April 11, 2012

Haunted Rose Hall, Jamaica: Reflections on a Memory

In 1964, I traveled with my mother to beautiful Jamaica, where we stayed at a small hotel in Montego Bay. At the time, there were no ostentatious resorts, glitzy hotels, golf courses, or tourists traps, and the pristine beaches were open to all. The island was an unpretentious, relaxing destination abounding in natural beauty.

In the sixties, Rose Hall—plantation home of Annie Palmer, the infamous White Witch—was in ruins; an aging monument to an era of island luxury and prosperity built on slavery. By then, facts and fiction concerning the decaying great house and, in particular, Annie herself, had merged into a very dark legend. The first stories were told by locals with absolute conviction. Rose Hall was haunted by the White Witch, Annie Palmer. That was the truth.
Of course, it was an intriguing tale and the ruins became a must-see for Mom and me. I’m glad I had the chance to view Rose Hall before commercialism took over and turned it into a tourist attraction disguised as a museum. There is something to be said about leaving such places alone.

It was late in the afternoon when Mom went looking for a driver to take us out to Rose Hall. No easy task. Most of them wanted nothing to do with the hall so late in the day. At last, the promise of a few extra dollars bought us the necessary twenty minute ride, and soon we were bouncing down the highway in a late-model monster with worn-out shocks.

Our route roughly paralleled the coast, offering glittering views of the Caribbean’s cool blue and bottle-green waters. Along the way, the driver cheerfully chatted about this and that until the highway brought us to an unmarked, unpaved turn-off. Then he fell silent. We turned, passing through the stone remnants of a once grand and gated entrance.

A dusty half-mile of road cut its way through fields of wild grasses and weeds where, in the plantations hey-day, sprawling green acres of sugar cane had flourished. Rising steadily up a hill, it headed towards the ruined mansion that still dominated the abandoned landscape. At about the halfway point, our quiet driver slowed and eased his taxi to the side of the road. Switching off the motor, he informed us politely that we must walk the last quarter mile to see the house; he would come no closer. He would wait for us here, but not long. It was late. “In des place, deh duppies come out afta de sun go down,” he explained.

Outside the vehicle, sweet ocean air brushed and cooled the sheen of sweat on my neck and bare arms. Silence spread away in every direction. In the long-ago, we would have heard the thwack of machetes and scythes against slender cane stalks, the cries of drivers and cracking whips, the creak of great wooden carts heavy with cut cane. We could have smelled the cloying sweetness that wafted up from the fields and enveloped the plantation slaves bent to hard labor.

Now, no one else was here. We had Rose Hall to ourselves.

Time was short. We started up the road, the crush of our sandals on dirt sounding overly loud. Then there was only the grass whispering with the breeze. Rose Hall towered over us in all her spoiled beauty. Creepers climbed her brown-stained and weather-worn brick fa├žade. Dark oblongs gaped where precious window glass had once winked with reflected sunlight or framed the soft glow of gas lamps and candlelight. The broad veranda that long ago stretched the length of the hall had collapsed, leaving the second tier grand entrance all but inaccessible. Here, of an evening, the elite and privileged would have swept through an arched brace of ornately carved doors. Now, raw brick framed that doorless passage through which wind and shadows passed.

Sticking together, Mom and I edged closer to the hall, stepping carefully among the weeds, peering through the empty archway and flanking windows. Long shafts of sunlight slanting through the crumbling roof revealed glimpses of Rose Hall’s ravaged interior: remains of a splendid staircase; the collapsed upper floors; shattered planks and jutting or dangling timbers on every level. The walls had long been stripped of their finery, and no physical trace of the hall’s celebrated opulence remained.

Yet, there was something here. Duppies? No. It was an undeniable presence, but something more powerful than night sprites. As the shadows lengthened and the window eyes of Rose Hall darkened, that presence seemed more potent. I think it was the past—that cleverly woven tapestry of fact and fiction.

The legend of Annie Palmer was alive and well even in 1964. Rumor, local lore, and H. G. de Lisser’s book “The White Witch of Rose Hall” had done their dark magic. Even today, they intrude and cannot be banished.

As the stories go, Annie was raised a Haitian priestess, then used her whispered voodoo powers and wanton brutality to terrorize and dominate the 2,000 slaves on her 6,600 acre plantation. Beautiful, wealthy, and beguiling, the White Witch wooed and won three husbands, all of whom died unexpectedly, as reportedly did an untold number of slaves taken secretly as lovers. It seems Annie’s passions were insatiable, but she tired quickly of those she took to her bed.

The short blat of the taxi’s horn warned us that our time was nearly up. Quickly making our way around the back of the great house, Mom and I looked for the reported remnants of the slave quarters. An expanse of open ground ended in a wooded area. Tumbled into the bushes and poking out of the tall grass were a scattering of rotted boards which may or may not have been the last of the slave quarters. Nevertheless, they had existed somewhere on the land. That in itself was enough to know.

Suddenly, I was glad we would be leaving soon. There was sadness here. All the luxury, sparkle, and romance of Rose Hall became a cold thing before these fragmentary reminders—real or supposed—of human misery and cruelty.

Presumably, in 1831, Annie’s cruel reign over Rose Hall and nearby sister plantation, Palmyra, ended in murder. Annie was found strangled in her bed, a possible victim of revenge at the hands of Takoo, an formidable obeah man. According to some, his favored granddaughter had fallen victim to Annie’s black magic. The dead mistress of Rose Hall was quickly buried in an unmarked grave guarded by crosses placed on three sides to contain her fearful powers. Through the fourth side, Annie’s thusly weakened spirit was free to go forth and roam as it wished.
I think that Annie Palmer—or rather, the legend that evolved—epitomized the power, arrogance, and cruelty of the West Indies slave owner. For over a century, Rose Hall has stood as a crumbling monument to the vast plantation wealth and golden-hued privilege built with the sweat and enforced toil of others and ending abruptly in terrible rebellion. From 1831 to 1838, rioting slaves succeeded in driving plantation owners and their families from the island. In that time, nearly all of 700 island plantation great houses were torched; their stores of riches looted. Only 15 remained untouched, Rose Hall among them.

As we circled back around and started down the hill, I remember looking back at the broken walls growing grey in the descending dusk and thinking, The driver’s right. There are duppies here.

Since our 1964 visit, the shell of Rose Hall has been purchased and restored to its former splendor. Today, the great house is once again the commanding presence upon a hill amidst the 4000-acre Rose Hall Plantation. Each room has been carefully rebuilt and furnished with period pieces.  Now a historic park, Rose Hall’s Great House is open to the public for scheduled tours. Visitors can purchase a souvenir or quench their thirst in Annie’s infamous dungeon beneath the hall which has been transformed into a gift shop and tavern.
So a fresh coat of paint, a lurid—albeit intriguing—legend, and televised ghost hunts serve only to thrill tourists and conceal what truly haunts Rose Hall: her factual history.

What are your thoughts?

Happy Hauntings,

P. A. Peirson

author of Timeless Ghost Stories:
Four Haunted Tales from the Dead of Night

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