Fri | Aug 14, 2020

UWI can help with Port Royal development plan

Published:Sunday | November 10, 2019 | 12:29 AMEnrique Okenve - Contributor -

A section of Fort Charles, Port Royal.
A section of Fort Charles, Port Royal.

U niversity of the West Indies (UWI) academics are often accused of living in an ivory tower – the “intellectual ghetto” of the late ‘Motty’ Perkins – because we seem out of touch with the “real world” and the concerns of the “man on the street”. Such an indictment may seem most acute when it comes to describing the work of historians and archaeologists with their heads perpetually buried inside the sand of the past, never with the eyes in the present, let alone contemplating the future.

While such an indictment denotes little understanding of the work that we do in the Department of History and Archaeology at The UWI, Mona, in some ways it does reflect that we have not participated in many of the crucial public debates that, for the past few decades, have captured the attention of many Jamaican citizens. Admittedly, we should have taken a more visible stance, especially because we understand, perhaps better than anyone else, that societies cannot build a viable future without an introspective look into their pasts.

Today, we wish to start making amends and take a public stance on something which for all of us feels very close to home – the past – but that can say so much about what kind of society we want to be. We are referring to Port Royal and the Government of Jamaica’s plan to build a floating pier capable of accommodating cruise ships to attract tourists and revenue to Port Royal and the wider Jamaica (but we could also be referring to the Government’s equally problematic treatment of Jamaica’s heritage at White Marl’s Taíno settlement and the natural and cultural heritage of the Cockpit Country).

When last August 21 The Gleaner published the article, ‘Port Royal Floating Pier Not Viable Now’, we expected to see some sort of Government response to the reasonable problems highlighted by Ainsley Henriques, former chairman of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT). After all, Henriques occupied a prominent position in Jamaica’s leading institution for the “promotion, preservation, and development of our material cultural heritage”, as the JNHT mission statement reads. Instead, we have learned that the Government, through the Port Authority of Jamaica and the Urban Development Corporation, is going full steam ahead with the plan to build the floating pier with little regard for the impact that this is likely to have on the fragile ecosystem of the area, the rich built and archaeological heritage and the citizens of Port Royal who will have to share the inadequate infrastructure with the cruise ship visitors.


While we all understand the Government’s need to generate economic resources that can benefit all citizens, it must be stated that so-called development cannot be pursued at all cost. Beyond the outdated mid-20th century notion of generating hard currency, development today is no longer conceived without taking into account a wide variety of issues, such as environmental protection, cultural heritage preservation or citizen participation. By using a wide and inclusive notion of development, we can better ensure that most citizens benefit from developmental policies that will stand the test of time.

The Government appears determined to monetise Port Royal’s natural and heritage resources without realising that, as it stands, its plan can seriously undermine the town’s fragile ecosystem as well as its rich but dilapidated built and archaeological heritage. It is somewhat surprising that the town’s rich history is at the centre of the Government’s plan to attract tourists, yet the Department of History and Archaeology at The UWI has not been included in any discussions leading to the design and implementation of this project. We have the knowledge and expertise to ensure the development of an attractive heritage product that accurately represents Jamaica’s rich history, avoiding overly simplistic and gimmicky narratives of the past that might enthuse foreign visitors but not contribute to the education of Jamaica’s citizens. This may sound as yet another elevated appeal from our ivory tower, but it is not. Yes, we do believe in the value of history to develop a 21st century citizenry aware of its journey through time, knowledgeable of the challenges of the present and equipped with the perspective and critical thinking to hold their elected representatives to account. But we also believe that a successful heritage tourism product puts its citizens at the centre, just like the Museum of African American History and Culture in the United States or the Apartheid Museum in South Africa do.

We are deeply concerned with the ongoing project to use Port Royal as a tourism attraction, but we believe that we are still on time to make amends and implement a plan that has greater regard for Port Royal’s residents, takes much better care of the town’s rich heritage and creates a product that Jamaicans can feel proud of and visitors will be attracted to. The end result should be one in which the citizens of Port Royal become the main beneficiaries while academics and heritage practitioners can continue unearthing the town’s historical treasures and educating Jamaicans and the world about the town’s rich history, its significance in the present and the lessons for the future.

n Enrique Okenve, PhD, is head of the Department of History and Archaeology, The University of the West Indies, Mona