Anthony Gambrill: The legacy of Jamaica in Britain: slavery and sugar (Part 2)
Dentdale is one of the finest Cumbrian dales and lies on the Yorkshire border in Britain. Within it sits Dent, a small village popular with hikers, having its own brewery, a heritage centre and a railway station which, at 1,100 feet, is the highest in England. Its three cobbled streets meet at its centre at a fountain of pink granite.
The enterprising Sill family acquired farming properties over the years, but were primarily involved in the knitting industry for which the surrounding area was well known. This required distributing raw materials, buying finished articles such as gloves and socks, and selling them to retail outlets.
During the 18th century, the Sills were to invest in the West Indies trade and even possessed a plantation in western Jamaica. Edmund Sill part-owned two ships, the Pickering and the Dent, which plied between the port of Lancaster in Lancashire and the West Indies but, according to records, probably did not include the West African slave trade leg of the triangular. However, there was an advertisement in a Liverpool newspaper in 1758 placed by Edmund Sill offering a handsome reward for "a Negro man" named Thomas Anson should he be caught. This suggests that the Sills acquired slaves as servants for their home in Dent.
John Sill, Edmund's son, was born in 1724 and used the growing family fortune to purchase Providence plantation in Jamaica. Providence extended from present-day Flankers to Coral Gardens near Montego Bay, an area that today encompasses Ironshore. It was used to produce sugar, although the returns must not have been as profitable as at other plantations considering the fact that the land in recent years has been categorised as poor and more suitable for raising cattle.
In the 1774 list of sugar plantations for St James, Providence is shown as possessing 266 slaves producing 164 hogshead of sugar that year. Sill also owned a store on Orange Street in Kingston as the newspaper of the day, the Jamaica Courant, carried an advertisement offering "a parcel of choice White Salt". John Sill was to die on December 24, 1774 aged 50. The previous July, 60 acres of his sugar cane were recorded as having been burnt down, possibly an act of revenge by his slaves for the treatment they had suffered.
In his will, he deals with settling his debts and, at some length, with monetary bequests to a host of friends and relatives in England. He includes his "Negro Man slave named Jack" for his honesty and good behaviour and he sets him free from slavery, awarding him five pounds a year for life and provides for "a good built Negro House to live in provided he is inclined to live on my Estate".
To his brother, Edmund, he gives his two farms in Dentdale and his plantation in Jamaica to his brother William. To his friend, Richard Watt of Liverpool, he wills "all other my Estate real and personal in the Island of Jamaica," which presumably included Potosi plantation, adjacent to Providence in St James, as well as his shop in Kingston.
John Sill's nephew, also named John, used his inherited wealth from his uncle's Jamaican slaves, sugar and commercial enterprises to purchase several estates in Cumbria. When he was to die, he willed Providence to his sister Ann. It was to remain in her possession until she died in 1835. Although she never visited the island, her estate received 3,800 pounds in the British government's reparations settlement when claims were completed and suggests that Providence plantation was in decline, having only 180 slaves by that time. The award was worth nearly a million and a half pounds sterling in today's currency.
A mile outside Dent stands Whernside Manor, an unprepossessing two-storey sandstone building used as a bed-and-breakfast and advertised as "an outdoor pursuit hostel". Formerly known as West House, it was built by the Sill family in the mid- to late 18th century at least, in part, from the wealth derived from their Providence plantation. A local legend maintains that its substantial walls were built by slaves from stones from Sill's quarries, but this has not been proven.
The church of St Andrews in Dent has been serving the farming community for more than 1,000 years. Its Jamaican connection is an oval plaque in the nave "as a tribute, however small, in the memory of John Sill of Providence in the island of Jamaica". Ann Sill also had an inscription in the church upon her death confirming that she was the last survivor of the Sill dynasty.
The Sill family and Dentdale played a curious role in British literary history thanks to the similarities found in Emily Bronte's acclaimed novel Wuthering Heights. In her will, Ann Sill granted a substantial sum and a family house to Richard Sutton. Sutton was an orphan adopted by Edmund Sill and eventually rose to become the Sill estate manager. Many of the details of the landscape, names, relationships and everyday life in Dentdale and environs were used by Miss Bronte. Richard Sutton, who could have quite possibly appeared as Heathcliff since Ann was particularly fond of Sutton, but as events turned out, she died a spinster.
However, Emily Bronte may have also known of local scandal in which Ann Sill took a leading role. She was said to have fallen in love with a black coachman. When her brothers objected to their liaison, the coachman disappeared without a trace.
In 1902, a human skeleton was found beneath the cellar of West House, the Sill ancestral home. The implication is that it was that of Ann's lover who, had he lived, might have inherited Providence plantation.
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.