Rose hall

The architectural setting for the Jamaican Great house and the way of living it encompassed speaks volumes. Industry was deemed efficient because human hands were so cheap (they still are). The plantation was a complex creation ensuring production by enforcing quasi geometrical relationships and a systemaitc approach to it. All of it powered by human bondage. The great House has a luxurient relationship to the landscape, but does not neglect its duties to exercsie its lordship of the eye, planted atop or against a slope, visible and all-seeing.


Is it important to preserve the historical fabric of Jamaica’s colonial past?


Auschwitz. The most detailed description of this most harrowing monument of the Holocaust was written by a young Jew, Robert-Jan van Pelt. It is an astonishing piece of scholarship. He describes the cold efficiency of the planning, the functional needs of a building-complex whose sole purpose was to kill with the aid of the latest technology. He lists the enormous requirements for, among other things, barbed wire to contain the endless stream of arrivals, he describes the “mistake” the Bauhaus designers made in designing the doors to the gas-chambers to open inwards. As the victims realised that what appeared to be innocent shower-heads were in fact gas outlets, they would rush towards the doors to escape. There they died, making it next to impossible for the soldiers to open the doors so as to let other Jews clear out the lifeless bodies. They had to change the doors to open outwards, so that the macabre cargo would spill out.

            Slavery was a holocaust. The word holocaust means a complete sacrifice, a great slaughter. It was insidious and awful. Slavery has, of course, always been with us and survives even now in pockets of the world. What made Caribbean slavery so awful was the same mentality that lay at the basis of the Industrial revolution. In fact, slaves in the Caribbean, and most particularly in Jamaica, were the human building blocks of the industrial revolution. Why do we call the industrial revolution a revolution? Because it was revolutionary in its functional analysis of the production process. Everything was reduced to linear and circular motion, everything was reduced to simple tasks to pursue a narrow usefulness which thought only of the end-product. That reduction allowed machines to do things that previously had needed human hands while at the same time it made men into machines. Being a slave was a fate worse than death. Being ripped from his home and soil the Caribbean slave was dead while he was alive.

            The temptation is to forget. In Europe that forgetting has been rather too successful. There are so few traces of slavery in Europe. Europeans would have to come to Jamaica to even begin to sense the impact of slavery. Even so, every tragedy inevitably becomes the assembly point for greatness. It took the Caribbean, it took a Haiti and a Jamaica to begin to put an end to slavery world-wide. That is one of the greatest triumphs of modern history and one of the great monuments to the Caribbean. The demand for reparation has turned into a quixotic battle. The lines have become too blurred and arbitrary over time. Far more important is to ensure that such a thing never happens again. For this reason it becomes important to remember and describe in great detail the fabric of a society that allowed such things to happen. One could argue therefore that the preservation of Jamaica’s colonial past is of global importance.

            But that is where a problem begins to manifest itself. Take Rose Hall in St. James. It was built between 1770-1780, at the height of the transatlantic sugar trade. It is a beautiful exercise in Early Palladian classicism. Set against the Hill, it is also a classic example of the haughty Great House with its “lordship of the eye” surveying the lands below while at the same time well removed from the noise and activity of the works. The main rectangular volume is set upon an arcaded and balustraded plinth dramatising the house’s setting by making it rise up. A double staircase leads to an arched central doorway flanked with columns supporting a vestigial but elegant entablature. This sets off the thin line marking the separation between the two main storeys, which are ever so slightly stepped in relation to each other. Note also the beautiful rhythm of the windows, whereby the central projecting pavilion crowds an uneven number of openings to emphasise the central entrance while the wings take on a more relaxed cadence.

            This is not the house of horrors we expect. If it is formidable, it is not an ugly building, even though it might have grown to be hated. The irony is that colonial architecture generally took good care of its occupants. How do we resolve this paradox? What does this tell us? It tells us two things. On the one hand it reminds us that wolves often come in sheep’s clothing and, on the other, that sheep are not to be held responsible for the activities of wolves. Therefore we could, in preserving, achieve that rare satisfaction of killing two birds with one stone. We preserve the memory of something unequivocally awful with the important lesson that things are not always what they seem, and at the same time, we can delight in the real architectural qualities of the monument.