. The roads were allegedly bad to get up here, according to a reader’s letter to my editor at Rough Guides UK.
I made the journey with a local driver who also had no idea this place existed. We stopped at numerous gas stations trying to get the right “directions” – and it wasn’t until I had the idea to stop at the police station in downtown Lucea that we found out how to get there. A female officer was the only one who knew; we made our way up, laughing at the adventure of discovering Jamaica, which never seems to end.
Bustamante’s home stands here, renovated in part and the entire property well maintained by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. The kitchen displays some of the old kitchen tools, and the main house holds an exhibit of his complete life journey, from extensive travels abroad in his 20s and 30s, including to Panama, Cuba and the US to returning to Jamaica where he remarried for the third and last time and became an activist. He was a defender of workers’ rights, eventually founding the Jamaica Labour Party. At 78, he became Jamaica’s Prime Minister.
Bustamante isn’t without controversy, however, and many Jamaicans will tell you about his iron fist against Rastafari starting with the “Bad Friday” incident – the 1963 beatings, abuse and cutting off of locks of over 100 Rastas in Coral Gardens, near Montego Bay. They had been randomly rounded up as suspects by police after a deadly incident in the area. These early years were also said to have launched a discriminatory system targeting Rastafari in Jamaica. In 2017, current Prime Minister Holness made a public apology and instituted reparations for survivors who suffered from the 1963 incidents.
Knowing the past of your Caribbean destination before you begin your trip will lead you to sights that aren’t necessarily sold as tours but lead to unexpected adventures and finds on the island. Knowing the Caribbean beyond its sand and sea also makes you a more conscious traveler and it’s what being an immersive, cultural visitor is all about. The next time you’re in Montego Bay or Negril, take a day drive up to Blenheim for the scenery and to learn about Jamaica’s independence and its first Prime Minister. You’ll get a guided tour with your entrance fee to this heritage site.
Happy Independence Day to Jamaica, to all Jamaicans around the globe and to those of us who love the island of wood and wata.