Fontabelle Great House
The Rise of the Modern Banana Industry
The Fontabelle Great House, sits in the center of a former banana plantation. Until the late 1800s, the crown colony of Jamaica was wholly depended on sugar exports. The economic terrain was dramatically altered in 1870 when Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker, an American sailor, exported 160 bunches of bananas from Jamaica to New Jersey during an 11-day voyage. Baker’s enterprise, the first commercial transport of tropical bananas to temperate zones, became the Boston Fruit Company in 1885, the United Fruit Company in 1899, and Chiquita Brands International in 1990. By the close of the 19th Century, the Boston Fruit Company owned 35 Jamaican plantations covering more than 40,000 acres. Perhaps the banana plantation surrounding the Fontabelle Great House is part of the Boston Fruit Company story.
The Search for the Fontabelle Great House
I turned off the main road, into the Fontabelle neighborhood only to head up the wrong road. I stopped to ask a group of men the location of the great house, and a man named Patrick volunteered to lead me to the house. After turning around in the one lane road, we headed back down the hill to a lightly used track and then up another hill. The entrance to the property is marked by two yellow columns topped with white peaked pier caps. The columns are flanked by mature royal palm trees painted yellow up to the height of the columns. A winding dirt road led to a great house that appears only recently abandoned by its owners, perhaps within the last decade.
The two of us hiked up the hill, passing a swimming pool now serving as an overgrown tree pot. We climbed the steps to the front porch where we met an elderly woman who directed us to the other side of the house. We entered the Fontabelle through the kitchen into what must have been a beautiful house. Today, it has become a squatter apartment for several families. While these squatters were the poorest of the poor, their presence was not uncommon. In 2009, the Ministry of Water and Housing released findings of a study claiming that 20% of Jamaica’s population–nearly 600,000 today–are residential squatters. Combined with squatters in commercial and agricultural areas, the island has an estimated 1 million squatters, a reality that prompted the government to establish a Squatter Management Unit in 2006.
The fan lights perched atop the Fontabelle’s interior doors characterize the Jamaican Georgian architectural style which adapted the Georgian style to the Caribbean climate. In Britain, the fan lights would have included glass. In Jamaica, air flow was more important. Graffiti on one of the bedroom walls read, “O Lord, I need money.” Aside from old bed mattresses, hanging laundry, and a few cooking items in the kitchen, the house was relatively empty. We walked out on the front porch, hemmed in by a delicate (and rusting) banister. I could imagine the great view of the past, looking out over the lush acres of banana trees.
After touring the great house, Patrick took me down the hill to the edge of Jacks River. I visited the defunct water wheel in the mill and the attendant box plant where the owners boxed bananas. All wooden parts of the buildings have long since disappeared and just the stone walls and steel water wheel are left. Patrick would be glad to give you a tour for a modest fee. I hope to find out more about the Fontabelle great house as I study the history of Jamaica.