Category Archives: Jamaican Life

March v. Ellis a bitter family dispute

 300px-The_Court_of_Chancery_during_the_reign_of_George_I_by_Benjamin_FerrersThe Court of Chancery in the reign of George I  (source: Wikipedia)

The case of Francis March against members of the Ellis family is very typical of 18th-century Jamaican Chancery cases. Many of these arose because of the early deaths of colonists and their reliance on loans taken out in expectation of repayment from the profits of their estates, profits which did not always materialise. Add to this the problems of remote management of estates for absentee owners, inadequate record keeping, records lost by accident or destruction by the Jamaican climate, and you have a difficult mix in which disputes about Wills and land ownership could drag on for many years.

Moreover decisions of the Jamaican court had to be ratified in England and so a litigant might find themselves fighting in the courts of both Jamaica and London. This is the context of a case that spanned the first quarter of the eighteenth century involving the descendants of John Ellis and his son-in-law Francis March.

John Ellis arrived in Jamaica either with or shortly after the first group of colonists and rapidly acquired several estates and plantations. When he died in August 1706 he left three of 11 children still living – John, George and Martha. His daughter Martha had married Frances March in 1701 when she was 17 and he was about 21 and Ellis appointed his son-in-law as one of his Executors.

John Ellis junior married Elizabeth Grace Nedham (sometimes written Needham) and they had four children living at his early death in England only three years after his father. John the elder had left legacies to his daughter Anne, and to his grandchildren Sarah and John March as well as to the poor of the parish of St Katherine’s. The bulk of his estate was left to his son John, who on his death had made a will leaving £2000 Jamaican currency to each of his daughters Mary and Martha when they married, plus an additional £1000 to each of their first children. He left £1000 to his sister which appears to have been due to her from their father’ s will and £500 to Abigail Demetrius who was then a minor. Having made provision for the education of all his children and Abigail he left various parcels of land to his son George making his elder son John residuary legatee. This third John Ellis later died without having made a will or having married.

As Executor Frances March apparently discovered after the death of the second John Ellis that none of the legacies due from John Ellis the elder had been paid and that John Ellis the younger had died in debt to the tune of over £8000 (which would have a purchasing power of nearly £900,000 today).

The Ellis property in Jamaica consisted of the Caymanus Plantation, a large part of the Crawle Plantation, two thirds of the Sixteen Mile Walk Plantation, plus some other uncultivated land and all the associated sugar works, slaves, stock and equipment.

The Sixteen Mile Walk Plantation was owned in part by Susanna Cooke who had leased it to a man called Carlton Goddard in return for an income of £50 per year, and in about 1704 the younger John Ellis had agreed to buy out Carlton Goddard’s share for £1800, paid in instalments with interest. Ellis took possession of the land, but failed to pay most of the money and all of the rent.

Before the legal formalities had been completed conveying the land to John Ellis, Carlton Goddard was declared bankrupt and his Jamaican property was assigned to a London merchant called Samuel Clarke. Francis March, who was then in Jamaica, was sending money back to London for the maintenance of the four Ellis children and their aunt Anne Ellis, and he was now faced with the demand from Samuel Clarke to hand over Goddard’s share of the Sixteen Mile Walk Plantation. March told Clarke that the conveyance had not been completed but Clarke agreed to the conveyance going ahead on payment of the Ellis debt by March in person out of his own funds.

Meanwhile by about 1712 Susanna Cooke had died, and a man called John Hayward offered to buy out her son George Cooke’s share of Sixteen Mile Walk and his share of the Crawle Plantation and various other pieces of land, which had he succeeded would have seriously affected the value of the Ellis properties. So Francis March set out for England to get agreement from George Cooke in person to sell all this property to him. Again March paid for this from his own funds intending it for the benefit of his own family and about Christmas 1713 he travelled back to Jamaica and attempted to sell John Ellis’s “wastelands”, as requested under the terms of the will. He sold a small amount of land to Ezekial Gomersall, but could not find a buyer for the rest.

Francis March seems to have been a regular transatlantic traveller because in 1718 he again returned to England where in the meantime Anne Ellis had become administratrix of the Will of her sister-in-law Elizabeth Grace Ellis. The four Ellis children now being orphans their aunt Anne Ellis was named as their “next friend” and a group action was taken in the Court of Chancery to demand that Francis March should produce accounts of what had happened to the various Ellis properties. Many of March’s papers were still in Jamaica but he did produce a formal response and then returned to Jamaica in 1721.

By this time the two Ellis boys had reached the age of seventeen (the age at which they were to inherit) and their sister Mary had married John Manley who appears to have been somewhat older than the Ellis children and to have acted for them in their minority.

The Ellis family now took matters into their own hands and forcibly occupied all the property that had belonged to John Ellis senior, to his son Major John Ellis and to Carlton Goddard, including the land bought from George Cooke by Francis March with his own money! Moreover they also took possession of all the stock of slaves, cattle and equipment, and produce in the form of sugar and rum which March later valued at over £12,000 Jamaican currency and they took all the regular income from the plantations.

Having expelled Francis March they then exhibited a bill of complaint in the Jamaican Court of Chancery against him to which March duly responded. By this time the third John Ellis had died and the seized estates were being managed jointly by his younger brother George Ellis and John Manley.

Francis March was forced to sue for the money that he had laid out in paying for the land the second John Ellis had committed to purchasing from Carlton Goddard as well as paying off Goddard’s debt in order to secure the purchase. Moreover according to March the legacies due to Anne Ellis and to his two children as well as to the poor of the parish of St Catherine’s had still not been paid.

By this time Frances March had been in Jamaica on and off for many years and like so many colonists his health and that of his family was suffering. He sent his son ahead to England and prepared to leave the island with the rest of his family at which point the Ellis contingent threatened him with an injunction to prevent him leaving the island while what they claimed was a debt to them was still outstanding. This was a common procedure since it was not unusual for debtors to try to escape Jamaica leaving their debts behind them. Desperate to get back to England Francis March paid the Ellis family the amount that they had counterclaimed and left on a ship called the Resolution.

His troubles were far from over for the ship caught fire and March lost most of his possessions, including all his accounts and papers, and he and his family barely escaped with their lives. Back in London by 1724 John Manley was already dead as was Abigail Demetrius, George Ellis had reached the age of 21 and Francis March again attempted to enforce on George Ellis the payment of the legacies due under the Wills of his grandfather John Ellis and his father.

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Westminster Hall where the Court of Chancery sat
(source: Wikipedia)

Once again Frances March petitioned the Court of Chancery, this time in London, in an attempt to get the whole confused mess finally resolved by asking the Court to require George Ellis to agree to pay him £3794 Sterling, the amount he had disbursed on behalf of the Ellis family. Given the size of the profits from their estates their is no reason to assume they could not easily have afforded this.

Sadly I am not aware of any record to indicate that George Ellis did finally pay up.

Francis March died in about 1736 and the Ellis family continued to prosper in Jamaica acquiring further lands, including the Montpellier estate from Francis Sadler Hals who received it as reward for his efforts in the Maroon War settlement of 1739. There is a very good account of the Ellis family’s various holdings and acquisitions in Barry Higman’s book Montpelier Jamaica: A Plantation Community in Slavery and Freedom 1739-1912.

I wrote on a previous occasion about the fate of George Ellis’s son John Ellis and his two great nieces Anne Maria and Bathshua Herring Ellis, who were all lost at sea in the great storm of 1782 when two of his servants had an absolutely miraculous escape.

 

Note: I have to thank David M Oakley without whose hard work transcribing a key legal document this posting would not have been possible.

 

 

A Parcel of Ribbons now on Kindle

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The book A Parcel of Ribbons is now available on Amazon Kindle

 

You can of course still buy the paperback from Amazon or Lulu.com and other outlets which has the advantage of being a physical book and of having the index. Kindle format still does not support indexing although it does include the illustrations. The footnotes from the paperback are converted into endnotes for Kindle and I have made some minor corrections, mainly of typos. Some of these arose because I transcribed many of the letters using Dragon Naturally Speaking software, which is extremely impressive (no I don’t have shares!) but occasionally produces some oddities, a few of which I missed when proof reading.

One piece of information not in my possession when I wrote the book was that Robert Lee junior did not die at Lisbon as much later members of the Bevan family believed but in fact, like two of his brothers before him, shot himself. It is no wonder that Favell Bourke Lee, by then Mrs David Bevan, sought consolation in evangelical religion. For three out of six siblings to die by their own hand was a terrible burden for the family to have to bear.

Despite this shadow that fell over the family in the nineteenth century, their eighteenth century letters remain full of life, hope and insight into the interactions between Britain and Jamaica and the lives led in London by returning colonists.

A Lady in Jamaica – Book Review

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There is relatively little available about eighteenth century Jamaica written by women, unless you count the diary of Lady Nugent, written on the cusp of the nineteenth century, but recently memoirs of nineteenth century Jamaica have started to appear. I reviewed Diana Lewis’s memoir A Year in Jamaica last year.

A Lady in Jamaica 1879 is the account of her visit to the island written by Martha Jefferson Trice and edited by Jasper Burns. As may be guessed from her name Martha, who was born in 1855, came from an old established Virginian family and was a descendant of the sister of Thomas Jefferson. Martha was very well educated, and a published poet, but her family life had been severely affected by the American Civil War and the death of her father. After the death of her mother she and her sister Margaret took in children as boarding students while their brother Dabney ran the family farm, all assisted by their youngest sister Lucy.

Martha suffered from serious ill health, although the cause is not entirely clear, she appears to have had an abscess on her stomach that would not heal and was sent to Jamaica in an attempt to cure her. The trip was paid for by relations and she went to stay with some old family friends, the Evans whose daughter Sophia was five years older than Martha and whose son St George cherished romantic intentions towards her that were definitely not reciprocated!

Although Martha’s health did improve somewhat as a result of her trip, when she returned home her family were caught up in a typhoid epidemic and both Martha and Margaret died tragically young.

But the account Martha left behind has given her a kind of immortality.

She began her diary at the end of January 1879 with her trip to Washington and New York, the ‘great Central Depot was one of the largest buildings I ever saw’, and then she boarded the Etna where she was disappointed to find that her cabin was ‘about half as large as our little dressing room and has four berths’. She was however advised by the Captain to stay on deck as much as possible to avoid sea sickness.

She described her fellow passengers vividly, ‘the nicest are two Jews’ one of whom had been born with only three fingers on his left hand ‘and no right hand at all’. He was a commission merchant named Lazarus and the other man whose name she forgot was a native of Jamaica who grew bitter wood, quassia and china wood. Sea sickness overtook all the passengers and Martha found that another abscess had formed making her really ill.  She improved as the weather grew warmer however and arrived in Kingston on February 7th where she discarded her flannel underwear!

Post emancipation Jamaica made a vivid impression on Martha who wrote about a very wealthy girl ‘coal black’ who was going to marry a recently arrived Scot – ‘my Virginia born eyes cannot get used to this equality of the races’. Her reaction to the local language was also unfavourable ‘The lingo of the negroes and children here is perfectly heathenish and unintelligible’. Although the Evans were kind to Martha, initially it was not the most cheerful house for an invalid as her cousin Sophy was also unwell.

The book combines Martha’s diary entries with the letters she wrote home and paints a vivid picture of life in Jamaica. As the island air improved her health Martha toured the island, rode out with her cousin Sophy and spent difficult hours dodging the unwanted attentions of her very bad tempered cousin St George.

Martha was constantly homesick for Virginia and worried that she might never see her family again. She returned there in July 1789, taking her cousin Sophy with her. Lucy Trice went to Jamaica later that year to be bridesmaid when Sophy married William Panton Forbes at Spring Garden.

Martha was never well after her return and died in July 1880, however her lively personality and gift for description have ensured that she will be remembered for her memoir of nineteenth century Jamaica with her vivid descriptions of people and places.

 

Martha Jefferson Trice, Jasper Burns ed., A Lady in Jamaica 1879, Pietas Publications, Waynesboro, Virginia, 2013. 73 pp. illustrated with contemporary photographs.   ISBN 9781494308124.

Jamaican Christmas & John Canoe

 

 

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Christmas in Jamaica before emancipation was one of the few periods in the year when slaves were able to enjoy themselves, free for a brief period from work. If they were lucky they received extra rations of food and possibly cloth or clothing for the coming year, as was the custom for servants in England.

There were John Canoe processions, (variously written as Johnny Canoe, Junkanoo and Koo Koo, possibly from the French l’inconnu – the unknown- or perhaps of West African derivation) which are the origins of the modern carnival. The two pictures shown here, painted by the artist Belisario and published in 1837, represent the actors who were competing for their costume and group of friends to be picked to lead the festivities. By this time the costumes were more elaborate, and less fearsome, than those described half a century earlier by Edward Long.

Long, whose History of Jamaica was published in 1774, wrote that

In the towns, during Christmas holidays, they have several tall robust fellows dressed up in grotesque habits, and a pair of ox-horns on their head, sprouting from the top of a horrid sort of vizor, or mask, which about the mouth is rendered very terrific with large boar tusks. The masquerader, carrying a wooden sword in his hand, is followed with a numerous crowd of drunken women, who refresh him frequently with a sup of aniseed water, whilst he dances at every door, bellowing out John Connu! with great vehemence…this dance is probably an honourable memorial of John Conny, a celebrated cabocero at Tres Puntas, in Axim, on the Guiney coast; who flourished about the year 1720.

 

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There were also more local celebrations. On Christmas Eve 1812 the Moravian missionary John Becker wrote, Scarcely was our worship closed, before the heathen negroes on the estate began to beat their drums, to dance, and to sing, in a most outrageous manner. The noise lasted all night, and prevented us from falling asleep.

The following day he wrote: After breakfast, I went down and begged the negroes to desist, but their answer was:’What, Massa, are we not to dance and make merry at Christmas. We always did so. ‘ I represented to them that this was not the way to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. and expressed my surprise, that having heard the word of God for so many years, they still continued their heathenish customs. But all I could say was in vain… (quoted in Braithwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, pp.227-8).

In England, since medieval times, masters had allowed their servants licence over the Christmas period to let off steam.There can be little doubt that the Christmas festivities for the slaves in Jamaica performed a similar function – the one time in the year when they were free to enjoy themselves as they chose, to sing and dance and eat, and for a brief period perhaps forget their situation.

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For those of you spending part of your Christmas holiday on family history research, you may like to know that the invaluable Jamaican Family Search website is now entirely free to use. Patricia Jackson, who set up the site fourteen years ago had always hoped to be able to make it free. Recently she wrote, “Those who have paid subscriptions in the past enabled me to purchase microfilms, microfiche, electronic images, or photocopies of documents and registers, not only from Jamaica but from archives or libraries in England and the United States. I spent thousands of hours transcribing information from them to put on the site, often working up to 50 hours a week (so much for a part-time job!).” If you have not already discovered her site I can warmly recommend it.

Also free and with many useful articles and website lists is Genealogy In Time Magazine. This site helps to fund itself by receiving small fees from Amazon if you click through from the links on their home page to purchase something on any one of the main Amazon sites. A recent article addresses the question of just how popular is genealogy and examines the statistics comparing internet traffic to the most popular sites and distinguishing between the occasional researcher and those of us who become obsessive!

However you choose to spend the Christmas period, may I thank all of you who have been in touch or have bought my book, and wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

 

Snails and Serendipity

Snail Milk Water

 

So much of extending my historical knowledge has depended on serendipity.

This week I was in London for a meeting and hoping to be able to visit the Tate afterwards. However the meeting over-ran and, because it was closer to St Pancras where I catch my train, I went instead to the Georgians Revealed Exhibition at the British Library. It is full of fascinating images and objects demonstrating the way in which the Georgians shaped modern Britain. One of the highlights for me was the huge map of Georgian London making up the floor of the final room of the exhibition. I can spend hours looking at maps – and often do!

Afterwards I browsed through the books and souvenir objects for sale, which included among the usual mugs and posters a complete high head white wig for those wishing to dress the part! And among the books I came across a small volume that looked interesting, containing Georgian household cures and remedies.

And here I discovered a Jamaican connection, for the original book had come down through the Biscoe and Tyndale-Biscoe families to its present custodian Nicola Lillie. Some readers may remember the story I told not long after starting this website of the court case involving Joseph Biscoe and his runaway wife Susanna.

Joseph Biscoe’s aunt by marriage, Elizabeth Ambler (Mrs Elisha Biscoe) was the original owner of the ‘Physick Book’ in which she, her friends and later generations recorded their recipes for various potions for easing or curing everything from the bite of a mad dog to fits, bladder stones, gout, coughs and indigestion. Marilyn Yurdan worked with the author to provide the medical historical background, and although some recipes would be fairly easy to make now, it really is a case of ‘Don’t try this at home’ when you encounter Nurse Payne’s Receipt for a Sore Throat in the Small Pox containing rock alum and white dog turd! Given that as little as one ounce of alum can kill an adult (not to mention the dog turd), this is not one to copy.

Nor are we likely to want to make use of woodlice, earthworms and snails, all of which were favourite eighteenth century ingredients.

More benign is a recipe to make Lavender Water by simmering lavender flowers in cider; and a Tincture for Gout and Colick in Stomach was made using raisins, rhubarb, senna, coriander, fennel, cochineal, saffron and liquorish infused in brandy. My guess is that the rhubarb and senna would have made it effective for constipation if not for gout. Increased prosperity in the eighteenth century leading to a diet rich in red meat and other high protein items such as turtle, taken together with rich red wines, made gout the classic Georgian complaint.

Besides reproducing the recipes, the book explains what the various ingredients were – how many of us now would recognise Burgundy Pitch, mithridate or Balsam of Tolu? even if we could safely identify coltsfoot, ox-eye daisies or camomile. To take us through these forgotten ingredients each recipe has its own glossary and an explanation of its intended use or the problem it was intended to ease.

It is also a beautifully produced little book with a short, illustrated history of the Ambler Biscoe family and woodcut illustrations of the various herbs and other ingredients.

Although the eighteenth century family name was Biscoe, in the mid-nineteenth century it became Tyndale-Biscoe (after the Biscoe name had been lost for a time through a female line of descent) and some readers may know the lovely Historic Jamaica from the Air by David Buisseret, in which the photographs were taken by Jack Tyndale-Biscoe.

There is a large bequest of papers, maps, documents and photographs relating to Jamaica made by Jack Tyndale-Biscoe and his wife in the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town – you can read the details of what was donated in Kenneth E. Ingram’s University of the West Indies publication Manuscript Sources for the West Indies. The collection also includes genealogical information on the Morrison, Duff and Dallas families of Jamaica and the Branch and deFreitas families of St Lucia.

In addition to their connection with Jamaica, the eighteenth century Biscoe family also owned plantations on St Kitts. There are records for the slave ownership of Stephana and William Biscoe (widow and son of Joseph Biscoe) in Jamaica on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website.

Not for the first time I have been impressed by just how intertwined was the history of Jamaica with the huge changes that went on throughout the eighteenth century.

Lavender Water & Snail Syrup: Miss Ambler’s Household Book of Georgian Cures and Remedies, Nicola Lille & Marilyn Yurdan with illustrations by Laura Lillie, The History Press, Stroud, 2013. ISBN 978-0-7524-8995-7

A Year in Jamaica – Book Review

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For anyone with an interest in Jamaica and its history this enchanting memoir is a must read, and a great Christmas present.

Diana Lewes was the pen name of Elizabeth Anesta Sewell whose grandfather William Sewell went to Jamaica shortly after the abolition of slavery, and profiting from the general view that Abolition had ruined the plantations, bought up a number of estates including some that had belonged to the family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. William’s partner married his daughter but died childless so that the legacy William had to leave at his death was a very valuable one. However, knowing that his son Henry was a spendthrift, William left his estate in trust to his five grandchildren, of whom ‘Diana’ was one.

In 1889 sixteen year old Diana, her older sister Beattie and their parents went out to Jamaica to live on Arcadia, while their brother Philip was sent to learn the business on the Oxford estate. The memoir, written over a period of years, has some fictionalised elements, partly perhaps to conceal the fact that Diana’s father embezzled part of his children’s inheritance. In the book this crime is committed by the attorney, which certainly fits with much of Jamaica’s history of dishonest estate management.

The year Diana spent in Jamaica was one not only of learning about a new country and its customs, but also one of growing up, of attending parties and of being forced by her father to promise never to marry. Her descriptions of a sugar estate in the late nineteenth century differ from the eighteenth mainly in the increased use of machinery and the relative freedom of the black workers. We are left in no doubt however about the different standing of various white neighbours, the black house servants, who wear white, and the other workers who still wear mainly the osnaburg of their slave ancestors.

She describes the house on the Oxford estate.  “Like many of the old fashioned Jamaican houses, it was built a storey above ground. Underneath were storerooms and servants’ sleeping quarters. Above these, approached only by two flights of steps, was the main part of the building and, crwning all, was a wide sloping hurricane roof.” At Oxford Diana learned that it was important to know the working cattle by name to ensure that none was worked two days running, “no steer, fed as these are, can stand being worked every day”. Diana learned to recognise all her brother’s cattle and on one occasion spotted one that had been out the previous day. The other drivers shouted with laughter that their colleague had been caught out by a young white girl.

On another occasion Diana was asked to count the canes in the cane bundles, as some workers would try to cheat by having too few in each bundle. She picked a bundle made up by Alexandra, a black woman who Diana comes to realise is the attorney’s mistress, and her intuition is proved right when the bundle is short. The ambiguities and nuances of post slavery, colonial Jamaica are very clearly brought out in descriptions of entertainments, riding parties and an encounter with a family of poor whites who have been evicted from their property.

There are moments of high drama too when they are riding back from a neighbouring property and are charged by a herd of cattle, or when the cattle are being counted and two huge bulls start to fight while Diana is trapped and only rescued by the black overseer. There is the night Diana spends alone with a large bag containing the estate money wondering if she will be attacked and murdered for it.

There are descriptions of lavish meals, melon, turtle, turtles eggs, yam, sweet potatoes, cho-chos, peahen, fried plantain, avocado pears and coconut pudding, but an underlying sense of the struggle Diana’s mother faces to maintain a style of life she had known as a young bride a quarter of a century earlier. When a careless servant spills water on the highly polished mahogany floor, she is equally careless about mopping it up, and there is the strong sense of a colonial way of life slipping away.

There are wonderful descriptions of the Jamaican landscape and vivid character sketches of the people who lived there. It is no wonder that when Diana’s nephew discovered the manuscripts of her memoirs after her death that he wanted to be able to publish them.

They richly deserve to find a wider audience and to stand alongside Lady Nugent’s earlier descriptions of Jamaica which convey the impressions of a sympathetic outsider and help the reader to understand how Jamaica has evolved.

 

A Year in Jamaica: Memoirs of a Girl in Arcadia in 1889, Diana Lewes, Eland Publishing Ltd, London, 2013. ISBN 978 1 906011 83 3 cover price £16.99

Education at Home and Abroad

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 Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679)  via Wikimedia Commons

Much has been written about the failure of Jamaica to establish a self-sufficient and expanding white colony during the eighteenth century by comparison with the success of the rest of the North American colonies. The appalling death rates from yellow fever, malaria, smallpox and other diseases meant that it was difficult for those young men (and it was mainly men) who arrived seeking to make their fortunes to get a permanent toe hold. Even if they survived long enough to marry, and there were too few white women available for them all, their children also died in great numbers.

However there is another reason why those colonist families that did begin to become established did not remain on the island, which has perhaps received less attention than it deserves. Jamaica failed to establish a really good education system and did not found a university.

This meant that the colonists sent their children back home not just for their health, but to be educated, and once there, experiencing the wider world of eighteenth century Europe, and with the apparently limitless resources provided by the parental plantations at their disposal, they lacked the incentive to return to Jamaica. Many preferred to buy their way into the landed upper middle classes, build grand houses, and participate in Jamaican interests at a distance through the West India lobby or involvement in the building of the West India Docks.

Elsewhere in North America Harvard University was begun in 1636, William and Mary College in 1693 and Yale University in 1701, but there was no parallel development in Jamaica.

There were some early attempts to establish schooling on the island. In 1695 An Act for erecting and establishing a free-school in the Parish of St Andrew was passed, along with other Acts relating to island defence. Subsequent Acts of the Assembly were more concerned with ensuring the rights of minors, defending the island, building roads and bridges, and trying to encourage further white migration than with educating those who were already there. The incentive to provide schools for their own children was also reduced among families for whom the employment of a private tutor (if you could persuade one to come) was the norm.

When William May arrived in Jamaica as a young clergyman, he wrote home to his bishop in far from flattering terms about the early colonists, and in the case of Jonathan Gale and his son Colonel Gale he marked them both as ‘illiterate’, as he said was the father of John and Samuel Moore. There were some Jamaican schoolmasters mentioned by William May – the fathers of both Colonel Peak and Colonel Sadler were said by May to have been teachers, but their sons preferred to make money from their plantations rather than seek an academic career.

You can find the full text of May’s letter in Caribbeana – he clearly had a very poor opinion of his parishioners! But many of the very early settlers probably had little use for more than basic literacy, being concerned to carve out their estates from virgin territory. On the other hand the merchants who imported the goods they needed and who traded their produce for them had to be well enough educated to keep good records, as did the attorneys who managed their legal affairs. But like so much of their food, tools and luxury goods these skills were generally imported by the settlers rather than being home grown.

On the 3rd of February, 1730, Peter Beckford, another man of whom William May held a low opinion, and who died five years later worth over £300,000, gave £2000 “for a school and poor housekeepers”. However, there appears to have been was no real concerted effort to establish good quality schools during the eighteenth century and it became the norm for children, both boys and girls, to be sent to England for their education. The two Moore brothers mentioned above matriculated at Wadham College Oxford in 1700 and 1702, with Samuel going on to register at the Inner Temple.

Both John and Samuel Moore returned to Jamaica after their time at university, but as the century progressed it became more and more common for those who had made their fortunes in Jamaica to relocate to Britain and seek a place in British society. If Jamaica had had good schools and a centre of learning sufficient to attract students from elsewhere in the Caribbean, it is possible more young men would have remained on the island.

 

 

The 4th of July – not the end of the story

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Signing the Preliminary Treaty of Peace at Paris, November 30, 1782.*

 

 

Following the 4th of July celebrations of America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, I thought it interesting to quote from a letter which demonstrates that this was, to slightly mis-quote Churchill, not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

Six years later, on the 6th of December 1782 Robert Cooper Lee wrote to his second son Richard who had been sent first to Brussels, and then to Hanover, to learn how to be a merchant.

Robert Cooper Lee to Richard Lee

Bedford Square, 6th December 1782

My dear Richard,

One of the most important Events in the Annals of Great Britain has taken place.  The Independency of the United States of America.  On the 30th of November Provisionary Articles were signed at Paris by his Majesty’s Commissioners and the Commissioners of America, to constitute a Treaty of Peace, when the Peace shall be agreed upon between Great Britain and France.  This previous Step, the signing of Articles with America being an Acknowledgement of her Independence, has removed the principal Obstacle to a general Accommodation.  The Parliament met yesterday, and was opened by one of the longest Speeches from the Throne that has been made for many Years; it contains great Variety of Matter and expressly declares the Dismemberment of the Empire by the Seperation of America.  The Address in the House of Commons was moved by Mr Yorke and seconded by Mr Banks.  There was no Amendment moved.  Mr Fox Lord North and Mr Pitt spoke, but there being no Opposition to the Address it is called a Conversation, and not a Debate.  All Parties seemed agreed on the Necessity of assenting under the present Circumstances, to American Independence.  And equally agreed with respect to France and Spain to accept of nothing short of honourable Terms of Peace.  How that can be reconciled to the Idea of giving up Gibraltar I cannot see, yet that is confidentially talked of, and that the Spaniards are to give us the Island of Porto Rico in the West Indies in Exchange.  Our captured Islands to be restored to us, and St Lucia to the French.  In the East Indies the French demand to be put in the same Situation they were in prior to the last War, but that cannot be agreed to on our part.  The prevailing Opinion here is that a general Peace will take place.  Our political Barometer the Stocks have risen five or six per cent.  I would send you Woodfull’s Paper with the King’s Speech and the Debates on it, but I conclude you will easily get a Sight of them.

A Frigate the Resource from Jamaica arrived a few days ago; she left Jamaica the 14th of October, and brings to Government Intelligence that the French and Spaniards were preparing to make another attempt on that Island. Don Solana with the Spanish Ships was about proceeding to the Cape, where the land Forces intended for the last Expedition had continued; they expected to meet the Reinforcement of Ships and Troops from France that sailed in September, when Lord Howe sailed, and to make a force of 25,000 Men and 25 Ships of the Line.  Admiral Piggott from America would be soon after them, and Admiral Hughes with the Ships detached from Lord Howe’s Fleet shortly afterwards.  I therefore trust Jamaica will escape this Danger.  Have you seen Sir Edward Hughes’s Accounts in the Gazette of our Engagements with the French Fleets in the East Indies?

These ‘Provisionary Articles’ were finally ratified by the US Congress on the 14th of January 1784.

For a family whose income depended on the free movement of trade, any war caused difficulties at best and disaster at worst, Robert Cooper Lee’s comment about the improved price of ‘Stocks’ shows that the reaction to the prospect of peace was very favourable. And as can be seen from the second paragraph of the letter the threat to Jamaica had been very real. For an island only just recovering from the disastrous hurricane of 1780, and the several more that followed in that decade, the arrival of peace was more than welcome.

You can read all the Lee family letters in the book A Parcel of Ribbons.

Picture source: U.S. Diplomacy Center (State Department) exhibition via Wikipedia, a 1902 print from an earlier painting, John Jay and Benjamin Franklin standing on the left.

Belisario – a great Jamaican artist

Belisario

 

This is not a book to be taken lightly in any sense. It is a large and solid tome, one to be requested as a birthday or Christmas present, to be proudly displayed and frequently pored over. It is carefully researched, beautifully put together and wonderfully illustrated.

Jackie Ranston came to the story via the history of the Lindo family and rather than simply begin with the birth of the artist, born in Kingston in 1794 the son of Abraham Medes Belisario and Esther Lindo, she first sets him in his Jewish family context. The families fled to England from the Inquisition and settled in the small London Jewish community. Ranston traces their activities in London and Europe and then tracks them to Jamaica where Abraham Mendes Belisario arrived as an adventurous 18 year-old in 1786, and where Alexandre Lindo, who had arrived two decades earlier, was already established as a property developer, slave trader and Kingston’s leading Jewish merchant. In 1791 Abraham married Lindo’s daughter Esther who brought with her a generous marriage settlement.

Early in the nineteenth century Alexandre Lindo lent large sums to the French, then in conflict with the British, and subsequently unable to recover his money died demented and bankrupt in London in 1812. The Belisario family were also back in London and suffering hard times – Esther and her daughters set up a boarding school for Jewish girls in Clapton, and in 1809 Abraham Mendes Belisaro was appointed to manage a sugar estate on Tortola. There the slaves were treated with unimagineable cruelty, particularly by Arthur Hodge, owner of the Bellevue estate. Such were his excesses that he was eventually prosecuted for murder, most unusually the testimony of a black woman was accepted by the court, and Hodge was hanged. Abraham Belisario had the account of the trial published in London at his own expense, but never returned to live there, dying in Tortola in 1825 a year after Esther had died in London.

Meanwhile young Isaac Mendes Belisario had become a pupil of Robert Hills and one of his first known works was a watercolour of the interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, painted in 1812. For two decades he painted in London, became a member of the Stock Exchange, had a short lived partnership with his uncle Jacob, who had a role in the fraudulent Poyais scheme (involving a fictional Central American state) and eventually, having finally obtained access to some family funds from the sale of the last remaining Lindo properties to Simon Taylor, left London for Jamaica for the sake of his health.

Given what we know of the graveyard that Jamaica could be for white settlers this may seem an odd ddecision, until you also remember what a damp, crowded, insanitary and smog filled city London was in the 1830s.

Isaac arrived in Kingston in December 1834 and having made contact with various cousins still on the island, immediately sought out premises for a studio. Among four portraits he painted in 1835 were those of Jamaican Chief Justice Sir Joshua Rowe and his wife. Later he was commissioned by the Marquess of Sligo to paint his Jamaican estates, the Marquess having been appointed as Governor of Jamaica. Sligo was a descendant of Dennis Kelly, who with his brothers had owned large estates in Jamaica and whose Wills are transcribed here.

Jackie Ranston’s book takes its title from the prospectus that Belisario prepared during the time that Sligo was Governor Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica. The lithographs were planned to illustrate the carnival known as Jonkonnu or John Canoe a fusion of African and European traditions dating back to the early days of slavery, and Belisario researched carefully for the accompanying text. Ranston’s book reproduces in full folios 1, 2 and 3, which came out in 1837 and 1838.

At this point Belisario ran into trouble, he had lost the services of the person who coloured the prints, and his own health was suffering. In fact he had tuberculosis and he now returned home to live with his sisters in Clapton, where the damp air from Hackney Marshes can have done little to improve his condition. Perhaps it was this that prompted him to journey once more to Kingston where not long after his return he witnessed a catastrophic fire which began in a foundry on Harbour Street and destroyed a swathe of downtown Kingston. Belisario captured the event in three dramatic lithographs and a map of the area affected by the fire, on which he collaborated with Adolphe Duperly.

Some time after this, Belisario left Jamaica for the last time and he died at his sisters’ home in Lower Clapton on the 4th of June 1849.

Apart from a number of maps, the book contains family trees of the Lindo and Belisario families, extensive endnotes and bibliography, and is fabulously well illustrated, not only with Belisario’s work but with numerous images relating to Jewish history, Jamaica, slavery and emancipation. Underpinning it all is a wealth of detailed research.

This is a fabulous book, and while not cheap is absolutely worth the price for anyone interested in Jamaica, Belisario, his background and his art.

 

Belisario : sketches of character : a historical biography of a Jamaican artist by Jackie Ranston. Mill Press, Kingston, Jamaica 2008

ISBN: 9768-16816-1 and ISBN 13: 978-9768-16816-0

Inoculation, Vaccination and an old controversy

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Morning P0st 17 May 1810 from British Newspaper Archive

While researching something else entirely I came across Dr Benjamin Moseley and an old controversy with very modern echoes.

Benjamin Moseley was born about 1746, son of Edward Moseley of St Osyth on the north Essex coast. On the 22nd of October 1765 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London by Redemption, paying forty-six shillings and eight pence for admission to the Company of Woolmen. His father was recorded as ‘Gent’ and, combined with the location of the family, this suggests that they had made their money as sheep farmers supplying fine English wool to the world.

Benjamin was trained as a doctor in London, Leiden and Paris and settled in Kingston, Jamaica about 1767, practising as a surgeon apothecary and eventually becoming Surgeon General. He also served as an Assistant Judge in the parish of St Andrew. On the 9th of January 1768 he married Martha Clare, by licence, in Spanish Town. Of their children only two outlived their father, a son William Henry born about 1777 who in due course followed his father into medicine as an Army doctor but who died only four years after his father; and a daughter named Martha Elizabeth born about 1781. Nothing more is known of Martha Clare who may have died in Jamaica.

There is an interesting note on the parish register for St Osyth –  “At front: note of outbreak of smallpox from which 86 persons died, 1737-1738” (now held at the Essex Record Office in whose SEAX database I found it). St Osyth is a very small place, so the village memory of this disastrous event may have coloured Benjamin’s childhood. In any case when he arrived in Jamaica he would have become very aware of the devastating effect of smallpox epidemics.

Normal mortality in such epidemics was about 30 percent, although a milder form had only a one percent mortality, however there was a hemorrhagic form that was almost invariably fatal. No wonder then that a slave who could be certified to have had the disease and have recovered, usually evident from the sometimes terrible scarring it caused, commanded a higher price. By the second half of the eighteenth century most planters were having all their slaves inoculated.

While there was little that could be done to treat the disease once caught, knowledge of inoculation had spread from China, India and the Arab world into Europe by the eighteenth century. The technique involved taking some of the pus from the lesions of an infected person and introducing it into the person to be inoculated via a small cut or scratch.  Sometimes the person doing the inoculating would travel around taking the sick person with them to provide live material. Sometimes dried matter was used and was inhaled. The result was that the person being inoculated caught smallpox, but usually in a mild form, from which they recovered in a couple of weeks or so. However there were fatalities. One high profile death was that of the young Prince Octavius, son of George III who had all his children inoculated.

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A boy suffering from smallpox (CDC website)

At the end of the eighteenth century Edward Jenner made a scientific study of inoculation using cowpox – hence the new term vaccination – first inoculating with cowpox and then testing its efficacy by infecting his subjects with smallpox. The cowpox made them slightly unwell, and they failed to catch smallpox. In due course vaccination replaced inoculation with smallpox as being the safer option.

It was not however uncontroversial. Benjamin Moseley had written a number of treatises – on the benefits of coffee and sugar (in which he had a financial interest!) and on dysentery, another killer scourge in Jamaica especially amongst the troops stationed there. He has a small place in history however as a vocal and high profile opponent of vaccination.

Benjamin Moseley on Coffee resized 450

He was not opposed to the principle of inoculation and like many doctors made a living using the traditional method. However the arguments against introducing animal matter into humans, mainly children, have a modern parallel in those who oppose, for example, the use of pig heart valves in humans. Although the notion featuring in cartoons of the time, that those vaccinated with cowpox might turn into cows seems extreme to us now, given that the understanding of disease and its causes was rudimentary, the anxieties are understandable.

According to Sam Kean, writing about a new video game teaching about vaccination, Moseley argued that vaccination would degrade people spiritually, making them near-brutes. Why, “owing to vaccination,” he wrote, “British ladies might wander in the fields to receive the embraces of the bull.” He even prophesied “a new Pasiphaë”—the mythological queen who had sex with a cow and gave birth to the Minotaur. Lisa Rosner, a historian at Stockton College helping develop the video game on vaccination, calls Moseley a talented demagogue: “He really had his finger on the pulse of what people are afraid of.”

Although eventually vaccination resulted in the world-wide banishing of smallpox in the wild to a small number of (hopefully) very secure laboratories, the same is not true of measles. Also an epidemic killer, routine vaccination, compulsory before school admission in some countries, has significantly reduced but not yet eliminated the disease. Recent outbreaks in the UK have been attributed to a scare a decade ago, echoing Moseley, that the vaccine could cause autism. That claim has been totally discredited but a generation of children grew up who had neither had measles nor been vaccinated, with the result that mass vaccination is now being offered to those who had missed out in order to contain the spread of what can be a fatal illness.

Benjamin Moseley had built up a large and wealthy clientelle in England based around his Jamaican connections. This gave him both influence and access to the means of  widely publicising his views. Similarly in the MMR vaccination scandal in the UK, access to media, happy to play on the natural fears of parents who only want the best for their children, facilitated the spread of a scientifically discredited theory. It seems little had changed in two hundred years.