Tour Of The Caribbean – Kingston in Ruins

I REACHED Kingston less than a month after the disastrous earthquake, travelling from Port Antonio by train across the island. On approaching the capital we looked out anxiously for signs of ruin, but there was nothing noteworthy to be seen along the line. From what could be observed, as the train ran into the terminus, the station itself would seem to be uninjured. There was the usual disorder on the platform incident to the arrival of the chief train of the day. Without, in the glare of the sun, were the familiar rabble of a station yard, the crowd of carts and of cabs, the yelling drivers, the importunate boys. One almost expected to find the people preoccupied, if not lachrymose or destitute-looking, but there was just the bustling, amiable crowd as it had been any day for the last ten years.

We jumped into a buggy, and told the man to get out of the hubbub and drive through the town. In a moment we were in a death-like silence and in a scene of blank desolation. The road was so thick with fine dust that the wheels of the buggy and the horse’s hoofs made no sound. There was hardly a living soul in sight. The change was astounding. It can only be appreciated by those who have escaped from the rattle and chaos of the rail-way station at Venice to find themselves in a gondola, dazed by the stillness of the Grand Canal.

The destruction in the part of the city which we had entered was complete, for what the earthquake had left the fire demolished. It seemed as if the man on the steamer at Trinidad had spoken truth when he said that Kingston no longer existed. The roads had been cleared, but no attempt of any kind had been made at even a casual restoration. Almost as strange as the silence was the greyness of the scene, the absence of all colour the sense of a desert of pale stone. With it too was the unwonted light, for as all the roofs and upper stories had vanished, and as many of the houses were left no higher than a garden wall, the city seemed bared to the heavens, bared to its very bones and whitened ribs. The impression of desolation was more absolute than that presented by the ruins of St. Pierre, for there creepers and weeds had covered the waste, and had smoothed the edges of jagged walls.

Let the Londoner imagine himself standing at the point where the great thoroughfares of Regent Street and Oxford Street inter-sect. Let him conceive those streets silent, empty of human beings, and covered deep with white dust as if with snow. Let him picture the houses, as far as the eye could stretch, in ruins, roofless and windowless, crushed down to the height of some dozen feet, mere pens of stone filled with charred rubbish ; and then let him realise that this desolation extended on all sides over an area of nearly sixty acres, and he will appreciate how Kingston appeared to those who knew it as a place once bristling with affairs and astir with life.

There hung above the town at the time a mist of dust, horrible to breathe, and with it drifted, now and then, a loathsome smell which was not merely that of smouldering debris.

Over the heaps of bricks and stone along the street would be trailing a tangled network of wires, as if some dreadful bramble, with stalks and tendrils of iron, was crawling across the place when its leaves were blasted into dust. Among the chaos are lamp-posts, aimless rain-water pipes, the iron pillars of a long arcade, girders and rods, the railings of a balcony the fragment of an iron stair.

The ample roofs of corrugated iron, so common in these parts, have taken to themselves strange shapes. In one place a mighty plate, fifty feet wide, coiled up into a cone, covers the ruin in the manner of a tent. In another spot a long drooping sheet, stretched over many walls looks like a dragon’s wing. Some of the forlorn wrecks of houses seem to have wrapped themselves round with a covering of this iron as with a cloak. From one building the metal roof has been twisted off by the fire and dropped on end among the stones, where it stands like some hideous cactus sprouting in the wilderness. Along the wharves sheets of corrugated iron strew the ground in drifts like heaped-up autumn leaves. At a few points are charred trees, rising stiff and metallic-looking against the sky. They make a fitting perching place for the carrion crows who still watch the ruins hungrily.

All the individuality of the various houses is blotted out. In one court, half choked with bricks, is the skeleton of a buggy, suggesting that the place in which it stands was once a coach-house. A mass of blackened goods, pots, pans, and saws, indicate an ironmonger’s shop, a holocaust of broken bottles marks a beer store. Still on one house front is the placard “Gents’ Ties,” while to a scorched wall hangs by one nail a plaque with the inscription ” Try our Cooler.”

The streets at night, when lit only by the light of the moon, are veritable streets of the dead. There are no lamps of any kind by the roadside. Each causeway is slashed by the shadows of notched walls so black and sharply cut that they lie on the white paths as if inlaid in jet. Within the roofless houses are other shadows that take the shape of crouching figures, or the semblance of upstretched arms ; while a pillar with a wire dangling from it throws on the cross roads the black outline of a gibbet.

The ways are silent, muffled by the ashy dust. One dares only speak in a whisper. There is not a living creature to be seen in the ghostly lanes except a prowling dog or some scurrying rats, for the negro shuns the gaunt city after the sun has set. He fears to see spectral women grubbing for their dead among the stones, and to hear the stifled cries of those who still lie buried beneath the ruins.

Beyond the burned area and in the suburbs, although the earthquake has been as destructive, there is less the sense of utter annihilation. There are here the movement and colour of life, signs of human occupation and the companionship of gardens and green trees. The mango is breaking into blossom, and the lignum vitae is covered with flowers of a deep forget-me-not blue. Once more there are definite days in the week ; once more the routine of existence, so abruptly checked, is moving unconcernedly.

Some of the houses and villas are mere shapeless heaps, represented by a roof lying flat on a lawn, a roof from under whose eaves has poured forth on every side a cascade of bricks. There is not a house still standing that does not show sinuous cracks, like streaks of lightning, down its sides, bulging walls, a missing portico, or a medley of debris in its just vacated rooms.

In many an instance the front or side wall of the house has fallen away from the building, revealing the rooms, floor by floor, just as a doll’s house is exposed when its hinged front is thrown back. Here every intimate corner from the attic to the cellar, from the drawing-room to the black cook’s bedroom, is open to the eyes of inquisitive neighbours. The curious can see how an acquaintance’s guest room was papered, and how well or ill it was kept.

The bedstead is in place, its mosquito curtains are undisturbed, while a mass of plaster weighs down the tidy coverlet. The pictures swing on the wall, but at strange angles ; there are clothes on a peg ; one drawer of a chest of drawers has slid open, as the house rocked over, and none have ventured to close it. The bedroom door is ajar; it leads out to the fragment of a staircase pendent in the open air. In a lower room the table is heaped up with wreckage, but the tablecloth is just as the neat hands of the house-wife left it Heavy joists have crushed through the sofa, while among the pile of rubbish are an overturned rocking-chair, a lamp and some children’s toys. The upper floor of the dwelling drops into the basement room like the lid of a box. A window blind flaps from the shred of a casement. An electric light hangs into a room that has no floor and only two walls. To some wrecks of houses balconies are clinging, impotent and crazy, but still covered with creepers.

The statue of Queen Victoria, near the public gardens, shows a curious effect of the disturbance. The immense mass of marble with its heavy pedestal has been shaken like a glass on a shelf, and so rotated upon its plinth that the figure, otherwise uninjured, faces in a different direction.

The venerable Parish Church of Kingston presents an astounding appearance. This picturesque old building of red brick has already escaped four disastrous conflagrations, each one of which laid low the town,’ and now, remarkable enough, the fire was stayed within a few yards of its doors. The square tower is surmounted by a wooden steeple, which is so tilted upon its base that it is a wonder it does not topple over into the graveyard.

The tower itself shows ragged breaches in its walls as if it had been battered by a nine-inch gun. The arches of its windows have fallen out, while through the gaping cracks in its sides it is possible to see the belfry ropes and the bells.

Within the church is a scene of incredible ruin. The east wall of the chancel having dropped away the altar and its sombre reredos are now in the open air. The great stone pillars of the nave are cracked and twisted out of the straight, as if some Titanic Samson had clasped them in his fury. The ceiling of the coved roof has fallen down, leaving bare the laths and beams. Through gashes in the walls it is possible to see into the street. Where windows stood are huge cavernous openings above a pile of glass. The chancel rails are a line of splinters. The pews, except in a few places, have been crushed to the ground by falling stones, by masses of plaster and ponderous timbers.

The fine old monuments and tablets which cover the aisles have been, for the most part, shaken to fragments. Some have fallen among the general wreckage, while others are still holding to the masonry in disjointed pieces. The floor is a wild, heaped-up waste of stones, mortar, stained glass, dust and bricks, mingled with splinters of pews, roof planks, hassocks, cushions, lamps and hymn books.

Conspicuous among the debris were two curious things—a girl’s bright-coloured paper fan, and a white death’s head in marble, which had dropped from one of the memorials on the wall and was grinning from out of the dust.

Perched aloft above this dismal wreckage, high on the summit of the steeple and looking ever across the ruins of the forlorn city, is the golden weather-cock, still bright, valiant and cheery. As it swings contentedly in the path of the breeze, it makes the one gleam of gold against the dust-clouded sky.