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Black History Month: Kingston, Jamaica (1692-)

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February is Black History Month and this year marks the 400th anniversary that blacks were brought to Bermuda as indentured servants. Throughout this month, The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, was founded in July 1692, when an earthquake destroyed the nearby city of Port Royal. The most recent census puts its population at 937,700. Today Kingston is the centre of trade, manufacturing and shipping for the entire nation of Jamaica.

Before the 1692 earthquake, Port Royal, founded in 1518 by the Spanish on a spit of land off what is now Kingston Harbour, and captured by the English in 1655, was the major city in the area. The earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 2,000 of the town's 6,000 people. Most of the survivors moved inland to the other side of the harbour and founded Kingston.

Kingston was the largest town in Jamaica by 1716 and because of its deepwater harbour, it was also the centre of trade for the entire British colony. In 1775, Sir Charles Knowles, the British governor of the colony, moved all government offices from nearby Spanish Town to Kingston. Three years later, Kingston had a population of 26,478, which included 16,659 enslaved people. Slavery existed in Jamaica until 1833. Kingston was declared the official capital of the Colony of Jamaica in 1872.

In 1907, Kingston was struck by an earthquake that killed more than 800 people and destroyed nearly all of the buildings in the centre of the city. That earthquake led to a three-storey height restriction on all central business district structures and the requirement that they be built in reinforced concrete.

In 1914, two young Jamaicans, Marcus Garvey and his wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Kingston Market section of the city. Although Garvey left Jamaica two years later for the United States, where he settled in New York City, the Kingston-born UNIA eventually became the largest organisation in the world composed of people of African ancestry.

By the 1930s, Kingston residents formed a trade union movement that eventually became the driving force in the Jamaican independence campaign. In 1948, the city became the site of the Mona Campus of the University of West Indies, the first institution of higher learning in Jamaica.

When independence came in 1962, Kingston remained the capital of the new nation. At the time, its population was estimated at 350,000. By that point, the height restrictions were lifted and “New Kingston”, a downtown development of high-rise office buildings, became the financial centre of the island, while uptown became the site of Parliament and other government buildings.

By the early 1970s, reggae music emerged from Trench Town, a Kingston slum that produced singers such as Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. The name of the slum came from local residents who described the unpaved streets without sidewalks as trenches. Another Kingston residential section, Tivoli Gardens, became infamous as the scene of a May 27, 2010 massacre by Kingston police and Jamaican soldiers, who killed 76 residents while searching for reputed druglord Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

Although people of African ancestry are the vast majority of Kingston's citizens, there are significant minorities of East Indians, Chinese, Syrian and Lebanese residents. Edward Seaga, a Jamaican of Lebanese descent, served as the nation's fifth prime minister from 1980 to 1989.

Kingston attractions include the Museum of Jamaican Art, Emancipation Park, Mandela Park and the 2,000-acre Hope Royal Botanical Garden. The Bob Marley Museum located in uptown Kingston is the singer's former residence. The Athletic Track and Field Training Area was the site where world-famous athletes such as Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce trained before becoming Olympic champions.

• Sources: David Marley, “Kingston” in Historic Cities of the Americas (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006); Colin G. Clarke, Kingston, Jamaica: Urban Development and Social Change, 1692-1962 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); “The Structure and Development of Kingston, Jamaica,” http://www.smartyoung.com/cities/kingston/brief_history.htm

Trade hub: Kingston, Jamaica
Trade hub: Kingston, Jamaica

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Published February 29, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated February 29, 2016 at 10:55 am)

Black History Month: Kingston, Jamaica (1692-)

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