AT SOME point in the first few decades of the early nineteenth century, a young man from Scotland is said to have sat in the shade of a giant cotton tree that stood on the main road between Kingston and Spanish Town, not far from the then popular Ferry Inn. He wasn’t merely taking in the sight of what must surely have been a dramatic natural landmark, nor was he relaxing, using the tree as a rest stop along the way in his many travels. This man, Michael Scott, sat. Perhaps inspired by the pervasive calm he felt in the shade of the gentle giant, he wrote about his time in Jamaica, inventing a dashing young character named Tom Cringle who had left his native England on board a ship called the Torch, to seek his fame and fortune. Scott based his writing on his own experiences, and he knew the Jamaica of the 1820s and 30s well, for he too had arrived to seek his fortune. While on the island, he had worked in a mercantile house and as a plantation agent.
Tom Cringle’s Log, the popular 1830s seafaring adventure tale for which Scott was to be remembered and from which the tree was named, was replete with melodramatic stories of piracy, smuggling, slavery and war. First published as a serial in Britain’s Blackwoods magazine from 1829 to 1833, it appeared as a novel in 1834. In Tom Cringle’s Log, Scott revealed the impact the tree’s size made on his senses, noting the tree’s shadow as being at least 100 ft in diameter and its trunk to be 20 ft. through, of solid timber.
|A sign erected in the stump of the tree that remained, telling of the tree that once stood.|
Some 150 years later, on Monday, January 18, 1971, after witnessing the demise of the horse and carriage, the birth of the dual lane highway, the naming of new parishes and the birth of a new nation, Tom Cringle’s cotton tree collapsed at 7:30 p.m., blocking traffic for over a day. Some say the tree collapsed because the highway was built too close to its roots, others say it was struck by lightning during a storm and rotted from the inside out.
Its fall marked the demise of a historical landmark. Reported to be one of the largest cotton trees on the island, if not the largest, Tom Cringle’s tree had watched more than 300 years of Jamaican history go by. Like many other cotton trees, this one was known for its vast size and ability to dominate its surroundings. Witnesses said the mammoth tree fell apart limb by limb until the crown crumbled, causing a sensation not unlike a minor earthquake. One of the branches is said to have narrowly missed a truck. The National Trust indicated interest in seeing that pieces of the branches were made into souvenirs. All that remained was a small green stalk along one of the many roots for some, at the time, a symbol of hope that the tree would rise again.
A year earlier one of the Cringle tree’s branches was removed to accommodate the highway. At that time representatives from the Institute of Jamaica, the Jamaica Tourist Board and the National Heritage Trust came together to plead for its preservation; Dr. Bernard Lewis, Director of the IOJ, made the fateful prediction that the tree did not have long to live.
The Cringle tree was also mentioned in Lady Nugent’s Journal of her stay in Jamaica from 1801-1805 while her husband was governor.
The cotton tree, called the ‘God Tree’ by the Asante, is native to tropical America. Unlike most tropical trees it sheds its leaves and for several months appears bare before creamy white flowers begin to bloom, followed by new leaves. The Mayas of Guatemala regard the tree as sacred and it is, in fact, the national tree of that country. In Jamaica, the Tainos used cotton trees to make hammocks, as well as canoes, a tradition continued by Jamaican fishermen. It is said that one should never take an axe to a cotton tree without first sprinkling some white rum, for fear of the spirits that lie within. Specific types of duppies known as ‘Whooping Boy’ are said to dwell at the roots of cotton trees. Rumour has it that at some point
during its history the Cringle cotton tree was used as a hanging tree and that those duppies haunted the tree thereafter.
Throughout Jamaican history, other cotton trees have given their names to places, including Spur Tree Hill and Half-Way-Tree (the latter named by the English for the tree’s location half way between Kingston Harbour and Spanish Town; the tree, which no longer stands, was used as a marker between the three plantations once owned by the wealthy Spaniards, Liguaney, de Yalis and Lizama. It was also used as a resting place by slaves and English soldiers on long marches.