The history of Westmoreland is quite vivid and interesting, more so because the major towns have their individual and unique histories and legacies that all contribute to the richness of the parish’s past.
Savanna-la-Mar, a Spanish settlement, was declared the parish capital in 1730. Sabana-de-la-Mar, the Spanish name for the town, means “the plain by the sea”. During English occupation of the island, the “de” was dropped and the name became Savanna-la-Mar. Sometimes this is abbreviated to Sav-la-Mar.
Flanked by swamps on both sides Savanna-la-Mar was developed as a port facility because of its south coast location that facilitated the shipping of sugar and other products during the peak production periods.
The town was destroyed by hurricane 18 years after it was declared the parish capital. According to Bryan Edwards, in 1748 “the sea bursting its ancient limits overwhelmed the unhappy town and swept it to instant destruction, leaving not a vestige of man, beast or habitation behind. So sudden and comprehensive was the stroke that I think the catastrophe on Savanna-la-Mar was even more terrible, in many respects, than that of Port Royal.”
In 1790, 1912 and1979 the town was destroyed by hurricanes and tidal waves, and many people died. Following these disasters, famine and pestilence plagued the town. However, the people of Savanna-la-Mar quickly rebuilt the town each time and today it is a centre of commercial activity along the south coast.
Most of the history of Negril, formerly Punta Negrilla, has to do with the part it played in different wars. Because ships were always under attack from enemies, those traveling to England always traveled in convoys, arranging to meet at a safe spot. The chosen spot was Negril.
The British used Long Bay at Negril to ambush their enemies. Quite often, they attacked Spanish ships that were on their way to Cuba.
Negril also has a strong association with Admiral Benbow who fought bravely in the war between England and France. This hero of war gathered his ships at Negril to sail out and attack the French. It is also from this point that British ships sailed during the war of 1812.
The Spanish saw Negril as a place for commanding sea power. In 1582 the Marques de Villa Lobbos, Abbot of Jamaica, described Jamaica as being “of very good and commodious ports, deep and spacious enough to hold 200 sail, such as Negril”.
The Legend of Calico Jack Rackham
The history of Negril is also closely associated with the popular legend of Calico Jack Rackham. The legend tells the tale of a young lady, Anne, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in Charleston, South Carolina who left her lifestyle of comfort to marry a sailor by the name of James Bonney. After the marriage, however, her enraged father disinherited her.
To escape the vengeance of his father-in-law, Bonney fled with his bride to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas that was then a haven to more than 1,000 pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham.
However, soon after the couples’ arrival Calico Jack quickly wooed Anne and shortly after, they put together a crew of pirates and set sail together.
Soon after their retreat, the couple’s ship, bearing the booty of a recently plundered Spanish vessel, dropped anchor at Negril Bay. However, unaware to Calico Jack, they were being followed by a boat captained by one Barnet who, along with his men, boarded the pirates’ ship and launched an attack. The pirates were soon defeated and the ship came under Barnet’s control.
Calico Jack and his crew were tried and condemned to death at a court of Vice-Admiralty in Spanish Town. He was executed at Gallows Point on the Palisadoes strip in Kingston and his body gibbetted on the cay off the coast of Port Royal, named after him as a warning to other pirates.
Today, two centuries later, scuba divers are still searching for the wreckage of Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate ship. This wreckage along with beautiful marine life, has attracted scuba enthusiasts to Negril for many years.
Numerous rivers and streams provide water to the parish. The parish lies on the Georges Plains and is drained by the Cabaritta River, which can accommodate boats weighing up to 8 eight tons for 12 miles. Among the many rivers are: Negril River which is 5.3 kilometres long, New Savanna, Morgans Gut, Smithfield, Bowens, Bluefields, Robins, Roaring, Great, Deans which is 17.1 kilometres long and Cabaritta River which is 39.7 kilometres long. Other rivers are the Roaring and Great Rivers (not to be confused with rivers of similar names in other parishes).
Bus service in Westmoreland is provided by individuals and companies who operate licensed buses on scheduled routes. Buses from Savanna-la-Mar and Negril travel to Black River, Kingston, Mandeville, Falmouth, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, St. Ann’s Bay and Spanish Town traveling as far as 181miles.
The original road network for the island was developed in the 18th Century as a belt following the coastline and encircling the island. Road types in Westmoreland include arterial, secondary and tertiary roads. One of the roads which was developed in the 18th Century links Savanna-la-Mar to Montego Bay by way of Whithorn at an elevation of 1000 feet.
One of Jamaica’s inactive ports is Savanna-la-Mar that was established as a shipping station for sugar and bananas in the 17th Century.
Rainfall is the primary source of water resources enabling the collection of direct rainwater, surface water and ground water. The National Water Commission (NWC) utilizes the surface and ground water resources as the major source of water supply to the parish. 84.1% of the population receives drinking water from National Water Commission.
The Cabarita River and the Great River provide 6,852 milligrams cubic feet of water each year and this is used in both urban and rural locations for agriculture and other private industries as well as exported to other parishes.
The Savanna-la-Mar Hospital provides healthcare to the parish as well as sections of St. Elizabeth and Hanover.
There are 20 health centers in the parish
Sugar sane production has been the mainstay of the agriculture economy and is supported by the rainfall and fertile soil. Frome Sugar Factory in Westmoreland was built in 1938 and marks the beginning of the present era of sugar production, with the growth of factories throughout the island and an increase in production. Frome is classified as one of the three leading sugar-producing areas in Jamaica.
Rice was once grown on the marshlands for commercial use and with sugar cane provides a permanent income to small farmers. On the coast, the residents depend on fishing. Westmoreland has 19 fishing beaches with over 9900 fishing boats engaged in the industry. Crayfish and shrimp are obtained in large supply from the rivers.
Other crops produced include pimento, cocoa, with ginger and coffee cultivated in the highlands. The logwood and flowering trees in the parish provide a natural habitat for bee production. Major agricultural products include sugar, pimento (allspice), bananas, coffee and honey.
Agricultural activity, the leading source of income in Westmoreland, was challenged by tourism in the early 70s when Negril became the ideal place for tourism in the island.