Johnny Cash at Cinnamon Hill
The first chapter of the book is entitled Cinnamon Hill, after the home Cash had in Jamaica. I didn’t know that Johnny Cash lived in Jamaica at any time in his life. In 1982, Cash and his family experienced a traumatic home invasion. Yet, Cash decided to keep his Jamaican home.
Johnny Cash bought the house from his friend, businessman John Rollins, in the mid-seventies. Cinnamon Hill was built in 1747. It was originally owned by the Barretts of Wimpole Street, the family of 19th Century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The house had survived the 1831 slave revolt that had destroyed many of the other great houses on the island. This same slave revolt is credited with having brought to the attention of the British public the horrors of slavery, helping to lead to its abolition.
Cash writes about Cinnamon Hill:
The past is palpably present in and around Cinnamon Hill, the reminders of other times and other generations everywhere, some obvious, some not. For more than a century this was a sugar plantation worked by thousands of slaves who lived in clusters of shacks all over the property. All that remains of those people now, the metal hinges from their doors and nails from their walls, lies hidden in the undergrowth on the hillsides or in the soil just below the manicured sod of the golf course that loops around my house. I doubt that the vacationers playing those beautiful links have any idea, any concept, of the kind of life that once teemed where they walk—though perhaps some do, you never know. (page 34)
Johnny describes living with ghosts, who he and his family considered harmless. The family’s real experience of terror was when their home was invaded by three young men, who took 11 year old John Carter hostage, holding a gun to his head. Cash cooperated with the thieves who he realized were not cold-blooded killers but rather poor desperate addicts (Johnny could recognize this because of his own experiences with addiction). The thieves even early on got water for Cash’s cook who thought she was having a heart attack and after locking up Johnny’s family and guests in the cellar, the thieves gave them some of their turkey dinner because they did not want to completely ruin Christmas for them.
In the aftermath of the invasion, the Jamaican prime minister, Edward Seaga, got involved and had members of the Jamaican Defense Force dispatched to guard Johnny’s home. There was fear that if such a public figure decided to leave Jamaica because of its crime it might affect the entire tourist industry. The thieves were soon caught and all of them ended up dying while in custody. Johnny was troubled by these deaths. He writes:
How do I feel about it? What’s my emotional response to the fact (or at least the distinct possibility) that the desperate junkie boys who threatened and traumatized my family and might easily have killed us all (perhaps never intending any such thing) were executed for their act—or murdered, or shot down like dogs, have it how you will?
I’m out of answers. My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I knew those boys. We had a kinship, they and I: I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me. (page 41)
This is the Johnny Cash who recorded an album at the notorious Folsom Prison. He could sympathize with criminals because of his own background of desperate poverty picking cotton in Arkansas and his battles with addiction. Johnny decided to stay in Jamaica; he just hired a private security firm to guard his house. In conclusion, he writes:
Today I can look back and see that some good came from it all. When I take my walks and golf-cart rides down to the sea, I’m often stopped by local people who greet me warmly—“Respects, Mr. Cash, respects”—and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard gratitude for my decision to stay in Jamaica. And since the robbery I’ve been more involved in Jamaican life in various ways that have been very good for me. Today I feel truly at home in this beautiful country, and I love and admire its proud and kindly people. (page 43)
The Jamaican Prime Minister at the time of Cash’s death, P. J. Patterson, sent a representative to Cash’s funeral.