History of Kingston

Mother Earth Travel > Jamaica > Kingston > History

If there was a prize handed out for tenacity among the world's cities, Kingston would be up there with the winners. A real survivor, this hardy metropolis has risen like a phoenix from fires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Kingston survives in spite of its grossly exaggerated reputation as a dangerous city of tenuously reined-in chaos. Because of that reputation, most tourists stick to the holiday destinations of the north coast. Ironically, though you will undoubtedly see something of the rough edges of this town, the hustlers who plague the tourist centres of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay are relatively sparse in Kingston.

Kingston was founded at the end of the 17th century as a refuge for survivors of a devastating earthquake that had hit Jamaica, and that all but destroyed Port Royal, a large town on the opposite side of the harbor. Before the earthquake, the Kingston area housed little more than a few pig farmers and fishing shacks. Earthquake survivors set up homesteads, and very shortly plans were drawn up for a new town to be laid out beside the water and to be named in honour of the British king, William of Orange.

By the early 18th century, Kingston's natural harbour enabled the city to flourish as an important seaport. The traders who grew fat on the profits built fine town houses throughout the city, and freed slaves and immigrant workers flooded in, hoping to share in the city's boom. Some hundred years later, when Kingston finally received recognition as the island's capital, the rich had gravitated towards uptown Kingston and the northern outskirts, and the poorer population huddled in shantytowns on the edges of the old town.

Calamities plagued the city's early years, changing the look of the city: a massive hurricane in 1784, an enormous fire in 1843, a cholera epidemic in 1850, fire again in 1862, and the devastating earthquake of 1907 that destroyed nearly all the buildings south of Parade. The largely destitute population of the downtown area helped swell the Rastafarian movement during the 1920s and '30s. Major riots during the Depression '30s gave rise to the development of trade unions and political parties set up to represent the workers and the dispossessed. But improvements in housing and working conditions were slow in coming. Not until the 1960s did this vibrant city see any tangible change. The much needed facelift given to the old downtown area, together with the expansion and redevelopment of the waterfront area, coincided with Kingston's growing international fame as a centre of reggae music. Shops and offices emerged during this facelift (casualties of which included the once famous Myrtle Bank Hotel and Knutsford Racetrack--now New Kingston--and Victoria Market, where vendors had plied their goods every Sunday for over 100 years), as well as wide boulevards and multi-story buildings. But for the people of West Kingston, this development was seen as primarily superficial - and the 1970s and 1980s proved tense times politically.

Today, Kingston is something of a divided city. The wealthy largely live in the smart suburbs to the north, travelling in to work in the relatively sanitised zone of New Kingston, and rarely venturing downtown. But there are hopes that the city's politicians are beginning to address the problems of the ghettos, gangs and party factions. This comes coupled with proposals for tourist development, with the return of cruise ships being the priority.