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Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: Slavery, sugar and Napoleon Bonaparte

Published:Thursday | August 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The Vassalls were Huguenots who fled to England to escape persecution in France, settling in New England for a hundred years before entering the West Indies. Their mercantile activities, however, included supplying slaves to Barbados. This was only one of their colonial operations that allowed them to become wealthy landowners over time.

William Vassall first emigrated to Barbados in 1648 and held several government posts, acquiring a plantation in St Michael, in addition to his substantial New England property. His son, John, took advantage of England's capture of Jamaica to expand the family's West Indian interests.

The first record of his acquiring property in the island came about as the result of a fortuitous meeting with Anne Taft in Virginia. He had attempted to take several hundred followers into South Carolina to set up a colony nearby what is Charleston today. Unfortunately, he was finessed by a rival who persuaded the Lords Proprietors to pick an alternative site. Having sold his Boston possessions, William was virtually financially ruined but, somehow, was said to have purchased Anne Taft's 2,000 acres in St Elizabeth, Jamaica. There is no subsequent record of this transaction.

The next account of an acquisition arose from Sir Thomas Modyford's will dated 1669, assigning him 1,000 acres "near the north of Black River called Luana Bay" in the same parish. Clearly, his intention was to start farming as he settled down with his wife, Anne, or Anna, and had seven sons. One, incidentally, died as a lieutenant with the St Elizabeth militia, repulsing the French invasion in 1694.




Another son, Leonard, had two offspring, John and William, who returned to New England and saw their family property confiscated because of their support for the Loyalist cause in the American Revolution of 1776. Exiled in England, John unsuccessfully attempted to claim compensation for his losses in Boston.

It is ominous to this narrative that when William died in 1843, his nephew, who inherited his Jamaican estate, described them as "so burdened and deteriorated in consequence of emancipation that it was not worth anything".

John was to go on to own Newfound River plantation in Hanover and to pass it on through three further generations to his granddaughter, Elizabeth, who was to receive more than four thousand pounds in the post-Emancipation claim.

Florentius Vassall, William's son, was born in St Elizabeth and inherited Sweet River, Friendship, and Greenwich estates in Westmoreland. When he died in London, he had passed his plantation on to his son, Richard. It was Elizabeth, his daughter, who lived out a remarkable life before presiding over the demise of her family's Jamaican heritage.

Born in 1771, Elizabeth, when she was only 15, was married to a man 20 years her senior, Sir Godfrey Webster, while in England. A lively and imperious young woman, she was to insist on him taking her on an extensive tour of Europe. Unfortunately for Sir Godfrey, on one occasion when they were in Naples, she met Henry Richard, third Baron Holland, with whom she was to commit adultery. She even bore a child for him before her first marriage was dissolved. Webster managed to keep Elizabeth's annual annuity of seven pounds a year for his lifetime, although she was entitled to her St Elizabeth estates which she had inherited from her grandfather.




She and her new husband proceeded to become known at their London residence for their soirÈes with a brilliant circle of political and literary personalities. Among her colourful activities was her remarkable devotion to Napoleon Bonaparte, commissioning a bust of him, supplying English newspapers to him in exile on Elba that contained information that, reportedly, hurried his escape, and later, sending books to him at his ultimate exile on St Helena in the South Atlantic. Grateful to the end, in his will, Bonaparte left her a gold snuff box given to him by the Pope!

Meanwhile, the Holland-Vassall Jamaican properties had deteriorated to such an extent that their 2,164 acres were put up for sale by the Incumbered Estates in the West Indies in 1875. Elizabeth had died 30 years earlier, apparently disinterested in her inheritance.

The Vassall family history in Jamaica appears to be a fairly typical example of what often took place in the 18th century. Absentee owners, residing comfortably (for at least a while) in fine London residences, were complacent about the source of their wealth from their Jamaican plantations. Mismanagement, dishonesty, and indifference often produced ruinous results. While the Vassalls lost their property in New England through political change, their loss in Jamaica was the result of neglect despite having materially benefited from the fruits of slavery and sugar.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to