'Duppy' tales and history of a nation


Monday, December 31, 2018

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SHORT of good reading material this weekend I resorted to musing through some of my articles written for the newspapers over the years. Editors have been kind, for the most part, and readers been encouraging with their constructive criticism.

One good friend in New York took the mickey out of me by describing my columns as 'duppy stories': “Good duppy stories,” he parodied, “but, still, duppy stories.”

He may have been referring to a story I did once on the infamous “Mr Brown”. In the mid 1960s a rumour swept the country that a coffin was travelling around Jamaica accompanied by two John Crows who kept asking for a Mr Brown. Whenever news spread that it was parked in a village or town square, crowds would rush to the scene in order to report that they were witnesses to this supernatural manifestation.

At one time it created panic and near rioting when it was said to have been sighted at Parade in downtown Kingston. The massive crowds became boisterous, stores were forced to close, and traffic came to a standstill. People 'committed perjury' when they swore they saw the coffin going up the steps of a courthouse and causing consternation inside the building.

Bob Marley immortalised the incident and captured the hysteria when he sang about “that clown, Mr Brown”. “Who is Mr Brown, I wanna know now. He is nowhere to be found. From Mandeville to Sligoville, upsetting the town,” while “Down in Parade people running like a masquerade”, but “what a thing in town, crows chauffeur-driven around.”

Several other duppy stories that I had written also turned up as I reviewed some of the columns. The Bog Walk Trail is a story I wrote which takes readers for a drive through what was once known as the 16 Mile Walk ,and which is now the road through the Bog Walk gorge to Spanish Town. I wrote about a point of interest on the approach to Spanish Town, where Jamaica's original Golden Table is said to have surfaced repeatedly in a spot in the river between Angels and the river dam.

Clinton Black, in his Tales Of Old Jamaica, records the story of the 24 steers and six screaming slaves who were dragged under the water at that spot as they tried to harness the legendary table on the instructions of a plantation owner. Now that is what I call a good duppy story.

So the old 16 Mile Walk is not without its fair share of superstition. On a certain day at noon, Good Friday if you want to know, legend has it that the Flat Bridge, built in the mid-18th century by slave labour, is a gathering place for the ghosts of the slaves who died during its construction.

In another story I brought readers back to a haunting tragedy that struck just outside of Kent Village on the same Bog Walk road on the morning of June 27, 1904. There existed in those days the Bog Walk power station which served parts of Kingston and the Kingston tramway system. On that fateful morning, 61 men had gone into the pipe to clean silt and debris on their regular maintenance schedule. Within an hour, what started as a small getaway drip swelled to alarming proportions. The water rose steadily and by 4:00 am there was panic as the men struggled to escape. Some were penned up in the narrow space, trampling each other in a mad stampede. Others threw their torches into the water causing complete darkness. Thirty-three were found drowned, faces and bodies completely mutilated.

As the bodies were hauled up, the piercing shrieks of relatives reverberated among the rocks in one long, painful sound. But the haunting story still lives on, and the nearby villagers will still swear that on a Sunday morning piteous cries can be heard in the vicinity of the ill-fated station.

Then there is the story of “the church picnic that never made it back home”. Sixty years on there are still haunting memories of the Kendal train crash, and a ghostly parade straddling the dreams of family members who suffered loss, and residents who lived in the nearby villages.

I saw them myself, the white crosses laid out in rows that stretched perhaps 100 yards or more parallel to the railroad tracks. They marked more than 100 graves, hastily dug, with mounds of red dirt covering the final resting place for the victims of a railway tragedy that has become seared in the minds of Jamaicans.

Just over one week before, on Monday, September 2, 1957, Jamaicans had woken up in shock to the news carried on Radio Jamaica of a bizarre and horrendous accident the night before when a train had overturned at Kendal, killing 188 people and injuring 700 others. The country went into instant mourning. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) described it as the second-worst railroad crash ever.

Loud shrieks and wails rent the night air as families moved through the crowd trying to identify relatives laid out on the ground. The bawling and screaming could be heard for miles around as the normally peaceful farmland took on the appearance of a gigantic and endless 'dead yard'. All night and the following day private motor cars, taxis, motorbikes, bicycles, and the odd country bus (there were no minibuses in those days) trekked from Kingston to Manchester carrying anxious parents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters seeking the living among the dead.

In 2010, a BBC journalist asked me to help him locate the scene of the accident. Trusting memory, I went, first, in search of the railway station, which I found abandoned with only the foundation stones of the scale and the veranda left standing, and a monument erected nearby by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. I was disappointed, though, as there was absolutely nothing on the terrain to remind that this was where one of the world's most famous tragedies took place, where almost 200 Jamaican souls were lost in one dramatic minute near midnight on September 1, 1957. The BBC rep was puzzled. He had expected a shrine of some sort, or at least a marker that he felt would have attracted thousands of visitors over the 60 years. “There are 3,000 railway societies in the world,” he told me, “with thousands of members who make regular treks to visit historic railway sites like these, all over the world.” He thought that Jamaica, with the first passenger service train system built outside of Europe, would have marketed its railway history, abandoned stations, old locomotives, and priceless traditions, as a major tourism attraction for international club members and fans.

Some of our potential developments have been staring us in the face for years. In a column, 'More Visitor Attractions for Jamaica', I thought it a mystery how the Milk River Bath, the world's most radioactive mineral spa, remains in a derelict state. Milk River would be a world-class attraction in any other country that depends on tourism.

The view from the 3,600 feet high Bull Head mountain peak in the centre of Jamaica is magnificent. From east to west, north to south, a vista of hills and valleys unfold across the countryside with six parishes — Manchester, St Catherine, St Mary, St Ann, Clarendon, and Trelawny — within sight.

We must look outside the box for other ideas. Here is one for the tourist board. The trains may not be running, but it would be a fascinating point of interest for thousands of railway fans worldwide. The Old Harbour station seen from the south-coast highway lends itself for a Jamaica Railway Museum site. Conjure up in the mind one of the old locomotives parked beside the 19th century building, one of the most picturesque stations along the line. Imagine a replica of the old ticket office, platform and waiting room, uniformed conductors, and fried fish and bammy vendors, and you could recreate an experience for visitors and Jamaicans to see what the railway was like in earlier days. It's only a 20-minute drive from Kingston — an idea in the waiting room.

No, this one is not a ghost story. Keep your seats, please.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, historian, and now a 'duppy story' writer. Send comments to the Observer or

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