Monday, 9 January 2012

The Witch of Rose Hall

Sparrow and I were in Jamaica doing a recording at Byron Lee's studio in Kingston, when I first heard about Anne Palmer, the famous "white witch of Rose Hall".
It must have been after 2 in the morning, when in the company of Herman Hadeed and two Jamaican musicians we sat down under the stars outside of the studio to unwind from the day's and the night's work with the best that Jah Kingdom has to offer.
One of the musicians, a bass player, whose name I cannot bring to mind, felt compelled to tell a story -  the story of Rose Hall Estate. He said it was about ten or twelve miles east of Montego Bay. As you drove along the north coast road, you would pass through miles of sugar cane until you come to a point when the road branches off to the right and passes some poor people's houses and a Chinese shop. You could follow a dirt road to a little hilltop and there find the ruined halls of the most terrible haunted house in Jamaica, if not the Caribbean.
"If only those walls coulda talk, man," he said, his lion-like mane darkly silhouetted against a starlit night sky, "they would tell you that to this day people 'round there fear this place."

Here is the gist of his story.

Rose Hall began as a happy house to which in the 1750s a sugar planter, George Fanning, brought his pretty, vivacious bride Rose. Rose had had four previous husbands - now don't hold that against her, mortality was high in the colonies back then! They lived a good life, and when she died, her husband John had a medallion with her profile carved and set into the wall of the nearby parish church.
For several years, the great house was shut up. Tall weeds grew right up to the massive doors, while the huge iron gates hung rusting on their hinges.
In 1820, Fanning's grand nephew, John Palmer, inherited the estate and brought his young bride Anne to live at Rose Hall. Sugar had by that time started to decline. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807; there was talk of emancipation.
In oral history, there are many tales about Annie's background. Was she an Englishwoman, who was instructed in Voudoun black magic by a Haitian priestess? Did she only remember the sadistic elements of her teaching and forgot about the healing properties of that cult? Whatever it was, the young and pretty Annie managed to engulf her surroundings and those who shared her home in terror.
Around the great house at Rose Hall there grew an atmosphere not of joyous anticipation, but increasingly one of fear. It was said amongst the slaves - amongst those of them who knew of such things - that Anne was a witch. Her beauty drew men to her. Her powers of witchcraft kept her slaves subdued despite of the dreadful punishments she inflicted on them. In beatings, she herself wielded the whip. She put with her own thin hands the spiked iron collar around their necks. She had their feet burnt until their toebones dropped out.
John Palmer died in 1826 a haggard man. His widow Anne now ruled the mansion and was in control of the wealth. At nights, the house was brilliantly lit. Seen reflected in the huge silver tureens and mahogany floors polished to a shine were terrible sequences of events. In their golden frames, the long-dead Palmers gazed down on scenes that would have turned their Protestant bowels to liquid. The house-slaves knew of the men, overseers, book-keepers and the like, who, entrapped by her, died there in that house, their bodies no one knew where.
Legend has it that there were bloodstains on the floor of one of the bedrooms upstairs that could not wash away, where a man had died of a dagger wound, the blood pouring across the highly polished floor.  In one stain was the print of a heel, in the other the mark of the ball of a woman's foot. It was said that it was in these upper rooms that Anne Palmer killed lover after lover, including slaves. Sometimes they were strangled by her slaves as she watched on.
There was a young man who lived at Rose Hall, a relative of her late husband John. His name was Andrew Phillips. His account was saved by one Rose Stopford who wrote of a young Englishman coming to Rose Hall:
"Just at that moment came a stranger's voice calling my name - 'Is Andrew Phillips here?' I turned and saw a tall, handsome youth. He did not look older than myself, but gay and  ... and talked with ease. He told me he was my employer's son, Ned Palmer, and that he had come aboard to welcome me and to take me back with him to the estate. I gave Ned Palmer all the news from home, then poured out my questions - an endless stream. Good-humouredly, he answered all I asked. Then our eyes met - we knew we should be friends. A sudden shadow passed across his face, his eyes left mine, and gazing out to sea he muttered: 'Why did you come? Go back. there is still time. The boat is here until Saturday. It's a hard life and you are very young.'"
Young Andrew stayed on an took up the job of overseer at Rose Hall. One day, he had occasion to rescue a lovely young slave girl from a cruel beating and went up to the great house to protest. It was getting on to twilight. A splendid sunset lit up the sky, the many windows of that stately house glowed red as blood, the mansion seemed on fire, through the double doors he entered a long room. A silvery voice said: "Here he is at last. I hoped that I should meet our overseer."
A slender woman rose in welcome. Here eyes were bright and tender. She smiled the sweetest smile that he had ever seen. He stammered out an answer awkwardly. Then he remembered why he had come.
"This is no friendly call. I come to say I found a slave receiving punishment. They told me you had ordered her the lash."
For a second, a shadow crossed her face and then she smiled.
"Come, sit down. I see I must explain. That wretched girl had spoiled a whole day's work. The sugar boiled today must be drawn off - ruined because of one rat-eaten cane."
"But I think the punishment extreme. We should exempt women from the lash."
She dropped her eyes. He, following her downward gaze, saw the beauty with which she was made, framed in burgundy velvet. The new overseer fell under Anne Palmer's spell, until one terrible afternoon when he came face to face with her wickedness in one of the dry ravines behind the estate.
He had been dozing in the upstairs verandah of his cottage when he heard a voice:
"Take him to the gully, take him to the gully, bring back the frock and board, carry him along." He knew the ravine well; it was where they threw the dead slaves for the birds of prey, thus saving the money for the undertaker.
"Take him to the gully," she shouted.
"Oh massa, me no deadee yet."
He could not bear the house, but got his horse and cantered up a lonely mountain track, going anywhere to be alone. At length, the pathway slowly widened out, the mare stood still. He could not urge her on.
Great mossy rocks were scattered on the grass and gray with lichen were the twisted trees. Dismounting, he walked forward to explore. Something was creaking in the gentle wind. A sickly odour was wafting in the breeze. the flapping of big black wings startled him, the flock flew skyward. There before him an iron frame was hanging from a tree, and in the frame a woman's body hung. He knew at once it was the girl. Even so, with this horror in his mind, Anne Palmer's spell on him was strong. He made up his mind to leave, but felt compelled to go to the great house to bid her good-bye - this in spite of the pleading of the slaves. One old woman who had grown to love him for the care he took in all that came under his charge fell on her knees before him.
"Oh massa, do not do dey," she pleaded. "Massa McNeil, he go and not come back. Ask Miss Palmer where McNeil is now."
It was then he learnt the real truth.
"When the mistress tire of the man she love, she make them two black slaves go throttle them, den drag dem dong dat passage to the sea and throw them to the sharks - them tell no tales."
Little wonder is then that Anne Palmer was hated by her slaves and yet they dared not touch her, because they believed her to be possessed by magic powers. However, in the slave uprising of 1831, they set fire to the sugar cane, and then the time came when one of her lovers, sensing that he was falling out of favour, strangled her before she could have him murdered. This might have been in 1833. There is also a version of the story that a group of slaves came to kill her in her bed, surprising her in her slumber.
None of her own slaves would bury her body. Planters brought their coachmen from neighbouring estates and buried Anne Palmer in the centre of the garden by the east wing of the great house, setting a pile of large stones to mark the spot where the white witch of Rose Hall lay to rot.

(from De Lisser "White Witch of Rose Hall", Dr. Phillip Sherlock's papers and the bass player in Byron Lee's Band in 1975)

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