Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing our Treasures III - Pellew Island

I dreamed all night about the island, the Little Island, we called it when I was a child. It had many names. My parents called it Monkey Island, although there is another Monkey Island in Portland. Its real name is Pellew Island, a corruption of Peleau, named for a shadowy French hermit, who reportedly lived there, on coconuts and seafood, until he was drowned in a storm surge.

Pellew Island was given a title in 1953 – part of the land titling of Goblin Hill and San San Bay. The original plan was that there would be gracious houses on the land, each with a title to a small coastal plot, where the owners could have boathouses or cabanas. Decades of official disregard for the intentions of these titles have allowed cabanas to become mansions more or less sitting in the sea.

The Portland coastline is one of the most gorgeous in Jamaica, edged as it is by the soaring Blue Mountains. And the San San coast is nothing short of stunning, curving from Alligator Head to Whale Head and Blue Lagoon, with the jewel of Pellew Island set just offshore.

The early advocates for tourism saw this beauty and immortalized it in a 1960s Jamaica Tourist Board poster, the caption of which said: “In a world of bad air, poisoned water and litter, there are still a few virginal places. Enjoy. Quickly.” Serious t’ing.

Generations of Jamaicans – not just Portlanders – have stopped at the side of the road and looked out at the island, generations of Jamaicans have swum or rowed or rafted to the island, over the shallow seagrass beds to lie on the tiny beach, or to climb to the top and look over the miracle of the reef, and listen to the surf, rolling over and over and over.

Pellew Island is a jewel, and like a jewel, it has been privately owned - mostly by women - since the 1950s. It was bought by Baron Heinrich Thyssen in 1953 for 60 pounds Sterling, as a valentine’s gift for his fiancĂ©e, Nina Dyer of New York. The marriage didn’t last, and they divorced two years later. Nina then married Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan. I remember the island when it was owned by the Princess Aga Khan – Princess Island, was another of its names – she built a bamboo raft to one side of the little beach and scandalized everyone by sunbathing nude there. Even when owned by a Princess, though, the island was undefiled by concrete and there were no gates or security guards to keep people off. The Princess committed suicide in 1965, and in 1983, Betty Estuvez, a close companion of the Princess, bought the island for US$7,000. In 1995, the island was sold again to its current owners.

Now Pellew Island is to be “developed.” The owners seek to construct two villas – one seven bedroom and one four bedroom – on this steep, fissured, forested, fragment of limestone in the Caribbean sea. There will be decks and plunge pools and a bathroom for every bedroom, and electricity and water will have to be taken to the island via underwater conduit, and somehow a barge like boat will take the construction materials across without any damage to seagrass beds or corals, although the draught of the boat exceeds the depth of the water close to the island. The island is said to be “lightly vegetated” and virtually no trees will be touched, no land clearing will be done in the rain, there is little diversity of flora and few birds, although those who are fortunate to gaze out on the island every evening report many flocks of birds. A plateau at the summit of the island will be used – but there is no plateau worthy of the term, just a small, flattish area in a grove of bamboo. Promises, promises, I thought as I sat in the public meeting, hearing all this.

But the island is privately owned, and as we understand it, the private ownership of land conveys the right to do anything at all to that land. The Government of Jamaica could, of course, acquire the island for the public, deem it part of a scenic coastline, and keep it in its natural state for all of us. The GOJ purchases land all the time when what is needed is a road or a bauxite mine. But for a natural asset – I doubt the GOJ has ever done it.

So here’s what I’m thinking. The Tainos "owned" Jamaica until the men in Columbus’s ships took it and killed off the Tainos. And then the British captured Jamaica. There’s been a fair amount of taking and capturing, and I figure I have as much right to do some capturing as anyone. So I’m gonna invade Pellew Island with my flag of Taino symbols and I’m gonna declare it mine – mine; and the world’s. Ours. Ours to see and love and visit and snorkel the waters around and lie on the beach and sit in that grove of bamboo and hear the wind in the trees and the surf on the reef and the solider crabs rustling in the dead leaves. Ours.

I know my invasion will be symbolic rather than real; but it will be my statement that some things belong not to a single person, no matter how monied, but to humankind. Pellew Island is one such thing, and so, while we’re on the subject of Portland, is Blue Lagoon. Anyone who wants to join my invasion can e-mail me at And I will accept all suggestions for other precious places, whether private or public, in dire need of similar invasions.


Lynn Sweeting said...

you have my support.
more power to you.
bright blessings.

Anonymous said...

Please keep fighting for this place. Thanks for writing about it - and so well.