Anthony Gambrill: Jamaica in Britain - the legacy of slavery and sugar (Part 1)
After reading, among other books, Sir Hilary Beckles' Britain's Black Debt, I decided to do some research of my own. My focus would be on what happened to the profit that those who benefited from slavery and sugar. Starting with English Heritage's list of buildings with a Jamaican connection, I would visit them if possible and use as many sources of historical background as I could access.
My first excursion was to Cumbria, made up of Cumberland and pieces of other adjacent counties in the northwest of England bordering on Scotland. Several Cumbrians had West Indian plantations in the 17th Century and many more took part in the slave trade. The Overwater Hotel, not far from Keswick, was to be the base for scouring the countryside. It purportedly had a ghost on the premises. Originally called Whitefield House, it was remodelled by Joseph Gillbanks in 1840 some years after he had returned from Jamaica, where he made his fortune as a merchant. He had left his Cumbrian home in 1807 at the age of 20 and returned in 1814 apparently a very wealthy man. Until now, I have been unable to find any mention of him during his Jamaican (presumably Kingston) years, but it is not impossible that he made his fortune at least in part in slave-trading.
While in Jamaica, Gillbanks married Mary Jackson, who was the niece of the chief justice of the island, so clearly he moved in privileged circles. She returned with him to Cumbria, where he was to become a magistrate and invested in several estates there.
Gillbanks is said to have had a relationship with a black woman during his Jamaican sojourn. She is believed to have followed him to England and claimed that he was the father of her child. Legend has that he took her out in a boat and tried to drown her. In desperation, she clung to the side of the boat, but he used his sword to chop off her arms, leaving her to perish.
Although the facts of his horrific act were said to have been widely known, he was never charged with murder and he remained a respected magistrate and deputy lieutenant for the county until his death. The murdered woman's ghost, however, still appears at Overwater Hall, usually on the outside of the windows (you are advised not to stay in Room 3). On New Year's Eve, she supposedly always appears in a bonnet. And legend also has it that the nearby lake where she drowned never freezes over because a black arm and hand rises up to break the ice.
While I had no way of verifying this story, the records for manumission show that on July 4, 1824, "Bob, alias Robert Gillbanks" was freed by one Joseph Gillbanks "for no consideration of money paid". Yet Gillbanks had left Jamaica four years earlier. Was this, in fact, the child the black woman had died for? But then there is the grave in Ebenezer burial ground in Kingston of a Mrs Jane Gilbanks, who died on September 1, 1845.
It is ironical that the Gillbanks coat-of-arms with the family motto 'Honore et Virtue' remains on the entrance to Overlake Hotel.
Whitehaven is a small port town of 25,000 people on the west coast of Cumbria. Between 1750 and 1770, it was the second most important port in Britain by virtue of its tonnage in coal supplied by the nearby mines for export to Ireland. Ship building was also important to the economy. Later, importing tobacco from Virginia played a big role in the port's growth. The American War of Independence had resulted in the decline of the tobacco trade and was gradually replaced by slave trading and sugar, rum and cotton importing from the West Indies. Between 1710 and 1769, it took part in the slave trade, but with no more than nine ships crossing to Africa in any one year and a total of 69 slave voyages for the whole period. Jamaica was the destination for the majority of the voyages.
Eventually, Whitehaven, as a slave-trading port, declined because of the small number of vessels engaged. Keeping abreast of where slaves could be found on the west coast of Africa and the conditions that prevailed was essential. It was soon overtaken in importance by nearby Lancaster and Liverpool in Lancashire.
Some of the 18th-Century merchants' houses have survived, although they cannot be accurately associated with the wealth generated by slave-trading. Storrs Hall, now a luxury hotel on nearby Lake Windermere, became the grand residence of John Bolton, a Cumbrian. In 1798, his six vessels alone carried more than 2,500 slaves.
Whitehaven itself has set out to be a tourist centre, redeveloping its harbour into a marina for pleasure craft. One of this town's most popular visitor attractions is The Rum Story on Lowther Street. This small museum is situated in the original offices and warehouse of the Jefferson family, members of whom are still living nearby. A visit to the museum begins in the company office, still preserved with its high stools and elevated desks for the book keepers. Crossing the courtyard, you come to the three-storey small museum proper. The cellar was where they decanted the rum from the barrels (incidentally produced at Jefferson plantation in Antigua). From there up through the next two floors, the slavery and sugar story is told - without holding back on the inhumane treatment meted out - in visuals and artefacts with remarkable authenticity. At the ground floor exit is the inevitable gift shop where a taste of Jefferson's rum is poured to entice you to buy a quart!
A five-storey cultural centre has been created in the Beacon Museum overlooking the port. In it is a reproduction of the famous Beilby Goblet made in 1763 by the famous Newcastle glass enameller during the reign of George III to commemorate the birth of his son. On one side in the Royal court of arms, on the other a sailing ship with the words 'Success to the African Trade of Whitehaven' . Worth almost 100,0000 pounds, the goblet itself now resides in London in the Victoria and Albert museum.
The existence of Africans in Cumbria was not an altogether unfamiliar fact, but the death of one in Whitehaven had a unique conclusion. Jane, a slave, was the friend and servant of Mrs Mildred Gale (incidentally, the grandmother of President George Washington!). Mrs Gale defied the law that said no African could be buried in a churchyard and had Jane buried alongside her and her baby daughter in St Nicholas churchyard in 1700.
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.