Kingston boasts the seventh largest natural harbour in the world. Kingston Harbour consists of an almost landlocked area of water, roughly ten miles long and two miles wide. Much of this water, even close to shore, is deep enough to accommodate large ships. There has consequently been a whole series of wharf facilities within the Port of Kingston.
In its first 30 years, Kingston was merely one of the four ports in Kingston Harbour, the other three having been built prior to 1692. These were Port Royal (Fort Cagway), which relinquished its primacy only after visitations of earthquake, fire and tidal waves; Passage Fort, which was the main port of receiving goods for the capital of Spanish Town; Rockfort, which was a main watering place for vessels and was a small township before Kingston was founded.
When Port Royal was extensively damaged in the earthquake of 1692, the future site of Kingston began to be heavily settled, even though it was not nearly such a convenient place for the berthing of ships.
Had it not been for outports like Morant Bay, Annotto Bay, Port Maria, St. Ann’s Bay and Montego Bay, the pace of Kingston’s port development in the first half of the 18th Century would have been even faster. As it was, Kingston expanded at a reasonable rate, with an increasing number of wharves.
By 1750, Kingston was the only port of any significance in Kingston Harbour, and no less than 14-finger piers had been built along the lands that Sir William Beeston had dumped at the turn of the Century. These finger piers allowed a large number of vessels to be berthed near the source of the best navigational water and the warehouses and stores where the ships’ agents and merchants were located.
Kingston’s growth reflected an increase in merchantile activity as the city grew. The decline of the outposts was related to the fortunes of agriculture. As ships grew larger and Jamaica’s internal communications more extensive, the outports went into decline from which Kingston greatly benefited. By 1910, the wharves and the shipping lines serving them, had begun to take on a recognizable pattern and to ship modern commodities like bananas and even a few tourists.
One of the great disadvantages of the old finger-piers was that they concentrated a large number of ships on a relatively small area of shoreline. This might have been advantageous in a harbour short of deep berths and adequate access routes, but it proved a crippling disadvantage to Kingston, whose roads leading to the harbour had not been designed to take this kind of traffic.
By the mid-1950’s it was obvious that some solutions would have to be found for the problems of Kingston’s port which was becoming increasingly inadequate for the rising tide of goods flowing through it. The decision was taken to build a new port, to link in with the general plan for the development of east-west routes on the Liguanea Plain, and also with the extensive projects for expanding westwards into Hellshire Hills.
Work on the new port began in 1964. The two companies which agreed to operate Newport West were Kingston Wharves and Western Terminals. The first of these had already been operating six of the Finger-Piers, and included several companies namely Grace Kennedy, Jamaica Fruit and Royal Mail. The second, Western Terminals, brought together Lascelles de Mercado and the Henriques and Matalon groups.
Engineering work went on throughout 1965. The first ship docked at Newport West in 1966 and by 1971, the old piers had mostly been abandoned. To open Newport West, the S.S. United States, one of the largest ships to visit Jamaica up to that time, docked there on February 14, 1966.
The old wharves in the city of Kingston thus gave way to modern facilities at Newport West, and with it, the ability to handle more diverse lines of cargo. The port, now renamed Port Bustamante, in honour of the great labour leader and National Hero, Sir Alexander Bustamante, can accommodate most of the larger vessels in ocean commerce today.