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Chapter 9. Still in the Grip of Slavery – JN Foundation

Chapter 9. Still in the Grip of Slavery

Planters of Jamaica had long recognized that the food supply for the slave population was grossly inadequate and that it was imperative that other plants should be cultivated to lessen the threat of starvation. The hurricanes of the 1780s made it abundantly clear that this was necessary, and the frequent wars aggravated the situation as when there were blockades during wartime, wheat flour and salt fish from North America could not be obtained. These were mainstays of the slaves’ diet. What is often not mentioned, however, is that both during wartime and peacetime, the large British fleets, and ships of other nationalities came into port to victual their ships with not only wood and water but also with provisions for their voyages.1 As we have seen, from Spanish times, there was no place better in the island from which to obtain an abundance of provisions than the parish of Westmoreland, through its famous wharf at Bluefields.

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The encouragement of Sir Joseph Banks, 1743-1820, eminent scientist and explorer, who had gone on an expedition to the South Seas and was familiar with the breadfruit and its nutritional value, made it possible for the Jamaican planters in their House of Assembly to get the support of George III. The services of Captain William Bligh were obtained to go to Tahiti and other islands of the South Seas to collect and transport back to Jamaica suckers of the breadfruit tree. In late December 1787, Bligh left England in the HMS Bounty on his long journey to the South Seas. The story of the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian which took place in 1789 on board the Bounty is well known; all the precious suckers collected in Timor and Tahiti were dashed overboard by the mutineers, who put Bligh and 18 loyal crew members in the ship’s long boat to drift back to Timor, 3,518 nautical miles away. At length, returning to England, at the Commission of Enquiry into the loss of the Bounty, he was eventually exonerated for his conduct in the affair and set about preparing for a second voyage. In 1791, once more, the intrepid Captain Bligh set out from Britain on his mission South Seas to obtain the breadfruit.

On January 30, 1793, Capt William Bligh arrived in Jamaica on the Providence accompanied by his other ship, the Assistant, captained by Lieut. Nathaniel Portlock. To the onlookers on shore at Port Royal, the ships looked like a “floating forest” for they were filled with breadfruit suckers and other rare plants from the South Seas. It was reported that they were in a flourishing condition.

In all, there were 346 breadfruit suckers, 66 were allotted to the Botanical Gardens in Bath, St Thomas-in-the-East, 30 to Spring Gardens Estate in Gordon Town, St Andrew, and the rest, were to be distributed in the three counties  of Surrey,   Middlesex  and Cornwall. Lieut. Portlock was delegated to sail to Savanna-la-Mar and hand the plants over to the Hon. George Murray, Custos of Westmoreland, who with Messrs Mure and Wedderburn would see to their distribution to various estates in the county of Cornwall. On receiving the plants in Savanna-la-Mar, Mr Murray was paid £63 for sundry expenses. The breadfruit suckers were distributed as follows:

St Elizabeth                                                             12

Westmoreland                                                         15

Hanover                                                                  16

St James                                                                  16

Trelawny (established in 1770)                               22

Concerning those breadfruit in Westmoreland, Mr Murray’s sucker was “very thriving” and Samuel Jeffries’ one at Shrewsbury was “strong and vigorous.” A Mr Stanford had one growing in the mountains in the “highest health”; Julines Herring’s was in a flourishing condition, as was Mr B. Shirley’s at Petersfield. Mr Lewis not only had a breadfruit sucker but also a nanka, and an ay-yah, all three plants were flourishing. The Assistant stayed some time at Bluefields and while there, Lieut. Tobbin painted a beautiful watercolour of the Bay.

Thirty-two other rare plants, besides the breadfruit, were brought into the island by Captain Bligh, among them were 43 ayyah (Jambo apple of the East) 52 nanka (jackfruit) 26 rattah, a chestnut like fruit, 11 avee (Otaheiti apple). The karambola, the blimbing and the peeah (sago) were also included and there were 12 plants of the ettow, a red dye.

In 1802, Governor Nugent and his wife, Maria arrived in Westmoreland from Knockalva in Hanover on April 15. Breakfast was ready at the home of the Wedderburns at Paradise. In her journal, Maria Nugent noted that it was a good house “in a lovely situation altogether.” As soon as the meal was over she went with her husbandtothe parade groundnear the town where her husband reviewed first the militia, and then the 83 regiment; he also had to inspect the barracks, and the hospital. There were several ladies of Savanna-la-Mar waiting to greet Maria Nugent and after Governor Nugent’s official duties, they went to a second grand breakfast, this time at the home of Major and Mrs Dunbar.

The carriage of the Custos, the Hon George Murray, was waiting to take them on to his house. Maria Nugent described the Murray’s as “a comfortable old couple” who welcomed them in a plain manner with less fuss than the usual. Mr Murray had been Custos of Westmoreland for a considerable length of time, and it will be recalled that he had been Custos at the time when the terrible storm of 1780 struck the town. From what Maria Nugent describes, Savanna-la-Mar seemed to have recovered pretty well for she mentioned a well-built court house that they visited, but the memories of that terrible tidal wave had not been forgotten. The Murrays told her that they had barely got out of their house in time before it was blown down and that they had had to shelter in an old carriage which was on the ground without wheels. She heard more of the disaster when she was with her husband at the fort and met a man who had survived it. He actually showed her the spot where waves had rushed in, carrying all before them and then had retreated, bearing the houses out to sea with helpless people in them.

At the Murrays, the Nugents welcomed the opportunity to rest quietly, and then, he went off to dine with the militia while she sat down to a profuse dinner, with many ladies, and a few gentlemen. Unfortunately, Maria Nugent did not record the dishes on the menu but she did note that it was a dull occasion: the ladies had very little to say, and kept staring at her, so she had to try to keep up a lively conversation with the rector of the parish, a Mr Stewart, who gave her the impression of being a rather illiterate person, though well-meaning. Always ready to hear some gossip, she mentions in her Journal that he had been an overseer for Mr Wedderburn who had purchased the living2 at Savanna-la-Mar for Mr Stewart as a reward for his services.

The following day was Good Friday, but the Nugents would be leaving Westmoreland quite early for their next stop in the parish of St Elizabeth. They had breakfast at seven and then accompanied by a number of gentlemen, went to visit the church. She doubted whether there would be any Good Friday service, but had they stayed, she felt that the rector, Mr Stewart. would have dressed up in his vestments for the sake of appearances.

The Beckfords were not the only Westmoreland family to have immense influence on eighteenth century Europe. The granddaughter of Florentius Vassall, owner of Friendship, Greenwich and Sweet River, was also to play a leading role in fashionable London society. Elizabeth Vassall (1770-1845) was a young girl in Westmoreland when the Beckfords were at their zenith in London. She was sent off to school in England and at the age of 16 married Sir Godfrey Webster, a man 20 years her senior, for whom she bore three children. In order to marry Elizabeth, the heiress, Godfrey Webster had to agree to take the name Vassall – this was one of the clauses of the will of Florentius Vassall. A highly intelligent woman and a renowned wit, Elizabeth Vassall moved in fashionable London circles, and as was customary, went on the Grand Tour of Europe. It was in Florence that she met Henry Richard Fox, the third Lord Holland, and after a tempestuous love affair, gave birth to their child. London was scandalized. At first, her husband refused to consider a divorce, but finally in 1787 a settlement of £10,000 was made to him and the divorce was granted.

On their return to London, the couple, now married, took up residence at Holland Park Mansion. The women of polite society shunned her but Holland Park, near Kensington, became a mecca for writers, artists, statesmen and politicians who met daily at her salon; Holland Park was often referred to as “the house of all Europe.” Frequently seen among the celebrities was the prime minister, William Pitt, the Younger. During this period, the French and English were once more at war and discussion and speculation often centered on European affairs and the emergence of the new ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. The abolition of the slave trade, and slavery itself, were also topics of much concern. Lord Holland was one of the fiercest opponents of slavery, but he now found himself in an embarrassing position: resulting from his marriage to Elizabeth Vassall he now was owner of Greenwich and Friendship with over 2,000 slaves.

Three decades before, the Somerset case had caused great indignation in Britain. The slave trade had not been abolished because of the powerful and wealthy lobby that supported the trade and argued that Britain’s economy depended upon its existence. At last in 1807 the bill was passed making the slave trade illegal in all British territories. However, it would be 26 years before the abolition of the institution of slavery would become a reality.

The parish of Westmoreland possesses more documentation on daily life in Jamaican slave society than any of the other parishes of the island. As we have already seen, the diaries of Thomas Thistlewood are an authentic, eyewitness record from 1750 to his death in 1786. Another shorter account of life in Westmoreland is that of Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis; unlike Thistlewood’s writing, it was written with an audience in mind. Monk Lewis was a friend of both the Beckfords and the Vassalls. On the death of his father, who had left him a large fortune, Monk Lewis decided to travel to Jamaica to see the condition of his inheritance, which included two properties, Cornwall in Westmoreland, and Hordley in St Thomas-in-the-East. Arriving in Black River, St Elizabeth, on New Year’s Day 1816, he had the good fortune to see not only a John Canoe band but also the Red and Blue Set Girls.

marvelled at their “gigantic height and fantastic wreathing limbs.” He learnt that it was illegal to kill the John Crow, the large useful vulture which devoured carrion. He was interested to learn that his slaves looked down on those slaves who had absentee owners as “they belong to no massa.” He was delighted to receive an “elegant little present” of a scorpion and a centipede in a vial of rum. Mr Storer’s discovery of an “alligator”  on his property “Belleisland,” also intrigued him.

Although it was crop time and the gangs were working very hard, he decided to give his slaves a day off as a festival to celebrate his arrival. In fact, they got two days for they were given Monday as well so that they could go to their provision grounds. The festival gave him an opportunity to meet more of his people who enjoyed themselves immensely. For the first time he heard the eboe drums, the “gambys” and was intrigued by the “shaky-shekies” – a flat piece of board and two sticks – and the “kitty-katties” which were made from bladders with pebbles in them. Monk Lewis noted with interest that often they danced to vocal music. The festivities went on from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and ended with him presenting everyone with gifts of sugar and rum.

Throughout his Journal, Monk Lewis mentioned interesting bits of information on various aspects of agriculture in Westmoreland. He was shown the seeds of the sensitive plant which are some times used in rum making. The Vassals, for example, had imported a grass that overran the parish and now was a curse as it had increased plantation work by a third. People now called it “Vassal’s Grass.”

He recognized, too, that many of the agricultural practices used on properties in the parish were now out of date. During the reign of George III who was often referred to by his contemporaries as “Farmer George” there had been many improvements in agrarian practice in Britain, but not so in Jamaica. Both Lewis and Lord Holland had imported four of the finest bulls from Britain, no explanation could be found as to their death within days; in the cultivation of sugar cane he advocated the introduction of the plough. During his stay he witnessed an estate fire that started on Amity, the neighbouring property, and demolished a number of the slaves’ dwellings. Clearing grounds by fire, he noted, was forbidden by law. “I own,” admitted Monk Lewis when relating the experience, “I was heartily frightened.”

Monk Lewis seemed to be intrigued with the women whom he met during his stay in Jamaica. His personal attendant was Cubina, who was asked to bring flowers for him to enjoy each day. Quite early in his stay, he was introduced to Psyche, a beautiful Creole; he found her extremely fascinating. Later, he met the mulatto, black and sambo women who worked in the great house – women like Mary Wiggins.” He also remembered the beauty of Antonietta, the Spanish creole, whom he saw at the tavern in Bluefields, when he was on his journey to Kingston. She was a refugee from Old Providence and her mother was a relative of the tavern owner. And there were other women – those who since his arrival at Cornwall had been taking advantage of his leniency and had been causing work stoppages. He tells us that they staged “a petticoat rebellion” refusing to carry the trash and one woman had attacked the driver. The matter was not considered particularly serious and seems to have been handled with good humour and settled speedily.

As he knew that on his return home to England his circle of friends would be making many enquiries about the true situation in the island regarding slavery, he was careful to document stories which were told him while he was at Cornwall. One story was about a bandit called Plato, who was originally from Canaan, a Ricketts property, who had had a harem in the Moreland mountains and who in 1780 had been caught and executed. Lewis remarked that “the good old practice of burning had now fallen into disrepute.” He also told of an obeah man who had been transported from the island; usually those sentenced to transportation were sent to Cuba, or sold to logwood cutters in Belize. There were always those slaves who persisted in stealing sugar from the estate and selling it for little or nothing at the Bay, but much more serious were the number of deaths by poisoning.

He concluded, however, that the negroes in Jamaica – who seemed to be always laughing and singing – received better treatment than labourers in England. The use of the cart whip for punishment had now been forbidden by the code of laws that recently had been introduced. So good were the relations of Cornwall with their former slaves that a number who had been manumitted always asked to be invited back to the celebrations on the property. Several negroes, he mentioned, had received their freedom, and now possessed small properties of their own in the mountains and in Savanna-la-Mar.

Having attended to the concerns of his own people, later in his stay, Monk Lewis gave a dinner for “his white people.” In turn, important people in the parish, like the member of the House of Assembly, invited him to dinner. Monk Lewis especially liked Jamaican pineapple tarts and among the fruits he thought that the “granadillo “was a great delicacy.” He liked the okra very much and mentioned the “achie fruit”5 as eaten as a kind of vegetable. Savanna-la-Mar was the best place for fish in the island and he liked the deep-water silk best. “Cocoa-fingers”, or “cocos” – a species of yam which lasted all the year round – were the most valuable and reliable provision to be found in Westmoreland.

As   was  to   be  expected,  Dr Pope, the current minister at the parish church in Savanna-la-Mar, soon came to pay his respects to the visiting owner of Cornwall.

He came with a proposal from Kingston that he be allowed to give religious instruction to the slaves. Attitudes towards the slave population were certainly changing. The question frequently posed by William Wilberforce and other Abolitionists, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” had indeed begun to affect the consciousness of many in Britain, even some industrialists whose “dark Satanic mills” in the north of England were inflicting untold suffering on the growing working class, including many small children.

Monk Lewis appeared to have some reservations about compulsory church-going. All the slaves on Cornwall were illiterate. He favoured short visits to the estate by the minister. Education was the only means he felt that could help; he preferred the reading of books to talking. A school master, not a missionary, was what was needed on the estate. He felt nevertheless that the minister should be encouraged, “even if he failed to make his slaves religious” as in this way another “humane inspector” would have been added to his list of those who might give his slaves a fair hearing. In Monk Lewis’ absence the parson’s presence might hold in check the tyranny of an overseer or the cruelty of a bookkeeper.

Lewis’ experiences in Jamaica included a hazardous journey to Hordley, his plantation in the east. His party travelled along the seacoast to Bluefields where they stopped at a solitary tavern close by the seashore. Here, there was also “a picturesque cottage like an ornamental hermitage” a type of “garden cottage”. Near Bluefields was Shafton where a Mr Allwood lived. Journeying on in stages from Bluefields they came to the Cove, then to Lacovia in St Elizabeth, and on to Gutters, then over the steep May-day mountains to Williamsfield, and thence to

Old Harbour and Dry River to the capital, Spanish Town. He then proceeded to Kingston.6 From there he travelled to Hordley, where he found an abusive overseer, who had to be discharged. Rivers were in spate and the whole journey was extremely perilous.

Continuing into the nineteenth century, the threat of insurrection had not lessened. Monk Lewis was told that six years ago in 1810 the mountains of the parish were in a “very rebellious state.” Recently, in the adjoining parish of St Elizabeth a plot had been uncovered which was led by a former Eboe king, who was executed for his role in the rising. The captain of this former king had been taken to Savanna-la-Mar gaol prior to his transportation but he managed to burn down the door of the gaol and escape. Captain Rowe of the Maroons went after him, and finally he was captured.

Of all the inconveniences that Monk Lewis experienced during his three month stay in Jamaica, he said that the greatest drawback was that a person was obliged to live perpetually in public. There was no privacy. “The houses are absolutely transparent. The walls are nothing but windows and all the doors stand wide open.”

Monk Lewis can be regarded as one of the first collectors of examples of Jamaican song and story, and the following are lines of a popular song which he heard during his stay in Westmoreland, The idiom is a fusion of West African, English, and Scottish lingua franca but the implicit meaning is without doubt West African.

Me tek mi cutacoo

And follow him to Lucea And all for love of mi bonny man.

O – me bonny man come home,come home,

When neger fall into neger hands Buckra doctor no do him good more.

Come home, my gold ring, come home.

Also included was this riddle.

Pretty Miss Nancy was going to market and she tore her fine yellow gown, and there was not a tailor in all the town who could mend it again.

The answer: a ripe banana.

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