Since my first visit to Seaford Town, about a year ago, I’ve wanted to return – mostly to photograph a few of the traditional German cottages I’d noticed there.
I got my chance this past weekend. This time, it wasn’t only about the cottages, it was to introduce Inge, my cousin’s German friend, who was visiting Jamaica for the first time, to Seaford Town, the largest German settlement here. I’m glad I returned as this visit offered a lot more interaction with residents than the previous one and yielded more information about the town.
Seaford Town was created in 1835 when the government at the time purchased 500 acres of land from a Lord Seaford, who owned the Montpelier Estate, to settle Germans who’d been recruited from Bavaria, Westphalia, and Waldeck.
With slavery about to come to an end, the planters thought of bringing in additional help to work the plantations. They probably also realized that for their own safety they needed to increase their numbers. (The Christmas rebellion of 1831 resulted in the deaths of 14 whites, about 500 slaves and property damage in the millions of pounds.)
They came up with a winning solution: recruit whites from Europe. One Dr. Lemonious received a grant from the House of Assembly to recruit 500 Germans.
I wasn’t able to determine why Lemonious picked these particular areas of Germany. Nevertheless, he would have known of the upheavals, economic and otherwise, that the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars had caused. And being German, he would have known that German men, who were required to do military service, would know how to use guns. In fact, the new immigrants were armed when they arrived, and they not only increased the number of whites in Seaford Town, they were the planters’ line of defense against the former slaves.
The first group of Germans landed in Jamaica towards the end of 1835, another followed the next year. A third arrived in 1839. In all, 300 people with names like Sourlenders, Skelding, Somers, Sleiger, Eisinger, Dusterdick, Bierbusse, Fisher, and Myhaust landed in Jamaica.
Driving from Montego Bay to Seaford Town, I tried to visualize how the land, which would have been covered by a sea of unfamiliar vegetation, would have looked to the new immigrants. I also tried to imagine how they might have felt having been at sea for almost a month then to be greeted by oppressive heat, and bugs.
To add insult to injury, on arrival, there weren’t enough buggies to take them to Seaford Town so some had to walk the 25 miles from Reading, near Montego Bay, through the mountainous terrain. They didn’t have the luxury of the not-so-great roads we have today. That journey alone certainly would have caused them pause, maybe even panic and desperation. A few ‘fortunate’ ones, died on arrival, some later on.
Seaford Town is located in hills of Westmoreland. It is almost surrounded by mountains. Back then, the little settlement would have been overgrown with vegetation.
Today’s Seaford Town is marked by a welcome sign, which is at the end of a T-junction. We took the right end of the ‘T’ but I suspect the left would have taken us into town as well. Neat homes, some of traditional construction, peak out from behind flowering plants.
A few yards in, we stopped to talk with this gentleman. A German descendant, he introduced himself as a Mr. Kameka. The first thing he asked Inge was where she was from. The west, Stuttgart, she replied. He told us proudly that his family was from “the east.” But when Inge stood next to him, we noticed some resemblance. They could have passed for siblings.
Passing through town, we made our way to Sacred Heart, the Catholic Church at the center of Seaford Town. About three-quarters of the Germans here are Catholics, the remainder Lutheran.
Sacred Heart also has a small cemetery. We examined most of the markers that were still intact to see if any had Inge’s family name or names she recognized.
Delroy Hacker, our tour guide and a German descendant, joined us after we’d toured the cemetery. As he tells it, lavish promises of land, housing and easy money had been made to the immigrants. The reality was different.
According to Mr. Hacker, from the stories handed down through his family, his forebears found life in Seaford Town totally unsuitable. Apparently, Lord Seaford had sold the government the least arable part of his land and the immigrants didn’t know how, what or when to plant. Many went hungry, some stole produce the slaves had planted for their own needs.
In addition, they had to deal with local diseases like yellow fever and cholera. Some died.
Since they spoke a different language and were neither planter nor slave, they would certainly have felt isolated in this alien and remote environment so they kept to themselves, marrying each other, when necessary.
Eventually, a Mr. Broadfoot who was appointed their superintendent, taught them to plant coffee, bananas and ginger.
Since I’d done the tour of the museum before, I didn’t this time but Inge and my cousin did. The museum is housed in what was a classroom at the basic school after a fire destroyed the previous building.
Recently, the German mission in Jamaica donated funds that were used to build bathroom facilities. There are plans to move the museum into its own space once more funds become available.
Mr. Hacker said he hoped the museum would be moved off church property as it languishes when there’s a priest who has no interest in the community’s history.
Following the tour, which lasts about 30-45 minutes, I asked Inge what she thought.
It’s so sad, was all she said.
For most of the morning, I’d been getting a feeling I hadn’t yet named. It wasn’t until Inge voiced it that it clicked. The early Germans here would have felt quite forlorn and that current of sadness, along with the stories, has flowed from generation to generation.
When asked if some traditional meals or ways of cooking were retained, Mr. Hacker said no. He also said they’d lost their language – no one spoke German now though, in the early days, according to Marguerite Curtin’s book, The Story of Westmoreland, there had been a school which taught students in German.
We wondered why they didn’t return but they probably wouldn’t have wanted to, perhaps out of embarrassment and a sense of failure.
After they were taught how to plant, some saved enough from the sale of ginger to finance their passage to the U.S. Another wave of immigration, in the 1940s, saw more Germans leave for Canada. Today, according to Mr. Hacker, less than 100 descendants live in Seaford Town and each year, the number of “fair skinned” people dwindles. Whereas, previous generations stayed together and intermarried, the younger descendants have been marrying blacks and others.
Asked whether he’d leave, Mr. Hacker said no. He’d traveled to England for training while he’d been in the Jamaican army but he didn’t like the cold. Back in Seaford Town, he’d owned a gas station and had been involved in several other ventures, including being a tour guide. He does few tours now.
At the church, we met a new generation of Kamekas, the most common name we noticed at the cemetery. In talking with the young man in the photo, we asked about school. There’s no high school in town so he travels each day to one located about 20 miles away. When he said that, I thought about and mentioned my high school classmate, also a Kameka who used to travel about 30 miles to attend school in the capital, Savanna la Mar. Change comes slowly, and sometimes not at all. There is a vocational training school, however.
What struck us though, was how little he knew of the history of his community and his town. But then again, when I was his age, my interest was definitely in the present.
We left Seaford Town enlightened but a bit saddened by the stories of broken dreams and promises not kept. As you can imagine, there are hundreds of those here in Jamaica.
Visiting Seaford Town
Seaford Town NGO organizes tours of the town.
Contact Frances Brown at 876-301-1365 to make arrangements.