It is entirely down to my own ignorance that until I began researching Jamaica in the eighteenth century I had no idea that the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had any connection with the island. My image of her and her family was conditioned by the 1934 Film The Barretts of Wimpole Street, starring Charles Laughton as the domineering father who forced her to remain indoors and threatened to kill her dog Flush when he heard she had eloped. The truth, of course was rather different and has been much discussed since.
The Barrett family wealth derived from their Jamaican estates. The first Barrett in Jamaica was Hercie Barrett who arrived with the 1655 expedition of conquest, and at first he may have lived in Spanish Town. The first patent to a Barrett was granted in 1663 for footland in St Catherine, a house and yard in St Jago de la Vega (though it is not certain if this was Hercie Barrett). Five patents were granted to Hercie Barrett between 1665 and 1670. His eldest son’s descendants seem to have adopted the spelling Barritt, and the line that would lead to Elizabeth Barrett Browning derived from Hercie’s youngest son Samuel. Samuel’s son, another Samuel, had fifteen children and his third son Edward born in 1734 married Judith Goodin. They were the great-grandparents of Elizabeth.
Samuel’s daughter Elizabeth married Charles Moulton, a merchant from Madeira, and their son Edward later changed his name so he became Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett. His daughter Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall in Durham, since by then her family had become largely absentee landlords of the more than 2600 acres of Jamaican plantations developed by Samuel Barrett. Prominent among these was Cinnamon Hill where the great house was protected against hurricanes by a ‘cutwind’ buttress. Edward Barrett also built a substantial town house in Falmouth, sadly now derelict with its upper storeys gone.
On Edward Barrett’s death in 1798, Charles Moulton’s brother Robert wrote ‘It has pleased Providence to deprive us of our Friend Edwd. Barrett…The bulk of his immense fortune has devolved on my Brothers two Boys.’ The signing of this Will just three days before Edward’s death channeled the fortune in a quite different direction from what would have happened if he had made no Will. The ramifications of the Barrett family in Jamaica and the management of the plantations by relations and attorneys led to endless disputes down through the nineteenth century.
At the turn of the nineteenth century the estates were at their most profitable and between 1799 and 1804 the Cinnamon Hill, Cornwall, Cambridge and Oxford estates shipped 5255 hogsheads and 1038 tierces of sugar and 2037 puncheons of rum. (A hogshead was about 16 hundredweight of muscovado, a tierce one-third of that, and a barrel of rum would have contained about 110 gallons). If we contrast this wealth with the mere £300 a year that Robert Browning’s father earned we can understand why Elizabeth’s father might have seen him as a fortune hunter! Indeed Elizabeth had some independent fortune of her own as she had been left shares in the ship the David Lyon by her uncle Samuel Moulton Barrett, and this meant she need not be dependent on her father.
Elizabeth’s mother Mary died in 1828, leaving her rigid and uncommunicative father with eleven children to bring up (a twelfth child, Mary, had died young). In due course he sent his fifth child, Samuel, to Jamaica where in February 1840 he died of yellow fever. Hardly had the news arrived in England than Elizabeth’s brother Edward, only a year younger than she was, drowned that July while out sailing in Babbacombe Bay in Devon.
This series of disasters, combined with ill health and her father’s obsessive behaviour sent Elizabeth into the deep depression from which she was eventually aroused by meeting and falling in love with Robert Browning.
After the death of Edward Moulton Barrett in 1857 five of his eleven surviving children were left £10,950 each – Arabel, George, Henry, Septimus and Octavius. Charles John inherited the Jamaican estates. Among themselves they agreed that Alfred, Henrietta and Elizabeth who had all been disinherited when they married should each receive about £5000.
Charles John and Septimus both made their homes in Jamaica, Charles was buried at Retreat Pen in 1905 aged ninety-one. Septimus (Sette) died in 1870 at Cinnamon Hill. After Sette’s death Charles John began the gradual sale of Barrett lands to pay off the huge debts incurred by Septimus, amounting according to his daughter to £30,000.
Although the huge wealth of the Barrett family was not to last, the descendants of Hercie Barrett had left an indelible mark on the landscape and history of Jamaica.