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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.










Caribbean Cousins

WEST INDIAN PAPERS  [no ref. or date]

These documents are held at Derbyshire Record Office


William Perrin made his fortune as a merchant at Kingston in the first decades of the 18th century. Probably he acquired most of his plantations through foreclosures of loans; this is why they are scattered about the island. The inventory of the papers that he left after his death lists many bonds and mortgages for sums owing to him

1739   He goes to England, leaving behind Philp, one of his partners, as his attorney

1740   He publishes The Present State of the British and French Sugar Colonies, a contribution to the controversy going on at the time over trade policy and the British West Indies (see L.W. Hanson, Contemporary Printed Sources for British and Irish Economic History 1701-1750 Cambridge, 1963 p.590)

1747 Dissatisfied with Philp, he appoints Fuller and Co. as his attorneys

1749 Philp dies without leaving a will

1759 Perrin dies, apparently without having returned to Jamaica, leaving his fortune to his son William  Philp Perrin

For some details see the letter from James Laing to Sir Henry Fitzherbert 5 October 1820
Perrin's career gives a useful illustration of some aspects of Jamaica's early history. The colony was taken by the English in 1655 but for various reasons sugar planting did not become well established there until the 18th century. The island's period of greatest prosperity began with a marked increase in the price of sugar about the middle of the century. At the same time there was stagnation or decline in the contraband trade to the Spanish American colonies which until then had been one of the main activities of the Kingston merchants; it is in this that Perrin had probably made most of his money. So merchants turn from trade to planting, and because of the high price of sugar, planters could afford to leave the colony and live as absentees in England. Absentee ownership is common throughout the British West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, and particularly from the middle of the 18th century. By the 1760s about a third of Jamaican plantations belonged to absentees, and by the 1820s about 80%. Most of the big collections of West Indian papers in British record offices start with this increase in absenteeism round about the 1750s and 1760s

William Philp Perrin inherited five plantations - Retrieve, Vere, Forrest, Blue Mountain, and Grange Hall - with about 600 slaves, yielding about 5000 p.a., and worth about 60,000. This was a large fortune even by Jamaican standards. Perrin seems never to have been to the West Indies to see his properties, probably because of his chronic bad health, and perhaps also because of the influence of his mother. In the early 1760s he was ill, and his mother was in charge. He wanted to go to Jamaica to see things for himself, while she wanted him to sell Retrieve and Blue Mountain at least. So he had to satisfy himself by correspondence with his attorney Malcolm Laing, a former business associate of his father. In addition to responsibility for the plantations Laing also took over the elder Perrin's 'housekeeper' - coloured mistress

Of the five plantations Forrest was sold c1769, probably because it was so widely separated from the others, and Retrieve - a small coffee estate with some uneconomic gold deposits - was rented out. The papers deal with the three other properties

Vere  This lay near the sea in the plain of the Rio Minho, to the west of Kingston. (The name Perrins still appears on the modern 1/50,000 map of Jamaica). Methods of sugar planting in this part of the island were distinctives the soil is fertile and easily worked - sugar is still grown here, while Blue Mountain and Grange Hall have been abandoned to bananas. This meant that the slaves were not worked so hard as on most sugar plantations, and so very unusually they were able to maintain their numbers through natural increase, at least by the early 19th century. However, the area was subject to drought, which made yields and profits very variable

Blue Mountain  Before the last years of slavery this was the most valuable of the three plantations, but when Perrin inherited it in 1759 its potential had not been exploited to the full and he was advised by Laing to push it hard. During the next 20 years the number of slaves there was increased from about 170 to 450, with a corresponding increase in output and profits. It was probably in order to concentrate resources here that Forrest was sold and Retrieve rented. But in the 1780s there was a serious fall in profits - from an average of about 3,500 p.a. to about 2000, and little more than 1,000 in the 1790s. The immediate cause was the series of hurricanes that hit the island in the early 1780s, but more fundamentally soil fertility was declining. Blue Mountain had excellent cane land, but a shortage of the pasture and woodland needed to work it successfully and with the growth of output in the 1760s and 1770s this came to be felt very acutely.

By 1775 all the wood used to boil the sugar had been cut down and so cane trash (dead leaves stripped from the canes) was used as fuel instead. This meant that there was less compost for the fields and so fertility declined. One solution attempted for this problem was to import coal as fuel for the boiling house. These difficulties were aggravated by William Sutherland, the planting attorney between 1780 and 1804 (Perrin followed usual Jamaican practice in employing two attorneys - one to run the plantations, the other to handle the mercantile side of the business, the shipping etc.) Although Sutherland was a cogent and informative letter writer he was, to judge by results quite incompetent as a planter.

In the 1790s profitability fell to a very low ebb on all three estates, at a time when they should have been benefiting from very high sugar prices. Francis Graham who replaced him in 1804 was much more successful. He was introduced as a man who knew how to deal with poor soil. Within four years of his arrival he had doubled output, and profitability was restored to its former levels

The other economic problem at Blue Mountain was to keep up the labour force The same conditions that made it such a good place for growing sugar - the heavy soil and the high rainfall - made it a bad place for keeping slaves; deaths persistently exceeded births. This was usual on sugar plantations, but here the rate of depletion was particularly high. The development of the plantation aggravated the difficulty as the growing cane acreage encroached on the slaves' provision grounds. In the 1790s Sutherland tried to lighten the labour of the slaves by introducing the plough - a fashionable policy in Jamaica at the time - but it seems to have failed, because there was not enough pasture to support draught animals. So numbers could only be maintained or increased by the import of new slaves from Africa; it is probably because of the large proportion of Africans among them that the report of 1810 mentions that they are 'addicted to Oby' (= obeah, African magic)

Grange Hall
This was the least valuable of the three plantations. It lay at the eastern end of the island in a rather isolated position between mountains and the sea, in a district notorious for its bad husbandry. Its cane land was of poor quality, the mill and boiling house were awkwardly sited, and in wartime local shipping was vulnerable to attack from French and Spanish privateers. Early in the 1780s there was a plan to reorganise the estate, but this came to nothing, apparently because of Perrin's poor health, and so it struggled on, hardly covering its costs during the later years of Sutherland's management. Graham improved things but in 1825 it was decided to abandon sugar growing there, turn it into a livestock pen, and transfer most of the slaves to Blue Mountain. Sugar production certainly dwindled after this, pasture and livestock were increased, but it seems that no slaves were transferred, I am not sure why. Fitzherbert was in charge by now and possibly he was too humane to do this: slaves hated being moved from their homes and transfers usually brought indiscipline and high mortality. But he may also have feared that they would corrupt the comparatively unsophisticated population of Blue Mountain, because the Grange Hall slaves were noted for their immorality and endemic venereal disease, from their contacts with the town and shipping of Manchioneal Bay

Profits from the three* properties taken together move roughly as follows: (details from the accounts)
Number of Slaves Profits Rate of Return on capital (%)
1760s 600 5000 9
1770s 670 5500 9
1780s 800 4000 4
1790s 850 1600 2
1804-19 860 10000 8
1820-34 850 4000 4
* Including Bog Pen, four properties after 1820

The fall in profits during the 1780s and 1790s reflects the difficulties of Sutherland's period of management which I have already mentioned. The recovery between 1804 and 1819 was the result of the improvements made by Francis Graham. The decline in the 1820s, when Fitzherbert had inherited the Perrin estates, reflects the general difficulties facing all West Indian proprietors at this time rather than any failure of efficiency in management

Their first difficulty was the fall of sugar prices in the 1820s to about half their previous levels. For most of the 18th century sugar production in the British colonies had not been able to keep pace with demand at home, and so planters had enjoyed high prices and profits. By the early 19th century this was no longer so - mainly because of competition from some highly productive new colonies - Trinidad, British Guyana, and Mauritius. The other difficulty that all planters faced was to maintain their labour forces. Because conditions on the sugar plantations were so severe the slaves were not usually able to reproduce themselves; deaths exceeded births and planters could only maintain numbers by new purchases from Africa. But in 1807 Parliament stopped the African slave trade, and from this time the slave population of the British West Indies began to fall. With a dwindling labour force, production had to be reduced also. One of the most interesting aspects of the collection is the information it gives about how Fitzherbert tried to cope with these difficulties by introducing to Jamaica practices with which he was familiar as the owner of a plantation in Barbados

Turner's Hall, Barbados
This plantation was acquired by the Fitzherbert family in the 18th century. It covered 386 acres and was worked by 150-200 slaves. The sugar plantations of Barbados were rather different from those of Jamaica. The island is flatter, more densely settled, and its estates were smaller with much less wood and mountain land. Sugar planting in Barbados fell to a very low ebb in the later 18th century through drought and soil exhaustion, but then the situation was retrieved by a minor revolution in agricultural technique. Traditionally the plantations had grown little but sugar, and imported most of their food from Great Britain and North America, but then round about 1800 planters began to alternate food crops with sugar cane, and the result was a substantial improvement in yields and profits. This change occurs at Turner's Hall, although its effects are less striking than on some other Barbados plantations that I have looked at. The estate yielded about 1800 p.a. in the 1770s - about 15% on capital, very good by contemporary Barbados standards. They fall to about 1000 in the 1780s, but recover to about 1600 p.a. by the 1820s - no more than they had been in the 18th century, but with the low sugar prices of the time this represents a considerable improvement in efficiency

Apart from its improved agriculture Barbados also became noted for the care with which its slaves were treated. It was the only British sugar colony where they had begun to increase their numbers by natural reproduction before Emancipation in 1834 (Although at Turner's Hall deaths usually seem to have exceeded births, apparently because of the heavy rainfall and difficult soil of the Scotland district where it lay). It is believed that one of the reasons for this is the relatively low rate of absentee ownership in the colony - only about 30% of plantations belonged to absentees. Also the native white population was relatively large by West Indian standards. So most plantations were run by their owners - and probably they were on the whole more careful and humane than salaried employees - while the minority of absentee estates could be managed by local men. In either case the man in charge lived with his wife and family, and in Barbados one of the duties of the planter's wife was to help look after the slaves, the young children in particular. There are references to this in Fitzherbert's correspondence. In Jamaica on the other hand most estates belonged to absentees, and because the local white population was so small - and degenerate - managers were usually recruited from England or Scotland as young unmarried men. The result was much more miscegenation than in Barbados, and also much more brutality and neglect

Sir Henry Fitzherbert's policy of management in the 1820s seems to have been based on a recognition of these differences between the two colonies. My guess is that when he first inherited the Jamaican estates from Perrin he applied the standards with which he was familiar from his Barbados plantation and was shocked by what he found - the slovenly methods of cultivation, and the high depletion rate among the slaves, particularly at Blue Mountain. On his West Indian trip in 1825 he took with him from Barbados to Jamaica Charles Lewsey - and Mrs Lewsey - to be his new planting attorney. Their task was to introduce Barbados practices to Blue Mountain - working the slaves less hard, ending night work in the boiling house, better care for the children, etc

Lewsey died after only two years in Jamaica, but he had managed to arouse considerable resentment with his innovations and impetuous manner

Expand   Plantations of William Perrin and William Philp Perrin  [no ref. or date]

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