As various landowners decided to return to Britain, they needed someone to manage their affairs on the island of Jamaica. This individual was called an attorney, not in the legal sense of the word, as in attorney-at-law. In fact, very rarely was an attorney an educated lawyer. He was called an attorney because he had the power of attorney to act on the behalf of the landowner.
There were two types of attorneys, the planter attorney who usually resided in one or more of the plantation great houses and a mercantile attorney who usually resided in the port towns. By living in an estate great house, the attorney laid claim to the highest position in the plantation social order. The planter attorney’s typical functions were the following:
- Select and manage the overseer of the plantation
- Visit the estate on a regular basis
- Manage all records, pay wages
- Handle all trading, both local and international
- Send regular reports to the owner
- Carry out the wishes of the landowner
- Insure the plantation remained profitable
In exchange, the attorney received a portion of the profits, generally 5-6%. Very rarely did an attorney handle only one plantation. In 1832 there were 200 attorneys handling 473 estates (sugar), plantations (usually coffee or pimento) and pens (livestock). Thus with a commission of 5-6% and handling of several plantations, an attorney could become a very wealthy man.
Attorneys were always white men who generally started out as young men in the position of an overseer, factor or a book-keeper (these positions will be described in a later blog). Most were British born who arrived in Jamaica in their early twenties. If they survived the first ten years, they would generally become an attorney in their late twenties. Yellow fever and malaria cut down many promising young men. Most attorneys didn’t marry until their positions were secure, usually in their forties. Typically an attorney was twenty years older than his wife.
B.W. Higman, in his excellent book, Plantation Jamaica 1750-1850, stated:
The typical attorney was a man equipped by practical experience to deal with the demands of plantation management rooted in his district. The large attorney also possessed political and legal power and influence that might benefit his employers. None of this is surprising, in the sense that absentee and resident proprietors seeking agents to manage their investments had an interest in appointing people qualified to serve them efficiently. However, the profitable operation of the system depended on more than finding men willing and able to exploit human and physical resources through harsh management. The proprietor had final authority in the deployment of capital and resources, but the attorney necessarily had responsibility for the many areas of management, and opportunities barely dreamed of by the modern stockbroker.
If the reader of this blog is interested in exploring, in more depth, the management of Jamaican estates, plantations, and pens, I heartily recommend Higman’s book, which is available from Amazon.com.