The History of Port Antonio
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan headed the celebrity clientele. Ian Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel here and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were among the Hollywood stars to revel in its sheltered bay, golden sand, warm ocean, freshwater stream and luxuriant vegetation. ‘Lord of the Flies’ was filmed here. American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox described Port Antonio as ‘the most exquisite port on earth’. The town’s twin harbours, jewel coloured sea and verdant hillsides still ensnare the visitor. The story of this old port is the story of the men who came, saw, and were conquered by its beauty. All of them, from Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker to movie star Errol Flynn and billionaire Garfield Weston sought to develop the town. All of them failed. Port Antonio, like Montego Bay claim to be the cradle of the tourist trade. Unlike other locations on the island, its tourism potential remains undeveloped and herein lies the charm of Port Antonio and the lure of the parish of Portland.
The town was originally settled by the Spaniards and gets its name from an early Spanish governor who names the twin harbours Puerto de Anton and Puerto de Francisco after his two sons. After the British conquest in 1655 the government tried to develop the area by giving land grants to English families. They laid out the down, built a fort on the peninsula and a naval station. The British Army and Navy protected the settlers against the French, Spanish and pirates who constantly attempted conquest…but it proved fruitless against the marauding bands of Windward Maroons. Years of guerrilla warfare between the British and these runaway slaves ended in 1734 by a treaty that settled the Maroons on their own lands.
The banana, introduced by the Spaniards from the Canary Islands flourished in the hot, damp climate and rich alluvial soil of Portland and was grown alongside of sugar canes. In 1871, a Yankee skipper named Lorenzo Dow Baker sailed into Port Antonio and tool on board a cargo of coconuts and 1450 stems of bananas. The profit that he cleared in Boston was so large that he returned, bought land and planted bananas. Baker organised a shipping line to transport the fruit. Soon, his plantations ranged from Boston in the east through Boundbrook to Buff Bay in the west and his Boston Fruit Company subsequently merged with other interest to create the United Fruit Company. It dominated the banana industry in Jamaica and Central America for years to come. Known as Port Antonio’s ‘Golden Age’ it was said that on Banana Day (any day a ship was loading the succulent fruit) carousing planters would light their cigars with five dollar bills. Unfortunately, this unheard of prosperity ended soon with the onset of the Panama disease, which almost wiped out the banana industry. The Gros Michel variety succumbed and was replaced by a new disease resistant hybrid. The banana industry never recaptured its former prosperity, nor has Port Antonio.
The next swashbuckler to fall in love with Port Antonio was the movie star Errol Flynn who sailed into the harbour one day on his yacht, the Zacca. Flynn acquired a lot of real estate. Navy Island, Titchfield Hotel and several cattle and coconut estates including one owned by Captain Baker. Flynn’s plans to develop tourism, build a hotel at Folly and a ranch resort at Comfort Castle never materialised. While still in the throes of these plans he died suddenly. Although he expressed wish to be buried in Jamaica, his widow decided otherwise. Titchfield hotel was destroyed in the late 1960’s and today only the ruins of this great landmark remain.