A winding road off a coastal highway leads to the majestic hilltop home of Rose Hall Plantation, one of Jamaica’s most intriguing and storied great houses.
During the 18th century, Jamaica was home to more than 700 great houses, all built on high ground so that their owners could overlook the plantation and spot travelers, who were often given a bed and food for the night.
“Rose Hall is the most famous of Jamaica’s plantations, built in 1750 by George Ash, a wealthy English planter who named the home after his wife,” said Daltice Moodie, a guide at the plantation.
“When Ash died in 1752, Rose remarried three more times. Her last husband, John Palmer, completed the house between 1770 and 1780.”
When finished, the Georgian mansion was a sight to behold, and featured a stone base with plastered upper story that offered sweeping panoramic views of the coast. Known as a “Calendar House,” the home had 365 windows, 52 doors and 12 bedrooms.
“At its peak, this was a 6,600-acre sugar plantation with more than 2,000 slaves,” said Moodie. “After John and Rose Palmer died, the house was willed to his grand-nephew John, who married Annie Mae Patterson in 1820.”
Rose Hall is most famous for the legend of Annie Palmer, a diminutive but evil beauty who was the topic of countless Gothic novels and the H.G. de Lisser book, “The White Witch of Rose Hall.”
“Annie was raised by a Haitian voodoo priestess who taught her the ways of witchcraft,” said Moodie. “She lived in the house for 11 years, and within nine years, she murdered three husbands and countless slave lovers.”
Some people speculate that it was the Palmer’s tin and lead dinnerware that led to her dementia. “Continuous use would eventually lead to brain poisoning,” said Moodie.
Each of Annie’s husbands was killed in a different way, each in a different room. Her first husband, John, was murdered by arsenic poising in the Gentleman’s Room. “After his death, she became the wealthiest plantation owner in the area,” said Moodie.
Annie stabbed her second husband in the Toile Room, and strangled a third in the Crewel Room, said Moodie. “Blood stains were found on the Toile Room’s walls during restoration.”
Annie is said to have blamed the deaths of her husbands on the yellow fever virus, which was common at the time. “The slaves took their bodies through a secret door down to the shore, where three palm trees now rep- resent where the husbands were buried,” said Moodie. “The slaves were then killed on their way back to the house.”
Annie was extremely cruel to her slaves, who were often beheaded in the courtyard or placed in the dungeon without food or water if they misbehaved, said Moodie. “Bear traps were also placed in certain areas of the property to prevent slaves from running away,” she said.
Annie’s reign of terror eventually came to an end in December of 1831. According to Moodie, her free slave lover Takoo believed Annie had something to do with the murder of his granddaughter, Millicent.
“Takoo came through a secret passage and strangled Annie in her bedroom,” said Moodie. “Takoo then fled, and was shot in the hills by the estate’s general overseer.”
Approximately 685 of Jamaica’s great houses were burned to the ground during the slave uprising that followed between 1831-1838.
“Rose Hall was not burned, as they were afraid that Annie’s spirit would haunt them forever,” said Moodie.
Annie Palmer was buried on the estate in 1831. “Three crosses were placed on her tomb to keep her spirit inside,” said Moodie. “They wanted to have one side vacant for her to come and go as she chose.”
After going through three separate owners, the house eventually fell into ruin. It wasn’t purchased again until 1965, when John and Michelle Rollins of Wilmington, Delaware restored it at a cost of $2.5 million.
The Rollins did a fine job in restoring the home to its former 18th century splendor, complete with mahogany woodwork, European antiques and art dating back to the 17th century.
The silk wallpaper in the ballroom, printed with palm trees and birds, was designed by Pierre De La Salle in a pattern first used by Marie Antoinette in the Palace of Versailles.
Other beautiful architectural touches include an authentic Chippendale mirror, sewing box and bell pull in the sitting room; Queen Anne chairs in the morning room; a four-pedestal Sheraton banquet table, 18th century Chinese dishes and a portrait of King Louis XVI of France in the dining room; and an 18th century chandelier made from French gold dore in the ballroom.
Country singer Johnny Cash, who lived nearby, donated a beautiful drop leaf table to the estate, which resides in the lower gallery. Today, the dungeon houses the estate’s gift shop, restrooms and Annie’s Pub, a charming tavern where guests can refresh with a cool Witches Brew, made from rum and pineapple juice.
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IF YOU GO
Rose Hall Great House
Hours: Tours from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Special Events: The house and lawns are available for special functions such as weddings, cocktail parties, incentive functions, dinners and theme events.
Information: (876) 953-2341
Address: Rose Hall Hwy. A few kilometers east of Montego Bay, toward Falmouth in Rose Hall, Jamaica
Other great houses In Jamaica:
Greenwood Great House, built between 1780 and 1800, was the Georgian home of Richard Barrett, cousin of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Rare books in the house date back to 1697. (876) 953-1077
Barnett Estates Great House is an 18th century house located just minutes from the Montego Bay center. The estate, restored by Paula Kerr-Jarrett, features classic mahogany furniture and priceless Dresden China. It has been owned and operated by the Kerr-Jarrett family for more than 235 years, making them the oldest plantation-owning family in Jamaica. (876) 952-2382.
Belvedere Estate, one of the first sugar cane plantations in Jamaica, is 1,000-acre property still in use in Negril. Owned by Pat McGann, the property is surrounded by soothing streams, waterfalls, citrus and lush tropical foliage. Guests can hear an explanation of bush medicine. (876) 952- 6001.
Good Hope Great House, a Georgian estate turned country hotel, lies in Trelawny, about 45 minutes from Montego Bay. The 10-bedroom great house sits on 2,000 acres of property near the Martha Brae River. (876) 954-3289 or 979-8099.
Hampden Estate is a working sugar factory and rum distillery built by the Kelly Lawson family. The great house is open to the public for touring, now owned by the Garquharsons, direct descendants of the original owners. (876) 995-9870.
Rose Hall Witches Brew (Jamaican Rum Punch)
- 2 cups orange juice (16 ounces)
- 2 cups pineapple juice (16 ounces)
- 2 ounces fresh lime juice
- 2 ounces grenadine
- 12 ounces Myers Dark Jamaican Rum
- Wedges of pineapple, orange, lime or lemon for garnish
- Combine all the ingredients and serve over ice, garnished with fresh slices of pineapple, orange, lime or lemon.