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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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 Image:Wikimedia Commons

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.