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Rose Hall Great House, Jamaica


Where Gumbo Was #132

This week, only one member, PortMoresby (congrats!) guessed Where in the World TravelGumbo was, but you all still get the tangled and dramatic story of the Rose Hall Great House of Montego Bay, Jamaica. It's a tale that mixes Jamaican history, superstitious legend, fictionalized history (or perhaps pure invention), historic preservation and even a song by Johnny Cash. We'll try to sort it all out here...



The Rose Hall Great House, in Jamaica Georgian style, began its life in the 1770s as the home of John Palmer, a wealthy sugar planter. Great house was used to describe the headquarters of a plantation, where the owner or agent lived and worked. Palmer's fortune was built on 6000 acres and several thousand slaves (nearly all of Jamaica's history, and certainly its early prosperity, is built on that kind of ugly math).



Taking the historic path, the house was built by Palmer and named for his wife, Rose. It was severely damaged by fire during the 1831-32 slave rebellions, and the owners removed the remaining furniture and decorative woodwork to their other properties on the Kingston side of the island.



In the 1960s, the house was sold to U.S. millionaire John Rollins and his wife Michele (a former Miss USA World). They restored the house and re-furnished it as part of a development that also included two nearby resort hotels and shopping. Here's what it looked like before the restoration work.

But who wants history like that when you can have a sordid tale of lechery, adultery, murder, voodoo and lustful lovers? So, let's talk about the legend of Annie Palmer, called the White Witch of Rose Hall, and star of the narrative used in giving tours of the house.


Before I start on that, though, I warn you: Much of what follows is possibly completely made up, no matter how plausible it may seem. Most of the details connected to the legend as it's told on the tour of the house may come from a 1929 novel about the White Witch, loosely built around old stories. But feel free to ignore any inconvenient facts!

Annie Palmer, the story goes, was the daughter of an English mother and an Irish father and grew up in Haiti. When her parents died of yellow fever, she was brought up by a nanny who taught her witchcraft and voodoo. She moved to Jamaica as a young woman, and married John Palmer, the widowed master of Rose Hall.


Within three years, Palmer was dead—Annie blamed drinking—and the room where he died (above) was sealed up. Soon after, she remarried, and soon after that, her second husband was dead, and another room closed off. A third husband also died mysteriously.


The legend says that their bodies were taken from the house through an escape tunnel built for safety from slave rebellions, and buried along the shore: Three husbands, three palm trees to mark the graves. She is said to have had the slaves who buried them murdered to keep anyone from finding and examining the bodies.



Whether or not there was really a mile-long escape tunnel, there were secret passages, possibly for escape reasons. The stairs above connect the main floor through a hidden door to the basement, where a tunnel-like walkway runs under the house from front to back.


But even without husbands, they say, Annie was not without companions for her bed, taking a number of slave lovers. Eventually, in a falling out with her favorite, she was killed, and her killer then died at the hands of another lover. Annie was said to have been buried on the grounds of the estate, although the tomb above was built during the 1970s reconstruction to house bones found in the area where she was supposedly buried. Occasionally seances have been held at the house by people claiming to contact her.


Johnny Cash, a friend of the John and Michele Rollins, bought another Great House nearby, Cinnamon Hill, and lived there part-time for several decades; the original owners were the Barrett family, who later returned to live in London and were the grandparents of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Thus, ironically, Browning, a strong supporter of abolition, lived on the proceeds of slavery.


Cash provided the grandfather clock in the picture above, and helped the Annie Palmer story along with a popular ballad about her. It's sung during the tour of the house, and you can hear Cash sing it in the YouTube video below.

Well, enough, probably of Annie, and time for a few more views of the house and estate. The furnishings of the house are a mix of a few originals from the house, and other pieces of the right period and style. The woodwork is also copied based on old prints and descriptions, as is the silk wallpaper.



The ornate bell-pull below was connected by wires in the walls to ring bells in the service areas of the house. The kitchens, though, were outside.







These are palm fruit; they grow partway up the trunk of the tree. They can be eaten, or pressed to produce palm oil. Who knew? Not me!


And, of course, you can never go wrong finishing up with a cute sleeping cat. This is one of several who hang around the entrance to the Great House...



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Thanks Paul. A good story and some interesting photos to accompany it.

In my visits to the various Caribbean Islands I have seen voodoo is still in practice.

"my son had a stomach ache and the Doctor came to visit. He rubbed his legs with grass and the pain went away. He said the words too. He told me it was caused by not chewing his food enough before swollowing it" 


Going horse riding at first light I've seen burials on the beach. All ceremony gone home before the tourists arrive to sun themselves above Granny Jones's final resting place!

Last edited by GarryRF
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