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How Jamaica’s plan for ‘grief tourism’ will restore slave trade sites

Tharp House, in Falmouth
Tharp House, in Falmouth, was once the home of John Tharp, the island's largest slave owner - Sukimac Photography

Cruise liners dominate the skyline of the Jamaican town of Falmouth as the holidaying passengers rush off eager for sun and sand, which dominate tourism on the island.

But in the shadow of hulking Royal Caribbean vessels are the wharfs where African slaves once alighted, never to re-embark, along with the crumbling houses and offices where the brutal business of slavery was tallied.

Most of Jamaica’s three million annual visitors will pass by these Georgian relics of Britain’s slave economy, and the history that goes with it.

There are now plans to entice “dark tourists” who seek out sites of suffering – and decaying architectural gems may be saved in the process.

The industry of “grief tourism” has drawn visitors – and cash – to sites from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the shell-pocked streets of Sarajevo, and the growing taste for seeing the scene of horrors known from the news or history books has not gone unnoticed in Jamaica.

Edmund Bartlett, the country’s minister of tourism, has authored a book titled Decoding the Future of Tourism Resilience, which includes a chapter on the potential of more morbid destinations.

Edmund Bartlett
Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica's minister for tourism - John Parra/Getty

He has told The Telegraph that he is looking at the potential of Jamaica as a destination for those seeking to see and understand the inequities of slavery. The country’s slave economy produced fortunes in sugar during Britain’s 300-year rule.

The politician with the Right-leaning Labour Party said that he is working closely with the ministry of culture and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust to ensure “conservation work and restoration for historic sights and monuments” linked to the colonial past.

In Falmouth, one project is already underway. The Port Authority, a Jamaican government agency, is paying for the renovation of a dockside house that belonged to John Tharp (1744-1804), the largest slave owner on the island, with around 2,500.

The gutted 230-year-old townhouse is being restored to its original Georgian splendour, with the express purpose of becoming a museum telling the story of Tharp’s business and the influence of slavery on the island, where tourists and locals could be happy to forget it.

Gutted shell of Tharp House with people working on it
Under reconstruction: Tharp House - Sukimac Photography

This process of conservation has pleased groups like the Friends of the Georgian Society of Jamaica, who have long advocated for the 18th-century architectural gems of Falmouth, and Jamaica in general, to be preserved. And preservation and touristic profit can go hand in hand.

Tharp’s slaves would have been transported from the docks to his vast upland estate of Good Hope inland, where an elegant plantation residence sits above the forest cloud, and where Georgian bridges, sugar works, a water mill and bridge all survive.

The sugar cane of Good Hope has given way to a 2,000-acre citrus and coconut farm bought by Jamaican businessman Tony Hart, and inherited by his son Blaise, who has worked to conserve the historic site and make it profitable.

“There were six people working here when my father bought it, and now there are close to 100,” he says. “Good Hope needed a lot of restoration, that was a journey in itself.”

Blaise Hart stood in front of the mansion
Blaise Hart, Good Hope's present owner - Sukimac Photography

Now a profitable destination for weddings and psychedelic mushroom retreats, the estate founded in 1744 also includes an almost-unique example of a surviving slave village: crude settlements that have largely vanished without a trace elsewhere on the island.

The “grief tourist” can gaze on the buildings that defined the lives of the enslaved: the squat stone foundations of their tiny dwellings, the burned-out ruins of the hospital where they were treated, the boiling house where they processed sugar cane into crystals, and offices of those directing their labour.

At the “great house” – where Tharp once lived – verandahs, jalousies and sash windows show how homes were designed to keep the plantocracy cool in the tropical heat.

Mr Hart has suggested that the draw of grief tourism for surviving and potentially unpopular plantation houses – many of which were burned down by rebel slaves led by Sam Sharpe in 1831 – could help to preserve these decaying architectural gems.

“There are definitely spots that have potential,” he said. “There are some gorgeous places.”

Lush green fields and trees
Good Hope is now home to a citrus and coconut farm - Lucinda Lambton/Bridgeman Images

Mr Hart counts as a neighbour the conservation expert Christopher Ohrstrom, the son of the late Mary, Viscountess Rothermere and former head of the World Monuments Fund, who has invested in preserving Falmouth’s colonial heritage.

The US investor told The Telegraph that it is difficult to stray from Jamaica’s offer of “rum and reggae”, but added that Bartlett is a “savvy guy”, and the heritage tourism centred on Britain’s slavery “has potential” to make money and preserve British historical buildings that could otherwise fall into ruin.

He concedes, however, that it can be difficult to justify funding the preservation of what some in Jamaica see as “monuments to oppression”, and the Jamaican conservation architect Peter Francis claims: “There is a stigma about preserving certain types of heritage. There’s a whole debate about reparations, and there is more interest in preserving things that relate to immediate Jamaican heritage, Bob Marley and so on.”

Peregrine Bryant, a British architect working to support conservation in Jamaica, believes that, like the Colosseum “many buildings of past shame are treasured in the world today” and that they can be a “resource for tourism”.

The tourism potential has been reflected in a number of projects now in the pipeline which will have at their heart the darker history of Jamaica. Once captured from the Spanish in the 1650s, the island became first a den of piracy and then Britain’s biggest sugar producer, requiring the importation of 600,000 African slaves before the trade was abolished in 1807.

Port Royal, the former capital and first point of entry for many slaves until a 1692 earthquake, is set to become the site of a new state-of-the-art museum space costing £3 million which can put the artefacts of colonial rule on display, with funding coming again from the Port Authority.

“People go to Port Royal for rum and fish today,” says Jonathan Greenland, the British director of the National Museum Jamaica. “But it was the centre of British colonial life.  Slaves worked the docks there.”

He added: “Slavery is seen in everything here, in relationships, in culture, in health, in the sense of humour. It has had an influence. It’s important people learn about this history, in Jamaica, and in Britain. There is the potential to tell this story here, where slavery was once so central.”

Mr Greenland’s office in downtown Kingston will oversee future phases of this project which will aim to conserve the potential sights of the British Naval Hospital that served sailors keeping the colonies in check, and a 17th-century women’s gaol.

A new museum focusing on another dark episode in Jamaican history will be placed in the renovated remains of the Morant Bay courthouse.

It was here, in 1865, that rebels led by the preacher Paul Bogle burned down the courthouse, precipitating a rebellion that was controversially put down by governor Edward John Eyre at the cost of 400 lives, including women and children.

Mr Bartlett believes that visitors, who bring in £3 billion to Jamaica’s economy, can face the past where it is presented, be it in ruins, grand houses or new museums.

He said: “The values of that period did not see it as an evil, but saw it as an entrepreneurial activity, in the same way that we see manufacturing and buying a smartphone. The next generation may see us as awful people. So we have to be careful sometimes of how we make that characterisation, and make demands of the past.

“The other thing is that the past makes the future and helps define you. You can’t change that definition, what you can do is to improve on it, and make it better for the next generation.”