Since I am writing a blog, that may someday become a book on great houses, I decided to discuss the management of large land holdings on the island of Jamaica during the early colonial era. The large land holdings were divided into three major types. First and foremost were the estates which principally produced sugar for export. Second there were the plantations which produced coffee and pimento mainly for export. And third were the pens which supplied draft animals such as oxen and horses and a minor amount of meat. The owners may own one or many of these land holdings. The largest land owners, of which there were four, possessed at least ten properties.
There were two types of landowners, the resident landowner and the absentee landowner. The resident landowner lived on the plantation and was unable to live off the island because the property size would not support that type of life style. The absentee landowner, on the other hand, usually owned sizable sugar acreage and was able to live in Britain. Some of the successful absentee landowners had emigrated from Britain, developed their estates and then returned to Britain as soon as possible. Others invested in sugar estates and never set foot on Jamaica. Most British colonists dreamed of the day they could return to Britain. The three main reasons for this desire was the unhealthiness of the country (malaria and yellow fever), the lack of culture and the lack of social advancement. Once the immigrant had made his fortune and established a method for the preservation of that steady flow of funds from the colony, he turned his eyes back to his home country where he could display his wealth and status in a different arena.
The absentee estate owner needed to develop a whole new management plan which would allow the owner to live off the island. Prior to the industrial revolution, the Jamaican absentees were already developing management systems that would need to be instituted in the factories that were springing up in Britain. The institution of slavery in Jamaica was extremely profitable to the land holders. One doesn’t need to prove that slavery was a failed economic system to condemn slavery as an institution. The system prospered until the emancipation of the slaves. The absentees developed the new system and a new manager emerged known as an attorney. This next manager will be discussed in a future blog.
Our Visit to the Drax Hall Great House
Bonita and I were on the hunt for the Drax Hall Great House for two weekends. The owners of every store, apartment building and hotel in the neighborhood of the great house named their establishment Drax Hall…something. We found that villages and neighborhoods assume the name of the original estate or great house. There is a plethora of towns named after the great house or pen house such as Amity Hall, Brown’s Hall, Carron Hall, Dean Pen, Fellowship Hall, Giddy Hall, etc., whether or not the great house or pen still exists. The names give us a target area to look for great houses but on the other hand may send us on many a “wild goose chase.” Finally, we discovered that all that was left of the great Drax estate was the ruins of the water wheel for the sugar works.
In 1669, William Drax founded the Drax Hall Estate. Drax came to Jamaica from Barbados. Upon William Drax’s death in 1691, he passed the estate on to his son, Charles Drax who owned the estate until he died in 1721. William Beckford acquired Drax Hall Estate in 1722 from Samuel Reynolds, Charles Drax’s brother-in-law. William Beckford’s acquisition of the estate initiated a period of nearly 60 years of absentee ownership, first by Beckford, until his death in 1770, and then by his son William Beckford, owner from 1771 to 1821. The senior Beckford was said to be the richest planter in Jamaica. At his death, he owned nine sugar plantations and was part owner of seven more as well as nine cattle pens and a house in Spanish Town. (In a latter blog, I plan to report on the system of absentee landowners and their representatives left in charge of the estate known as their attorneys. Many times the owner’s foreman lived in the great house and never the owner.) In 1821, Drax Hall passed from the Beckford family to John H. Pink, who died in 1841. The Sewell family later purchased Drax Hall Estate.
Because Drax Hall was founded as a sugar estate, it’s not surprising to see that the property also features an impressive and well-preserved water wheel that drove two stone rollers. These rollers crushed the sugar cane and out flowed sugar juice. Heating this juice produced sugar, which remained after the liquid evaporated. The water for the wheel flowed from a dam on the Saint Ann Great River, which marked the western edge of the estate. The water wheel greatly boosted the productivity of the estate. Although Drax founded Drax Hall as a sugar plantation, subsequent owners switched to bananas and cattle in the 1880s and coconuts in 1905.
An 18th Century View of Drax Hall Estate. St. Ann, Jamaica in 1765. It shows the original 18th Century Great House on the hill overlooking the Sugar Works. From a Manuscript Plan of Drax Hall Estate surveyed by George Wilson in 1758, which includes a later pictorial cartouche dated 1765. Collection: The National Library of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica.