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 The Port of Kingston

The history of Kingston shows that the great harbour of Kingston, has created significant wealth over the years, quite apart from whatever economic regime may have been operating on the mainland. The Port of Kingston has always been the hub of trade with several periods governing its development:

  1. 1692-1713 - The early freebooters
    British Governments, Jamaican Governors, pirates, buccaneers and privateers plundered and brought fortunes to Kingston to finance imports from North America and Britain.
  2. 1713-1759 -The Asiento Trade
    When the British got exclusive right to supply Spanish America with some products, Jamaican planters objected to the competition, but trade developed earning vast sums for the port and created fortunes in Britain.
  3. 1766-1822 - Kingston as a Freeport
    During this period, Kingston was said to be among the principal ports in the Western Hemisphere, and the main source of coins for the British Empire.
  4. 1860-1912 - Opening of Central America
    When it was decided to cut a canal across the Isthmus of Central America, Kingston became a primary source of supply of labour for the canals, railways, and the introduction of banana cultivation by American companies who found Jamaica too small for their operations. This trade brought new influences into Jamaica – George Stiebel from Venezuela and Cecil Lindo from Costa Rica.
  5. 1939-1944 WWII
    With the closure of the Atlantic merchant shipping lanes, Kingston port flowered into a range of activities as a new coastal trade was renewed among Jamaican ports; and small boats started trading with other Caribbean ports as new sources of goods were sought.

When in 1938, the country's workers rebelled at the sub-human conditions of their daily lives, it was the waterfront workers who marched to the offices of Alexander Bustamante (now one of Jamaica's National Heroes) and begged him to form a union.

When Bustamante was arrested in 1938, the waterfront workers went on strike until he was released. This act of defiance by the waterfront men was new, and out of it was born the spirit of the new Jamaica, which resulted in Independence for Jamaica in August 1962.


Captain S.D. List, a Danish captain and businessman, presented the idea of a shipper's association to all the wharf owners. They recognized that chaos could result if the management of the wharves was not geared to respond constructively to the new labour situation, and it was on this basis that the major shipping interest founded the Shipping Association of Jamaica in January 1939. It operated from the offices of Jamaica Fruit & Shipping, with Adam Pullar, a former Customs officer as the first manager; Capt. List was the first Chairman.

The SAJ then started the joint employment of labour for all wharf companies, bringing wharf workers into permanent employment. The initial negotiations with the BITU were acrimonious, long and sometimes dangerous. But out of them, wharf workers were able to pioneer in receiving several benefits today accepted as normal.

As the joint employment system developed, other unions joined the BITU at the bargaining table, first the Trades Union Congress, then the National Workers Union (the latter formed by Norman Manley, another of Jamaica's National Heroes) and once again there was the threat of chaos. This led to the formation in 1952, of Jamaica's first Joint Industrial Council, a development which has since has been patterned nationally, whereby a permanent council of representatives of the affected firms and the Unions meet on a regular basis to discuss and decide on issues affecting labour relations and eventually set the framework for labour contract. The innovation, started in Kingston, is most extensively used in the sugar and banana industries, which adopted the model.

The SAJ is one of four agencies responsible for the Port's operations as a modern commercial facility. The others are:

The Port Authority of Jamaica (a Government Agency) is responsible for the general operation and policy concerning shipping and navigation.

The Harbour Department , headed by the Harbour Master is in charge of all navigational aids, the condition of the channel, and the emergency services in the Harbour.

The Pilotage Department (under the Port Authority) provides the compulsory pilotage service required of all ships, except military vessels, which enter any Harbour in Jamaica.

After Hurricane Charlie in 1951, and the development of the Kingston Industrial Estate in 1952, business in Kingston boomed, especially imports, which benefited from the vast earnings of the new bauxite industry.

But downtown Kingston, laid out with narrow streets by Goffe in 1692 could not absorb the traffic. The waterfront became a nightmare of mule-drawn drays, handcarts, motor trucks, and vans of all sizes, together with passengers of ships coming to have a peek at the City. Overcrowding was endemic, movements were slow, spoilage, spillage and slippage were the norm rather than the exception, and clearly something new was required.

It was clear that a solution had to be found as the 15 wharves were in a state of chaos. Moses Matalon, a young Jamaican engineer, suggested removal to the Hunts Bay section in the Western Harbour, bounded by a swamp, then used as a dump for the City's refuse. Negotiations started about 1955 and resulted in the creation of the area known as Newport West, which in 1970, became Port Bustamante. This was soon hailed by the international community as the first private sector development in the Western Hemisphere since the War.

It provided:

  • 8,000 feet of deep-water frontage
  • Seven deep-water berths
  • Four Hundred acres of new land to house the warehousing, offices and factories needed
  • to service, and be serviced, by a great Port.

The owners of the 15 abandoned wharves were consolidated in two groups – Kingston Wharves headed by Grace, Kennedy; and Western Terminals which included the Lascelles and Matalon interests. The Government acquired 176 acres of the dumped land as its fee, and this section provided two new useful facilities at Newport West: The Container Port, using the new gantry crane mass movement system in a duty-free customs area and the Kingston Freezone which houses export manufacturing operations.

The first major innovation at the new Port, was the development of a Roll-on/Roll-off facility by Western Terminals at Berth No.1, which greatly increased the capacity of the port to speedily handle cargo.

On 14 th February, 1966, the world's largest cruise ship, SS “United States” docked at Western Terminals to officially open the new port, and for the first time in almost 300 years, the Parish of Kingston would no longer have the major port of the Anglophone Caribbean. In moving too Newport West, the port had moved to Western St. Andrew.

* Extracted from “KINGSTON Portrait of a City” with the kind permission of its author, Anthony Johnson. The book was sponsored by the Shipping Association of Jamaica and published in 1993.

© copyright 2004 The Shipping Association Of Jamaica
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