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Chapter 8. Threats of Invasion and Impending Disaster – JN Foundation

Chapter 8. Threats of Invasion and Impending Disaster

During peacetime there was a brisk trade between Jamaica and North America. Estate supplies such as staves and hoops for the hogsheads and puncheons, as well as flour and salt herring and cod for the slaves, were transported on a regular basis from North America. Lumber, mainly pine, was also imported. There was much that the colonists had in common, both groups being British. From time to time, travellers, even slaves, went from south to north or north to south. We learn from Thistlewood of Mason Quashie, a slave, setting off to the north and being given a warm coat for his journey.

One of the American vessels plying between Jamaica and New England was owned by a Capt. Vanhorne who was strongly in favour of the Americans becoming a republic. He talked openly about liberty. He intended to go to Philadelphia with 20 tons of gunpowder and 12 stand of small arms for the American rebels. The upshot was, however, that Vanhorne’s ship was seized by His Majesty’s frigate the Squirrel off Hispaniola. In turn, the Americans captured three British ships: Lady Juliana (Capt. Stephenson), the Reynolds, (Capt. Reesden), and the Juno, (Capt. Marsam).

Westmorelites were well acquainted with the growing disagreement between Britain and her thirteen North American colonies, and literature on the subject was circulated among the planters; they read titles such as “The Present State of Gt Britain and her North American Colonies,” “The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of America, being an Answer to the Declaration of the General Congress” (third edition) “Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the war with America” and “State of the National Debt” by Richard Price, D.D., F.R.S, London. There were a few Westmorelites who were sympathetic to the Americans and their cause but their fear of invasion and insurrection prevented them from giving whole-hearted support. Also, if suspected of being pro-American, they might have had brickbats thrown at their houses. Florentius Vassal, however, hoped that the Americans would win for if they did not, he felt that Britain would rule them with “a rod of iron” although he did not think that they could control 2,000 miles of American coastline for long.

By 1774 when approximately 50 American delegates met at a congress in Philadelphia, relations with the British government were critical. In May 1775 the political situation had further deteriorated and the battle of Bunker’s Hill signalled the beginning of the war. Although the British won the engagement it had cost them half of the men engaged in the action. The news that war had started was soon learned by the inhabitants of Westmoreland who were put on the alert of a possible invasion by their old enemy, the French, who had taken the side of the Americans. On December 31, 1775, when they heard guns firing they immediately thought that it was invasion, only to learn that people “drinking out the old year” had fired the shots. Now that it was wartime meetings were called in the parish to decide what should be done in case of invasion.

By the year 1776 people in Westmoreland were very jittery. The republican ideology had been discussed openly and many slaves were well aware of the situation and talk of freedom in the American colonies. Rumours reached Westmoreland from Hanover of signs of intended slave rebellion. Westmorelites heard of a store in Lucea being robbed of its cutlasses. Savanna-la-Mar was the place where news was to be gleaned; there were rumours that there had been an attempt to poison butcher’s meat in Montego Bay but what was indeed fact was that conspirators had been meeting openly in “Lucea Bay.” The insurrection was to have been islandwide and in this instance it was not led by Coromantee but by Creole slaves. The plan had been to wait until the regiment being sent to reinforce the British forces in North America had sailed from Lucea where they had been stationed but the plot was uncovered and the conspirators caught, tried and executed.

As in the Seven Years War, the authorities were not anxious that news of what was happening in Jamaica should be known abroad. Its effects on business might be disastrous and the French, allies of the Americans, might invade. Martial law was imposed and on July 27, 1776, an embargo was placed on all shipping, even on small boats carrying plantains along the coast. The fleet was delayed from sailing out of Bluefields and it was learnt that American privateers were cruising off the West End.

The situation remained tense and dangerous well into August of 1776. The town of Savanna-la-Mar took on a military atmosphere. Mustering of the militia increased, and riding out any distance was not safe as horses were often pressed into service by the army. By 1778 food supplies were getting scarcer and prices were high. There was no flour or butter to be had in Savanna-la-Mar. Ten thousand Spanish soldiers were said to be amassing in Hispaniola; the French were lurking around and had captured two slaves on the beach at Negril and at Bull-head Pen a building was being constructed for the safe-keeping of white women and children in case of invasion.

Invasion scares did not subside in 1779. On one occasion the Free Negro Company set off marching to Kingston and guards were posted at the Fort, Cross Paths and Smithfield Wharf. Then there was a false alarm and Westmorelites heard that French ships were at Black River in St Elizabeth and that a large number of French soldiers had landed and were in full march  down to  Westmoreland. There was terror and confusion as the remaining white women and blacks sought to flee from the town. There were those who had carts carrying goods to a place of safety. Finally, it turned out to be only two small French privateers. A packet coming south from Pensacola, Florida, surprised them: one escaped and the other was captured. Fifteen prisoners were taken: ten French, four Spanish, one Italian and one “Curacao negro”. There was more harassment: a French picaroon was reported to have kidnapped slaves. War was costly; it was costing the Headquarters in Kingston £3,000 a day.

It is likely that the inhabitants of Westmoreland saw more action during the war than did those of Kingston. In order for enemy ships to attack Kingston they would have to sail into its natural harbour which was protected by the Palisadoes and well guarded by the fortifications of Port Royal. But Savanna-la-Mar was vulnerable:

in May 1779, the whole Bay watched helplessly when a French privateer daringly captured Capt. Steele’s Nancy, while ships of the Cork fleet looked on and did not come to his aid.

The year 1779 was not a good year for the inhabitants of Savanna-la-Mar. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, December 7, between one and two o’clock a shell blow sending the alarm was heard by those in the vicinity of the town. Fire had started in a shop owned by Abraham Lopez and rented to a Mr White. The one fire engine which the town possessed was unable to control the flames as they moved south down the one wide street towards the fort, devouring shops, houses, doctors’ offices and taverns in its wake. Looting started with people dragging everything which they could lay their hands on into the morass and the surrounding area. Looters dug out bags of flour, casks of wine, puncheons of rum, beds, chests, trunks, tools, iron pots and iron hoops. There were few who could be persuaded to help carry water and the tide was low. Eighty tons of logwood belonging to Jeremiah Meyler added to the conflagration and finally, at 2.30 a.m. the gunpowder inside the fort blew up with a mighty blast that resounded all over Westmoreland. This calamity shows that that even without the threat of war, peacetime had its own perils and challenges for Westsmorelites.

War was still on in 1780 when Westmorelites heard that 40 men from an American privateer had landed in St Elizabeth at Parker’s Bay, stolen slaves and plundered a Mr Hogg’s house and a Jew’s shop. Consequently, the inhabitants were greatly relieved on January 27 when the fleet with the Admiral’s flag flying sailed past Savanna-la-Mar.

As a consequence of Spain’s alliance with the French and the Americans, Britain had organized an expedition against the Spanish colony of Nicaragua. The British government hoped to open communication between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and intended to take Lake Nicaragua; many Jamaicans invested in the expedition. The Spaniards, however, anticipated their carefully laid plans and the English had to abandon the invasion and retreat. An epidemic struck the men, and their artillery and ammunition were lost. Some of the survivors, three officers and 40 men, set out for Jamaica in a shabby merchant ship. After a long and difficult voyage the ship arrived at Savanna-la-Mar. Little did they know that a terrible disaster was about to happen.

On October, 3, 1780 a hurricane struck. “The town of Savanna-la-Mar was susbmerged and all the inhabitants died,” wrote Saavedra de Sangronis. This was an exaggeration but the ship carrying the troops from Nicaragua was “shattered into a thousand pieces within the port itself, without anyone escaping.”

Thomas Thistlewood, who the month before had lost his son, estimated that about 640 people lost their lives in Savanna-la-Mar as a result of the storm. The stench of dead sheep and other animals was unbearable and pirates, plunderers and thieves, both black and white, were abroad, adding to the danger. The people of Westmoreland had been quite unprepared. A sloop of war was needed as well as arms and ammunition as all had been destroyed. In addition, they feared more insurrection. The Justices of the Peace of the parish sent the following letter to the authorities for help:

The remaining destroyed inhabitants of the place, where Savanna-la-Mar once stood, beg leave to acquaint your excellency of a most dreadful calamity which befell that unfortunate town on Tuesday the 3rd Inst. The weather had appeared very indifferent for some days before, but that morning the wind became more violent than usual, with a most terrible swell of the sea, which, by afternoon, encreased [sic] to such a degree, that it has not left the wreck of six houses on both the Bay & Savanna, and not less that 300 people of all colours were drowned, or buried in the ruins – such terrible havoc was never seen in the memory of the oldest person here, nor can words, or writing, convey an idea suitable to the dismal scene…
What alarms us most, at present, is the dread of famine, which stares us in the face, and if we have not some speedy relief of bread-kind, the few, that have survived that unfortunate day, will most probably fall victims to the worst fate of perishing with hunger. In this distress we must look to the town of Kingston for relief – their humanity, it is to be hoped, will not suffer us to perish for want, or take any advantage of our misery and wretchedness, which God knows is almost as great as it can be, seeing the calamity has been so general that no one can help his neighbour, neither have many of us shelter for our heads from the inclemency of the weather, or cloaths to cover us; even fire, dreadful as it is, is nothing to what we have lately experienced…the Sea flowed up half a mile above its usual bounds, even to the heighth of ten feet.

We are with the greatest respect, Sir,

Your Excellency’s most obedient & destroyed humble servants


James Wallace

George Richardson

W. Blake

Samuel Bell

Thomas Tomlinson

John Tomlinson

W. Antrobus

David Finlayson

James Steele,

J. Munro

Archibald Duthie

G. Noble

Robert Baker

Thomas Thistlewood

James Robertson

George Woodbine

Jeremiah Meyler

J. Merrick-Williams

George Murray

H. Duncan

W. D. Williams

R. Chambers

J. Chambers

George Ingliss

John Munro

Robert Pinkney

John Dickson

Eliz. Witter

Margarey Wallace

B. Barryam

The Royal Gazette of October 13, 1780, and the supplement to the Kingston Gazette of October 14 mentioned some of those who had lost their lives in the Savanna-la-Mar disaster: Mr McDowal, the comptroller of the port, Dr King, his wife, four children, two assistants, Misses Forbes and Dallas, Mr Nesbit, a carpenter, Mrs Allwood and three children, Mrs Gibson and two children, Mr John Fitzgerald, Dr Lightfoot and Mr William Antrobus, Junr, who were found dead in the street, Messrs Aaron Touro and Moses Nunes, and his nephew, Miss Pesoa, a child of Mr Payne, Mr and Mrs W. McLean and children, Mr Slap, Mr Little, three quadroon children, and a great number of negroes. William Beckford wrote this of the disaster:

At Savanna-la-Mar there was not even a vestige of the town (the parts only of two or three houses having in partial ruin remained as if to indicate the situation and extent of the calamity;) the very materials of which it had been composed had been carried away by the resistless fury of the waves, which finally completed what the wind began. A very great portion of the poor inhabitants were crushed to death or drowned and in one house alone it was computed that forty out of one and forty souls, unhappily and prematurely perished; The sea drove with progressive violence for more than a mile into the country; and carried terror, as it left destruction wherever it passed. Two large ships and a schooner were at anchor in the bay, and were driven a considerable distance from the shore and totally wrecked … upon the land.

Many of William Beckford of Somerly’s 13 years in Westmoreland, were fraught with frustration and setbacks, the worst being the hurricanes. Following the 1780, which he so graphically described, Beckford and the other inhabitants of Westmoreland were to experience others in the years 1781, 1784, 1785, and 1786. These put him and many others into a situation of great indebtedness from which they could not recover.

Saavedra de Sangronis, who arrived in Jamaica in mid November when the havoc from the hurricane was still very evident, writing on towns in Jamaica refers to Savanna-la-Mar as “one of the largest and richest”. He noted that it had been “destroyed this very year by the famous October hurricane. Its rebuilding is being planned at present, and the government and all the other towns are lending their support to the project.”

What was most scandalous was that although there appears to have been generous donations, both from the British government and the Jamaican government, and other sources, the commissioners appointed to be responsible for the Trust funds were not impartial; persons of “rank, figure, and fortune in the community” received disbursements larger than they ought to have been granted, and those really in need were given inadequate allotments. Writing in The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica: 1770-1820, Kamau Brathwaite makes mention of a mason in Hanover who made application for relief and was told that he was too young. He was nearly fifty! Brathwaite also mentions a group of shopkeepers in Savanna-la-Mar who complained that everything that they had had been swept away in “the Torrent,” even their apparel and money, whereas although the planters had suffered loss of their houses, materials and other effects remained on spot and “they possessed abundant resources to repair their losses.” Unfortunately, money for the welfare and rehabilitation of smallholders in the community was misdirected, instead many of the

Establishment benefited.

The hurricane destroyed the Mannings school house completely, while the schoolmaster’s dwelling and offices were badly damaged. In the following year, in July 1781, a petition was presented to the Assembly asking for a grant of £405 to be given for rebuilding. The petition was passed over to a small committee for consideration and it is assumed that the repairs were carried out as there was no further mention of the matter.

Among the records at the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town is the ledger containing the earliest existing Vestry Minutes of Westmoreland. It is rare, not so much because of its age – many of the records in the Archives are of an earlier date – but it is exceptional because of its unique content. Within three and a half months, nine meetings of the Vestry were held in which decisions taken were carried out. The minutes tell a remarkable story of how the people of a town that was almost obliterated took its recovery into their own hands and survived. The court house, the symbol of authority, was built back in record time, thus ensuring that Savanna-la-Mar’s prestigious status as County Town of Cornwall was maintained.

The War of American Independence did not officially end until 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, but before it was over, the people of Westmoreland received some good news. On the morning of March 28, 1782 the report came that Admiral Rodney had captured five French ships and sunk one; Count DeGrasse and the artillery which the French had intended to use against Jamaica had been captured. Later, in May, a letter conveying thanks and gratitude to Admiral Rodney was composed by William Beckford on behalf of the parish and was signed by the prominent people of the parish.

On Wednesday May 22, 1782, the town of Savanna-la-Mar was unusually empty as many of its inhabitants went to Bluefields to have a glimpse of the fleet. The tavern there was crowded with sea-faring people and in the Bay more and more ships came sailing in to join 88 ships that were already there. On the Sandwich, a 90 gun ship, were Sir Peter Parker, and deGrasse himself. On shore, yams, limes, fowls, sheep, hogs and other provisions were being purchased. Reminders of Bluefields’ former glory lasted for three brief days before the fleet sailed west on Saturday, May 22.

A month later, on June 23, the fleet returned bringing with it captured French ships! Among them were the Ramilles, a seventy-four gun ship, and the Ville de Paris, which had a marvelous battery. Some Westmorelites were permitted to go on board and look at the ships. Both on board and on shore there was much eating and drinking and celebrating.

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