Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: Vale Royal’s glory days

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM

When he died in 1813, Simon Taylor, a Creole Jamaican born in Kingston, was the richest man in Jamaica and reputedly among the wealthiest in Britain.

His father, Patrick, had migrated to the island from England and over time became a prosperous merchant in the Kingston. He sent his son, Simon, to be educated at Eton in Britain, but recalled him after his son's European travels to join the family enterprise.

It was a time of prosperity in Jamaica's plantation economy, and Simon Taylor soon added attorneyship to mercantile trade, securing profitable commissions from his astute handling of absentee owners' estates. On his father's death in 1759, Simon discovered that the firm's biggest debtor was Golden Grove plantation owned by Andrew Arcedeckne. While Andrew was to die in the island, his son, Chaloner, had no intention of leaving England.

The unique relationship between attorney and absentee owner is described in detail in Barry Higman's book, Plantation Jamaica 1750-1850. Golden Grove, beside the Plantain Garden River in St Thomas, covered almost 2,000 acres of the richest sugar cane-growing soil in Jamaica. Taylor was the attorney for other properties but he set out to acquire his own, and by the time he was in his 30s, he had purchased Holland Estate, adjacent to Golden Grove. Within a year, the output of Holland Estate was nearly matching that of Golden Grove.

By the time he died, Simon Taylor owned three more sugar estates, - Lyssons in St Thomas, Llanrumney in St Mary, and Haughton Court in Hanover. He also had four pens for raising cattle and horses, one of which was Prospect, later known as Vale Royal, situated on the outskirts of Kingston, where he entertained lavishly. He also had his own ship, the West Indian, as well as a coastal schooner and held 2,228 slaves.

As one of the elite, Taylor served as custos for St Thomas and sat in the Jamaican House of Assembly, first for his parish and later Kingston. A fiery and bombastic debater, he was said to have influenced national affairs for a longer period than any other individual.

On one of his rare visits to England, he voiced the concerns about abolition. He fiercely defended slavery, writing on one occasion of the slave uprising in Haiti that should Jamaica experience the same insurrection, blame must lie "at (Prime Minister) Pitt's door, who has encouraged and supported that madman Wilberforce to spread fire and destruction amongst us."

As a host, Taylor's ambition knew no bounds. Fortunately for us, we can learn about him from Lady Nugent's diary. Dinner at Holland began with fish, then black crab pepperpot, beef, ham, land crabs, turtle, mutton, turkey, goose, duck, chicken and jerked hog, followed by fruits and desserts. Both Lady Nugent and her husband, the governor, admired Simon Taylor once they got used to his gruff personality. But she observed: "He is an old bachelor who detests the society of women," although to her, he displayed only affection and kindness, noting, "He has the character of loving nothing but his money."

This "old bachelor" never married, but lived for 30 years with Grace Donne, his coloured housekeeper. For him, she gave birth to Charlotte, who was to benefit from an unusual bequest in his will. He instructed his executors to take £700 to buy another slave so that although she was technically still a slave, she would have her own slave to do her work!

But a year later, she bore a daughter for the owner of another St Thomas plantation, James Sproull. They subsequently had another six offspring together, moving to Melmount in County Tyrone, Ireland, where Charlotte was described as his "beloved wife" in his will.

After Grace Donne's death, Simon Taylor cohabited with another mulatto woman and fathered another daughter to whom he made a generous provision in his will. His promiscuity was legendary. He even proposed that "if every man had a child with a negro woman who in turn had a child by a white man, in four generations, the last born child would be white!"

At the time of his death, Simon Taylor was worth £1 million in investments, property, and debts owed to him. In his will, he made substantial grants to his illegitimate children and the children of his nephew, Sir Simon Richard Brissett Taylor, in Great Britain. Unfortunately, he died prematurely, and Anne, Taylor's eldest niece, married a wastrel who soon squandered the fortune accumulated that her once-wealthiest Creole Jamaican ancestor had amassed from slaves and sugar.

He was first buried alongside his brother at Vale Royal, but after it was sold, their remains were exhumed and relocated on his estate at Lyssons on the main road outside Morant Bay. Although vandalised, the graves in the modest cemetery have fortunately being rehabilitated as best as possible by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

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