The Barretts of Jamaica

Never thought I’d use Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s name in the same sentence with Jamaica. The prolific poet of the nineteenth century just never impressed me as a Bob Marley “one love” kind of gal. She would probably not be a fan of reggae music; classical music and opera were most likely her jam. Can’t imagine her hair in dreadlocks. Being British, I’m betting she attended the Anglican church and would not have taken any interest in Rastafarianism (it didn’t come along until after her death anyway). Elizabeth’s health was extremely poor and she spent her life addicted to pain medications. Maybe in Jamaica, she might have realized the pain relieving benefit of smoking a little weed from time to time.

Elizabeth B. And Robert Browning

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning never visited Jamaica although her family had deep roots on the island nation. Barrett’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Hersey Barrett, settled in Jamaica in the middle of the seventeenth century on land granted to him by the king of England in appreciation of his loyalty and service to the crown. At one time, the family owned more than 84,000 acres of land and 2,000 slaves. The fortunes made in Jamaica supported the Barrett family on both sides of the ocean. The Barretts lived large in Jamaica and also back home in England thanks to the sugar cane which flourished on the massive Barrett estates. Elizabeth’s ancestors also played prominent roles in the politics of the island nation. Elizabeth’s father, Edward Mouton-Barrett, received a salary of over 60,000 pounds per year from the family’s Jamaican enterprises. Elizabeth was close to her uncle, Samuel Barrett in Jamaica, who left a large endowment to her upon his death.

The Barrett family built four large homes called Great Houses on Jamaica. One was named Cinnamon Hill Great House and another was called Greenwood Great House. Greenwood Great House was built primarily to use for entertaining. Many of Jamaica’s Great Houses were torched in the slave uprising in 1831 but the Barrett properties were spared. Supposedly, that was because the Barretts of Jamaica were “good” to their slaves. Of course, that’s a sentence that just reeks of irony since, in order to be a really swell master to your slaves, you should free them. However, Barrett did allow his slaves to learn to read, which was illegal at the time. But wait, there’s more irony to be served up. It turns out that Elizabeth B. Browning and her husband, Robert, were ardent abolitionists and fought to have the system of slavery totally destroyed. They used their poetry as a means of expressing their support for abolition. Elizabeth’s poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” published in 1847, was very influential in the abolitionist movement. But it’s most ironic that their fiercely held principles sort of dropped by the wayside when the money kept pouring in from the Jamaica estates and financed their bougie lifestyle. It was with inherited money from Jamaica that the couple moved to Florence and indulged their passion for a life devoted writing poetry. They never toiled from dawn to dusk with sugar cane under the broiling Caribbean sun. Perhaps if the couple had refused to accept the income provided by the sweat of enslaved people it would be easier to believe in the authenticity of their outrage about slavery. The level of hypocrisy with these two is off the charts. You know the type: they rationalize that it’s somehow “different” when they enslave people, probably because they let them learn to read.

We visited Greenwood Great House on Wednesday. It is believed to be the best preserved remaining great house in Jamaica. The man who owns it now is a native of Jamaica and his wife is from New Zealand. They have owned Greenwood for 46 years and have worked to preserve the treasure trove of centuries-old artifacts in the house. They have created quite a remarkable museum. So much of the history of Jamaica can be learned just by touring the Greenwood Great House. I will let the pictures tell the story. Before coming to Greenwood Great House, my knowledge of Jamaica began and ended with Bob Marley. But no problem mon, after today, I have a much better understanding of the history of this island nation. The house gives an unvarnished picture of Jamaica during what has been described as an “era of elegance and brutality.”

Greenwood Great House was built in the late 18th century.

 

This was originally a ballroom. Now it contains an impressive collection of rare antique pieces of furniture and a library of very old books including a signed first edition Dickens’ book, among other first editions. There are also rare books dating from the late 1600s. All together, the library is the oldest and largest plantation library on the island of Jamaica.

 

The home contains two polyphons. These music boxes play metal disks. This one is in the above dining room. Our guide played the upright polyphon below. The home also contains other rare antique musical instruments such as a very old harp and an exquisite antique piano.

 

This upstairs veranda is very large. The views are amazing and the sea breezes keep the home comfortable.

 

This breezeway between the kitchen and the main house is called the “whistling walk.” The walk got its name because the slaves were required to whistle as they delivered the food from the kitchen to the dining room because it is impossible to chew while whistling, thereby insuring that the slaves didn’t help themselves to any food destined for the homeowners and their guests.

 

This is called a mantrap. It was used for runaway slaves. The Greenwood Great House has several artifacts from the slave era. Below is an ankle iron.

 

 

Above and below: two posters from the slave era.

3 Comments

  1. Melinda Young on June 21, 2024 at 3:04 pm

    🥰

  2. Judy on June 21, 2024 at 5:24 pm

    Love your comments on the hypocrisy of the slave owners!

  3. Sarah Guida on June 22, 2024 at 10:22 am

    What an interesting thing to do while you all were in Jamaica …..learning about the Barrett family connection to the island. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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