Judgment Cliff and earthquakes


Thursday, January 17, 2019

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As you might know, this is Earthquake Awareness Week. It is now 112 years since the earthquake of 1907 devastated Kingston and other parts of Jamaica on January 14, 1907. Less known is that as a result of the same 1692 earthquake that sank most of Port Royal, the district of St David, near Llandewey in Western St Thomas, and its residents plunged thousands of feet into the earth. It has been dubbed 'Judgement Cliff' or 'Bruck Hill' ever since. Incidentally, the word Llandewey is Welsh for St David.

I have written about Judgement Cliff a few times before in the Jamaica Observer and I had hoped that by writing about Judgment Cliff over the years that it would have created an interest so that Jamaicans and tourists would understand what sort of damage can be caused by a powerful earthquake. Every Jamaican should be taught about Judgement Cliff in school, if only so that all can understand what can happen in a tsunami, as that is what really happened at Port Royal.

I had dreams of thousands of schoolchildren being bussed there on field trips, particularly in January, which is Earthquake Awareness Month. But, instead, something quite the opposite has happened. The existence of Judgment Cliff was mentioned on a morning radio programme by the male co-host, perhaps sometime last year, and apparently it was ridiculed by the female co-host of the programme.

I did not hear the alleged ridicule myself, as I was not tuned in to that radio station when it happened, but I heard a later programme when the male co-host asked if he was still being teased for mentioning it, as if he made it up out of his head. I am not sure why a check was not made online because a photograph of Judgment Cliff can be seen on the Internet. Also, a file of newspaper clippings on Judgment Cliff exists in the National Library of Jamaica.

The female co-host of that particular radio programme ridicules the male co-host regularly; for example, by turning the weather report into a quiz each morning. This is ostensibly done as a joke that is perhaps a misguided perception of women's liberation.

But I really take exception to important parts of our history being turned into a 'poppy show'. Small wonder then that disaster preparation is not taken as seriously as it should be. What about high school students who are not yet mature enough to discern truth from fiction and are doing examinations and take the words of radio journalists as gospel?

For example, movies with exaggerations have been made of 17th century pirates in the Caribbean. As a result, many advanced-level high school students believe that pirates are fictional. This is but one consequence of the decision to make history a non-compulsory subject in the 1980s.

Never mind the rumours about the sins that were being committed in the district of St David, hence the name Judgment Cliff. Where would one build then, since sinners are everywhere? What about the innocent people who lived there?

Judgment Cliff is in the backdrop of the Llandewey Community Centre, which was donated to Jamaica Welfare by Leslie James Burke at the request of his brother Rudolph Augustus Burke. Leslie Burke was the grandfather of Jonathan Burke, Sharon Burke and Marlon Burke, all known in the entertainment world, and Patrick Burke, a former principal of Suthermere Preparatory School, as well as several others. Rudolph Burke, a former president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, who established the Denbigh Show in 1953, and was later a Cabinet minister (1957-62), was the grandfather of Cora Robertson-Sylvester, James Robertson, Paul Burke, myself, and at least 16 others.

Kingston is one of the few cities in the world that does not have many ancient buildings left. The 1907 earthquake destroyed most of its ancient buildings, including the old Roman Catholic Cathedral on Duke Street. Since 1911, Holy Trinity (Roman Catholic) Cathedral stands on North Street beside St George's College.

After the 1907 earthquake the merchants of downtown Kingston went to court to sue their insurance agents who did not want to cover the damage. As a result of the 1907 earthquake a fire broke out right behind Kingston Parish Church in a chemist's shop where medicines were made.

When the merchants claimed insurance they were told that they were not insured against fire, which was the reason for their places being burned down. The merchants had to prove in court that the fire was caused by the earthquake for which they were insured and that the fire was not a totally separate occurrence.

It happened that there was a meeting of the high school principals at Mico Teachers' College at the very time that the 1907 earthquake occurred. Archdeacon William Simms, then headmaster of Jamaica College, was in attendance at that meeting at Mico.

Archdeacon Simms could see that the fire had started after the earthquake. So he was one of the witnesses in the case. So was a boat captain who had just docked in Kingston Harbour minutes before the earthquake.

The merchants won in court. Had they not collected insurance, what would have happened to the economy? Would the riots of 1938 have started earlier? One can only speculate.

At Jamaica College (JC), the 1907 earthquake shook the bell out of the tower of the Simms Building to the ground. Would Jamaica's history have been different had a 13-year-old JC student at the time by the name of Norman Washington Manley been killed by the falling bell? Again, one can only speculate.

RIP, Troy Caine

Troy Caine, a noted political historian and researcher, has finished his earthly service. Many who knew him respected him for his research. May his soul rest in peace.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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