Jamaican Gothic: The White Witch of Rosehall

James Ferguson on Herbert de Lisser’s still-popular historical potboiler The White Witch of Rosehall

Rose Hall Great House. Photograph courtesy Jamaica Tourist Board

It is nightfall at Rosehall Great House, a luxurious plantation house in Jamaica. Robert Rutherford, a handsome and educated young man of means just arrived from England, is standing on the verandah with Annie Palmer, beautiful young widow and owner of the plantation. Although they met only this morning, an overwhelming chemical attraction is drawing them closer together, even though she is Robert’s employer. Powerless to resist, they kiss. “Carry me upstairs in your arms,” pleads Annie: “I love to feel how strong you are. You can go with daybreak, Robert; not before. My darling, my dearest, how I love you!” Dawn, as they say, comes quickly.

You might be forgiven on this evidence for dismissing The White Witch of Rosehall as a Caribbean version of that most successful of genres, the historical romance, or, more vulgarly, the bodice-ripper. Certainly it carries many of the hallmarks of a Mills & Boon novel. Bosoms heave, manly arms are unfailingly strong, nothing remotely explicit happens after swooning ladies are carried upstairs. The novel also has that distinctive feature of successful romantic fiction: it sells (20,000 in a good year, apparently). It first appeared in 1929 and has been going strong ever since, even though its author Herbert de Lisser, editor of Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper for 40 years, died in 1944.

But there are other reasons for the enduring popularity of The White Witch of Rosehall. First, it both perpetuates and draws on one of Jamaica’s most colourful (and ludicrous) legends. This story tells how one Annie Palmer, beautiful and mysterious, married and then murdered three white husbands in succession. She also took as lovers countless black slaves, all of whom met a similar fate when the seemingly insatiable Mrs Palmer tired of them. Not unreasonably, people around the Rosehall Estate, in the region of Montego Bay, began to suspect Annie Palmer of evil and supernatural activities: in short, that she practised obeah or witchcraft. Fittingly, this rather alarming lady died at the hands of her own slaves when an uprising broke out on her plantation in 1831.

Unfortunately, none of the above had the slightest basis in truth, as subsequent researchers discovered. (The real Mrs Palmer was a model of virtue and died peacefully in her bed, aged 72.) But this did not deter the tourism industry from nurturing and elaborating the legend of the white witch, turning Rose Hall Great House (it is usually two words) into one of Jamaica’s most popular visitor attractions. Built in 1770, the house is certainly impressive, but duppies and other supernatural apparitions are sadly lacking.

The other reason for the novel’s success is that it is still enormously readable. True, it is not one of the Caribbean’s most subtle or cerebral works of fiction, nor does it entirely escape the charge of being a potboiler. But alongside its many obvious flaws, it contains much of interest and a vivid sense of time and place.

 

De Lisser sets the book in the early 1830s, a period of intense social conflict in Jamaica. Emancipation had not yet been decreed (this was to happen in 1834), but the slave trade had already been abolished. Jamaica’s slave community knew that freedom was imminent, and many believed that the slave-owners were deliberately withholding the announcement of emancipation that had come from London. As a result, uprisings, individual attacks and poisonings were a source of constant anxiety for the planters and their white employees, who lived in something like a state of siege.

It is into this paranoid and violent world that Rutherford arrives. His fellow white bookkeepers and overseers are either crudely brutal or simply terrified, seeking solace in cheap Jamaican rum. What had appeared to be a land of promise, of glorious sunshine, laughing people and beckoning adventure, turns out to be rather less attractive. Soon, the exotic becomes sinister and threatening. As the narrator remarks: “If [these tropics] did not become physically the white man’s grave, they formed for him as deadly a spiritual sepulcher. It was death anyway.”

Rutherford is immediately magnetised by the sensual and powerful figure of Annie Palmer, despite her fearsome reputation as a man-eater. But at the same time he is also physically and emotionally drawn to a young coloured girl, Millie, who wants, as is the norm, to be his “housekeeper” and to wrest him from Annie’s lethal grip.

Millie is no slave, but a free citizen, and here de Lisser points to one of the crucial social transformations within 19th-century Caribbean history: the rise of a mixed-race middle class to compete politically and economically with the old white landowners. In this case, this fight for supremacy is symbolically fought out between Millie and Annie. And it is the latter who wins because her obeah is more powerful than that worked by Millie’s grandfather, the African magic man Takoo.

In this supernatural struggle de Lisser explores his other main theme, the role of superstition and magic. Annie Palmer, we learn, came to Jamaica from Haiti, traditionally represented as the land of voodoo and witchcraft. Her powers are depicted as real enough; she manages to summon up a devilish three-legged horse, a grotesque bull and a blood-sucking hag, who literally terrifies her love rival Millie to death. But the author stops short at presenting these phenomena as “real”. Instead, he hints that Annie Palmer is somehow able to mesmerise her gullible slaves and enemies with imagined apparitions, that there is some sort of rational explanation for the terror she is able to spread at will.

All this makes for some truly Gothic scenes of mystery and horror. In the best tradition of the colonial adventure yarn, for instance, Rutherford secretly witnesses a voodoo ceremony complete with animal sacrifice and gyrating half-clad women. Annie’s well-deserved death is equally lurid, as Takoo strangles the white witch in revenge for his granddaughter’s death. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone survives this ghoulish yarn, and as Robert eventually boards a ship to return to England, sadder but wiser, he vows never to return to this accursed island.

Well, all this is hardly the sort of Jamaica that you’re likely nowadays to encounter around the tourist town of Montego Bay. In fact, you might say that the novel does for Jamaica’s image what Dracula does for Transylvania, but then nobody today is likely to take this sort of novel too literally. Instead, it should be read as a highly colourful historical romance, with a distinctly Gothic edge.

More than that, it reveals some of the anxieties of its own age. Written in the 1920s, when yet another wave of social conflict was imminent in colonial Jamaica, the novel’s obsession with impending violence, with superstition, with the end of the old order, is perhaps indicative of de Lisser’s fears for the future. Little did he know, however, that nearly eight decades later, people would still be buying and reading his book. Or that the white witch would continue to cast her spell over visitors to Rose Hall.