Sudden death under the Sun

The Lee family tomb at St Mary’s Barnes, showing the reburial of Joseph Lee who had died in Jamaica


New arrivals to eighteenth century Jamaica were shocked by the apparently callous attitude of the colonists to sudden death. It was not simply that few of the tombstones in the churchyard in Kingston recorded deaths of people over thirty-five, but when people died there was a lack of the respect and extended mourning there would have been in England.

Tropical conditions meant that burials took place within a day or so of the death, and often in the place of death even when that was not the person’s home parish. Although deaths were recorded in the parish register, the burial of members of the Plantocracy often took place on the estate in a family burying ground rather than in the parish church or graveyard. Sadly over the years many of their grave markers have been lost – overgrown or vandalised.

Occasionally a colonist expressed a wish for their body to be returned home to England, and so although a burial took place in Jamaica the coffin was later dug up to be transported back for reburial. A lead coffin would probably have been used, perhaps packed with sawdust.

In the twenty-first century with much increased life expectancy we regard any death under the age of seventy as premature, accidental death as unusual, and death in childbirth as wholly avoidable. Not so in the eighteenth century. Quite apart from the deaths caused by yellow fever, smallpox and malaria, the dry bellyache caused by lead poisoning, and the heart disease and stroke brought on by diet and lifestyle, even a simple accident could result in death. Take the case of a small boy, possibly a slave, in the household of Rose Fuller who shortly before the event had left for England. His Jamaica factor, John Lee, wrote to him:

‘There has been an accident happened to little Tom, Nelly’s Son, who as he was leaving the Cattle fell down and the wain run over him and broke his Leg, he was not far from town when the Accident happened and was immediately brought there. Doctor Worth set the Leg and he was very hearty for thirteen days, on the fourteenth he was seized with spasms and dyed on the fifteenth notwithstanding all the Care imaginable was taken to save him both by the Doctor and Mrs Rose.’

Poor little Tom almost certainly died from infection which today would have been easily avoided with the use of antibiotics.

The same letter listed the latest roll call of the dead, which is typical in such correspondence:

‘Since you have been gone we have lost Mr Baldwin[1], Mr Halked[2] and Mrs Taylor the Widow of Patrick Taylor[3], and last night Mr Henry Byndloss[4] the Attorney General of a very short illness’ .

Not long afterward John was also reporting the death of Dr Worth, and within six years he himself would be dead.

One of the reasons given to account for the failure of Jamaican colonists to establish the kind of society which was built in North America was their inability to reproduce in sufficient numbers to establish family continuity. Some families did succeed of course, although many then left for ‘home’ in England, but the mortality among women and children made the establishing of families difficult and although infant mortality in Europe at the time was high it was far exceeded in Jamaica. Although the colonists were perceived as callous it would be wrong to assume that parents did not grieve for their dead children, and their tombstones often attest to this, but the frequency of the event tended to harden their outward reactions. Hurried burial and the frequent death, or absence through illness, of parish priests also contributed to attitudes regarded by newcomers as irreligious.

We get a glimpse of the reaction of an outsider to the suddenness of Jamaican death in the Journal of Lady Nugent, who went to Jamaica in 1801 as wife of the new Governor. ‘Heard of the serious illness of poor Captain Cathcart. He is a fine young man and I trust may be spared’. On the following day she wrote ‘We all went melancholy to bed, having heard not only of the death of Captain Cathcart, but also of five of his officers!’.

On another occasion she wrote of her shock at the way such deaths were joked about. ‘Mr Mitchell, is a course looking man, but humane, and treats his negroes most kindly. He disgusted me very much the other day, by making a joke of poor Lord Hugh’s death; but it is common custom here’.


[1] William Baldwin buried Spanish Town 18 July 1755

[2] Richard Halked buried Spanish Town 13 July 1755.

[3] Martha Taylor, death recorded as Maximilia Taylor, buried Spanish Town 21 July 1755. Patrick Taylor was a Member of the Assembly for St George 1753.

[4] Henry Morgan Byndloss (c.1703-24 Jul 1755, buried Spanish Town the following day.)

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