The rise of the Beckford family to great wealth and power at the very seat of British government in Westminster, London, began in the cane fields of the island of Jamaica. The first Beckford to have connections with Jamaica was a Richard Beckford, “clothworker,” and slop seller, citizen of London, who advanced a sum of money on a cargo vessel going to Jamaica and sent a power of attorney to a third party there to represent his interests in the island. Between 1668 and 1673 he was granted seven patents of land in Jamaica amounting to 2,500 acres.
Thomas Beckford, sheriff of London, was a brother of this Richard Beckford. Their nephew, Peter, son of another brother, a tailor of Maidenhead, arrived in Jamaica in 1662, and in his early days in the new colony made his living as a horse catcher. (The Spanish had left behind many horses which had gone into the wild.) Later, Peter Beckford (1648-1710) became a member of the House of Assembly, representing the parish of St Catherine, and then President of the Council. His second wife was Anne Ballard by whom he had two sons, Peter and Ballard. It was claimed that when Peter Beckford, senior, died in 1710, he was “in possession of the largest property real and personal of any subject in Europe ”. He certainly was the wealthiest planter in Jamaica.
The second Peter Beckford, married Bathshua Herring, heiress, who inherited all the property in Westmoreland belonging to her father, Nathaniel Herring. They had six sons: Peter, his heir, William, Richard, Nathaniel, Julines, and Francis. During his lifetime, Peter Beckford purchased from John Hynes and his wife, Jennet, née Guthrie, the following properties in Westmoreland:
Ackendown, Bog, Culloden, Orange Grove, Retrieve, Shafton and Strathbogie. At the time of his death in 1735, he owned 24,000 acres of land mainly in the parishes of Westmoreland, St Mary, St Ann and Clarendon.
Upon the death of Peter, the heir, William Beckford, the second son, became owner of these properties. He was born in Jamaica in 1709, had been sent to school in England , and later went to Oxford. Twice Lord Mayor of London , he was also a member of Parliament and friend of the prime minister, William Pitt, the Elder, Lord Chatham. Alderman Beckford secured protection for the West Indian sugar interest, demanding preferential treatment for the sugar islands over the thirteen American colonies’ trading interests.
Influenced by Beckford, Chatham condemned the New England trade with the French sugar colonies as being illegal and “most pernicious, dangerous, subversive of all laws and highly repugnant to the well-being of England .” If the Americans were to remain in the empire they would have to abide by its commercial system.
Although he did pay a visit to his Westmoreland properties in the 1760s, William Beckford spent most of his adult life in England and purchased Font Hill Abbey located near Salisbury, in Wiltshire. His renovations and extensions turned the property into the fashionable showpiece of the day; here he entertained his guests throwing many lavish dinner parties.
The Seven Years War between Britain and France, during which time West Indian sugar interests influenced British policy greatly, began in 1756 and ended in 1763. Ostensibly it was a British victory and by the Peace of Paris, Britain gained the large territory of Canada from the French but during the war Britain had incurred a staggering debt.
After the war, as Britain looked to garner tax to pay off the debt, long forgotten acts of trade and navigation were revived which the Americans were called upon to pay. The act which hit the American colonies hardest was a more recent one, the Sugar Act of 1764 which ate into the profits of their manufacture of rum in which many New Englanders, like the Vassal family, were involved.
The unpopular Stamp Act followed in 1765. It was imposed by the British Parliament without debate and caused an uproar in the thirteen colonies resulting in the Americans declaring that only the colonies could levy taxes on colonists. Finally, the British government repealed the Stamp Act but the matter did not stop there; the Parliament then passed a statute affirming that it had the right to tax its colonists and a tax on a number of articles was imposed. Outcry was inevitable and by the year 1770 the British government had to remove most of the taxes, with the exception of the tax on tea.
The historian, Richard B. Sheridan, depicts William Beckford as an unpopular figure in London society “with his penchant for conspicuous consumption, his identification with slavery, and his reputation for political influence and manipulation of the sugar market.” In 1754 a group of London merchants complained to Parliament that four of the Beckford brothers were running for seats in the House of Commons.
As an absentee owner William Beckford was “mercilessly robbed” by his attorneys of his properties in Jamaica. In the case of Auchindown, which his father had obtained from John Hyne by mortgage, he was swindled over a period of 20 years by the three Wildman brothers in whom he had put his trust to manage the property. A slab with William Beckford’s initials, “W.B.,” can still be seen on “the Castle” at Auchindown. There were lengthy suits in the Jamaica Court of Chancery and William Beckford eventually lost the case and Auchindown was sold to John Campbell by the Wildmans. Beckford’s other properties, Bog, Culloden and Orange Grove suffered a similar fate.
Blame has frequently been laid on the absentee proprietor for all the ills of sugar plantations. Professor Douglas Hall’s reminder, that “generalizations about absentee ownership are not always well-founded,” is, therefore, timely. Hall points out that “absentees were a heterogeneous lot: some were West Indian born, others had made their first appearance elsewhere, some had lived on their estates, others had never done so; some were completely ignorant of the details of sugar-making and the sugar trade, whereas others had practical experience of both, some were genteel, other were not. Indeed, the only safe generalization about them was that they were all estate owners, nearly all were white, and many of them were or had at some time been wealthy.”
Both resident and absentee planter alike, says Hall, saw Britain as “our Mother Country” and Jamaica as a plantation colony to be exploited. “The profitability of their estates was to be obtained by political means rather than by managerial or technical innovations; their chief concern was to maintain their highly protected market and to embarrass the commerce of foreign rivals.” That such an untenable situation could only be temporary, was not foreseen by William Pitt, the prime minister, and the years following the end of the Seven Years War would see a worsening of relations between Britain and her North American colonies.
William Beckford’s legitimate son was William Thomas Beckford, who was born at Font Hill Abbey in 1760. A brilliant child, he was exposed to every aspect of the arts and learning. At one time, Mozart was his playmate. From his father, the alderman, he inherited a fortune which provided him, annually, with £20,000 from his Jamaican holdings, and £7,000 from his English estates. He was the author of the Gothic novel entitled, Caliph Vathek. An absentee, he owned a number of estates in Jamaica, among them Quebec in St Mary, and in Westmoreland, Retrieve and Albany, and in St Elizabeth, Fonthill, named after his palatial home in England. On one occasion he did attempt to board a vessel to sail to Jamaica , but the smells on the ship so nauseated him that he disembarked.
By the 1760s the subject of the legality of slavery was a topic frequently discussed in the coffee houses of London and men like Granville Sharp continually sought test cases to prove its illegality. It was no surprise, therefore, that the case of the Boston slave, James Somerset, attracted a great deal of attention. Somerset while in England with his owner escaped from him in 1771 but was recaptured and imprisoned on Capt. John Knowles’ ship, the Ann and Mary which was bound for Jamaica . An application for his release was made by three people and in February 1772 the case was tried by the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In June 1772, Somerset was freed, and a precedent had been set. The climate in which the Beckfords had made their wealth was changing as the Anti-slavery movement began to gain momentum in the metropolis.
It was two years after the Somerset case that another William Beckford (1744-1799), set out for Jamaica to inspect properties in Westmoreland left to him by his father who was Richard Beckford, a son of Peter Beckford Jr. His mother was Charlotte Hay, the daughter of Thomas Hay, Chief Justice of Jamaica. The Hays owned Fort William in Westmoreland. This William Beckford owned Somerly Hall in Suffolk, England, and hence he is referred to as William of Somerly. A man of charming disposition, he had many friends who were writers, artists and scientists For some 13 years, William of Somerly stayed in the island with his wife, Elizabeth Hay, who was his cousin. Hertford Pen in the hills of Westmoreland was their residence. They arrived in Jamaica in February 1774, the year before the American colonies finally went to war with Britain. Beckford of Somerly, besides owning Hertford Cattle Pen, was the owner of the following sugar plantations in Westmoreland: Sheffield and Hatfield, Roaring River, Williamsfield, and Shrewsbury. He also was the owner of Hertford Store, which was a central workshop and supply centre for all his estates. The grand total of his personal property was £83,286.and the total number of slaves was 910.
So impressed was William Beckford of Somerly with the parish of Westmoreland that he thought it “had an advantage over the rest of the Island in the regularity of the seasons, and in the number of its streams; and is in point of situation as agreeable as any spots in Italy that have had the advantage of a Salvatore Rosa or a Poussin to perpetuate their beauties.” Similar views of the parish were expressed by the historian Edward Long, whose history of Jamaica was published in 1774, the same year as Beckford’s arrival in the island.
In spite of the ever present threat of slave insurrections, Long enthusiastically wrote of the assets of the parish: the road lately finished from Deans Valley to Bogue in St James, and of open fertile fields and good communication between St James and Westmoreland which made it possible for the assize court to be held in Savanna-la-Mar. He also stated that there were 69 sugar estates, producing 6,000 hogsheads of sugar, and there were 96 settlements. He thought that if breeding pens should ever be formed in the north-east, and lowland pens converted into sugar plantations, then the parish would be even more prosperous. He lauded the natural beauties of Westmoreland, its wood, water and “prospects” Two mineral springs recently discovered on Ricketts Savannah were highly efficacious.
In the years spent in Jamaica the Beckfords of Somerly lived in genteel surroundings delighting in things cultural. In some respects, the lifestyle at Hertford Pen must have been a far cry from daily life on the majority of estates in Westmoreland, many of which were owned by absentees and by now run mainly by Scottish overseers. Neighbours who dropped in for breakfast at Hertford Pen enjoyed a sumptuous Jamaican repast, and might be invited by William Beckford to take a morning walk over the property with him, looking at new developments like the guinea grass pasture or a newly imported plant. They might also play billiards or cricket, drink tea, look at his rare geranium plants, or admire his excellent collection of plates of Rome executed by some well-known Italian artist.
A patron of the Arts, William Beckford persuaded Philip Wickstead, portrait painter and pupil of Zoffany, to accompany him to Jamaica where he remained practising his art for some years. In 1778 Wickstead was living on Mr Foote’s estate near Smithfield. There he had on exhibit a number of oils including two of William and Elizabeth Beckford, one of which included a Captain Carling. Others were of George Pointz Ricketts and his lady, Mr George Inglis, Parson Poole, the rector of the parish church, Jimmy Tomlinson and others. There was also a fine painting of “a holing gang of negroes at work.” These works Mr Wickstead was happy to show to callers who dropped in. It appears that Wickstead settled in well into Westmoreland society; when invasion was imminent he volunteered his service as a guard at the Savanna-la-Mar Fort. He even attempted to become a planter but did not succeed in that occupation.Wickstead’s burial on October 16, 1781 is recorded in the Church of England register for Westmoreland.
Other artists followed Wickstead to Westmoreland, including the landscape painter, George Robertson, who came to live at Hertford Pen with his patron. Foremost, therefore, among early Jamaican landscapes engravings are those of scenes of the parish of Westmoreland. The following are titles of engravings which hung at Hertford Pen:
Roaring River Estate
The Spring-head of Roaring River
Fort William Estate
Bridge crossing the Cabaritta
Bridge crossing the Rio Cobre near Spanish Town
Part of the Rio Cobre near Spanish Town
Thanks to William Beckford of Somerly, today, works of George Robertson, and a few of Wickstead’s hang in the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston .