Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: The provenance of Headquarters House

Published:Sunday | April 16, 2017 | 4:00 AM

The Hibbert family's association with Jamaica began with the supply of cotton goods from their cotton mills in Lancashire in demand in the West African slaving ports. It wasn't until 1734 that the first family member, Thomas, arrived in Kingston to protect their financial interests. He was to become a factor, purchasing slaves and, over time, selling them to plantation owners, taking a profit between the buying price and the credit extended to purchasers.

Over one 10-year period, he and his partner sold over 16,000 slaves and even opened a branch in Montego Bay. It was estimated that he was eventually owed a quarter of a million pounds of debt. He sat in the Jamaican Assembly, becoming speaker in 1756, and was to acquire three properties on the north coast - Agualta Vale, Agualta Vale Pen, and Orange Hill - with 900 slaves on their 3,000 acres.

Today, he is known for building his 18th-century magnificent townhouse on Duke Street, now known as Headquarters House. He made a bet with three other wealthy merchants as to who could build the finest house in Kingston. The prize was said to be the hand in marriage of a famous beauty, but he declined, apparently because she was a capricious woman with a reputation of being a gold-digger.

Instead, he began a life-long relationship with the housekeeper of his Kingston house, Charity Harry. In fact, she was a well-educated mulatto believed to be the illegitimate daughter of another Englishman. The year Hibbert's House was completed, Charity was formally released from slavery by an act of the Assembly.

Thomas Hibbert and Charity Harry had three daughters, Jane being the most remarkable. She was to study painting in England under Sir Joshua Reynolds, winning a gold medal for one of her works. She moved in literary circles that included the legendary Dr Johnson. Having converted to Quakerism, she married a fellow Quaker, a surgeon, but died in childbirth. Her father himself died in 1780.

Hibbert brothers and nephews began emigrating to Jamaica. Thomas' brother, John, sired children by two 'outside' women until settling down with a 21-year old, who was eventually to return to England after a scandalous affaire with a doctor on the island. Another brother, Robert, had a number of illegitimate children before marrying 20-year old Letita Nembhard. Finally, William, who was sent to Jamaica, but, after winning a substantial sum on a lottery, left because he didn't care for Jamaica.

When Thomas Hibbert died in 1780, it is estimated that he was worth the equivalent of half a million pounds in today's currency. He was never formally married to Charity. He originally wished to be buried in Hibbert House, but he was finally laid to rest in a vault on the hill of Agualta Vale. The inscription stated, among other accolades, that "his persevering industry, understanding, integrity and liberality of spirit were (sic) crowned with deserved success in the acquisition of fortune."

In addition to their thriving Jamaican enterprises, the Hibbert family was becoming deeply entrenched in the commercial life in London associated with slave trading and its ancillary activities.

Hibberts owned their own ships and quays, culminating in Thomas's nephew, George, promoting and investing in the building of the West India Docks. Through the political influence of George Hibbert and his fellow investors, the government in 1799 passed an act making it compulsory for ships in the West India trade to use these docks. West Indies Docks still remains today on London's Isle of Dogs and includes an exhibition area used in recent years for an exhibition titled 'London, Sugar, Slavery'.

 

POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS

 

George led the Hibbert family campaign in opposing the abolition of slavery. When he became a member of parliament, it gave him a national pulpit for championing his opposition. He was an early supporter calling for compensation, arguing that metropolitan merchants and West Indian plantation owners alike would suffer irreparable losses. Unsurprisingly eleven Hibberts were awarded compensation over one hundred thousand pounds, sixty three thousand to George alone for emancipating their slaves.

When George Hibbert died in 1837, he had estates in Clarendon, Hanover, Portland, St James, St Mary, Trelawny, St Thomas, and Westmoreland, as well as financial interests in another 10 plantations. In 1826, he inherited Munden in Hartfordshire, England, and spent a six-figure sum renovating and remodelling it in the popular Gothic-Tudor style of its era. It is still owned by the Hibbert family.

Described by historian Richard Sheridan as one of the families controlling the Jamaica economy through British commerce and finance, as well as the island's agriculture, the only Hibbert Jamaican legacy is Headquarters House on Duke Street, where Thomas Hibbert's portrait still hangs. It is currently the headquarters of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, but in its publicity, makes no mention of the contribution slavery contributed to our heritage.

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