Wed | Feb 22, 2017

Anthony Gambrill | Charles Price and the rat

Published:Sunday | January 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Like many early settlers in Jamaica, Francis Price arrived with the English army that seized the island from the Spanish in 1655. His story began when he filed a patent for 840 acres "being near Luidas in St John Parish (now St Catherine) called Worthy Park." His lifetime was spent taming the land, acquiring nearby properties, and raising cattle, poultry and hogs.

The succeeding Price, the first of three Charles, was known as Colonel Charles Price. He, like his father, was hampered by being land rich but capital poor for developing Worthy Park as he had begun cultivating sugar cane. His holdings across Jamaica included an elaborate house in Spanish Town where he served in the militia and in the Jamaica House of Assembly, from which he was eventually expelled for persistent non-attendance.

By the time of his death in 1730, Worthy Park in Lluidas Vale covered 1,314 acres (with 257 slaves) of which nearly half was in sugar. Sadly, the Anglican Church in Guanaboa near Spanish Town contains a melancholy memorial dedicated to eight of his 13 children, the eldest just 14, who were not to survive the unhealthy conditions that prevailed in 18th century Jamaica.

Within two years his eldest son, 22-year-old Charles, was elected to the Jamaica Assembly to begin a turbulent career as the political champion of the planter class in alliance with Governor Edward Trelawny. He advanced the family's fortune over four decades including acquiring 21,641 acres in 11 parishes, sometimes Crown lands, much of it sold for development at enormous profit. His second accomplishment was as a road-builder, in some instances connecting the south coast and the north coast as well as starting the tortuous Mount Diablo highway.

Sir Charles Price, knighted in 1768, is probably best remembered for having his name given to the common cane-rat. A large grey animal, it ate cane voraciously, giving it a delicious flavour when roasted. (For years, he was mistakenly credited with having imported it from the Mosquito Coast.) By the time of his death, he owned 1,800 slaves and he was the fifth largest landowner in the island.

 

INHERITANCE

 

His son, who was also to be knighted, inherited his father's house and diverse land holdings after 1772. He spent four years in England attempting to resolve his family's financial difficulties but, faced with bankruptcy, returned to the island where he unsuccessfully sought assistance from the Jamaica House of Assembly.

Fortunately, earlier legal arrangements ensured that Worthy Park remained in the Price family, being inherited by John Price, a cousin, who had long lived in Cornwall, England, suffering from tuberculosis. It was John's grandson, Rose, who was to come to the rescue of the Price family's fortunes.

Aged only 23, he took command of Worthy Park, first firing the unscrupulous overseer who had been installed by his father.

Over three years, he is said to have nearly doubled the value of Worthy Park. Focussing on improving efficiency, he increased production by putting more land in cane, maximising fertilisation and improving planting techniques. He raised the slave population to 528 and saw that with better nutrition and living conditions - which included building a slave hospital and new slave quarters - he would improve his slaves' health, morale and production.

 

ABSENTEE PLANTATION OWNER

 

Rose Price returned to England in only three years leaving the estate fully ready to enjoy the steady increase in returns that followed. He was an absentee plantation owner but continued to play a major role in its success.

In 1798, he purchased Trengwainton, one of the finest properties in England, near his birthplace in Cornwall. The next 27 years were spent planting subtropical shrubs, flowers, and trees, building terraces and welled gardens. He began building a house suitable to his aspirations in 1810. This included adding a driveway from his house to his parish church down which his family could be seen every Sunday in their coach accompanied by their servants.

Active in local and national discourse, Rose Price was knighted in 1815 for his determined defense of slavery and West Indian interests. Sir Rose Price married in 1798 and fathered 14 children. Not surprisingly, his wife died before him when she was only 28. However. the marriage had fortuitously brought him wealthy in-laws who were to assist him with his finances. Unfortunately when compensation was paid it was they who benefitted largely from the amount paid for releasing Worthy Park slaves. He died shortly after this event. In their comprehensive book 'A Jamaican Plantation: the History of Worthy Park' Michael Craton and James Walvin, reported "The will (Rose's) oozes with religiosity to the point of the macabre. Rose Price's coffin was not to be nailed down for four days or until putrescence had set in, and he was to be buried with a locket of his wife's hair around his neck."

Ultimately, extended debt overcame the last of the Prices, with Worthy Park falling out of their hands after nearly 200 years.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.