Yes, I already see your eyebrows shooting up into your foreheads, dear Readers, and the question marks above your heads are as bright as day (That’s not the name of the tree, Kerry-Ann!). So let me not tarry.
This is an undated photo of the Ferry area along Spanish Town Road in St Catherine (now known as the Mandela Highway). Now I know many of us wouldn’t recognise this being Spanish Town Road; but this was how the road looked in its earlier days. In reference to Spanish Town Road in the early 20th century, Frank Cundall, in his book, Historic Jamaica (1915), wrote: “… one can drive by the road and meet perhaps only a few drays, laden with wood or guinea-grass for Kingston, or, it may be, bananas or other agricultural produce.”
In the right side of the photo is the famous “Tom Cringle’s” cotton tree, a historic landmark that stood for centuries at Ferry and then, during the night of 18 January 1971, “it collapsed with a mighty crash” (Senior 2003, pg. 489), blocking the roadway for over a day. The death of the cotton tree was possibly the result of old age, vehicle damage and being further weakened by the activities going on at the time to widen the road.
The huge cotton tree was named after the hero in Michael Scott’s novel, Tom Cringle’s Log (1833), based on Scott’s own working life in Jamaica during the early 1800s. The cotton tree at Ferry was mentioned in the book.
So how did people react to the news that this over 300 year old massive and majestic cotton tree came to such a sudden death? To find out a I conducted a search through my favourite resource, the Jamaica Gleaner Newspaper Archives, and came across two letters to the editor in the February 2, 1971 edition of The Daily Gleaner, in which the letter writers expressed their views on the fall of the Spanish Town Road landmark. The first letter writer wrote:
No iconoclast I, but since the image has already fallen of its own volition let us no more keep the fiction of Tom Cringles Cotton tree, so deat to drivers of tourist cars.
And the second letter writer:
It is very strange how Mother Nature solves some of man’s problems that have given him so much concern.
Tom Cringle’s cotton tree has mysteriously disintegrated…
A roadway had to be diverted to save for posterity this 300-year-old monster of a cotton tree, so the road planners for Jamaica will now have the choice of returning to their original blueprint…
… The residents around Ferry may now have to put extra locks on their doors and windows with all those duppies abroad, now that their supposed haunt is destroyed.
Sarcasm much? The second letter writer is of course referring to the Jamaican folk belief that duppies inhabit cotton trees.
These two letter writers were expressing much of the sentiment at the time about “Tom Cringle’s” cotton tree and the ongoing roadwork, which were basically of two camps: to save or not to save Tom Cringle’s cotton tree. It looks like a combination of factors resulted in the demise of this large cotton tree that once called Ferry, St. Catherine, it’s home, which answered that question.
Question: Have any of you ever seen Tom Cringle’s Cotton Tree?
Until next time…
Cundall, Frank (1915). Historic Jamaica. London: Institute of Jamaica, West India Committee.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “The “Tom Cringle” Cotton Tree. Spanish Town Road.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-fabf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
The Daily Gleaner, “Letters to the Editor,” Tuesday, February 2, 1971, pg. 12.