A Day at Hope Gardens

By: Hannah Young

In May 2013 I undertook a research trip to Kingston to examine the correspondence of an absentee slave-owner named Anna Eliza Elletson. Currently held in the National Library of Jamaica, the letters I looked at were written from Elletson to her Jamaican agents and concerned the management of Hope, her plantation.

The Hope Estate was situated in the Liguanea Plains in the parish of St Andrew. Part of the vast estate now makes up the Hope Botanical Gardens, the largest public green space in the Kingston area. First established as an agricultural experimental and distribution station in 1874,   the gardens are home to an extensive collection of rare tropical trees and plants.[1]

One leisurely Sunday morning I decided to take a trip to Hope Gardens. Slightly overcast, it was the perfect opportunity to spend a day relaxing outside whilst avoiding the beating sun. Many Jamaicans seemed to have had a similar idea. There were families munching away around the picnic tables, groups of friends playing football on the grass, and even a couple having their wedding pictures taken by the flowerbeds; many others had also taken the opportunity to relax and unwind in the beautiful surroundings.

It is impossible to properly articulate how I felt as I walked around this serene and tranquil environment. It was Hope Gardens’ history which had brought me there and, right in the middle of my research, I was fully ingrained in the world of Elletson. She had never visited her estate or made a trip to the Caribbean; yet here was I, standing at the site of the focus of a great deal of her time and energy. Even more stirring was the thought of the lives of those who had been forced to work on the plantation. In 1779 352 ‘Negroes’ were recorded as living and working at Hope and the LBS database shows that £6630 5S 6D was awarded for 379 enslaved people during the compensation process in the 1830s.[2]

The disjuncture between the relaxing atmosphere and the history of the estate was striking. It was all too easy to imagine hundreds of enslaved people toiling away. It made all the more conspicuous the hollowness of Elletson’s paternalistic instructions to ensure that the enslaved were “well taken care of in sickness or health, and their…situations rendered as comfortable as possible.”[3] This was a day that, had there not been a fair cloud-covering, would have been-for me at least-unbearably hot. And the land, with the Blue Mountains looming in the near-distance, was often on a reasonable incline. Such factors are unlikely to have crossed the mind of the metropolitan Elletson, yet it is difficult to imagine they cannot have had a huge impact on the lives of the people working on the plantation.

I was hit by a strange amalgam of emotions. A sombreness and melancholy was accompanied by a calmness and tranquillity which was altogether uneasy. It was impossible not to be taken in by the serenity of the setting, but it also seemed wrong to feel peaceful. At the same time, as a solitary and somewhat pensive individual, I felt somewhat out of place amongst the groups joyously enjoying their Sunday.

On my first trip to the Caribbean and as a student researching slave-ownership my reasons for spending a day at Hope Gardens were obviously quite different from the majority of visitors and my experience that Sunday remains strong in my mind. As a history student it is, of course, important to engage with theories of space and place, but visiting Hope had a far deeper impact than that. It was an important day for me on a personal and emotional level and reinforced my belief that it is neither possible nor desirable to remove this dimension from academic study.

[1]Satchell, Veront M. Hope Transformed: A Historical Sketch of the Hope Landscape, St Andrew, Jamaica, 1660-1960. Mona: University of West India Press, 2012. p. 254.

[2] National Library of Jamaica. MS 29a, Letter book containing copies of letters to Roger Hope Elletson and his wife Anna Eliza Elletson (later Duchess of Chandos) Also letters written in England by Anna Eliza Elletson. Letter from Mr Concannon to Anna Eliza Elletson, 26 May 1779. Jamaica St Andrew 114 (Hope Estate) Claim Details.

[3] NLJ MS29A, Letter from Anna Eliza Elletson to Ballard, January 13th 1776.