Above: Rose Hall Jamaica Photo D Ramey Logan.jpg from Wikimedia Commons by D Ramey Logan, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Over the years, my husband and I have been fortunate enough to be able to take vacations in the Caribbean. We have enjoyed travelling to different places, but there was always one island that kept drawing us back: Jamaica. It has beautiful white sand beaches, amazing food, and great music but most of all it has wonderful people. And I won’t deny that the non-stop four-hour flight from Toronto to get there is also an incentive!
I managed to drag my husband away from the beach one day and convince him to accompany me on a trip to Rose Hall, a renowned plantation great house. It is also notorious for having been the home of the cruel and bloody Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rose Hall.
Jamaica was like many of the islands in the Caribbean in that it was a slave colony. Britain took over the island in 1655, and under its rule, Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and their descendants.
At one time, there were around 700 large manor houses on the island. Rose Hall was an impressive Georgian-style great house built around 1750 on a rising hill that gives it an amazing view of the sea. During the slave rebellion of 1831, almost all of the manor houses were burned down. Today, there remains only about fifteen. Rose Hall survived the burnings only because the slaves were too afraid of the ghostly legends and scary tales surrounding the house.
According to legend, Annie had moved with her family to Haiti as a child, where she learned the secrets of voodoo from her nanny. After her parents and nanny died, she moved to Jamaica at 18, looking for a husband. She married John Palmer, the last owner of Rose Hall.
After a few months, Annie grew tired of her husband and began to choose lovers from among the 2,000 slaves of the plantation. When Palmer caught her, he beat her with a whip. But the very next day, he was dead, seemingly poisoned. With his death began the years of terror at Rose Hall.
Annie would take slave lovers, but as soon as she tired of them, she would kill them. She also regularly tortured and killed anyone who she felt was an enemy to her. She married twice more, killing both husbands to inherit their money.
Her undoing was falling in love with an Englishman who did not want her because he was in love with the niece of a slave named Takoo, who was also Annie’s lover. Annie killed her young rival, which so angered Takoo that he strangled her and buried her in a deep pit. He performed a voodoo ritual meant to prevent her spirit from leaving the grave, but he didn’t complete it properly, and her ghost began to wander the house. Because of this, the house was spared burning during the rebellion because it was feared that fire would free the ghost and allow it to wander off the plantation. Instead, the house was abandoned and remained so for about 130 years.
As is usually the case, the truth is much less interesting than fiction. Annie was actually born in Jamaica to Scottish parents. She had not grown up in Haiti, nor was she an expert on voodoo. She was only married once to John Palmer. Very little is really known about the couple other than they didn’t stay in Rose Hall for long because their house was turned over to creditors due to massive debt.
It sat abandoned and crumbling until American entrepreneur John Rollins and his wife bought it in 1977. They refurbished it, looking to showcase Rose Hall’s slave history, antique splendour and original fittings. Today, daily tours are offered of the house and grounds by costumed interpreters. There are even night tours that focus on the White Witch legend, showing the supposed locations of tunnels, bloodstains, hauntings and murders. Seances are even held on the property in an attempt to conjure Annie’s spirit.
To get there, we took the easy way and booked an excursion through the Island Routes tour desk in our hotel. There isn’t a lot of interest in an outing to a historic house, not when the beach beckons, so we had to wait until there were six of us who wanted to go. The $39 USD per person excursion cost covers your ride there and back to the hotel, as well as your entry fee to the Hall. Our driver was very agreeable to stopping at a shopping mall on the way back to shop for souvenirs and grocery items. A tip of $5 to $10 USD for the driver is expected.
You are free to go on your own by taxi and purchase your own entry ticket ($25 USD) to the house but make sure you ask the hotel staff to select a driver for you that they know. Always, always settle on a price before you get into a taxi to avoid any disputes at the end of the ride.
Once our party had reached the house, we were escorted by a guide to the front of Rose Hall where each couple’s picture was taken. A framed copy is then offered for sale at the end of the tour for $20 USD. Kitschy but we bought it; we have so few photos of the two of us together.
I should note that the house itself is not handicapped accessible. Even getting to the front of the house would be difficult for anyone with back/leg problems because of the hilly terrain, which is a shame, given the fantastic views.
The tour lasted about 45 minutes. I did take pictures but I see on the Rose Hall website that photos inside the house are no longer allowed.
The interior is magnificent, resplendent in British colonial décor, the large heavy pieces of the 17th and 18th centuries. The guide took us through the dining room which features incredible china plates from the period, and the reception areas.
We were then escorted up the grand mahogany staircase to the various bedrooms, including the one belonging to the infamous Annie Palmer. In her room, we were told not to look in the mirror for too long or her ghost would appear!
At the end of the house tour, we were taken to the gardens in the back to see Annie’s stone tomb. At this point, a tip of $5 USD is expected for the guide. We were then free to explore the outdoor area of the house on our own, as long as we didn’t miss our driver’s departure time!
I would highly recommend this tour for anyone who is interested in architecture, great houses and furnishings of this period. The house has been renovated to exacting detail and is sure to please any history buff.
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Julia Cossitt is retired from the Canada Border Services Agency. She lives in St. Catharines ON with her long-suffering husband and four cats. A life-long resident of the Niagara Region, she enjoys exploring not only local history but the history of wherever she may travel to.