Mountains of memory: Jamaica’s Cockpit Country

Centuries after the Maroon wars that shaped its history, Jamaica’s Cockpit Country remains as mysterious as it is beautiful. Michael Robinson traverses this landscape of hills and forest, and finds its inhabitants are proud of their connections to the past

The Cockpit Country’s landscape of rounded hills and deep valleys  is thanks to its limestone geology. Photograph by Martei KorleyFarming is the economic backbone of most Cockpit Country communities. Photograph by Martei KorleyFirst Man greets visitors to IION Station wearing burlap robes and carrying a traditional staff. Photograph by Martei KorleyAt IION Station’s Healing Centre, visitors can enjoy massages, yoga, and aromatherapy. Photograph by Martei KorleyThe Cockpit Country is a biodiversity hotspot. Photograph by Martei KorleyLooking over the village of Flagstaff. Photograph by Martei KorleyAunt Poogie’s herb garden in Flagstaff is the source of numerous natural remedies. Photograph by Martei KorleyDriving through one of the Cockpit Country’s rustic villages. Photograph by Martei Korley

Viewed from above, it’s immediately apparent why this region was dubbed “The Cockpits” by British soldiers in the seventeenth century. The five-hundred-square-mile expanse of western Jamaica’s mountainous interior — with its rounded hills and steep-sided sinkholes — bears a distinct resemblance to the cock-fighting pits of their homeland. It took nature thirteen million years to carve the distinctive egg-tray topography out of what scientists have called “the world’s most exciting karst limestone deposits.”

And from the ground, mountains stretch out as far as the eye can see.

Brimming with biodiversity, the Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s largest rainforest, home to twenty-seven of the island’s twenty-eight endemic bird species, and three endemic species of bat. This land nurtures hundreds of different plants, like the Wild Pine — itself a miniature ecosystem supporting Jamaica’s smallest crab and at least one type of tree frog. The Cockpit Country is also populated by delicate cave fauna, and insect species like the endangered Giant Swallowtail — the largest butterfly on this side of the world.

For centuries, it has also been home to groups of indigenous peoples whose very survival has depended on an intimate relationship with the terrain and its natural abundance.

Science and folklore aside, Jamaica’s Cockpit Country has an enigmatic mystique, as old as it is undeniable. As we travel through it by car, we’re struck by the sheer beauty of nature in its rawest form. Lush foliage drifts by our windows, parting ever so often to reveal breathtaking hillscapes draped in fog. It seems like every ten minutes someone else is asking the driver to pull over so they can snap a photo. And when we finally get out to experience the place up close, we fall in love a little bit more with each stop.

[pullquote]Built along the banks of the Montego River, IION Station is a place where visitors can experience the Rastafari lifestyle through food, music, and art. “Rasta and Maroon,” opines our guide First Man, “are cultures of humanity that need to be preserved”[/pullquote]

Our first destination is the indigenous Rasta village on the outskirts of the Cockpit Country, in St James Parish. Known as IION (pronounced EYE-on) Station, the solar-powered village was established by a group of poets moved to create an alternative to traditional tourism, due to what they consider the damage done to nature by that industry.

Our host, First Man, greets us wearing traditional burlap and carrying a staff. Knowledgeable and jovial, he provides a quick orientation, interspersed with interesting tidbits of information (Jamaica’s national fruit, ackee, was originally introduced here to be used as soap!), and an explanation of the layers of meaning behind the river we must cross to enter the village. Water is life, he says. It also represents the way IION residents see themselves — adaptable and always fluid, always evolving.

Built along the banks of the Montego River, the village is a place where visitors can experience the Rastafari lifestyle through food, music, and art. IION stands for Indigenous Initiating Operatives of Nature, and the group aims to give visitors an understanding of Rasta, not as a religion, but as a “relation” to all things. At the centre of the village stands a large hut for drumming, and nearby a fire burns constantly as a symbol of purity and transformation.

After an introduction to the philosophies and history of Rastafari, guests can learn how to prepare (and eat) “ital” food, make art from natural materials, and even spin reggae tunes from as far back as the earliest days of the genre’s evolution. “Rasta and Maroon,” opines First Man, referring to IION’s neighbours in the Cockpits, “are cultures of humanity that need to be preserved.” This village, he explains, is a transmission space.

A short distance away, the Healing Centre stands on stilts. Beside it grows a herb garden, replete with all kinds of plants. First Man points out the indigenous and endemic Search Mi Heart, which he says cleanses the system, and the Cassava Marble, a shrub said to have beneficial properties for the prostate. There is also a meditational labyrinth that is supposed to inspire a parallel inward journey as one walks toward the centre. “Many tears have been shed here,” says our host.

Inside, the healing centre looks like a rustic spa. Massage tables and rocking chairs share space with the djembe, or talking drum. Massage, yoga, and aromatherapy are all practised in the space, which is designed to allow the soothing passage of gentle breezes through the surrounding trees.

Before we leave, the brethren bless us with drumming and song, providing percussion instruments for us to join the nyabinghi — a Rasta ritual of communal drumming and singing, performed as prayer or meditation. Thus, properly uplifted and thankful for the experience, we bid First Man and the others goodbye, promising to return for a stay-over.

On the road again — with no map, but determined to find the Maroon town of Flagstaff — we stop frequently to ask directions. The responses are always neighbourly and helpful, as though the people of these mountains are used to lost out-of-towners trying to get somewhere.

The Maroons are the people most associated with the Cockpit Country, because the land belongs to them. Between 1738 and 1740, after waging a herculean fight against the era’s global superpower, the Maroons forced the British army to a truce. As part of those negotiations, they were granted “all the lands situated and lying between Trelawny Town and the Cockpits,” amounting to fifteen hundred acres. Home to several independent Maroon settlements sharing a common ancestry, this remains sovereign territory, bounded by Flagstaff in the west.

[pullquote]With no map, but determined to find the Maroon town of Flagstaff, we stop frequently to ask directions. The people of these mountains are used to lost out-of-towners trying to get somewhere[/pullquote]

The second Maroon war put Flagstaff on the map. It is situated at what we’re told is the original location of Trelawny Town, a settlement of Maroons deported en masse to Nova Scotia by the British at the end of that war, in questionable circumstances. Looming high above the town is Gun Hill, the site of a flag placed there to signify the British occupation of the area afterwards. According to Michael Grizzle, chairman of the local forest management committee, this is how the town of Flagstaff got its name.

At Flagstaff there are three trails open to visitors interested in the town’s heritage. The Dragoon Hole Trail takes us to a woodwork shop, where anyone willing to get hands-on is welcome. It also takes us to Mr Lee’s shop. He makes the tastiest pindar cakes, using locally grown peanuts.

The Maroon Trail takes visitors to Kojo’s Town, “in the footsteps of Kojo,” the historic leader who signed the treaty on behalf of Jamaica’s Leeward Maroons. It also goes to the remains of the Old Hospital Swimming Pool, where, Grizzle says, English malaria patients were treated.

The Cemetery Trail runs to a mixed burial site populated mostly with Maroon graves, alongside the tombstones of two British soldiers. This trail ends at a bed-and-breakfast with a very special herb garden carefully tended by Auntie Poogie, whose expertise with medicinal plants is the stuff of local legend.

Fertility appears to be the order of the day, as Auntie Poogie uses the young calabash fruit to “clear” the uterus, she says, curing infertility in women. Her husband makes a “roots” drink from Poogie’s plants, which has men calling from as far away as the United Kingdom to reserve bottles for its powerful aphrodisiac effects. Thanks to this drink, Poogie says, she has three sons overseas with twenty-five grandchildren between them.

Dusk is on its way by the time we put Flagstaff behind us and head for Accompong, the largest Maroon settlement and the virtual epicentre of Cockpit Country. Maroon settlements were traditionally named for their leader, and Accompong was the brother of Kojo, who took over leadership of the community after Kojo’s death.

On 6 January each year, Accompong is the site of a celebration that brings visitors in their tens of thousands from all over the globe. Originally created to celebrate the signing of the treaty with the Redcoats, the festival has become a popular showcase for Maroon culture. Spiritual drumming, singing, and dancing go on all day, as the “players” commune with the ancestors. One of the day’s highlights is the special preparation of a wild pig, shared under the Kindah Tree, the historic meeting place used by the Maroon leadership during the wars. Some who have been lucky enough to taste a piece of the meat say it changed their luck for the better in the year that followed.

Today we are hiking from the Kindah Tree to Old Town, under the able guidance of Tyshan Rowe. Along the way, the young man, who has a talent for making jewellery, points out specific plants, indicating their various uses. The Wiss is a leafy bush that was used by the Maroons as camouflage in dreaded guerrilla attacks during the war. It produces a pod that yields a nut called cacoon — which, though naturally poisonous, can be eaten after a special process. Tyshan explains that the same nut may also be used to detect poison by placing it in a glass of suspicious water. If the water has been tampered with, he says, the nut will sink.

Old Town used to be the camp site for Kojo’s village, before a flood forced a move to the current spot known as Accompong. Now overgrown but serenely quiet, it’s said to be the burial place of several Maroon elders, including Kojo and the legendary Nanny, queen of the Maroons. Tyshan shows us the stones that mark the graves, but admits there are several different stories about the location of Nanny’s grave. Some say her body is actually buried at Moore Town, at the other end of Jamaica.

At night, the Cockpit Country is bathed in shades of darkness, and becomes even quieter. Even a gathering of men at a bar — some gambling, some chatting — is quiet by city standards.

On our way home from the Cockpits, we stop at a cook shop to have some food prepared over a wood fire. Other hungry people are gathered, and conversation is easy. The Maroons, we are told by the cook, were the originators of Jamaica’s famously spicy jerk pork, and they used to trade the meat, popular even then, for supplies. The stories just keep coming.
At the end of the journey, we’re happily tired. And we can’t help but wonder how many more stories are still in the Cockpits, wanting to be heard. How many memories waiting to be made?

 


Visit the Cockpit Country

Tours of IION Station, the indigenous Rasta village, come in half-day, three-quarter-day, and full-day packages, with appropriate meals included. Cozy wood cabins are also available for those interested in longer stays. Contact First Man at +876 285 4750.

Visitors interested in seeing Flagstaff and learning its place in history, eating traditional food, or enjoying historical reenactments, contact Michael Grizzle at +876 320 8976.

Accompong is a high-altitude piece of Jamaican history. For hiking along “The Original Trails of the Maroons” and custom caving tours, or just to visit, contact Tyshan Rowe at +876 310 4780.


Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to both Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica

  • Michael Grizzle

    Thank you for writing such a descriptive and inspiring highlight of Cockpit Country, specifically Flagstaff. It was a pleasure to meet you, and looking forward to memories being made with more visitors like you, and more stories are to be heard.

    Contact information:
    Michael Grizzle
    876.421.3473
    Michael.grizzle@yahoo.com