Each plantation had an overseer who was directly responsible to either the resident proprietor or the absentee proprietor’s attorney. He was the man who made sure the plantation ran smoothly and usually lived in the great house when the landowner was an absentee. Whereas, the attorney may be responsible for numerous plantations, the overseer was in control of only one plantation. He was a man who superintended several gangs of field laborers on a plantation. In Jamaica, the “overseer” became “obisha” by the late 1700’s and “busha” by the early 1800s. Usually, the attorney started his apprenticeship as an overseer.
The overseer might have several bookkeepers working under him. In Jamaica, these bookkeepers had nothing to do with keeping books. In fact, many times they were illiterate white men, whose sole function was to get the maximum work out of the slaves.
At the bottom of the supervisory level below the bookkeepers were the drivers. These were always slaves.
The hierarchy of management was paralleled by a hierarchy of punishment. Corporal punishment would be meted out to slaves by the drivers, bookkeepers or overseers. Whereas, the white bookkeepers would never receive corporal punishment. If the offense was great, they would be summarily dismissed without a horse to ride. The overseer would force them to walk off the plantation. If an overseer was dismissed, he would be given a horse or mule to leave with dignity. If corporal punishment was to be given to a member of the white management team, it would be administered by the government of Jamaica.
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 Brimmer Hall Great House
Today Bonita and I toured a great house worth visiting if you want to experience a working plantation. We left our house in Kingston at 8:45 AM and after an hour and a half drive on winding roads due north on Highway B3 and later A3, we arrived at the Brimmer Hall Great House. The road off A3 is a bit tricky to find as are most places in Jamaica. In the town of Trinity about 10 kilometers south of Port Maria, we turned east at the Epping gas station, bearing left at the junction in Bailey’s Vale. We followed the road and after crossing a rock and concrete ford, turned left through the main gates.
Zachary Bayley owned Brimmer Hall, Trinity, Tryall, and Roslyn. These 4 contiguous plantations comprised 4,000 – 5,000 acres. It was one of the most profitable plantations in Jamaica because of the richness of its soil, the closeness to a port, and ample rainfall. It employed approximately 1,100 slaves, housed in barracks scattered over the acreage. He built the great house in the 18th century. The first and main source of income was sugar, which reached 1,450 hogsheads (1 hogshead = 1,600 pounds) of sugar in 1815. This later would be supplemented with cocoa nuts and bananas. The property was later sold to Brimmer, Linder, Vaughn, and finally to Ernest Smatt, who owns it today.
The house is a single story building with glass louver windows and cooler boxes. The structure has high ceilings, polished wooden floors and a wide verandah. The Great House is furnished with original pieces and boasts an exceptional collection of antiques with polished fittings. The floors, ceilings and windows are constructed of native hardwood skillfully hand constructed. There is a master bedroom with a private study and three other bedrooms, a living room and a modern kitchen added. The out-buildings consist of storage sheds, household servant’s quarters, two kitchens (one for the great house and one for the servants), stables, and a bar where the owner would entertain his male friends. The groom was required to saddle horses for his master and mistress every morning in the event they wanted to ride. If they decided they didn’t need a horse, he was told and he could then remove the saddle and other riding gear.
Michael Lawton, who is the general manager of the estate, remembers his father working on the estate when Major Douglas John Vaughn owned the property. The help never approached the great house and as a boy, if he ever got near the house, his father would have been fired. All field hands met the overseer at the bottom of the hill. He remembers when the owner rode through Bailey’s Vale; the people would rise and salute him as he passed. Every year end, the Vaughn’s would kill a bull and throw a big feast for the community.
A trip to Brimmer Hall is well recommended and the contact information is 876-994-2309 or 876-974-2244. It is open for tours Monday-Friday 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM.