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Jamaica: U-boats, Rum, and Refugees

By Saba Igbe
1/30/2012 • World War II Time Travel

Jamaica is best known for rum, reggae music, and its beach scene, but the easygoing Caribbean island had its share of wartime activity and intrigue. During the war there were at least a dozen major American military bases in the British West Indies—established as a hedge against the possibility of Britain’s Caribbean colonies becoming German possessions—and two major ones were on Jamaica. Between mid-1942 and 1943 there were roughly 10,000 American servicemen on the island, at Vernamfield Air Base and Goat Island Naval Base, as well as British, Canadian, and local forces—all mingling with European refugees, celebrities, and perhaps even a German spy or two. In 1941, German U-boats were active in the Caribbean, hunting ships crossing the Panama Canal, and there were a few instances of U-boat crews slipping onto the island for a bit of fun at Kingston’s famed nightspot, the Glass Bucket Club. The island mood was mostly serene, though the slowdown of rum and banana exports during the Great Depression had hobbled the economy, and several Germans who had become naturalized British citizens were rounded up amid the paranoia of a Nazi Fifth Column.

I’ve lived in Jamaica since 2001, but never really learned about the island’s history or its role in World War II. So last summer, I went looking for facilities that had served a wartime purpose. Many have already vanished. The local USO building, for instance, was located not far from where I live, but has been replaced by other structures. During the war, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, and other stars gave performances at the USO, entertaining American servicemen who flooded in from the bases. Even Eleanor Roosevelt visited the island to boost morale.

Other remnants are still around, but you have to search to find them. I started with a car trip to Fort Rocky, an early 20th century fortification used by British forces to protect the Kingston Harbor entrance. The fort is located in the Palisadoes, a narrow sandy peninsula that shields Kingston, near the quiet town of Port Royal. Fort Rocky fell into disuse after the war, and today it is little more than a crumbling husk of concrete and brick. Workers have been clearing the brush that was overtaking the remains, enabling visitors to examine what’s left of the relatively small structure. While waiting for my tour guide from the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, I climbed a flight of intact concrete stairs to look at the old barracks, where 82 officers lived. It was dark and barren and wet.

My guide, Sophia McDonald, arrived and showed me the rest of the grounds. With the Caribbean Sea roaring in the background, we walked beyond the walls and up a slope of tightly packed sand to the promontory where the fort’s five gun emplacements were located. Only one remains. In the 1940s, each had 6-inch coastal defense guns mounted so low they could hardly be seen from out at sea. No enemy ships ever attempted to attack the island, so the guns were fired only during range practice. McDonald said the trust is raising money and plans to restore the fort to its former state, though no timetable has been established. Fort Rocky seems too far-gone for restoration, but McDonald assured me that “with time it will get there.” Once the restoration is completed, the trust plans to open Fort Rocky to tourists.

On an August afternoon a few weeks later, I went to Up Park Camp, the headquarters of the Jamaica Defence Force. There, a sergeant took me to see the prison called Red Fence. It was a dreaded place during the war—and is still in use. Red Fence’s exterior apparently hasn’t changed much: the fence surrounding the detention center really is painted a shiny red, and is covered with barbed wire. During the war, it was here that those thought to be troublemakers—troops and prominent trade union leader Alexander Bustamante among them—were held. In 1940, with the Jamaican economy in shambles, Bustamante encouraged workers to strike. The governor, Arthur Richards, promptly had him arrested and held at Red Fence. After nearly a year and a half in prison, Bustamante was released. Two decades later, the man Governor Richards had deemed a threat would become Jamaica’s first prime minister.

A couple of days later, I visited the University of the West Indies, my alma mater. During the war its campus served as a refugee camp for residents of Gibraltar. In 1940, Britain feared that Spain would take over Gibraltar and decided to evacuate the entire civilian population. Most evacuees ended up in England; those destined for Jamaica began arriving in Kingston in October 1940. By the war’s end, Kingston’s Gibraltar Camp held nearly 2,000 civilians, including some refugees from Poland, Lithuania, and other parts of Europe. The evacuees were housed in wooden buildings that are still intact and functional. Today these buildings, contrasting starkly with the contemporary lecture rooms and offices, are exam rooms for students. I had taken tests in them myself, not knowing why a relatively new university maintained wooden structures from a bygone era.

A lot of what I now know about Jamaica’s war scene is courtesy of Merrick Needham, a British Jamaican who runs a logistics, ceremonial, and protocol consulting firm in Kingston. Needham’s mother was a Jamaican who had spent many years in Britain. Merrick and his mother were evacuated from Britain to Jamaica at the end of 1940, when he was 6. Needham remembers making the Atlantic crossing from Southampton to Kingston on a big merchant ship owned by an association of banana farmers. “The normal thing was for naval vessels to escort ships,” he explained, to protect them from German submarines. Their ship had no escort. But at 22 knots, the ship was fast. “It was safer,” Needham said. “It had a fighting chance.” As Needham recalls, they sailed for 12 days before reaching Kingston. On arrival, he and his mother stayed with an aunt. He went to school with many British students and teachers. There were hundreds of cars in Kingston at the time, but petrol was rationed. “We’d see three or four or five cars a day with the engines removed,” Needham said. “People would make a little carriage out of the car, with a mule, and a carriage man would carry his whip in the front seat.” I shook my head and laughed—typical Jamaican ingenuity. One day, when Needham was around 12, he heard “this great boom. And then there was another one and another one.” He wandered from his home and discovered a street party—with gun salutes. Jamaicans were celebrating the end of the war in Europe.

Perhaps ironically, the great global conflict proved a spur for the Caribbean independence movement. West Indians felt they did their part to stop Hitler—some 3,000 enlisted in the Royal Air Force between 1940 and 1942, for example—and in doing so suffered racial discrimination. But the loyalty many West Indians had for Britain evaporated after the war. They felt their sacrifices went unappreciated by their mother country. They also believed that after helping to fight a war for the freedom of others, they had the right to their own. Nationalists and trade unionists had become emboldened during the war, and in 1944 Jamaica achieved universal suffrage. Full independence from Britain would come in 1962. This year Jamaica will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. Now that I have a more complete knowledge of the island’s history, I’m eager to see what the next 50 years will bring.

Saba Igbe was born in Paris, France, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and now works as a freelance writer in Kingston, Jamaica. Her work has appeared in Rue Morgue and the Jamaica Observer. Igbe had never visited Jamaica before she settled there in 2001, and now loves learning about Jamaica’s history, culture, and geography.

When You Go
American Airlines flies direct to Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport.

Where to Stay and Eat
Most of Kingston’s best hotels are in New Kingston, the city’s business district. The Spanish Court Hotel (spanishcourthotel.com) is within walking distance of nightclubs, parks, a golf course, and restaurants. These restaurants are mostly affordable, and include everything from fast food joints to Asian fusion. For fast food with a Jamaican twist try Island Grill (59 Knutsford Blvd.), with outlets all over the city. For authentic Jamaican cuisine, including jerk chicken, venture farther out to Scotchies (2 Chelsea Ave.), or try the seafood at Starapples (94 Hope Rd.). For fine dining, Strawberry Hill Hotel is a very nice spot, but note: its prices increase during the winter season. (islandoutpost.com/strawberryhill).

What Else to See
The fully restored 19th-century Devon House, built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, is in Kingston. What’s left of the old city of Port Royal, half of which sank into the sea during an earthquake in 1692, is about 30 minutes from the capital.

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