I’ve been thinking about caves for the past few days. No, not in the dark and creepy, water-dripping-in-the-background-like-in-a-horror-flick way. Nah! I’ve been thinking about caves in terms of their history in Jamaica. What got me thinking about caves you ask? Well, it all began last week Thursday, September 20, when I asked the following Jamaican History Question (the Jamaican History Question is promptly posted each day on Jamaican Echoes’ Facebook page at 12:30 p.m EST…hint hint!):
JAMAICAN HISTORY QUESTION: These two caves stand next to each other in Hellshire, St. Catherine, and were once a ceremonial site for the Tainos. What is its name?
The answer is the Two Sisters Caves. The question was accompanied by this photo:
Caves of varying sizes and attractions are found all over Jamaica. According to the JNHT, there are more than 1000 known caves, with many more just waiting to be discovered and explored.
The Role of Caves in Jamaica’s History
You may be wondering: what roles have caves, these natural geological formations, played in Jamaica’s human history? Well, nuff!
The Tainos: Caves as Ceremonial and Burial Sites
Let’s begin with the Tainos, the first inhabitants of Jamaica. Based on explorations and studies of the cave networks in Jamaica, it has been found that the Tainos used caves for ceremonial and burial purposes, leaving behind evidence of their use of these caves in the form of rock carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs). For instance, the Tainos left behind carvings of adult faces on the wall of the eastern cave of the Two Sisters Caves in Hellshire, St. Catherine.
Taino rock carvings and paintings can also be found in other caves across the island, such as the Pantrepant cave in Trelawny and the Mountain River Cave in St. Catherine. In fact, the Jamaican National Heritage Trust (JNHT) published a list of Taino petroglyph and pictograph sites on their website that you may find useful: The Life of the Tainos: Taino Messaging.
The Enslaved People, Maroons and Missionaries: Caves as Secret Meeting Places
Three sets of people continued to use caves as meeting places, albeit secretly and for different and similar purposes as the Tainos.
According to Olive Senior (2003) the enslaved people and the Maroons used caves as secret meeting places. Run-away slaves also used caves as hiding places when they ran away from plantations. Such is the legend behind the Two Sisters Caves.
Robert Lalah, the writer of the popular Jamaica Gleaner column, Roving with Lalah, wrote about his visit to the Twin Sisters Caves in his column on Thursday, September 7, 2006. In this article he mentions the many stories that surrounds the caves, but places emphasis on the legend of the two slave sisters. This is what he wrote:
Legend has it that late one night, two slave sisters, their names forgotten with time, made a daring escape from a sugar plantation and headed for the hills. After days of running through the bushes and climbing some rather rocky mountains, the siblings ended up in Hellshire. There, they discovered the two ancient caves which, though a few feet away from each other, are linked by a single stream. The sisters, injured and frail after days of running barefoot across rocks and bushes, settled in the caves. Several days passed with the sisters unable to leave the caves, even as they knew that the men their slave master had sent in search of them were hot on their trail.
Eventually, early one morning the sisters heard the shouts of their approaching hunters and knew that they were about to be discovered. But instead of accepting that they would have to return to a life of servitude, the sisters decided that they would make the ultimate sacrifice. The story is that the sisters held hands and jumped into the black waters of the caves to their ultimate demise.
The rest of the article is quite an interesting read on the ghost stories surrounding the caves.
On the other hand the missionaries and the slaves used caves as secret churches during the time when these churches were illegal. According to Senior (2003, pg. 322): “The planter-dominated Jamaica Assembly was hostile to the missionary efforts, fearful of the egalitarianism being preached and the effect it would have on their slaves.”
So the missionaries used these caves as secret places to hold church with the enslaved people, when they could.
Buccaneers, Pirates and Murderers: Caves as Hiding Places for Loot and Dead Bodies
According to Michael Ashcroft (1969, pg. 32) : “Caves were also used for other, less innocuous purposes.” Buccaneers and pirates used caves near the coasts to hide their loot. Its been said that Henry Morgan, the buccaneer turned Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1673, may have hidden his loot in a cave in the Port Henderson area (Ashcroft 1969, Senior 2003). Yep, its been said that persons have scoured between Kingston and Old Harbour in hopes of finding Morgan’s legendary loot!
Then there was the infamous serial Killer, Lewis Hutchinson aka “The Mad Master of Edinburgh Castle,” who used a sink hole located near his property, in the Pedro district of St. Ann, to dispose of the corpses of his murdered victims. This sinkhole became known as “Hutchinson’s Hole.”
Tourists and Adventurers: Caves as Picnic Excursions
In the 18th and 19th centuries, caves became tourist attractions. Ashcroft (1969) notes that picnic excursions were made from the old capital, Spanish Town to the Portland Caverns in Clarendon. Persons visited these caves out of curiousity, often leaving evidence of their visit, including an inscription by a T. Mostyn, dated 1791, in the Jackson’s Bay Cave in Clarendon.
Today, a few of the country’s caves have been developed as tourist attractions. This includes the Green Grotto Caves in Discovery Bay, St. Ann, which has been called one of the natural wonders of the Caribbean and was one of the first natural attractions in Jamaica. It has also been known by several other names throughout the years: Runaway Bay Caves, Cave Hall Caves, Discovery Bay Caves, Dry Harbour Caves, Hopewell Caves, Rum Caves and Dairy Caves (UDC 2011).
The Green Grotto Caves website describes the caves as follows:
Green Grotto is 1,525 metres long and 12 metres deep and is characterised by numerous chambers and light holes and a subterranean lake – the Grotto Lake – occupies its bowels.
Green Grotto Caves has quite a bit of history to it, depending on the people using it and for what purposes:
The cave is rich in history and can be identified with different groups of people. The first Jamaicans, the Arawak Indians (Tainos) found shelter in the caves initially. Proof of this is evident in the multiple fragments of pottery and adzes that are unearthed from time to time. During the period of take-over by the English, the caves were used as a hideout for the Spaniards who were being driven out of the country.
The caves can also be identified with that period between the two world wars where they were used by smugglers running arms to Cuba. In the latter years during the Second World War, the Government of Jamaica used the entrance of the cave as a storeroom for rum in barrels.
Ownership of these Caves also changed hands during the years. In the 1960’s, the Kirkner family owned the Green Grotto Caves and today, they are owned by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and operated by the St Ann Development Company.
Here are a few snapshots of my family’s visit to the Green Grotto Caves in August 2009:
Until next time…
Ashcroft, Michael (1969) Caves of Jamaica. Jamaica Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 32-36.
Lalah, Robert (2006) Two Sisters Cave – Murky Twin Beauties. Daily Gleaner, Thursday, September 7, 2006.
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Thompson, Michael (2012) Two Sisters Cave. Jamaica Observer, Tuesday, March 6, 2012.
Urban Development Corporation (2011) Green Grotto Caves