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TV doc shows slave owners ‘lived like Jay-Z and Beyonce'

WEALTH: Forced labour of slaves allowed owners to live in mansions like Greenwood Great House (pictured)

ON A trip to Jamaica in 2008, Croydon resident Barbara Kelly saw firsthand how the forced labour of black slaves helped to build the wealth of British aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

One remnant of the trade, Greenwood Great House, stood out against Jamaica’s green hills.

The house in Montego Bay, built in 1800 by the Barretts, a wealthy London family whose members was said to include poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, is now a museum for those who want to see how the sugar trade helped make British plantation masters rich while their slaves suffered.

Kelly, a special education needs teacher and filmmaker, was so moved by the significance of what she saw that she decided to make a documentary about it.

“I wanted to show the British public that black people actually contributed to the wealth of this country,” she said.

Quoting from British historian James Ferguson’s Traveller’s History of the Caribbean, Kelly said: “In 1720, the value of British trade including imports and exports (from sugar) was estimated at £13 million. By the 1800s, the figure had risen to £67 million. The role of Caribbean colonies in the trading boom was out of all proportion to their size.

“From 1773, for instance, imports from the Caribbean amounted to a quarter of total British imports. At the end of the day, slavery was all around sugar. It was enslaving them [black people], working them to provide sugar that was brought to this county. The money that they made from the sugar enabled them to live lavish lives in this country.”

With a film crew and the permission of the current owner, Kelly toured the 13-bedroom house, taking in the lavish furnishings, polished silverware, antique china and original paintings.

The house is also said to contain the largest plantation library in Jamaica, with up to 300 books dating back as early as 1697 and features early editions of classic novels written by English authors including Charles Dickens.


PASSION: Filmmaker Barbara Kelly believes it is important that the full story of the sugar trade is highlighted in schools.

Kelly is now campaigning to have the documentary, called House of Sugar, shown in UK schools. She has also created a 35-minute DVD of her film and a black history workbook with notes and activities for teachers so they can teach the subject to students aged 14 and over.

She explained: “It’s a good resource for teachers for an hour’s lesson. They actually watch the DVD. It stops at a particular time and then the children are asked questions and given activities to follow.”

Kelly herself was drawn to the subject of black history after growing up in a predominantly white area of Northampton where she recalled a feeling of “oppression”.

INTERVIEW

She stumbled across the Greenwood Great house museum after coming up with the idea to interview Jamaican returning resident Thomas “Bob” Betton, who had moved home after two decades living in Hackney, east London.

Betton had bought the home from a local family and wanted to turn it into a treasure trove of historical reminders of “the opulent lifestyles of planters in Jamaica.”

Kelly recalled: “We walked through the museum and Betton was able to explain every item he has; what year, what era and where it came from. He had things like beautiful antiques. The furniture was beautiful. The workmanship was perfect. What stunned me most were the Charles Dickens books.

“The opulence I saw was absolutely amazing. These people were living bigger than the Beckhams and Jay Z and Beyonce. They were living extremely extravagant lifestyles.

“Back in the 16th century, sugar was king. The money they were making by today’s equivalent was millions.”

Greenwood Great House is open to tourists year round but Kelly was also pleased to see it receives school children from the US and Jamaica on educational visits.

Kelly said it was important to teach children about the different cultures that helped shape Jamaica.

She added: “When you think about the history of Jamaica, it’s a very multi-cultural island in terms of the different nationalities we have there. It would be very interesting for children to understand.”

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