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Jamaica’s plantation past

Tourists come to Jamaica for the beautiful beaches and the tropical climate. Sometimes they come for sex or drugs. However, the Caribbean country that is now visited by a million tourists each year was once the centre of an international slave trade. This makes for an interesting- as well as horrid- history. Unfortunately, tourists looking for a tropical paradise are often not interested in learning about its sordid past. Jamaica provides an excellent example of how tourism gets the better of a poor and indebted country, because here, history has been placed in the background while entertaining the visitors is given top priority.

Perhaps there is no better place in Jamaica to illustrate this than the Rose Hall plantation. The plantation resides on a beautiful and calm grass hill close to the touristy Montego Bay, where it offers a stunning view of the Caribbean ocean. Once upon a time this was one of Jamaica’s most prosperous plantations, called “the greatest of the Great Houses”. The estate has a violent history, not in the least because of Annie Palmer. In the 1820s, when Palmer was mistress of Rose Hall, she killed three of her husbands and thousands of her slaves. Today, the plantation has been transformed into a tourist attraction and those visiting are presented to something quite different than a solemn historical site.

On the grounds where the plantation slaves worked themselves to death there is now a golf course owned by Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resorts while the fields closer to the house is available for up-scale white weddings. The only building that has been preserved is the magnificent Great House, built by slaves in 1770. The guided tour of the premises revolves around this house and its riches. Inside of the house, the guide focus on detailed descriptions of the exquisite furniture, the silk wallpaper and art work. Occasionally she also provides a gruesome anecdote about the many slaves who resided here. We are told that when slaves were inside the house they had to constantly whistle. Otherwise they were accused of stealing food, and beheaded. The worst stories are about children being tortured, whipped for spilling water, but all anecdotes and historical facts are told in an entertaining style, intercepted by jokes, as if it were the details in a thrilling ghost story.

Annie Palmer herself is of course a thoroughly intriguing character that is not left alone by the guide’s narrative. Remarkably enough, slavery is never mentioned to explain her cruelty. Instead, Palmer is portrayed as an exciting white witch, a fascinatingly wicked woman “gone native” because of her black voodoo practising nanny. An earlier lady of the house is even called “the good mistress”, an expression which bluntly suggests that slavery can be a beneficial system if only governed by a “good” slave master. In spite of all the bloody details, the complete amnesia about slavery is the scariest thing about Rose Hall.

The tour ends in a place of death and terror – the prison dungeons- although they are now turned into a chic gift shop where only a dusty old bear trap tell of a bloodier history (because there are no bears in Jamaica, bear traps were used to capture runaway slaves). However, a prison turned into a gift shop might be the perfect ending on a tour in which the violence practiced by Palmer is trivialized into entertaining ghost stories. The slaves, ancestors to the majority of Jamaica’s modern population, are placed in the background as anonymous victims, much in the same way as they were treated by Annie herself.

According to the guide, the owners of the plantation are seeking to expand their venue to incorporate the Taino Indians who first inhabited Jamaica. It is not yet decided how this group will be commemorated but the owners thought that something in the style of an amusement park would be fun. Unfortunately, there are no Taino Indians around to enjoy the rides and the hotdog stands. They all died during the Spanish colonization.

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