Tag Archives: Tortola

Belisario – a great Jamaican artist



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

Murder or Manslaughter – The Trial of Daniel Macginnis

A Trial at the Old Bailey by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


We would probably never have heard of Daniel Macginnis (sometimes written Macgenise) if he had not had the misfortune to be tried for murder at the Old Bailey in January 1793. What makes his case interesting for me is the number of highly distinguished men with connections to Jamaica who were prepared to testify in his defence.

Daniel was a doctor, aged nearly sixty, and lodging in London at the house of one John Hardy, a Hatter and Hosier of Newgate Street .

On the 28th of December 1782 Hardy and his wife and their maidservant were having tea in a downstairs extension at the back of the house, built out into the yard and with a skylight. When ‘water’ fell upon the glass Hardy rushed upstairs to confront Daniel Macginnis who had emptied his chamberpot out of his window as the maid had failed to collect it earlier. Hardy ranted at Macginnis telling him he wanted him out of the house and had started off back downstairs when Macginnis answered him back. According to Macginnis, Hardy then rushed back upstairs, forced his way into the room, pushed Macginnis to the floor and began to drag him out by his hair.

In the struggle, and fearing for his life, Macginnis drew a bayonet out of his pocket and stabbed his landlord through the heart. Hardy fell backwards down the stairs coming to rest on the landing. Macginnis, who had probably called out of his window for help during the attack, locked himself in his room until he could be certain that he would be taken up by an officer of the law and not murdered by the mob. He then gave himself up and handed over the murder weapon.

There was never any doubt that Daniel had killed John Hardy, although the maid, and another one who arrived back just as the commotion was in progress, disagreed on some of the details. What is remarkable is the legal team that represented Daniel and the number of extremely influential character witnesses who were called.

Those who have watched the BBC series Garrow’s Law will recall a barrister called Silvester. The TV series was only loosely based on fact and on a number of real life legal cases, but John Silvester really existed and was a friend of William Garrow and witness at his marriage in 1793.

John Silvester and Thomas Erskine appeared for the defence in Daniel Macginnis’s trial. Thomas Erskine was also a very distinguished barrister who famously had defended Lord George Gordon after the Gordon riots in 1780, and later Thomas Paine. He eventually became Lord Chancellor. Neither lawyer would have been cheap. As Daniel was effectively penniless someone wealthy must have paid for his defence. The first Jamaican connection mentioned comes in Daniel’s own statement in which he mentions General Sir John Dalling who had just completed a tour as Governor of Jamaica, and was shortly to be posted to Madras.

My circumstances never were affluent, but of late I have had assurances from those in power to be preferred to the rank of physician to the army, in an expedition that was then in contemplation, to be sent out under General Dalling , who was always my friend.

Daniel Sheen (or Shiel, the newspapers have a different spelling from the court transcript) a West India Merchant, testified to having known Daniel in Jamaica and told how Daniel had tried more than once to persuade him to buy goods from John Harvey in order to further his business.

He was followed by Lord Viscount Barrington who was a former Treasurer of the Navy and former Post Master General. He said that he knew Daniel as a very mild mannered man and that, had he been in the country, he was sure Lord Hillsborough who knew him even better would have testified for him.

Next up was Thomas Howard, Earl Effingham, whose mother Elizabeth Beckford was a daughter of Peter Beckford and sister to William Beckford, hugely wealthy Jamaican landowner and sometime Lord Mayor of London. Effingham would later be a Governor of Jamaica.

Major General Murray, an uncle of the Duke of Athol, appeared next and testified that Daniel

had at different times, while he had the care of sick men, divested himself of fresh provisions and given to those sick men, that he had likewise at times laid on the boards to give his bed to the sick men.

Murray was followed by Edmund Burke who said that

He was recommended to me originally as a man very knowing in his profession, very innocent, and rather helpless and unable to forward his own interest: as far as I have had an opportunity of knowing him, and I have known persons that knew much more of him than I could, I have heard that his knowledge is very extensive, I have always heard from every body that knew him, that he was a man of remarkable good nature, and it interested me so much in his favour, that I endeavoured to serve him in several little pursuits that he had, in which I thought he had very ill fortune to say no worse of it: from that opinion of him, I confess I feel much in seeing him in this situation.

Next came a Major Fleming who previously, wanting to give Macginnis work,

called him in, and in the course of a few days I found he had not only given strict attendance, but that much the greater part of his fee was given back to these poor people, to the very wretches whom he attended, given to buy wine and rice and sago, and other things that they wanted; this I mention as one instance of his humanity.

Further testimony was given by Alderman John Sawbridge, MP for London and former Lord Mayor; and finally John Nugent, the Lt.-Governor of Tortola.

Erskine then offered to call further character witnesses but was told it would not be necessary.

Even the prosecuting counsel seemed sympathetic towards Daniel, but despite strong evidence that Daniel had acted in self defence, and a very sympathetic summing up by the judge Mr Justice Willes,  the jury found him guilty of wilful murder and he was sentenced to hang. However the carrying out of the sentence was held over for two weeks during which time much work obviously went on  behind the scenes on his behalf  and a Royal Pardon was obtained on the 14th of February, while nevertheless requiring that he should serve two years in Newgate Prison.

What happened to Daniel thereafter is unclear. Did he survive his imprisonment? It is to be hoped that his influential friends were able to ensure that his time in jail was not too uncomfortable. It was then possible to pay for a ‘better class’ of cell, and to have fuel, food, candles, clothes and blankets delivered to make life more bearable.

What had been Daniel’s past history that so many wealthy and influential men with West Indian connections wanted to help him? Apart from a reference in the correspondence of Robert Cooper Lee that led me to the trial, and the trial transcript itself, I have seen no other contemporary references, and yet Daniel was clearly very well known among the West India lobby in London.

Daniel’s kindness, humanity and innocent goodness shine through the testimony of those who spoke for him at his trial. I do hope he lived out a comfortable old age.