Summer Fellows Blog 6/14: Celia Naylor

The Rose Hall Great House has been immortalized not because of Jamaica’s slavery past; rather, it signifies for most local Jamaicans and visiting tourists alike a haunted house, in which the ghost of its most famous mistress, Annie Mary Palmer (née Paterson), roams the grounds as the “White Witch of Rose Hall.” The most renowned plantation home in Jamaica located in the Montego Bay area, it has become a popular wedding venue and tourist destination attracting over 100,000 visitors per year. It also vividly represents one telling example of how popular fascination with slavery distorts reconstructions of slavery in the present day. Based primarily on Herbert G. de Lisser’s 1929 novel The White Witch of Rosehall, the contemporary Rose Hall tours neglect the stories of enslaved people entirely. Instead, visitors leave with a titillating story about Annie Palmer; and, the names and experiences of enslaved women, men, and children who labored at Rose Hall remain unspoken, unremembered, and unmemorialized.

My vision for this digital humanities project is to provide a counter-narrative to the misinformation and mythology regarding Rose Hall Plantation. The Rose Hall Great House tours and the majority of online information about Rose Hall focus exclusively on Annie Palmer and her mythical exploits. Given the long, enduring life of this lore, the purpose of this project is to center and highlight the enslaved people who labored at Rose Hall as well as present aspects of slavery at this plantation in the decades immediately before abolition in Jamaica. In addition to working on a book on Rose Hall, I have decided to venture into the twenty-first century with this digital humanities project to introduce the actual names of enslaved people at Rose Hall, elements of their lived experiences in bondage, and selected dimensions of slavery on this plantation.

A Rose Hall Plantation slave ledger, circa 1817. 

The archival documents included in the digital project (from my research at the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town, Jamaica and the National Archives in Kew Gardens, England) are the annual Crop Accounts (1817-1836), triennial Registers of Returns of Slaves (1817-1832), and selected pages of the three-volume set of weekly, handwritten journal entries entitled The Rose Hall Journal (1817-1832) penned by the bookkeepers at Rose Hall Plantation.

The centerpiece of this digital project will be a Community Tree of all listed enslaved people (instead of individual, incomplete family trees) at Rose Hall, with specific information about individual enslaved people and some sense of the life they lived and relationships they created at this site of slavery. This project will also outline the history of the mythical “White Witch of Rose Hall” and critique the ways in which the emphasis on Annie Palmer reifies problematic and ahistorical (re)conceptualizations about slavery and enslaved people in the present day.

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