Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Unmasking the white witch of King’s House

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2020 | 12:21 AM
Entrance to Kings House
Entrance to Kings House

I haven’t had much luck getting an answer to the question I asked last week: “A Lie Dem a Tell Pon Lady Musgrave?” I’ve not been able to track down Nyenpan Tarpeh-Doe, who wrote the 1988 Gleaner story, “Lady Musgrave Road –born out of hatred and envy”.

A reader posted a wicked comment on the Gleaner’s website about my attempt to locate Tarpeh-Doe: “Carolyn, u a hunt dung the man inna im workplace a Massuchessets [sic]? Suppose di man illegal an im no want im employers fi know seh im have any konnection to Jamaica?” I replied, “A him put himself pon LinkedIn”.

Tarpeh-Doe’s article is full of errors. Genealogist and historical researcher Dianne Golding-Frankson identifies many of them in her entertaining Facebook post, “Slander made into History cannot stand”, dated February 2, 2019. Tarpeh-Doe claims that “Lady Musgrave, wife of Governor Andrew Musgrave, was en route to Cross Roads, a couple of months after their arrival from England, when she observed Devon House, the finest piece of architecture in Kingston in the 1800s”.

As Golding-Frankson points out, Governor Musgrave’s name is Anthony, not Andrew. And he came to Jamaica from a posting in Australia. I suppose he passed through England on the way. Musgrave arrived on August 24, 1877. His wife, Jeanie Lucinda, joined him later that year. She could not possibly have seen Devon House “a couple of months” after arriving. The mansion was built in 1881.

GREAT EXHIBITION

According to Tarpeh-Doe, Lady Musgrave “enquired as to whose house it was and was told that it belonged to Mr George Stiebel, CMG, former Custos of the Parish of St Andrew”. Stiebel was appointed as Custos in the 1890s. The Musgraves left Jamaica in 1883. Then, I must correct my own error in last week’s column.

Taking Golding-Frankson’s word for it, I did not check the date on which Stiebel was appointed as custos. So I wrote, “Misa Stiebel did all turn custos fi St Andrew. An im wuda entitle fi go a King’s House. Lady Musgrave kuda never get fi her husband fi stop Misa Stiebel from drive eena King’s House eena im big vehicle.”

Furthermore, Lady Musgrave could not have been told that Devon House belonged to Mr George Stiebel, CMG. He was conferred with the honour of Companion of the Most Distinguished Order in the early 1890s in recognition of his outstanding service to Jamaica, particularly as one of the financial backers of the 1891 Great Exhibition. Remarkably, the symbol of the CMG is the same for the governor general: St Michael trampling Satan, just like Derek Chauvin with his foot on George Floyd’s neck. Religion in the service of imperialism and racism!

In addition, Tarpeh-Doe is rather vague about his informants: “Sources close to the family revealed that Lady Musgrave became uneasy, and could not believe that a black man could be living in a house much more beautiful than King’s House.” Last Tuesday, in my search for these anonymous sources, I emailed the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. That’s where the Musgrave papers are housed.

Within an hour or so, I got a most helpful response from a librarian who found my query intriguing. She immediately accessed a variety of digital files and sent this report, “I saw no mention in any of the cards of George Stiebel or the road, though of course it is possible that there is something in the papers that the cataloger did not believe was relevant.”

FACT OR FICTION?

A sceptical reader of last week’s column posted this comment: “thought you were going to offer some concrete proof that the Lady did not make the request ... instead all you did was conjecture.” In the absence of facts, all we can do is conjecture. Dianne Golding-Frankson persuasively speculates about the origin of the malicious story:

“The timing of this fallacy is interesting as it coincides with the redevelopment of Devon House in the mid-1980s as a museum/recreational centrepiece, especially after being saved from the Rastafarian squatters who had captured the house in the 1970s. This auspicious timing is suspicious, to say the least. Like another grand house which was saved from the clutches of ruin and given new life with a handy colourful tale of a white woman gone mad and angry and murderous as its theme, located in St. James, we too in Kingston couldn’t be undone, so here comes Lady Musgrave the mad racist.”

Herbert DeLisser, CMG, editor of The Gleaner for forty years, wrote the novel The White Witch of Rose Hall. The story seems to have inspired the branding of the great house as a tourist attraction. The novel is, supposedly, “A very striking and curious story, founded on fact”. I conjecture that not even this dubious claim can be made for the tale of Lady Musgrave Road. It seems to be pure fiction masquerading as fact. The Gleaner ought to investigate the mysterious sources of this perverse story. Perhaps, the white witch of King’s House and her fabricators will be unmasked.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.