Jamaica, the third largest island in the Caribbean, was ‘discovered’ in 1494 on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. He was in search of silver and gold. Columbus declared Xaymaca, as it was then known “the fairest island that eyes have beheld.”
Among the ‘gifts’ he brought to the New World was sugar cane, but the indigenous Taino (Arawak) population was decimated before it could be developed into a viable industry. This forced the Spanish to look elsewhere for cheap labor. They turned to Africa.
The slave trade was well underway in 1655 when, after 150 years of colonial rule, the British wrested control of the country from the Spanish.
Sugar flourished and Jamaica was, at a time, its largest producer. The wealth sugar generated made plantation owners extremely wealthy. Some of that wealth made its way back to Britain. Some of it was spent building lavish ‘great houses’ that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owners. About 700 existed on the island — all but fourteen were destroyed during and after the 1831 slave revolt which was led by Samuel Sharpe, a local Baptist preacher.
My next few posts will be about this interesting aspect of Jamaica’s history. Walk with me as we take a step back and discover Jamaica’s Great Houses.
Rose Hall was built in 1770 for John Palmer, then custos of St. James, and his wife, Rosa. A ‘calendar house,’ it has 365 windows, 52 doors and 12 bedrooms. The house eventually passed to Palmer’s grand-nephew, John Rose Palmer and his wife, Annie, the infamous ‘White Witch.’
Annie, Palmer’s second wife, is said to have killed three husbands and several slave lovers at Rose Hall before being murdered in 1831.
The slaves were so fearful of her that after her death, they burned all her possessions, including her photographs.
The property was in ruins for several years before being restored to its former glory by the owners, John Rollins (now deceased) and his wife, Michele.
Truth be told, like a lot of Jamaicans, I’m afraid of ghosts and the stories of the brutality at Rose Hall more than clouded my image of the place. But I realized later that those
stories were keeping me from enjoying something that was almost in my backyard, a place that I now find intriguing because of its history.
I can’t say that I saw any ghosts at Rose Hall but several of the photos I took inside the house
turned out blurry, a few had shadows where I know there hadn’t been any.
Walking down the steps to Annie’s torture chamber, the last thing you see is the azure blue waters of the Caribbean Sea just visible through the doorway. It made me wonder what went through the victim’s mind as he (or she) was being led away to be tortured.
The day I visited, a soft breeze brushed my cheek as I sat near this man-made pool. The peace and beauty surrounding the house seemed incongruous with the stories of destruction inside.
Rose Hall Great House is located about a 20 minute drive from the airport in Montego Bay. Open 9-6. Tours are given daily with the last tour given at 5:15 p.m. Call 876-953-2323 for information.
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