Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean).

He could have gone to pot but instead went to Oxford where he became a disciple of George Canning.  Being in possession of a great fortune and in want of an occupation, and much under the sway of Canning, he stood for Parliament at his first opportunity, and gained a seat in Heytesbury (Wiltshire) 1793. Later seats would be Seaford and East Grinstead.

He seems to have been something of an object of bemusement to the aristos of England. On the occasion of his 1798 marriage Elizabeth Cathing, only daughter of John Augustus, Lord Hervey, and grand daughter of Frederick, Earl of Briston and Bishop of Derry,  Elizabeth Lady Holland wrote:

“It is a bold undertaking in C. Ellis to marry a Hervey, for they still keep up their strangeness of character that made a celebrated wit class mankind under the generic appellation of men, women, and Herveys.”


No word that it was particularly bad marriage.  He later attracted the notice of Charles Greville, he of the memoirs, on the occasion of his elevation at the hand of his old mentor:

“The elections have been particularly violent and the contests very numerous. A batch of Peers has been made, and everybody cries out against Charles Ellis’s peerage (Lord Seaford) ; he has no property and is of no family, and his son [Charles Augustus, Lord Howard de Walden] is already a Peer.  The King, when these other Peers were created, asked Caning to named somebody. He said he had nobody about whom he was interested but Charles Ellis, and the King consenting to his elevation, it was all arranged without his knowledge.  However, it is thought very ridiculous, and that he would have done much better to have declined it.”

Well, that’s asking a bit much of human nature, particularly a fairly run of the mill human nature.  Unknowable how Ellis took such slights, if indeed he was even aware of them.

His political career has little of note, but it did coincide with a crucial period for the great sugar barons of the British Caribbean.  The anti-slave forces were on the rise, and the question of what if anything was to be done about naturally arose.  In 1823, he himself was chairman of Parliament’s West India subcommittee on the amelioration of slavery.

What could one say? The system was morally outrageous, of course,  but what could be done?  After all, if one made it illegal, it could not be properly regulated.  And what of the best for the slaves themselves? Just lifting the shackles on a peoples unused to freedom would be a cruelty.  He petitioned the King to “adopt measures for promoting the moral and religious improvement of the Negroes in the West Indies, and for securing to them their rights by the proper administration of justice”.   To his credit, he himself did get some churchmen to the island for this purpose.

But the whole thing was coming to a head. Britain passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and backed it up with the West African Squadron, whose mandate was to seize and punish slaving ships.  The slave insurrection of 1831 did great damage to Ellis’ own plantation, Montpelier, and cut the estate’s  income by half.  In 1833,  the Slavery Abolition Act put paid to (nearly) all slavery in the British Empire.   A remarkable piece of moral progress in millennia of bondage.

A morale triumph, but one with consequences for the likes of Ellis.  Abolition,  along with Jamaica’s perceived declining population and a continuing need of farm labor.  Fortunately,  Germany of the early 19th century was experiencing a bad patch and plenty of locals were more than willing to try their luck in alien lands.  North America, of course, but also  South America, Africa, Oceania, and, at the invitation of Lord Seaford,  Jamaica, in the town of Seaford Town, created especially for them.

It didn’t work out all that well.  The work itself might have been tolerable, but for those unused tot eh climate, disease and debilitation and even death came all too quickly.  They had their little slice of paradise courtesy of Ellis, but it was not the dream either they or he had hoped it might be.  Sic transit.

Ellis died in 1845,  his memory not much less evanescent as the German servants he endentured at Seaford Town.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *