What Negril was like back in 1970

Very interesting read for old hippy scuba divers like me that love Negril. Credit to Lonnie Gottlieb for his sharing of history in such a whimsical fashion.

How Negril was in the beginning - Part 1,1970


How Negril was in the beginning - Part 1
"'ow dem fine wi?"

by Lonnie Gottlieb

In the late '60's when the hippies first started to drift into Negril it really was a paradise. The untouched pristine white sand beach stretched on for miles - covered almost up to the surf line with long creeping fingers of green vines laced with pale lavender morning glories & full of foot sticking burrs.
No development marred it, just one small hotel called the Sundowner, that catered to mostly German & Texan SCUBA divers & a few other travelers all in search of a clean room, a cold drink & the tropical solitude to enjoy them in.
Negril lies on the Leeward side of the island protected from the open sea & the winds that come off it which brake instead all along the Northern coast of Jamaica. This fortunate geography along with the caressing cooling breeze of the ever-present Tradewinds gives the Western tip of the island a perfect climate that is almost never hot or sticky. The sea is of a brilliant turquoise color fading into many other shades of turquoise & blues with the varying depth of the water & is almost white at the surfline.
The calm flat ocean on the beachfront with the surf lapping gently at the hard white sand is more like a lake that the sea itself, in the very early morning the horizon is barley visible, the gentle blue sea meeting the blue skies gives the illusion of being completely enveloped in a huge blue bubble. It is glorious & titillating like being in a giant glass of pale blue champagne.
As the sun rises the color of the water changes & the horizon becomes visible, neatly dividing the sphere of blue into contrasting colors. The sea remains flat & warm & still all morning - allowing a small boat or an air mattress to float aimlessly in one spot for hours.
Off shore a small deserted island called Booby Cay draws the eye out to sea where a soft breeze begins to ruffle the calm water shortly before noon. By mid-afternoon the color of the water turns from turquoise to many light & dark shades of blue & the surface of the sea is moving & rippled by a slight but constant breeze. Occasionally the sea gets roughed up into white caps by stronger winds coming in from the North & in the Summer Hurricane season when the big storms coming from Africa start to head toward the Yucatan. Negril Bay is transformed from its normal calm sweetness into a turbulent scene of big heaving waves spitting salty white spray up into the air, like the surf in California.
In the old days Negril was a tiny fishing village, the small pastel colored boats of the few local fishermen were lined up on the beach with rows of nets drying on fences behind them.
The well used boats with names like "Lookfar", "Intrepid", "Sheena", "Cool Runnings", "White Girl" & "Wayfarer", hand painted in colorful letters on their fronts along with human looking eyes looking out for that boat, painted on their prows.
The Negril fishermen used some nets but mostly fished with traps made of tough wooden sticks wired together with chicken wire & baited with sour oranges that grew in every yard & sometimes stale bread. They would have to paddle out, as not one boat had an engine, in their small dugouts & rowboats - out from the beach for about 30 minutes in pale turquoise water to the shallow reef which lay about a mile out but was still well inside of the reef's outer edge where the bottom dropped off into the dark blue of deep water. A multitude of colorful tropical reef fish, snapper, squirrel fish, sea mullett, lobsters, crabs, parrot fish & sometimes an occasional eel or an octopus which the Jamaicans call "Seapuss" fed & grew big out on the reef. There the fishermen would drop the weighted traps in 20 to 30 feet of clear turquoise water. Many times they would peer through a small handmade 4-sided wooden box about 6 inches deep into the bottom of which was set a pane of glass caulked with bee's wax to make it waterproof & placed with the flat glass side down a bit into the water providing a good way for the fisherman to clearly see the bottom of the reef bed to drop his fish trap already tied with a nylon line to a sealed plastic bottle that floated up from the trap marking the spot for bringing the catch back up many hours later.
There was a small opening in the mesh where the fish could enter & feed on the bait but once inside the trap they could seldom find the way back out & so became dinner for the many families who would send a fish buyer down to the beached boat leaning on its side to haggle over the price of the day's catch strewn like a many colored & shaped patchwork of shells & jewels on the boat's bright floor which had been lined with wide green banana leaves.
Most of the fisherman did not know how to swim but proceeded as if they did... making their daily bread out on the sea in a small boat with no lifesaving gear on board or other boats in sight.
The hungry buyers, most of whom were women, with the occasional exception of a workman or a rastaman, would arrive one by one or in groups of two or three to make comments about the size, weight & freshness of the fish, if the fish were fat or slim & how they would be prepared. The buyers would collect the fish of their choice weigh them on the old fashioned 2 piece spring scale the fisherman produced from the bottom of the boat - pay for their portion & place them in a round tin pan to be carried off on their heads.
Reaching a likely spot on the beach the buyers sat cross legged on the sand with the pan of fish between their legs to do the work of cleaning them. The fish were gutted & scaled amidst a huge screeching of seagulls fighting over the offal being thrown into the surf as the fish were cleaned.
The traditional Jamaican way to cook reef fish is to "escovitch" them, frying them in hot oil with garlic, onion, scallion, hot scotch bonnet peppers, lime juice, vinegar & salt making them crispy & indescribably delicious. This along with the staple of steamed white rice or a few slices of fire roasted breadfruit & maybe some fried up ackee made most Jamaicans a happy lunch or dinner.
The big red sea crabs were a coveted prize as there was always a top dollar market for this delicacy at the Sundowner's kitchen door where the skinny one eyed Chinese chef welcomed any sellers of big lobsters, Jack or King fish, red snappers & sea crabs. The usually stingy chef was glad to pay hard cash for this bounty as he knew the jovial German tourists & Texas divers would be happy at dinner tonite feasting on fresh seafood & more than happy to buy the Imported wines & drink the cold Red Stripe beer that went so well with it.
The new more recent way that fish were caught was by hard muscled young men who could swim like the fishes themselves. These hardy fishermen would use a home made spear gun with a long sharply honed steel spear propelled by a powerful rubber sling. Many times they had no boat at all & had to swim far out from the beach about a half mile taking only a dive mask, fins, the spear gun & a line with them. They were crafty hunters under the sea stalking the bigger fish on the deeper blue outside of the reef.
You would see them after they had come up from the sea with their dive masks shoved onto the top of their heads & their proud catch strung on a line one on top of the other. The big Kingfish, snapper, mackerel & parrot fish lay wounded & gleaming on their shoulders as they walked home on the beach in the late mornings. Many times they would call out in patwa asking if anyone passing was a buyer for a nice fresh fish.
They could easily free dive to a depth of 30 to 50 feet holding their breath for untold minutes at a time while expertly scanning the reef side for a flash of movement. In later years when the black coral trade was thriving these same young men would go down to a depth of 80 feet or deeper where the black corals were plentiful, still free diving, to search for the corals that would bring them a much greater reward than the big fish could. Once we heard of a young man named Wedderburn who never came back up from one of his black coral dives & no one ever did find out what had happened to him.
Life then was smooth & slow it was either day time ( when the sun was up) or night time ( when the sun was down) school was a part time thing at best & no one was hungry since there were ackee, breadfruit, mango, guava, gineps, banana, plantain, orange & coconut palm trees aplenty as well as a hen house complete with rooster in most every yard. Small back yard gardens when coaxed would provide tomatoes, calaloo, pumpkin, onions, cho-cho squash, papaya, & many grew cassava root for making a delectable type of pancake like bread called bammy.
The rice, butter, cooking oil & flour had to be bought but most food came from the earth or the sea.
The local kids had the run of the beach & played a rough type of sand soccer, ending up covered with white sand stuck to their sweaty black skins making them look as though them had been dusted with powdered sugar. They would throw themselves backward into the sea to rinse off & the ones with long dreadlocks would toss them back from their faces in a quick & certain gesture producing a spray of water that sparkled in the sun.
The first tourists were young back-pak toting adventurers from Europe & tie dyed American hippies who had happened to hear of the incredible beach that lay undisturbed on the far Western tip of Jamaica. They heard how you could go there from the airport in Montego Bay, a bustling Third World city where the jets landed, for $20 US given to a local cabbie for the 2 hour drive on rough roads all along the Western coast of the island. They could stay with a local family in Negril for a few dollars a night & even get breakfast with sweet fresh orange juice thrown in for that price. They came for the beach & the gentle warm sea......they came for the fabulous sunsets, the fiery ball sinking right into the sea facing the beach where the all the colors of the rainbow were often seen at sunset. On very clear days the fabled green flash was often visible just at the moment of the sun's disappearance into the ocean at the horizon.
They came for the incredible inky black velvet nights strewn with foreign stars blazing by the millions & with dozens of fiery shooting stars streaking by. The moon, according to its cycle, rising up slowly & following the exact same path the sun had taken during the day, would shine so brightly that the stars would dim & its light would cast a clear shadow on the white sand of the beach. Many times it was visible at dawn as it came down in the sea at the first light of day, shimmering a bright path in the water as it headed toward the horizon & the Yucatan far away.
They also came for the world's best & cheapest ganja grown by the Rasta men in the fertile hills behind Negril. The "herb" as it was called locally in Jamaica had first come from India in the pockets & personal belongings of the indentured Indian workers who were brought to the islands as cheap laborers lured by the false promises of good wages & decent living conditions. Usually they were the impoverished younger male children of Indian tenant farmers who had barely enough for their numerous older children already at work in the family plots & pig sties - eeking out a living for their parents & themselves.
Such families were only too happy to agree to indenture their younger children into 3 or more years of service for a small sum paid to them. The worker had all his expenses paid for - but had to agree to work for the term of the indenture, after which he could elect to return to India on a returning ship or to stay in whatever island he had been shipped to. If the indenture was violated the law made the worker a hunted criminal with no where to hide. Some women were also indentured as cooks & maids for the land owners. Their lot was easier since they usually lived in quarters provided for female workers. They did not have as much of the usual problems of being sexually exploited as the white overseers almost uniformly preferred the comely young black African girls to the Indian women for their sexual sport.
The ganja had been part of the Indian culture for all time & they thought nothing of it except as a way to escape from the ever present awareness of the drudgery of daily Colonial life. The seeds that came along with the buds of hemp seemed to thrive mightily in the ideal island growing climate.
Huge trees of ganja were commonly seen in the yards of the common barracks the workers lived in & great clouds of smoke rose from the windows & doors in the evenings when it became too dark to work in the sugar fields & it felt good to get high. The British overseers had no objection as they commonly smoked fragrant tropical tobacco as ardently as the Indians smoked the ganja. They smoked from little white clay pipes & offered it to the black Africans working beside them. Having no little white pipes to use the black workers used dried banana leaves to roll the buds up in & lit the ends with an ember from the fire drawing the resulting smoke into their lungs with noticeable euphoric effect. Thus the herb became a part of the culture in a pervasive & permanent way.
There was or is hardly a house hold in Jamaica to this day that does not have at least a bud of ganja soaking in a jar of white rum as a cure for any common ailment from headache to arthritis pains. The banana leaf wrapped spliff has become the antique but is still used as a way to smoke it, being long replaced with commercially made rolling papers of every size & shape which produce a milder smoke, are cheap to buy & easy to use.
Until the early 1900's ganja was accepted & perfectly legal in every country in the world, though not that widely used. Musicians & artists embraced it for its consciousness altering properties, saying it made them more creative & visionary.
Then due to a vigorous campaign of vicious lies led by a bored female society reformer & a crusading U.S. newspaperman it was made illegal - assuring that its popularity & world wide use would mushroom into a multi-billion dollar industry controlled by thugs & murdering drug lords. This drug trade had the uncanny ability to corrupt previously honest law enforcement officials & everyday policemen who simply could not buy into the lies & propaganda that an herb which could be grown in a pot & smoked by anyone in the privacy of their own home could possibly be an agent of social destruction.
The ganja boom in Jamaica began with the buds being grown by local farmers as just another agricultural produce product, it was easy to grow & the profits were as tremendous as the demand. Negril's early visitors were able to buy it for $1 US for a spliff as the huge 2 finger sized rolls were called, or $10 US for a full pound.
Ganja was known as pot, reefer, grass, Cali, weed, hemp, herb, & ???
Especially prized buds known as "lambs bread" were grown for the Christmas & Easter seasons. The buds looked like rope sized clusters of dried flowers covered with red & purple hairs & grew on long thick stalks which were tough & hard like wood. The buds had to be trimmed off the main stalk with a knife or sharp scissors & hung in bunches from the ceiling to dry. It could be left out in a barn or covered shed. It had to be left out to dry out in the open air for days to dry it out enough to be smoked.
This Jamaican herb was so potent that smoking any quantity of it could make the smoker nearly comatose with euphoria all day.
In the early days it was carried from it's country growers by the fruit & vegetable vendors who had territorial routes & steady hotel customers they would sell their produce to along the beach & up the rutted one lane West End road to the old Negril lighthouse on the very Western tip of the Island. Of course there were always two prices, one for the Jamaicans of every color & much more for the white foreigners who craved it.
Many of the old Negril fishing families had little houses on plots of land along the West End road which ran from the Negril crossroads to the lighthouse due West & parallel to the sea side which was on rocky coral cliffs honeycombed with caves of all sizes & dropping down anywhere from a few feet to over 40 feet up from the ocean as it ran West. These people built their homes on the landward side in order to have some protection from the occasional but mighty storms that could produce 30 to 40 feet of huge heaving ocean swells smashing into the coral rock cliffs in great white fountains of salty spray.
As the demand for accommodations grew theses families figured out that providing tourist lodging for the influx of visitors could pay much better & was far easier than fishing. They soon added guest rooms onto their houses. Small hand painted signs began to appear along the roadside with names like Home Sweet Home, Honeybee Cottage, Citronella, Palm Grove, White Bird, Xtabi, Bougainvillea, Heart's Content, Sunrise, Seagrape & Crystal Cove offered modest to delux rooms for rent to any passersby & the local economy began to boom.
These were the years of the Viet Nam war in the USA & many of the disaffected young men on the run from the draft had heard about Negril & decided that tropical Jamaica was a fine alternative to the freezing cold sanctuary of Canada. They were able to come to Negril where there was cheap living & little law. No one was on the lookout for them & Jamaican Immigration was notoriously lax. Word of the good time to be had in Negril began to spread thru word of mouth to the college campuses & suburban households in the states
The locals soon observed that their new guests wanted to lay out in the sun on the beach or the cliffs - overlooking the ocean, an unheard of past time for any Jamaican, but being entrepreneurs they soon added concrete paths poured bucket by bucket in pathways over the jagged coral rock cliffs down to the sea & the newly erected thatch roofed Rum bars which faced it. Since there was no electricity as yet huge coolers containing iced drinks & ubiquitous Red Stripe beer, named after the bright Red Stripe going down the pants leg of every Jamaican Policeman's uniform, appeared at every seaside location, for sale for at tourist prices & the value of oceanfront property skyrocketed as soon as locals realized that their guests wanted to stay as close to the ocean as possible. More rooms were built & some of the early visitors realized that owning land & going into the restaurant/bar/guest room business could actually support them well enough to live in this paradise & never go home. They began buying up property & going into business.
Bottled propane gas was now used for cooking in the newly built guest houses & small hotels replacing the wood & coconut husk fires of the primitive past.
Electricity & telephone lines were brought in from Montego Bay but only up to the town of Negril. The West end road past the town was a world of its own, home to many hippie havens & guest houses that had no telephones & no power but burned kerosene lanterns & torches to light the nights. Prices reflected this lack & many hippies flocked to the West end for the entire winter season to enjoy it.
The big ricketty blue ice truck came lurching along the main every few days > loudly honking its horn & alerting the proprietors all round who used sawdust lined caches or large coolers to keep the ice useable for the week. With ice to cool food stuffs & drinks they were able to provide drinks & meals for their paying guests all week.
Tourism in Negril had come to stay. With its near perfect climate, an endless pool of willing English speaking workers, alluring atmosphere, natural blessings & a very accessible location only a 1.5 hour flight from Miami it was a natural for development.
The government always seemed to be in one crisis or another yet somehow managed to keep the infrastructure intact. The two opposing political parties outwardly had an eternal feud going on between them but actually they worked hand in hand to deprive the workers of as much income as possible in the form of taxes, licenses, permits, inspections & fines just as every other government in the World does. To be fair, they did provide basic services like some health clinics, clean drinking water, police stations, road ways & basic schools. The island was & is run from the capital of Kingston & every other Parrish is considered relatively unimportant by the politicians.
Tourism as a way of life was a mixed blessing for the local population who had existed quite nicely on fishing & agriculture since colonial times. Granted the standard of living was poor to Western eyes but the people gave thanks for the bounty that the Lord provided from the land & the sea. Their daily lives were filled with hard work but no one was cold or ever hungry.
The government came out with a series of tax incentives in the early 80's designed to attract foreign investment & it worked. Many foreigners who had come for an exotic tropical vacation saw the potential & decided to stay. By law they had to employ Jamaican workers for everything from managers to waiters, housekeepers & security guards to trained water sports operators for the huge variety of water toys the tourists wanted to entertain themselves with. Somewhere in the mid-70's Club Med introduced the concept of an all inclusive vacation, one in which the traveler could pay one price for airfare, hotel stay, all meals, drinks & activities. It caught on like wild fire in the Caribbean & a large Jamaican management company gave a twist to that concept, that was Hedonism - who advertised come & "be wicked for a week," soon the terms "rent-a-dred" & "the sex vacation for women" were born.
The tourists brought their insatiable appetite for ganja with them, this demand was happily met by a chain of Jamaican suppliers from the growers in the hills to the curing houses in the bush where the ganja was dried & packaged & then transported to eager customers in every way imaginable. It was brought in bulk in black plastic garbage bags stuffed in the bumpers of vegetable & fish vans & sold by the ounce to the hands of eager foreign tourists in the driveways of their lodgings along with bananas, pineapples & cabbages.
Soon many of these foreigners realized that there was a cheap & plentiful supply of this stuff just begging to be brought North to even bigger markets at an astronomical profit & a series of back road landing strips hidden in the flat cane fields sprang up for this purpose.
Fortunes were being made by many. The combination of an American white guy, a black Jamaican guy & a Chinese Jamaican guy was a dead giveaway that a big ganja deal was in progress. Many of the new guest houses & hotels being built all over Negril were started with the profits from this business as it became an even bigger grossing trade than tourism had ever been.
It was a true underground economy that never showed up in the GNP of Jamaica but nonetheless it provided a better way of life for countless Jamaicans.
It built hotels, shopping centers, small businesses of every kind & sowed the seeds of free enterprise & democracy that are still bearing fruit for many Jamaican families to this day.
The pilots who made the deals possible were usually disaffected Vietnam vets who were only too happy to do the seat of your pants style of flying they had been trained for in the US Army, Navy or Airforce - easily landing right on the only paved highway from MoBay at first & later when the government put a long series of 20 ft. tall iron I beams every 15 feet on both sides of the beach road to prevent the road from being used as a landing strip - they landed on deserted bays in small sea planes to be met by small boats loaded with black plastic wrapped kilos of weed. They landed in the remote cane concealed air strips, loading 2 tons of ganja at a time & taking off for a pre-arranged sea dump off the coast of the Florida Keys, was an easy day's job for them & many returned to enjoy the R & R & R (rock, roll, reggae) lifestyle Negril offered in copious amounts. They smoked, they sunned, they swam & they ate, then they smoked some more. Some liked it so much they dimly realized they had indeed washed up on the sands of paradise & stayed... to marry Jamaican girls, make a home, go into a business & would produce the gorgeous “toastie” children you see all around Jamaica today, living free.