In Search of the Creole Girl Who Gave Me Her Name; Petronella Wyatt Goes on a Very Personal Mission through the Torrid and Tortured History of Jamaica; Homes of Amazing Opulence and Lurid Scandals

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Search of the Creole Girl Who Gave Me Her Name; Petronella Wyatt Goes on a Very Personal Mission through the Torrid and Tortured History of Jamaica; Homes of Amazing Opulence and Lurid Scandals


Byline: Petronella Wyatt

I AM ringing the huge bell at the barred gates of Greenwood Great House in Jamaica, which once belonged to the family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. No one answers.

It is 96F in the shade and I am cursing my mother. I got my name because of Greenwood, or rather Jean Rhys, author of The Wild Sargasso Sea, the tragic story of the first Mrs Rochester, a beautiful white Jamaican driven to madness by the cruelty of her English husband.

When my mother was pregnant, a friend brought Rhys to see her. She was wearing a large hat and was a little drunk. 'Have you got a name yet, if it's a girl?' she asked my mother, who shook her head. 'I knew a white Creole woman who lived on a Jamaican plantation called Greenwood.

Have you been to Jamaica? It's like the garden in the Bible. And the snake is the scandal of those houses.' So I became Petronella, and all my life I wanted to see the garden in the Bible and its great houses and hear their scandals. I am finally here.

I am staying at the Sandals Royal Plantation in Ocho Rios. In true plantation style, I have a butler, Audley, who has run me a bath sprinkled with hibiscus flowers and is uncorking champagne on my veranda.

The Royal Plantation is on the site of a former fruit plantation. The mango trees still provide for the guests. Peter Fraser, the elegant manager, tells me that before Sandals, The Royal Plantation was managed by an eccentric Englishman called Sydney Attwood whose hobbies were illicit sex and buying grand pianos. 'After a rather nasty indiscretion, he had to leave Jamaica altogether,' he says.

Now the hotel is run with the precision and hedonistic bounty of the old planters, with breakfasts of home-made jams, croissants and white-hatted chefs flipping eggs and spiced sausage; afternoon tea on the colonnaded terrace, with perfectly cut cucumber sandwiches and fresh scones; and silver trays of mimosas, champagne and rum punches on the private beach before noon.

People have always started drinking early in Jamaica. Errol Flynn drank himself to death at his house near Frenchman's Cove. There is a darkness in the shadows beneath the bright palm fronds. Slavery was abolished here in 1833, but as the young Mr Rochester finds when he meets Jamaican heiress Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys's book, emancipation aired secrets of terrible consequence. The Spanish were the first to come here, in the 16th Century, but English and Scots took over by 1655 and began to build houses and lives of unimaginable opulence. The fortunes of the plantation owners rested on sugar cane, rum, coffee and slavery.

It was, and is, an island of voices speaking different languages, speaking of things that tell of cruelty, humiliation and fear.

Marina Delfos, of the Jamaican Georgian Society, tells me: 'In Falmouth, which was founded by the Cornish, there were once more Jews than in New York. People escaped here. They all lived side my side: whites, free blacks who kept slaves themselves, Jews, Anglicans. They got together sexually, too, but racial intermarriage didn't always work.'

Racial mixing is supposed to be the dark secret of the Barrett family, who built Greenwood plantation. In 1655, Colonel Hershey Barrett was sent by Oliver Cromwell to capture Hispaniola from the Spanish. He failed, but captured Jamaica instead. Cromwell granted him large tracts of land, and by the end of the 18th Century the Barretts owned more than 84,000 acres and 3,000 slaves and had built Greenwood, the finest house on the island.

Like similarly enriched English families, the Barretts also bought a grand house in London's Wimpole Street. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father Edward went to live there in 1795, accompanied by his beautiful sister Sarah, known as 'Pinkie', who was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

GREENWOOD is on a hill overlooking Montego Bay. It is a paradise, but a mortal one, both fecund and rotting. …

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