(Falmouth is a new cruise port of call in Jamaica; tourism facilities are being built, and the town is getting a bit of a makeover. It's a little rough around the edges, but a decidedly authentic experience in what was once an important port in English Colonial times.*)
Uncovering the Past at
Walking Tour Reveals Touches of 17th and 18th Century Jamaica
By Lizz Dinnigan
Sipping a hibiscus cooler on a Caribbean-blue beach while listening to Bob Marley singing "Redemption Song" is how most visitors envision Jamaica.
But Jamaica’s roots lie much deeper than its powdery, white sand and its reggae heritage. Its history can be evidenced in the nearly 100 sugar plantations that once dotted the island’s countryside and in the English colonial port of Falmouth.
Sandwiched between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on the north coast, Falmouth in the late 18th and 19th centuries was not only an economic force due to sugar cultivation, it was a center for social change.
The town actually served as the birthplace of the slavery abolition movement in the 1830s. In fact, the cellars of several buildings that still stand today were used as underground tunnels in the Black Market slave trade.
And it’s hard to believe -- but true -- that this small island enclave had running water before New York City did!
New Cruise Port of Call
These are just a few of the fascinating facts you’ll learn when visiting Falmouth’s historic district, now accessible to visitors thanks to a partnership between Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and the Port Authority of Jamaica.
The two entities have developed a multi-million dollar cruise port terminal in Falmouth.
Opened in March, the terminal provides a gateway to Jamaica’s interior, as well as a historic city rarely seen by tourists — until now.
On our western Caribbean sailing onboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas in June, one port call was at Falmouth. (In the photo above, the ship is shown docked at the new cruise pier.*)
Although the port facility was still under construction, we enjoyed strolling among the lively food and handicraft stalls. We sampled fresh coconut water and sugar cane.
Plans for the multi-phased revitalization Falmouth project include the new two-berth pier, a transportation center, and a 120,000-square-foot village with restaurants and shops designed in the local Georgian architectural style.
Eventually cruisers may expect to see on-site attractions, and hotel and residential developments.
Ongoing Restoration and Preservation
The other aspect of this collaboration is the restoration and preservation of the town’s historic sites.
Falmouth is home to many original prominent houses and public buildings that have remained intact through the centuries, having survived damage from revolts and hurricanes.
(A Falmouth home with an open fire, outdoor kitchen in the rear is shown at right.*)
To protect these existing structures from demolition, the Jamaican government designated the district a National Monument in 1966. Today, however, it remains on World Monuments Fund's "100 Most Endangered Sites Watch List."
To help change that status, the Falmouth Heritage Renewal charitable organization trains local students in woodworking, crafting, masonry and other traditional skills, and then employs them to authentically restore these historic sites.
The port area is connected by a walkway to the existing 240-year-old streetscape of Falmouth. As one of the first Caribbean shipping ports, the historic city was once a wealthy hub of activity used to export sugar, coffee and rum.
In a sadder era of history, tens of thousands of slaves also passed through this port en route to the Caribbean’s sugar plantations.
Into the Past ... on a Falmouth Walking Tour
Today, Falmouth’s fortune lies in its heritage, culture and history.
We explored the town on a two-hour shore excursion called the “Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour,” offered by Royal Caribbean Cruises. We booked it online before the cruise.
Operated by Falmouth Heritage Walks, this tour is an affordable $25 per adult and $19 per child over 6. It’s just one of 60 or more excursions offered from the port.
Departing from the pier, our group of 12 walked leisurely into the town’s historic grid of streets. The guide provided us with headsets so we could hear easily over the street noise.
Eight departures of the walking tour were available during the eight hours we were in port.
(Lizz Dinnigan is shown in the photo at right, admiring the local flora.*)
Passengers may choose a departure that best suits their schedule or combine the walking tour with another short tour.
Although children are welcome, my perspective is that this tour really isn’t appropriate for young children.
The walk is about two miles, although they are considering a shorter tour in the future.
If you go, definitely wear comfortable shoes and put on sunblock. The tour company provided bottles of water.
For those in a wheelchair, this tour is not yet suitable. “We are waiting for the sidewalks to be improved,” noted Marina Delfos of Falmouth Heritage Walks. “It hasn’t been rehabilitated as it should. It was once the richest port, but that hasn’t flowed into town yet.”
You can explore Falmouth on your own, but “I wouldn’t recommend walking alone,” says Delfos. “Be a smart tourist. There are dodgy areas you shouldn’t be in. Plus, you won’t get the information and insight we give.”
The Walking Tour Route
Our tour guide, Shaunakaye Francis, led us around Falmouth. We began along Market Street and then headed onto Duke Street.
We made a right on Pitt Street, a right on Cornwall Street, a left on Queen Street, a left on Lower Harbor Street, a right on Princess Street, and then turned down King Street back to our starting point.
An interesting tidbit that applies to the district is the origin of the architecture. There’s a high concentration of Georgian architecture that has been adapted to local conditions to create a unique island style.
Residents have lived in and maintained many of these small board houses, stores and churches. Some were even used as safe houses for escaped slaves.
The following are the places of interest on our tour.
The Grand Courthouse: Completed in 1817, the Grand Courthouse (shown in the photo above*) was built on the former site of Fort Balcarres. The building mirrored the town’s prominence and the wealth of its citizens.
The courthouse was destroyed by a fire in 1926 and rebuilt in 1939 using the shell that remained. The exterior was resurfaced in traditional lime wash.
“At one time, it was one of the grandest buildings on the island,” said Francis. “Women did dances here and sewed fireflies into their gowns to light them up.”
Arleigh House: Further down Market Street is the Arleigh House (shown at right*).
After emancipation, the freed slaves, many of whom were women and remained in Falmouth, purchased land on Market Street and built wooden cottages that still exist today.
“The Arleigh House, built in 1795, was originally owned by free colonial women,” she said. “Edward Barrett, the great developer of Falmouth, was the main contributer."
The Arleigh House was owned by his relatives and turned into a music school.
Baptist Manse: Next we approached Baptist Manse, which was originally built in 1798 as a masonry out of ballast stones from England.
It was sold to the Baptist missionary in 1834 because of debts acquired during its construction.
Featuring gothic arches and a stylized portico, the building was said to be a residence of Baptist missionary William Knibb.
Later, it became the William Knibb High School. Today it’s the home and school of Falmouth Heritage Renewal.
“Students who come here to study the history of Falmouth stay on the upper floor of the manse,” Francis said.
Pink Building: A block away is a now-pink-trimmed building.
“It was owned by two carpenters [of African descent] who had slaves and had children with those slaves,” said Francis.
She emphasized that it was rare for people of African descent to own their own slaves.
This pink building has since been passed on to future generations of the original family.
Falmouth Book Place: Some houses and stores viewed on the walking tour have basements that were once used in the Black Market slave trade.
Originally an apothecary, Falmouth Book Place is connected to an underground tunnel system used to move slaves.
Our guide took us down the stairs of the shop for a look.
Although the tunnel system entrances have been sealed, visitors still can envision the unsettling, clandestine nature of the black market slave trade.
Visiting this spot was definitely an eye-opening experience for me.
It’s so difficult – and terribly sad -- to comprehend what went on here 200-plus years ago.
Water Square: In the center of this Falmouth shopping square stands an original clock tower and a fountain, which was once a water wheel.
As Falmouth developed into a prosperous and progressive place to live at the beginning of the 19th century, the water wheel was replaced with the first piped water-supply system in the Western Hemisphere.
Fresh water was piped in from the nearby Martha Brae River to a tank in the square. From there, it was pumped to the surrounding houses.
Club Nazz Restaurant: The former site of the courthouse, today this coral-colored building with a blue awning is a restaurant.
It serves up local Jamaican cuisine such as jerk chicken.
Club Nazz comes highly recommended by many locals.
Tropical Trees: Sounds strange but the guide’s anecdotal comments about the local tropical trees were as fascinating to me as some of the historic sites.
She told us the fruit of the breadfruit tree (shown at left*) was used as meat for slaves.
And, because it has an unpleasant odor, the soapy noni fruit (shown above right*) wasn’t used as food. Instead, it was used for medicinal purposes and also to wash the slaves’ clothes.
William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church: On this site on July 31, 1838, the eve of slavery emancipation, Baptist missionary William Knibb declared: “The monster is dead; the negro is free.”
Immediately afterward, a pair of shackles were buried in a coffin on the church property.
The headstone poignantly reads: “Colonial Slavery Died 31 July 1838, age 276 years.”
Knibb, who came from England to Jamaica in 1824 and moved to Falmouth in 1830, was a strong abolitionist who led the anti-slavery movement.
He established schools to educate slaves and encouraged them to join the Baptist church. He founded 35 churches on the island. (His Baptist church is shown at right.*)
Falmouth Parish Church of St. Peter the Apostle: As our guide mentioned earlier in the tour, Edward Moulton Barrett, patriarch of England’s famed Barrett family, arrived from England in the late 1700s.
He was the grandfather of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the famous English poet who was married to poet Robert Browning.
Falmouth was carved from his sizable land holdings. He sold land to his planter friends, developed his own plantation and kept the prime waterfront property for himself.
But he also donated land for the town’s courthouse, church and public gardens.
Visitors taking the walking tour will view St. Peter the Apostle Anglican church (shown above*), which today is the oldest public building in the town.
Incredibly, the church still boasts its original square tower clockworks, stained glass, interior pulpit, chancel, baptismal font and box pews.
Supporting columns are solid mahogany. (In the photo at right, my husband Joe sits on one of the original pews.*)
The lovely floor features Christian crosses inlaid with mahogany, as well as mahoe, a tropical tree that has blue-green wood.
As for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, while she expressed a desire in her poetry to see Jamaica and was bequeathed Falmouth-area plantation holdings from her uncle, her frail health prevented her from sailing to the Caribbean.
Jewish Cemetery: In the 18th century, Jamaica had a significant Jewish population, as Jews were freely permitted to practice their religion on the island.
“Jews [gained] civil liberties in Jamaica in 1831,” says Delfos. “This oldest cemetery on the island is about 200 years old.”
Fort Balcarres: As we arrived at a primary school, our guide explained this was once the site of a military complex called Fort Balcarres.
It was erected to protect Falmouth’s seafaring trade from Spanish invaders and drunken sailors.
The problem? Cannon fire in town was both noisy and dangerous; the fiery shots would often land on the roofs of homes and public buildings.
So the complex was relocated, and a primary school (shown above*) was built in its place in 1802.
Tour goers will view one of Jamaica’s oldest schools.
A piece of history remains; a cannon occupies the schoolyard.
(The schoolyard cannon is viewable in the photo at right.*)
Beyond Falmouth Town
While that concluded our tour, cruisers may find many other shore trips at this port. To glean knowledge about life on the sugar plantations, visitors might book a tour to Good Hope, Rose Hall or Greenwood, all former plantations, now with restored "great houses" for visitors to tour.
Just a few miles south of Falmouth is Good Hope. Owned by John Tharp, this 2,000-acre property reigned as the area’s largest plantation in 1800.
Tharp accumulated thousands of acres and slaves by purchasing several neighboring estates. Visitors will tour the great house, peruse such outbuildings as kitchens, warehouses and old sugar-processing structures, and view ruins of an aqueduct.
Good Hope is a starting point for many, more extensive shore excursions. Combination tours offered by Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines from Falmouth might include a Good Hope visit and an ATV safari, rainforest zipline experience or river tubing adventure, to name just a few of the options.
Cruisers also might book a tour from Falmouth to the sites of Montego Bay or Ochos Rios. One of the most popular Jamaican shore trips is a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, where climbers make a hand-holding chain to ascend the waterfall.
Or, alternatively, it’s great fun to board a 30-foot-long bamboo raft and float down the Martha Brae River. Still, Falmouth has its own draws.
If You Go...
Just remember that Falmouth town itself is still a bit of a “jewel within the rough” in terms of its look. Renovations are ongoing throughout town. Yet, not all historic buildings can be fixed at once.
Time and patience are needed. So look beyond the surface flaws and you'll discover a fascinating culture and history. Many historic structures remain, so walking through historic Falmouth town is an authentic experience, something not found in all Caribbean ports.
You'll find places to buy Jamaican crafts, jerk and hot sauces, sundries and souvenirs.
(A photo of the sauces we found at one shop is shown at left.*)
However, some visitors to Falmouth have complained about aggressive vendors. I must say we didn't have this issue.
Hassling tourists is an ongoing problem in several areas of Jamaica, though, and the government says it’s working to address this issue.
To avoid much of that, I’d just recommend taking either the group walking tour with an accredited guide, or alternatively, a horse-and-carriage tour in Falmouth.
For many Caribbean cruise guests who have “been-there, done-that” in so many ports in the region, Falmouth is an exciting new destination experience. That alone is a big plus.
Once the richest port south of Charleston, SC in the 18th and 19th centuries, Falmouth today is, yes, a bit of a wall flower in need of a makeover.
But it's also highly authentic. A walking tour with a qualified guide who can point out key sites and tell tales of the town's colorful past is a great way to bring history alive.
Lizz Dinnigan is senior contributing editor-family cruising for SouthernCruising.com. She formerly worked as associate editor – cruise for Travel Agent magazine, a major national weekly travel trade magazine.
*All photos used above are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Lizz Dinnigan. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.