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Anthony Gambrill: George Liele's journey to Jamaica

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Anthony Gambrill
Paul Williams The African-American preacher, George Liele, is said to have built the first Baptist church in Jamaica, at the corner of Elletson and Windward roads in Kingston.
Paul Williams The East Queen St Baptist Church is said to have grown out of the first church in Jamaica to be built and led by a black man, the African-American, George Liele.

"... fish, frogs, Dutchmen and other amphibious animals ...".

The American War of Independence was drawing to a close in 1782 when Savannah, Georgia, and then Charleston, South Carolina, surrendered. The Loyalists, mainly of English and Scottish descent, had begun leaving earlier, taking with them their personal belongings as well as their slaves. Over a period, they dispersed to England, East Florida, the Bahamas, Canada and the Caribbean, principally Jamaica.

It is estimated that 3,000 whites and 6,000 African-Americans, as well as free coloureds, landed in Jamaica, evacuated on English warships. Significantly, Sir James Wright, who was the governor of Georgia, had earlier purchased land in Jamaica and sent a contingent of slaves signalling a general preference for Jamaica as an alternative to the American colony.

Beside a large number of merchants and plantation owners, there were many individuals with sought-after skills - doctors, furniture makers, tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, printers, goldsmiths, shipwrights, and teachers with a few indigents among their number. Jamaica needed more colonists, and their arrival eventually provided an economic stimulus. A Certificate of Loyalty was required from each indicating an intent to remain in the island permanently should one seek a state benefit.

Private contributions were made to a fund for the Loyalists, and Governor George Campbell encouraged the Assembly to provide assistance. This included exemption from all taxes for five years and cost-free land grants. Some received government jobs, others were on half pay from the British army, and a few had already obtained compensation for the land they had lost.

The desire to facilitate the dispossessed Loyalists was manifest at the outset, but in due course, for the people of Kingston, in particular, it began wearing. The poorhouse was overwhelmed with expenses - including the cost of paying for those wishing to leave the island - and soon a petition seeking relief was drawn up. The privilege of tax exemption became unpopular, as it was said that at least 70 houses were occupied by well-off Loyalists and many tradesmen were thriving. The attempt to repeal the exemption bill failed but the poorhouse, at least, received additional funds.

Although several of the new colonists were able to 'job out' their slaves for public works at the instigation of Governor Campbell, most of them urgently needed land. Some acquired property in the rural parishes where they planned to grow indigo and other crops with which they were familiar.

In 1783, about the time it seemed the rebellious colonies had won the day, a list of 182 Loyalists was issued to whom would be granted land free of cost in St Elizabeth. The designated area was the southern section of Holland Estate owned by John Gladstone, father of the future Prime Minister of England William Gladstone. On December 4, 1784, a government-appointed surveyor, George Murray, reported to the Assembly on "the swamps and lands" laid out for the Loyalists. "Are you of the opinion that any living creature, besides fish, frogs, Dutchmen and amphibious animals can exist in this district?" Mr Murray regretted that he did not. Ironically, it transpired that a Loyalist by the name of Robert Frogg had endeavoured to settle in the area, despite its reputation for unhealthiness and unsuitability. After losing several of his family and slaves to disease, he returned to Kingston to take up his profession of tailoring.

The cost of draining the swamps mitigated against the Assembly's preparedness to grant the land. The Loyalists, arguing that they had exhausted their financial resources preparing to settle on the land, sought the Assembly's approval. It wasn't forth coming. In fact, discussion was further extended over the amount Murray billed for his services.




Between 30,000 and 40,000 acres were waterlogged, but at least one Black River resident, a surveyor, believed probably half of it was usable for the Loyalists to farm. There were those who had grown rice in Georgia and Carolina and saw it as eminently suitable. The Black River inhabitants made a concluding argument that tampering with the swamps would inhibit the ability of Black River to convey much of their mahogany, sugar and rum down to the port.

George Liele was one Loyalist who would not have made his unique contribution to the lives of Jamaicans if it hadn't been for the American War of Independence.

Born a slave in Virginia, he was baptised in the Baptist church of his master, Henry Sharp. As a result of his concern for the spiritual condition of his fellow slaves, Liele began preaching to them. After being granted his freedom by Sharp, he borrowed money from a plantation owner, Moses Kirkland, and indentured himself to Kirkland so he and his family could emigrate to Jamaica. When Kirkland reached Kingston, he arranged for George Liele to go into service with the household of Governor Campbell. After two years, Liele had paid off Kirkland's loan.

By supporting his family farming and transporting goods on his wagon, Liele set about preaching the gospel to all who would listen to him and hundreds did. By 1783, twenty years before his white counterparts, he built Jamaica's first Baptist chapel in eastern Kingston. Inevitably, he aroused the fears of the plantocracy who were haunted by the success of the Haitian Revolution and persuaded the Assembly to pass a 'sedition' law that led to his arrest for supposedly agitating the slaves. Despite being acquitted, he spent three years in prison for debts incurred while building his chapel.

He never returned to preaching, living the remainder of his life in the island. Moses Kirkland, the man who brought him to Jamaica, grew indigo for a period but was lost at sea on his way to England to claim compensation for his South Carolina plantation.

Speculation as to what became of those New Americans who remained in Jamaica must have varied widely. Three hurricanes, in 1784, 1785 and 1786, could have meant serious losses for those who had acquired land. More fortunate would have been the tradesmen and professionals like Alexander Aikman, who began two newspapers, becoming the official printer to King's House and the Assembly. Others, disappointed and disillusioned with their experiences, left the island, some even returning to America.

No recorded history exists to tell us how the Loyalists fared in their new country of Jamaica. Perhaps some family genealogists have kept records, to which we will one day have access. However, as to the enslaved men and women who they brought with them, we are immensely fortunate to have an insight from 'Woodside Pear Tree Grove PO' by Erna Brodber, a remarkable account primarily of the African-Jamaicans who populated a village in St Mary. It is a unique social history that every Jamaican should explore.

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