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Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: the legacy of slavery and sugar (Part 3)

Published:Friday | June 3, 2016 | 12:00 AMAnthony Gambrill

The conventional wisdom is that the riches extracted from Jamaican slavery and sugar, at least in part, underwrote the British Industrial Revolution. More recently, opinion has suggested that most of the wealth was spent on grand estates. The Pennants managed to achieve both objectives.
Not a great deal is known about Gifford Pennant, the founder of the Pennant dynasty. He came from North Wales and, faced with a lack of opportunity, emigrated to Jamaica in the early 1660s. As a settler, he received land granted in Clarendon on November 5, 1665. This was to be the start of a series of acquisitions. William Marten, in November 1669, assigned 360 further acres in the parish to him. In the same month two years later, the Crown granted him three more parcels of land totalling nearly 1,500 acres.
Before the year was out, he had added more than 2,000 acres, some of which was described as “Savana and scrubby ebonies and wood”. Two years later, he became the owner of 1,500 acres near Lucea. By the time of his death, he possessed 7,327 acres in the parishes of Clarendon and St Elizabeth (the part that is now Westmoreland).
Gifford Pennant is said to have been a captain in the horse regiment which was based in Jamaica in 1670, but clearly his energies were primarily dedicated to turning his landholdings into profitable plantations. He was, however, a member of the Assembly for Clarendon, a responsibility that was passed on to his son, Edward, after his death in 1676.
Edward, who was to become Jamaica’s chief justice in 1707, was to add to the family’s lands. With Crown grants and outright purchases, his properties were known as Denbigh, Cotes, Bullards, Main Savannah and Kupuis, much of it close to the Rio Minho. He also expanded his father’s acquisition in Kings Valley near Lucea. Edward Pennant had attracted considerable controversy when he acquired the 500-acre Kupuis plantation from the estate of a deceased child of Dutch descent. 
He had nine children, but only three get our attention in the Pennant saga. John, the oldest son, was to inherit 8,365 acres of plantations and pens, fortuitously marrying Bonella Hodges as a result of which his holdings were ultimately augmented by another 2,000 acres in Lacovia and Black River through her marriage and inheritances. Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth, was to marry another landowner in Jamaica, George Hay Dawkins, whose grandson was to be willed the Pennant properties in Jamaica and Britain by the early nineteenth century. Samuel, knighted, went on to become mayor of London.

Absentee Landlords

By 1750, John and Bonella had become absentee landlords, already a common practice in the English-speaking Caribbean, residing in fashionable Hanover Square in London. John held shares in a number of ships needed to carry his sugar and rum.
Tragically, he suffered a stroke in 1781, leaving him with a failing memory and limited speech.  His son, Richard, first took over his correspondence and finally, on his father’s death a year later, the management of his investments which had grown to also include thousands of acres of farmland in Wales and England.
Some 15 years earlier, Richard married Ann Susannah Warburton, a heiress who brought into the family part ownership of a slate quarry in Bethesda near Bangor. Richard Pennant applied his business acumen, energy and his Jamaican wealth to turning the quarry into a fully fledged mining enterprise, becoming, in time, the world’s largest slate mine. From a small-scale operation (likened to a farm), it became industrialised, with galleries at different levels allowing 2,000 men to eventually mine 100,000 tons a year. It was to have its own tramway and seaport to transport the slate for export.
As well as a popular and reasonably inexpensive building material slate shared in the hunger for literacy in Britain by providing writing tablets and blackboards. Richard took the opportunity of promoting the installation of tiles in his Jamaican sugar factories, saying they were cheap and durable. In 1805 his manager at Kings Valley requested 70,000 slate tiles for reroofing the boiler house.
Pennant was unlike some absentee owners an enthusiastic proprietor, constantly making suggestions to improve output with a view to profitability.  Historian Jean Lindsay maintains he appeared on paper to show concern for the slaves on his plantations. However, his attorneys on the ground often had to contend with harsh, at times cruel, overseers. The poor conditions of their existence, long hours of toil, severe discipline and frequent outbreaks of illness and disease made it impossible to meet Richard Pennant’s expectations.
He believed slavery was an acceptable form of labour, maintaining that slaves should be treated fairly. He encouraged training apprentices in trades, brought in ploughs to make fieldwork easier, experimented with fertilisers, and by 1805 installed steam engines to pump water for the plantation’s needs.

Dangerous Experiment

In the meantime, he was pursuing a political career winning a seat as the member of parliament from 1767 for Liverpool; notably, he represented the merchants and traders of this major slave-trading port. He was to make several speeches against the abolition of slavery: he held that the abolition of the slave trade was a dangerous experiment that would bring ruin to the Jamaican economy. His political career earned him the title of Baron Penrhyn in 1783.
Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn, died aged 71 without leaving an heir. His now considerable estates in Jamaica and Britain passed to the second son of his cousin, George Henry Dawkins, with the proviso that he add Pennant to his surname. George Hay Dawkins-Pennant was to demonstrate the colossal power and wealth of the Pennant family when he commissioned the construction of an enormous Gothic-Norman castle.
Penrhyn Castle was built between 1822 and 1837 and cost 50 million pounds in today’s money. It was replete with its stained glass windows, luxurious carpets, massive stone carvings, Chinese ceramics, mock-Norman furniture and a number of Old Master paintings. A one-ton slate bed was built for the visit of Queen Victoria but she refused to sleep in it as it reminded her of a tombstone. Six late 18th-century water colours of scenes of the Pennants’ Jamaican estates provide the only evidence of the contribution that Jamaican slavery and sugar had made to the their staggering fortune.
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to