Tue | Nov 12, 2019

Anthony Gambrill | Plantation heiress who campaigned against slavery

Published:Sunday | September 9, 2018 | 12:57 AM

To Jamaicans, the name Barrett is primarily remembered in conjunction with the founding of Falmouth and the family’s 18th-century plantations in Trelawny. To the English, it is associated with the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Like many English adventurers, Hersey Barrett had arrived on the island when Penn and Venables chased out the Spanish in 1655 after failing to take Santo Domingo. By 1663, he had been granted land in Spanish Town and was later buried in the cathedral in 1685. He also had land between Carlisle Bay and Milk River. This probably accounted for the fact that his son, Samuel, lost his life at the unsuccessful French invasion at Carlisle Bay in 1694. Samuel, before dying in defence of his country, fathered three sons.

Samuel’s son, also called Samuel, began acquiring property at first in St James with Cornwall. Samuel Jr married Elizabeth Wisdom, who bore him an astonishing 15 children. The fourth of these, Edward, expanded the Barrett landholding to more than 10,000 acres with Cinnamon Hill, Oxford and Cambridge estate in St James.

It was this fourth-generation Barrett who played a significant role in the birth of Falmouth. In 1770, Trelawny, as a parish, was carved out of St James. The first parochial capital was the village of Martha Brae. Its suitability, situated a mile and a half upstream from the river’s mouth, was soon in doubt, and a decision was made to establish a seaport in Mr Barrett’s township which, by 1794, had more than 150 houses and was named after Falmouth in England where Governor Trelawny was born. It was soon to become recognised as a port of entry, clearance and a freeport like its competitor, Montego Bay.

Edward Barrett died in 1797, but his daughter, Elizabeth, made a fortuitous marriage to Charles Moulton, the son of a captain of a man-of-war in the West Indies squadron. From this union sprang three children: Sarah, who died in her youth; Edward Barrett Moulton; and Samuel Barrett Moulton, both of whom were sent to England to be educated. Both assumed the surname of Barrett legally required by their uncle to whom they were to eventually become heirs to the Barrett lands in Jamaica. They became absentee plantation owners, but Samuel was to take responsibility for the management of the Trelawny properties.

Earlier in the 19th century, financial problems beset the Barretts and Samuel was obliged – although by this time he was a member of parliament in Britain – to return to Jamaica in 1827. He is said to have reformed the conditions on which their plantations were managed. He abolished the whip, appointed a Negro overseer, and built houses and schools for his 1,000 slaves. He established churches and encouraged the Baptist missionaries. The family was to claim more than 12,000 pounds compensation for releasing their slaves upon Emancipation.

Samuel maintained a close relationship with his niece, Elizabeth, until his death in 1837. She was the daughter of his brother, Edward, and one of 10 siblings. Early in her life, she became aware not only of her family’s legacies but also of the impact of Emancipation on their fortunes.

Hope End in Herefordshire, where she grew up, had to be sold because of financial difficulties. However, in her life she benefited from the endowment she received in her uncle’s will and an inheritance from her grandmother’s Jamaican properties. Elizabeth was to escape from her father’s decree that his children should remain unmarried by eloping with Robert Browning in 1846. Despite the fact that both her mother and her husband’s families owned slaves on West Indian properties, she was soon to campaign through her poetry for the abolition of slavery.

Throughout her life, she was wracked with pain and loss of mobility from a medical problem that was never adequately diagnosed and led to her dependence on painkillers. Remarkably, she became a prolific writer and poet, and during her lifetime was said to rival Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth, as well as influencing Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickenson.

Following on the disposal of her father Edward’s opulent mansion, Hope End, and before her marriage, she lived at 50 Wimpole Street in London. Her poems condemned child labour and contributed to child labour reform. Although she was to also take stands against other instances of social injustice, she is best known for her condemnation of the barbarity of slavery. She died at 55, but her story has been told in many successful theatrical productions and films since then.

This strong-willed, enormously creative, energetic popular woman hated slavery yet spent much of her life on its proceeds. With the untimely death of her favourite uncle and her brother, only 28, of a tropical fever, she declared Jamaica was a dangerous place, saying, “Cursed we are from generation to generation.”

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