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Where Cocktail Hour Never Ends: On Jamaica, Tourism, and the Remnants of Empire

Dionne Irving on Being a Foreigner in Her Ancestral Home

Nothing has ever changed at Round Hill Resort in Jamaica.

Thirty minutes from Montego Bay in Saint James Parish on the northwest end of the island, planted on a 100-acre peninsula that was once a sugar plantation, Round Hill was carved out of a dense growth of coconut, pineapple, and pimento trees in the early 1950s.

Today, the resort is staffed by the same dark-skinned Jamaicans who would’ve cut the cane on the old plantation, who would’ve gathered and carried the fruits in the groves, who would’ve cut back and chopped down the heavy, lush flora to make room for what would become a retreat for the famous and the uber-wealthy guests who, for seventy years now, have also been—for the most part—white. Round Hill today still looks like a place that might have been envisioned by the 1950s Palm Beach photographer Slim Aarons, if he’d had a Caribbean sensibility. Imagine white-washed cottages, shaded garden paths, hibiscus flowers, and the shabby chic of the WASP austere in paradise.

After our arrival and rum punches at check-in, the porter leads my husband and me away from the smart boutique hotel and down a shaded path towards the villas, the most expensive accommodations on their grounds. The man, clad in a crisp white uniform top and creased black bottoms, walks in front of us and climbs a staircase made of smooth flat stones that passes through an archway of bougainvillea. Scanning the grounds, my husband looks frantic. He leans toward me and, under his breath, asks, “Are you sure this is what you booked? This is going to be crazily expensive.”

“This absolutely is NOT what I’ve booked,” I whisper back. “But just go with it.”

The room has been prepaid and our card already charged, so if there has been a mistake, I am not saying anything. And maybe it is fate, for when the doors of the suite open, I find that we have been assigned to Noël Coward’s former residence.

*

“Tourism” did not exist as a word in the English language until the Industrial Revolution. To travel without business interests, for work, or to visit family is an idea rooted in technology. It was technology that allowed our species to get from one place to another more quickly; it was technology that freed up the time and space in human existence to experience leisure, to think about how to fill the hours in the day when not focused entirely on the idea and act of staying alive—well, at least if you were white.

Even—or perhaps particularly—in the land of my ancestors, I am expected to be the servant and not the guest.

At a population of 2.7 million people living in the country, Jamaica is the most populous island in the Caribbean. That 2.7 million, however, is only a fraction of the Jamaican diaspora scattered across the world. Using the Ancestory.com genetic history simulation app that begins its narrative in the 1800s, I watch the tiny dots that signify bits of my DNA begin moving like homing pigeons bound toward Jamaica with increasing speed and frequency through time.

In they fly—my ancestors, or fragments of them—from Nigeria and Burkina Faso, from Somalia, Sri Lanka and China, from France, and England, and Scotland. This piece of technology allows me visualize my ancestors—those enslaved and those free—as bits of genetic material that make up the person I am: a product of immigration, of copulation, and of slavery—my genetic code, a map of the world. But according to a lot of Jamaicans, particularly those of a certain age, I am not “really” Jamaican. I have never lived there. Have never spent more than a consecutive month on the island, almost always with long stretches in between. I am, as “real” Jamaicans say, Foreign.

*

Nothing has ever changed at Round Hill Resort. Because Round Hill is the Jamaica of the tourists’ imagination—if you can afford it. John Pringle, the Jamaican-born son of Brits, imagined it as a kind of compound where rich people could spend time with the people they liked best: other rich people. Guests who purchased the villas would share the hotel’s profits and not have to worry about the pesky upkeep of a Caribbean cottage.

Playwright Noël Coward was among the first of these owner/shareholders, and with him came every bright light of the 1950s. It was where John F. Kennedy wrote and rehearsed his inauguration speech. Ian Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock, and Paul Newman are among those who’ve sunned themselves on Round Hill’s half-moon–shaped coastline. It is where Prince Harry and Megan Markle stay when they are on the island. So, too, do the likes of Paul McCartney, Emma Watson, Michael Douglas, Anna Wintour, and Emma Thompson. How Stella Got Her Groove Back was filmed there, as was a scene from the 1966 movie In Like Flint. And on its highest point—High Rock—sit the two houses Ralph Lauren purchased almost 40 years ago. “The house has an Englishness I’ve always liked,” Lauren said in an interview, “an Old-World elegance. I call it a jewel.”

Jamaica was always a kind of jewel set in that place that exist now mostly in name only: the British West Indies. Jamaica sweetened the Empire. Those dots of mine both cut the cane and sold it. Those dots that worked the land, those dots that worked the people. But it wasn’t yet paradise. Not yet a place for fun. My body: a kind of walking museum of those people hardy enough to survive what was called “acclimatization fever,” hardy enough to survive those early days of fetid meat or the heat that might kill the enslaved Africans and/or the colonizers, first Spanish and then English.

*

Nothing has ever changed at Round Hill Resort. A 1954 pamphlet for Round Hill exclaims that the place accents a “do as you please” way of life. If you can afford paradise, you go. And today paradise at Round Hill can run upwards of $1,000 a night, a price tag that would normally keep me and my husband out. But a spate of traveling in the two previous years had built up our points so that, when coupled with a small research grant, we accessed the ultimate pass to bourgeois luxury. Our visit was ostensibly a research trip, part of what would become a story in my collection, a story about what it means to be Jamaican and to not be Jamaican; to enjoy the trappings of the wealthy, but to not be wealthy yourself. And so, in the summer after our son was born, my husband and I took him to Jamaica. The baby was only three months old, and when I told my pediatrician we would be taking him, she shrugged and said, “Just be careful.”

Be careful is something people say to you when they know you are going to travel. But what does it mean to be careful in the country that is both yours and not yours? I’d been many times before, but never with an infant, and I had mostly stayed with family when I visited the island. But with my little caravan, and my remaining relations having died or become ill or elderly, a hotel seemed the best option. We stayed in New Kingston in the same hotel as my parents, Jamaicans who lived in Nashville at the time. They’d wanted to spend time with their new grandson on the island—to plant something of it within him, I suspect. We spent three weeks traveling around the country, visiting family, showing my husband the less “touristy” Jamaica as I did research for my next novel.

We had been married for four years, and with the new biological connection between us, it seemed important for him—my son, yes, but also my husband,—to see not just where I came from, but where my people came from.

The Jamaican motto is “Out of Many, One People.” These many include Harry Belafonte—his mother’s dots coming from Edinburgh and Africa, his father part Black and part Sephardic Jew. Belafonte was raised by his Jamaican grandmother and attended one of Kingston’s best boy’s schools. Or Michael Lee-Chin, a Jamaican self-made billionaire who shares my mother’s nutty brown skin and Chinese-Jamaican ancestry. The motto is one I think about a lot. It is on my face, in the way I talk, my dark skin and the deep swath of colonialism that cuts a straight path though my otherwise kinky hair. But in Jamaica I am never sure what I am—traveler or tourist. At Round Hill, surrounded by the wealthy, in the country where my parents were born, most of the people waiting on my husband and me could be my relations.

*

At Round Hill I am constantly asked if I know how to find the pool. If I know when high tea will be served, or when the gift shop will be open. Even—or perhaps particularly—in the land of my ancestors, I am expected to be the servant and not the guest. When people tell me they have been to Jamaica, they always say “And the people there are so friendly.” Friendliness. So much a part of the paradigm of colonial travel, and we feel it at Round Hill, greeted with large smiles from all of the staff, at the daily two o’clock high tea, by the man who brings us trays heavy with food up the cobblestone steps to our villa each evening.

It all feels like a page from a primer about empire, and my husband—white, American, Midwesterner—cannot stand it. The desire to make ourselves feel a part of a community even as we seek out those experiences that other us is one of the paradoxes of travel. My husband wants so much to feel my country, my culture, to be a part of it. And I, a new mother? I only want to rest. Perhaps there is something comforting in having these people who look like me, who sound like me, taking care of me. Even if we are paying them. Even if they are not family.

In the months after I gave birth, all I wanted was yard food, which in Jamaican parlance is food cooked in your yard, your home. The foods of the Island, of my mother country. My mother tongue was calling, not for language but instead for escovitch fish, fried ripe plantains, boiled dumplings and oxtail, jerk chicken and festival. I could not get enough, as if I needed to replenish myself with the foods of my ancestors to make my body whole again.

*

At Round Hill, we didn’t have to lift a finger. Every need would be met. Our villa was assigned a cook who made breakfast and lunch and kept the small kitchen tidy. She made my husband uncomfortable, and she in turn was made uncomfortable by him. He hated having her cook us breakfast (a meal we rarely ate anyway), and she was irritated, too, that each morning she was made to bustle uselessly around the kitchen. With that peculiar breed of Jamaican passive aggression, she would ask us every morning if we wouldn’t be having any breakfast that morning and set her face into a tight hard line.

“Primrose is so nice,” my husband said.

“No, she isn’t,” I said. “That’s just what it looks like when you are paid to be nice.”

But my husband, ever the Midwesterner, would go into the kitchen and chat with her. He would bring in our baby for her to examine and ask her questions about mothering. When he finally agreed to let Primrose make breakfast one day, a meal that we didn’t want and that would cost us more than 6000 Jamaican dollars (or about $40 USD), he meticulously wrapped the leftovers to snack on later. He arranged and rearranged the snacks that we’d got at a Kingston grocery store so that he could forego the pricy Round Hills meals. His midwestern austerity and his awareness of his white privilege bumped up against my desire to immerse myself fully in the project of Round Hill.

To eat the foods of my ancestors, cooked in the lands of my ancestors, both parts of my DNA wanting to be satisfied, being in the land of my people while being cared for by my people… in absolute luxury of a kind I’d never experienced before. After tea one afternoon, I met a Jamaican doctor who had lived in Baltimore for thirty years. I asked him why he came to Round Hill instead of staying with friends or family in the community. “Oh, it’s just… easier,” he said with a sigh. “I want to be here. But it’s hard to really be here.” My husband and I went around and around about this, coming back again to Primrose and her breakfast that included both cornmeal porridge and French toast and more fresh-cut fruit than either of us eat in a year.

“Why don’t you just talk to her,” he said.

“Because,” I insisted, “that isn’t how this works.”

*

Jamaican tourism began in the late 19th century as the moneyed classes came in from England and North America. The oldest hotels, originally billed as health spas for the wealthy and/or the convalescing, were built first in Montego Bay and Port Antonio. Starting in 1930, flights on PanAm made Jamaica accessible for even the middle-class tourist.

In 1854, about 30,000 Americans went abroad, and by 1954, almost a million American citizens left the United States in a year. By the mid 20th century, travel had become a status symbol, indicating a certain standard of living, and travel itself became an industry. In 1938, as part of a growing discussion of tourism in Jamaica, a newspaper printed these words by the journalist K.G. Hill about the island’s recent influx of tourists:

A menace to the country. How can you expect us to develop into a nation if all our interests are to be subjected as they are to the interests of foreigners who don’t care a damn about us except to use us to fill their recollections of the naïve of some underdeveloped Island which they have visited for sheer sport and pleasure? Develop the tourist trade and perhaps you may have a ‘nation of waiters.’ We will become more servile and be further away from self-government.

Hill was right. Or at least he was prescient in his analysis. By midcentury, the health of the country’s economy became inexorably linked with tourism. Jamaica gained independence as the British crown began giving up the ghost of Empire in the long wake of the second world war. In 1962, the Jamaican Independence Act made the island an independent nation with the Queen as head of state. At that point, a quarter-million tourists a year were visiting Jamaica.

*

Nothing has ever changed at Round Hill. At Round Hill, we sat on the private beach sipping cocktails and staring at Ralph Lauren’s house, perched on the edge of a cliff, while our baby, sun-baked and sleepy, napped on a chaise lounge. Not far from us, two women in tiny bikinis ordered drinks at the outside bar. Three months post-partum after a particularly difficult delivery, I hated those women. Any new mother would, with her body some kind of mutated talisman for the project of procreation.

They flirted with the bartender as he blended their tacky frozen drinks. They were clearly American. We all understood this. The women swung their hair and gyrated to the generic reggae that barely registered over the sound of the ocean as it floated out of speakers hidden in the faux-thatched roof of the bar. The rum made them bolder, and they touched the bartender suggestively, competitively flirting with him as they got him to alternately take pictures of them and then with them. They invited him to help them explore Montego Bay. He smiled, but ultimately demurred. When, finally, they went to swim in the pool, my husband turned to the bartender, saying, “I think that they liked you, man.”

The bartender laughed, wiping up the sticky mess the women had left on the bar top. “I don’t need a K9 visa badly enough for whatever was going on with them,” he said.

*

I’d mentioned visiting a plantation home to cab driver who ferried us from the airport out to Round Hill. A man who called himself “Morris the Cat” after the 1970s cat food commercial. Instead of Rose Hall Plantation, Morris the Cat suggested we go instead to Greenwood Great House. It was he said, not touristy like Rose Hall. This was the place, he said, looking at me askance. To really learn our history.

All the people who built this place—who really built this place—long dead, and I, surveilling the land falling away before me, new life strapped to my chest.

So Morris took us, up a winding road a few miles outside of Montego Bay, to land that had been granted to Hersey Barrett by the Crown. The Barretts prospered, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, they owned more than 84,000 acres of land and more than 2,000 slaves. The head of the family—and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s father—Edward Barrett returned to England to enjoy the fruits of his wealth (but not his own labor). Elizabeth Barrett Browning never set foot in the country that provided her family’s money. The house that remains had been “only” a guest house or used for parties. The Barrett’s main residence, called Cinnamon Hill, was owned by Johnny Cash for 30 years and later opened as a tourist attraction in the mid-to-late 20th century. Unlike some of the other planation homes that serve only as museums, the owners of Greenwood Great House continue to use the house as a residence. They sleep in the beds of their ancestors and entertain guests alongside the shackles once used to restrain the people their ancestors enslaved.

Morris dropped us at the front gate, the house ringed with flowers seeming smaller at first glance. Inside, a lone woman at a cash register sold us tickets. We were the only guests that day, walking around furniture, both originals and reproductions, slave-catching devices—the stuff of nightmares—while in the next room, we envied a gorgeous library filled with antique books. All the while our baby strapped to my husband’s chest.

One aspect of this house’s aesthetic is what Round Hill seemed to want to capture: a sanitized imagining of empire and imperialism against the backdrop of paradise. But Greenwood includes the devices of torture that refer directly to the island’s participation in a slaving past. Round Hill, of course, does not. Wouldn’t be good for business. Greenwood Great House is the Pinterest board Round Hill makes every year. Round Hill wants you to recall one side of slavery—the luxury of having every whim and need attended to—perhaps indirectly. But Round Hill obfuscates you to the other—the reality of an enslaved existence. All of the Black people serving you seem to want to serve you. That’s perhaps the most powerful illusion because it most fully anticipates the desire of the guests.

As we waited for Morris the Cat in the lobby at the end of our tour of Greenwood, we saw this poster that read:

His Majesty the King Empower is personified in every Englishman abroad and order must be given in a suitably imperious tone. Shout, if necessary, God is your authority.

 –1908 Tourist Handbook

These words, a beautiful, unironic memento of Empire, of a time and place that no longer exist—if they ever did. As the remnants of a sugar plantation crumbled around the Greenwood Great House, the desire to hold on the past struck me as both charming and misguided.

We paused on the second-floor balcony, the breeze from the ocean making its way up the cliff side and through the house to keep it cool. All the people who built this place—who really built this place—long dead, and I, surveilling the land falling away before me, new life strapped to my chest.

On one of our final nights in Jamaica, I had just finished feeding our son and my husband returned from his walk around the grounds. He was smiling, as if he’d just heard a joke. “Go to the tennis court. Now,” he said, taking the baby. “The last remnant of Empire is there.”

As I set off down the manicured path, the sun sat low on the horizon. I walked slowly, enjoying the beauty of the island, the feel of the coming night’s breeze cool on my face. The land of my people is a truly beautiful place and I feel lucky each time I get to go. I came through a clump of greenery and into the open space, and there he was. The man was tall and thin, and his sun-burnt and blotchy skin seemed somehow redder set against his completely white, wispy, thinning hair. He wore the kind of outfit you might wear to a themed party set on Fantasy Island.

But his light blue guayabera and linen pants were not ironic in any way, nor was the scotch he sipped an Irish lace–cut crystal tumbler. As he watched two young women in tennis whites, their own skin reddening in the light of late day as they whacked a ball back and forth, he commented on the action in a clipped British public-school accent familiar to viewers of Downtown Abbey. I imagine that, during his lifetime, the glorious sunshine of the British Empire had spanned the earth, including this lost little slice of paradise.

He was perfect in the role I had imagined. The kind of man who would shout to let you know he was British. Who didn’t need to turn his head as another scotch appeared in his hand mere moments after he put the finished drink down, the slip of a dark-skinned woman who’d replaced it disappearing into the twilight shadows beneath the trees without sound. He, like the setting sun, was of a fading breed, one that imagined it was Providence for him to be here, for him to control the movements of people and commerce across the globe, the kind of person who perpetuated the idea of adventure as a verb. Nothing has ever changed at Round Hill. But it will.

“That’s quite good,” he called to one of the players who’d sliced a one-handed backhand into the corner.

Quite good indeed, I thought.

_____________________________________

The Islands by Dionne Irving is available now via Catapult. 

Dionne Irving
Dionne Irving
Dionne Irving is originally from Toronto, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Story, Boulevard, Lit Hub, Missouri Review, and New Delta Review, among other journals and magazines. Her first novel Quint came out in the fall of 2021. She currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program and the Initiative on Race and Resilience at the University of Notre Dame, and lives in Indiana with her husband and son. The Islands is her latest book.





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