When slave society in Jamaica became unstable through protest and economical decline in the early nineteenth century, the dissolution of the mechanisms of coercion and control gave way to a period of social readjustment. That period is characterised by a re-stratification of society into a new order. This new order was slightly more complex than white master vs. black slave, partly because of the introduction of new peoples from Asia and partly because of the formation of a substantial black middle class. Nevertheless the old oppositions remained powerful. The extraordinary distortion whereby all white men were visibly wealthy, reinforced a simplified image of the world. Racial segregation continued; the architecture, the language and the cultural institutions as well as the urban pattern were its material signs. The socio-geographic enclaves defining the neighbourhoods of Kingston speak clearly of this segregation. But the most interesting urban events are naturally those where such an established order was tested. Devon House is one such event.
Devon House was built during the 1880’s by George Stiebel on millionaire’s corner on the outer periphery of late nineteenth century Kingston along the main artery leading into Kingston proper. George Stiebel, who had made his fortune digging for gold in Venezuela, was Jamaica’s first Black millionaire. Devon House is a manifesto of his equivalence with the best. In building the Palladian Mansion with its elegant concern for tropical comfort, George Stiebel did not set up his own icons of social success but instead competed on the established European norms of social display, significantly inverting some of them. He travelled Europe with a retinue of white servants. The act of encroachment was so brazen, so threatening to the establishment, that the Governor Generals’ Wife, Lady Musgrave reputedly took matters in her own hand. She had a road built on axis with the approach to King’s House, the governor general’s residence further up the road, thereby creating a link to an alternative approach to the city whereby she could avoid the odious confrontation with this bumptious upstart of the wrong colour who was so violently invading her social territory. The road, to emphasise the complexity of historical development, is still called Lady Musgrave Road, and is very pleasant.