(For more on Jamaica and this author's personal experience there, see the article "Jamaica - The Grand Tour" below)
French doors for a French lady, but no sugar for the slaves. For the unlucky few, their treat was a romp in milady's bed, then a secret night time burial in the wet sands of the notorious Jamaican sugar plantation--Rose Hall.
Annie Palmer, the white witch of Jamaica, was French by birth, becoming the mistress of Rose Hall through marriage. Surrounded by sugar cane and slaves, Annie Palmer ruled the Great House with an iron fist and a dungeon below. Each morning, her maid gently opened those majestic French doors, and Annie stepped out onto her bedroom balcony. There she stood, holding the power of life and death, issuing orders to the trembling slaves assembled for her inspection. They obeyed or faced torture in the dark, dank cells.
They had reason for dread. Annie murdered a series of husbands and lovers, using her slaves to carry their bodies, via a secret route, down to the white sand beach, there to bury them in unmarked graves. Perhaps history's first female serial killer, Annie's bed still waits for her next lover in the fully restored Great House. Some claim Annie and her victims still walk its corridors.
Annie's first husband, the original owner of Rose Hall, was also her first known victim. Their bed, a plantation rice bed, is surprisingly short and narrow for a marriage bed, reflecting the smaller size of the human frame in the eighteenth century. Raised high, it requires a step stool. Clothed in linens of white, its mahogany frame is quietly elegant, waiting for her touch, for another night of passion and slaughter. Its macabre aura is irresistible as I stand there, wondering at my morbid fascination: What was it like to be Annie Palmer?
Montego Bay is a lush Caribbean paradise. Rose Hall plantation extended thousands of acres, from the turquoise sea below, high into the green hills above. The Great House faces the sea; its windows placed to catch the cooling tropical breeze; its thick stone walls strong enough to withstand hurricanes. Rising three stories, it is a monument to power and luxury. Every wall is white; every piece of wood is mahogany from Rose Hall's own forest: the floors, the library shelves, the dining room table. The chandeliers are fine crystal, their golden chains wrapped in velvet to protect them from the salty sea air.
To Annie Palmer, it might have felt like purgatory. Isolated in a foreign country, far from town, she might have longed for Parisian cafe society, wished for another woman to share confidences. According to the customs of the time, her fate was tied to the generosity of her husband. Was he cruel? No one cared. Did he beat her, rape her, ignore her? There was no remedy other than death.
She favored the knife, plunging its steely blade into soft flesh, alone in the bedchamber. Only after the grisly deed was done did she seek help--ordering her slaves to dispose of the bloody remains. Eighteenth century Jamaica was a lawless place. Pirates freely roamed the Caribbean waters, stopping to share their booty with local whores while celebrating their latest conquests during rum soaked revels. Life was harsh, death frequent and taken for granted. The disappearance of Annie's husband did not raise enough eyebrows to result in arrest.
Women alone were easy prey. Annie knew this, carefully cultivating a powerful image of ruthlessness and magic powers. Her ebony slaves brought their culture--including voodoo--with them as they emerged, chained and subdued, from the holds of the slave ships which arrived on a regular basis. The auction houses, now converted to other uses, still stand in Montego Bay. Annie would have been among the crowds, jostling for a better look, bidding for the healthiest, the finest, the best looking captives. She would have transported them via wagon or shuffling behind her carriage, back to Rose Hall, to work the fields of cane or clean her home. Once purchased, they left one of two ways--through death or sale--according to her whims. Those who knew voodoo would have been eager to share their mastery with their curious mistress. As long as she depended upon their knowledge, their lives would be easier, safer, longer.
Her prowess in voodoo and other magical arts earned her the nickname of "The White Witch of Jamaica." As such, she was feared not only by her slaves, but by her compatriots. She wasn't a woman alone, but a power to be reckoned with. As long as her murderous urges were confined to her own domain, no one intervened.
Her list of victims continued to grow, including two more husbands. Why were they enchanted by her wiles? Were they strangers, unaware of her ghastly reputation? Did they indulge in the male fantasy of domination and thus survival? Whatever their motivation, they too ended up in unmarked graves, dying by knife stroke, perhaps dying from the very same knife. Would she have kept it for sentimental reasons, or would she have buried it, selecting a new weapon for each victim? Serial killers tend to keep trophies of each kill. History does not record what her trophies were, other than added wealth, fresh land, more slaves, greater power. Perhaps those are the only trophies she would need.
As I strolled through the Great House, I wondered at each object. Was that chair a favorite of one of her husbands? Were those books last read by one of her paramours? Did she keep their clothes, their watches, their shaving gear? What was it like to caress their belongings, knowing she killed to possess them? Annie didn't tell me, remaining silent across the ages.
Looking down from her balcony, into the empty courtyard below, I could feel the fear rising from centuries ago. I could feel her power, magnified by standing so far above her slaves, could almost see their upturned faces as they waited to hear what the day would bring: an order to work in the fields or a sexual dance with death? These men weren't lured by her charms but were hostages without choices. A refusal meant doom. An acceptance meant destruction. They could not have left riches behind as a trophy. They were her possessions, possibly purchased to be killed, her personal wealth lavish enough to allow this careless disposal of a valuable asset. Their fate was the ultimate expression of the power all serial killers seek.
The last of her lovers was one of these, a young slave engaged to the daughter of her overseer. This black was the most powerful man on the plantation. He hadn't protested her other selections, fearing his own death. He was offended by her current choice. Annie didn't care, bringing the young African to her bedroom, dallying with him for a while before becoming bored, then slaying him. Outraged at their helplessness and his daughter's grief, the overseer could stand no more. He entered the house, a forbidden act, sacrificing his own life and earning a place in history by executing the most powerful woman in Jamaica: Annie Palmer.
Rose Hall's Great House is now a historic park, open to the public, with regular tours and a gift shop located in the infamous dungeons beneath. Fully restored, its furniture and artifacts have an interesting tale to tell, reflecting the needs and customs of the 1700s, a time of lawlessness, slave traders, and piracy.
The slave houses remain, forlorn reminders of a faraway time. Their inhabitants live off the land, with vegetable gardens fenced to keep out the milk goats. The sea provides conch and other delicacies. A variety of trees produce sweet fruits. The native people who dwell here are poor, offering guided tours, posing for photos, hoping for tips. A walking tour of the grounds reveals the remains of the plantation's ancient overhead aqueduct and the slave cemetery, fenced by stone and surrounded by a championship golf course, part of the former plantation land which is now dominated by a hotel.
On the outskirts of the hotel are rickety shacks, where the descendants of slaves sell their wares, sometimes retrieved in deep sea dives, sometimes magnificently carved in mahogany. They make their living catering to tourists, offering rides in glass bottom boats, leading diving expeditions, selling pearl and coral jewelry. I spent the week with them, despite warnings of hotel staff and whispers of violence, thievery and marijuana usage, encouraged by their religion. Indeed, many of their artistic creations contain Rastafarian symbols.
The poverty of the indigenous people is a stark contrast to the luxury of the hotels. They considered me a rich lady, despite my protests. The children beg quarters, as they do in many poor nations, but in Jamaica it is a crime for a native to possess American money. I was expected to convert my money to the colorful Jamaican dollars upon arrival and to convert them back before departure. Taking Jamaican money out of the country is also a crime.
The conversion rate was seven Jamaican dollars, plus change, to one American dollar. When exchanging money at the airport, I gave even dollars and received even dollars, multiplied by seven. The bank also returned even dollars, which signaled a nationwide custom of ignoring the current rate which shortchanges the traveler by almost a full American dollar. Intrigued, I played with the figures, computing exact change to legitimately receive Jamaican money in even dollars. When I dropped my coins onto the hotel counter, the clerks were surprised. They had never computed coins before but took it in stride, laughing as I explained. They handed over the correct dollars with a smile while repeating the Jamaican slogan, "No problem."
The smallest of American coins are valuable in Jamaica because of the gap between the two currencies. Vendors expect to barter their wares. They start high but quickly cave in to lower prices, grinning all the while. Even the most elegant art and hand crafted goods are cheap compared to US standards.
My last morning was spent sitting upon the dock on the hotel grounds. One of the Rastafarian vendors joined me, sneaking past the armed guards and Dobermans which lurk at the hotel's boundaries. I was capturing the sunrise on film. He was trying to sell me the pearl necklace I'd been admiring. Amid the bargaining, he informed me he was attracted to women like me, gesturing to indicate age and weight. He obviously thought flattery would loosen my wallet. It amused me as much as the threat of marijuana inspired violence which seemed to impress the other hotel guests. I already knew the price I would pay. I spread the Jamaican dollars between us, stating it was all I had left. He grimaced, feigning high costs and financial loss, but the necklace replaced the rainbow currency. We both left, smiling over our bootlegged treasure. I knew he would not remember me, but I will never forget him. He is part of the rich legacy which made this adventure so fascinating.
Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:
"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.
When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."
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