A Year in Jamaica

Diana Lewes


A Year in Jamaica

Diana Lewes


A Year in Jamaica is a complex memoir telling the story of two simultaneous journeys: Diana Lewes’s 1889 trip from England to visit her family’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean and the internal rite of passage of a Victorian girl on her journey to adulthood. For it is in Jamaica that Miss Lewes tries to find a place for herself in the mysterious adult world, to understand its coded rules and hidden passions. Set primarily on a plantation called Arcadia, overlooking the sea and a distant Cuba from on high, Miss Lewes alternates between the acceptable pursuits of a Victorian gentlewoman - sewing, social visits, riding – and trying to find a more meaningful role for herself in this man’s world. We see this intelligent and competent young woman appraising the society around her and struggling with its contradictions. Quite how complex those contradictions were is only finally revealed in the publisher’s afterword.

With a personal and illuminating foreword from Nicholas Noble, the great-nephew of Diana Lewes and a revealing afterword from the publisher.

‘... superbly written, takes you to the dark heart of a sugarland and its people.’ - Ian Thomson
Add to Basket

A Year in Jamaica: Memoirs of a girl in Arcadia
ISBN: 978-1906011-83-3
Format: 224pp hardback
Price: £16.99
Place: Jamaica


I FIRST READ my great-aunt Diana Lewes’s memoirs of her stay in Jamaica in 1889 in my early twenties and and was captivated by them. I always dreamed of seeing them published and finally, about forty years later, here they are. Her memoirs capture a moment in the complex social history of Jamaica in the late 1800s observed by an innocent eye. They raise and discuss difficult subjects such as sex and race without harm precisely because of this innocence. Like a colonial version of a heroine in Jane Austen, we hear this teenage Victorian trying to make sense of the complicated world the grown-ups have constructed around her, and with her we too feel the exhilaration and freedom that Jamaica offered to a girl brought up in England. Alongside her, we also try to fathom the darker currents that run through the story. I believe that these memoirs will resonate with anyone who, like me, has spent their childhood in Jamaica or indeed anyone else who has fallen under the island’s spell. Although she returns to England, Diana took with her from Jamaica something which remained with her for the rest of her life.

Diana’s family involvement in Jamaica began when her grandfather, William Sewell, emigrated there shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1833. Many estate owners at that time thought that sugar plantations would be uneconomic without slave labour. For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose father owned land in Jamaica, wrote on 27 May 1833 that ‘the West Indies are irreparably ruined if the bill [ie the Act for the Abolition of Slavery] passes’. In this environment, William Sewell and his partner, Simon Thomson, bought many estates at knockdown prices. A number of these were estates previously owned by the Barrett family, including Oxford, which features prominently in this book. Simon went on to marry William’s daughter, Lizzie. When he died childless, William inherited the share of the estates which he did not already own, making him a very wealthy man. Before he died in 1872, he realised that his son, Henry Sewell, was a spendthrift and left his estates in trust for his grandchildren (Diana and her siblings) with Henry as trustee. Henry’s extravagance, and his ambiguous alliance with 

his attorney, Herr Bauer, make up one of the many intriguing strands in these memoirs.

The family connection with Jamaica continued into the 1960s and ’70s, when all the estates were finally sold. My mother, who knew Arcadia in the 1950s and ’60s writes:

There was a magic about Arcadia. It was a gem in a beautiful situation on a high ridge overlooking the sea with the approach though handsome gates and an avenue of royal palms. It was a striking entrance. The house was square with walls made of cut stone and the beautiful verandahs had wrought-iron balustrades. The peacocks always reigned supreme in the gardens and common around the house with their magnificent tails either trailing after them or erected. But their early morning calls were very raucous.

Diana’s niece (Beattie’s daughter), Isabel Whitney, wrote of her visit in 1930:

Jamaica was always at the back of my brother’s and my consciousness growing up, another world, yet always part of our family. Perhaps it was talked about, I don’t remember. Some knowledge of our family connections must have seeped into our minds, children seem to be expected to know all the details relating to their forebears, but of course they don’t because people never tell them anything that makes connections, only isolated stories, and their parents’ conversations are references to events long past.

The year 1930 was not only my first visit to Jamaica, it was also a visit to the past, to the turn of the century when my grandmother’s rule had put a stamp on the house I was about to enter and live in for two months.

I crossed the threshold of Arcadia and found myself in 1903, the year my mother had left her Jamaican home for a different life. There is a poem by the French poet, Paul Verlaine, that expresses the feeling I experienced. A rough translation of it reads:

Having pushed open the narrow, creaking door,

I found myself walking in the little garden …

Nothing had changed.

I saw everything as it once had been.

On the ground floor I passed through the rooms that had once been the home of my great-grandparents, William and Mary, in the 1860s. William’s good management and frugality had brought prosperity to his estates and he had made of Arcadia (built in 1832) a comfortable, though fairly modest, Jamaican home. The original Arcadia had been built a little further to the east along the ridge that ran 800 feet above sea level and looked down on cane fields and, beyond them, the blue Caribbean. This was the Arcadia where Lady Nugent stayed, as recorded in her diary, and quoted on page 16. [Lady Nugent was the wife of General Sir George Nugent, who was Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica from 27 July 1801 to 20 February 1806. She stayed at the original Arcadia on a tour of Jamaica with her husband on 31 March and 1 April 1802.]

Isabel would probably have been welcomed on the front steps of Arcadia by her Uncle Philip, with his pipe and dog, looking much as he does in the photograph facing page 217. For now, however, it is his sister who introduces us to their Jamaican world in 1889.

Nicholas Noble 2013