Image: Nevis from the sea.
Discovering Fanny’s Caribbean Island Home.
Knowing where someone started often gives a fascinating insight into their character. Therefore many years ago, I set off for Fanny’s birthplace: Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. The Museum there also has an excellent exhibition of the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Born on Nevis in 1757, the year before Fanny, he left when he was nine. (1)
Part of the ‘Elite’
By visiting the church where Fanny married Horatio, Montpelier, the plantation house where she lived as her uncle’s first lady and the Nisbet plantation where her first husband had lived, it was obvious her life was very different from the ladies living in rainy England.
Fanny’s mother was a “Herbert”, distant descendants of the Earls of Pembroke, sister to the President of the Island Council, the legislative body which together with other Leeward Island councils were responsible to Britain for passing and implementing colonial rule. As Fanny’s father was a lawyer who became the senior judge on the island, it is fair to say that she was part of an elite that ruled the island.
Life on Nevis
Nevis was regarded as a veritable gold mine, its fertile soils and balmy climate ideal for growing sugar cane which the planters processed into sugar and shipped off to England. The economy was supported by the labour of the slave population who had been taken to the island throughout the seventeenth century. However, thoughts of plantation families living in a Jane Austen-like society with a tropical twist, miss the harsh reality. Disease and sunstroke caused havoc among the European planters with Fanny’s mother dying when she was an infant, her father dying when she was in her late teens and her husband dying within two years of their marriage a few years later. Surviving the tragic loss of her family must have given Fanny a survival instinct – something she was going to need in the years ahead.
Using the flexibility of historical fiction, I am able to explore a little of the darker side of the island in my second novel currently under development. It is based on the adventures of Josiah, Nelson’s stepson and Fanny’s son by her first husband. He finds himself back on Nevis in unusual circumstances. Keeping his identify a secret, he can explore the island as a detached observer.
He examines its joys and the morally questionable aspects of island life – the enormous wealth of the successful planters built on the enslaved population. At the same time he encounters some unusual arguments by the people who live there – all of whom share a love for the island itself.
It is interesting that having become a titled and comparatively wealthy woman in England, Fanny did not set foot on Nevis again. This was the nature of the expatriate life: they dreamed of retiring to England once they had made enough money. As a result, Nevis’ enslaved population became the permanent inhabitants of the island. The slave trade was banned in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. As time went by, the former slaves became increasingly dominant in the affairs of the island, making it their own. Nevis did not have electricity island-wide until 1971, but an ambitious infrastructure development program in the 2000s has led to significant economic and educational improvements. The pass rate among the Nevisian students is now consistently among the highest in the English-speaking Caribbean. (2)
When I visited, there was no more sugar cane, that industry having been supplanted by tourism. Nevis is a little different from other islands. Its holiday makers are wealthy Americans and Europeans looking for a quiet place with a wonderful climate. Although we have no indication of where Fanny stood on the economics of her birthplace, I am sure she would have been delighted to see the progress, especially for the children.
Image: The lush Botanical Gardens in Nevis. Photo by Janna Graber
1. Nevis, The Caribbean’s Best-Kept Secret, By Janna Graber https://www.goworldtravel.com/nevis-caribbean-island-travel/
2. Brown, Janet (2000). "Early Childhood Investment in St. Kitts and Nevis: A Model for the Caribbean?". Caribbean Child Development Centre, School of Continuing Studies, UWI, Mona: "St. Kitts-Nevis has one of the highest levels of CXC passes in the region."