Columbus anchored in Montego Bay in 1494 and called it Gulf of Good Weather. In 1655 a settlement appeared on Spanish maps: Manterias, after the Spanish word manteca, or lard, from the days when the Spanish shipped ‘pig’s butter’ derived from the herds of wild hogs that flourished in the nearby hills. Following the British takeover that year, the parish of St James was established. As sugar was planted, Montego Bay took on new importance, and St James became the most important sugar-producing parish on the island. Wealthy planters and merchants erected lavish townhouses and a parish church. Many original buildings perished in fires and hurricanes, which also destroyed valuable records in the western part of the island, obscuring this early history.
Montego Bay and its hinterland were the setting for the slave rebellion of Christmas 1831, when estates throughout St James were put to the torch. Militia and regular troops stationed in Montego Bay quickly quelled the revolt, and the courthouse became a center for savage retribution.
After emancipation in 1834 the sugar trade slipped into decline. The city once again languished until it was revived by the development of the banana trade, and by the tourist trade that developed in the late 1880s when Dr Alexander G McCatty founded a sanitarium at what is today Doctor’s Cave Beach. Rich Americans and Britons flocked onto the banana boats to ‘take the waters.’ Many later bought homes here, adding luster to Montego Bay.
During WWII the US Air Force built an airstrip east of town, which in the postwar years served to open up Montego Bay to tourism on a larger scale. Round Hill and Tryall resorts were built west of town, cementing MoBay’s chic reputation.
In the late 1960s the bay was dredged, and Montego Freeport was constructed (the port is now a center of light industry). Later, a separate cruise-ship terminal appeared, launching a new breed of visitor.
In the 1990s the resort became somewhat jaded, but in recent years it has been revived and spruced up with a discernible makeover. Gloucester Ave is safer than ever, the cruise ships are back en masse, and even downtown has been revivified to the point where timid cruise-ship passengers dare to walk off their sea legs while taking in some of the splendid Georgian architecture.