Wednesday, 20 April 2016

#11 George Holland Sheaf - Jamaica George and the Lost Children.

My 2x great grandfather George Holland Sheaf was born in 1817, a son of William Harbidge Sheaf and Mary Tomes Holland. He was the third born of their eleven children and was baptised in Bidford on Avon on the 15th Jan 1818. The family were farmers living in the hamlet of Bickmarsh near Bidford on Avon and by the time of the 1841 census, Mary and her two eldest sons Thomas and George were farming the property and providing for all the younger children; William Harbidge Sheaf having died suddenly in 1837.

Sometime in the next few years, George left his home and family in England and set sail for the colony of Jamaica. I have no record of exactly when he departed England or arrived in Jamaica but by 1847 he is recorded as being a "planter" there. As a young man of limited means, there is no evidence that George owned any land and most probably would have been employed as a manager on either a sugar or tobacco plantation.

At about this time George married a young English woman whose family were also on the island seeking to make their fortune. Cornelia Martha Briggs was born in Hackney but her mother Deborah Heath Moore was from a family that had long been settled in Jamaica and did own significant amounts of land and many slaves. I have never been able to locate a record of their marriage but it is generally assumed they married in Jamaica rather than in England. The were living at Kings Pen in the county of Westmoreland and George was now a "pen keeper". Pens were livestock properties rather than horticultural ventures and so the main activity would have been raising cattle. Kings Pen was under the ownership of George's mother-in-law Deborah Heath Briggs and it seems he was employed by the family company as a manager.

In an 1837 claim for compensation it is recorded that Kings Pen had 71 slaves with a value of  £1332. Slavery had finally been abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833, but in the way of all big social changes it took some time for this to filter through to the business practices of Jamaican agriculture. Cynically, I will also say that those who stood to lose the most quickly found a 'work around' by negotiating a settlement that established a system of apprenticeship, tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms. It also granted £20 million in compensation, to be paid by British taxpayers to the former slave-owners.

In 1849 the first of George and Cornelia's children, Mary Moore Sheaf, was baptised at Westmoreland. Four more children followed in relatively quick succession: William Robert Sheaf in 1851, Minna Cornelia Sheaf in 1853, George Kemble Holland Sheaf in 1857 and Charlotte Elizabeth Ann Sheaf in 1859. Then in 1863 my great grandmother and the last of their children Louisa Althea Sheaf was born.

Just what happened next is still something of a mystery, despite the best efforts of several different researchers. We know that in October 1865 George's wife Cornelia Martha died. She was buried on the 29th October at Westmoreland. This was a time of great political and social turmoil in Jamaica which resulted in an uprising fuelled by the widespread poverty in Jamaica which had been exacerbated by extremes of weather and outbreaks of disease and I wonder if she succumbed to one of the many epidemics of something like cholera or smallpox.

Our last record of George Holland Sheaf is also in 1865 as a signatory to an open letter to the Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre (yes - the same one who did exploring in Australia!) to support his actions in putting down the uprising and punishing those involved. 

The letter starts: May it please your Excellency, 
We, the undersigned Inhabitants of the parish of Westmoreland, beg respectfully to express to your Excellency, the satisfaction we feel from the continuance of peace and tranquility generally throughout the colony, during a period in 
which we had reason to fear, from discoveries made in the recent lamentable insurrection in St. Thomas ye East, that a great and general danger, was to be apprehended. 

We are happy to assure your Excellency, that in this part of the island, a loyal and peaceable feeling seems now generally to prevail, and that the labouring population are willingly engaged in their usual avocations ; and we are of opinion, that this result has been largely promoted by the judicious measures taken by your Excellency's Government, for the preservation of peace, during a time of great excitement and alarm. 

The letter continues for several more paragraphs in a similar vein -very much stating a case of "nothing to see here!"

Moving from the big picture back down to the more personal aspects of these events, we just don't know what happened to George Holland Sheaf after the uprising. The family tale is that during a bad hurricane or as a result of the hurricane George rode on horseback with the youngest child Louisa (my great grandmother) and took her to a place of greater safety and then he died or was killed in an accident soon after. The fate of all the other young Sheaf children is also a mystery but seems to suggest that they too died at about that same time. Other than their baptism records and a handwritten slip of paper with their names and birth dates found in my great grandmothers purse they have disappeared from the records too.

I find it sad and a little disconcerting that events which are not so far back in our family history are so shrouded in uncertainty and I live in hope that one day I will discover a little more.

1 comment:

  1. Wish Thea were here to continue the hunt which she began all those years ago