Rose Hall: Facts & Myths (text)

In today’s Jamaica, there are only 46 Great Houses still standing. These are silent symbolic reminders of a period in history when slavery was commonplace, the sugar cane plantation owners were wealthy beyond imagination, and Jamaica was one of the most important colonies of the British Empire.

Often built on top of hills and in Georgian style, the houses reflected the authority and opulence of the plantation owner.

Many will agree that the most imposing of all Jamaica’s great houses and the finest private residence of its time is the Rose Hall Great House. Indeed, it’s a sight to behold whether you are driving by or entering the estate.

Rose Hall’s story begins in 1716 with the purchase by Henry Fanning and his soon-to-be-wife, Rosa Kelly, of a 290-acre sugar cane plantation east of Montego Bay. Twenty years and three husbands later, the wealthy widow Rosa married the owner of the neighboring Palmyra estate, the Honorable John Palmer who also happened to be the St. James Parish “custos” (mayor.) It took him ten years — from 1770 to 1780 — and 30,000 pounds, a huge sum for that period, to build the house named Rose in honor of his wife.

Built on a hillside with two floors facing back to the hills of Jamaica’s North Coast and three floors facing out over the Caribbean, Rose Hall dominates the landscape for miles around.

Designed as a “calendar house” with 365 windows, 52 doors, and 12 bedrooms, the first two levels were made of stone while the third was timber-framed. The middle main floor has impressive large reception rooms that open out to an elegant portico and terrace running along the entire front façade of the house, with a broad double flight of stone steps leading down towards the magnificent gardens. Little was spared for the classical interior decoration with mahogany doors, window frames and wall panels, dado rails, and cornices, as well as a superb hand-carved staircase leading from the main floor to the third-floor bedrooms.

Rosa died in 1790, leaving all her property to John, who died seven years later, leaving Rose Hall and Palmyra to his sons. They later passed the 6,600-acre, 2,000-slave plantation to John’s great-nephew and namesake, John Rose Palmer, in 1817.

In 1820, John married the 17-year old beauty Annie Marie Paterson. He died 7 years later from yellow fever, giving rise to the famous legend and Jamaica’s best-loved piece of folklore, the tale of Annie Palmer, “the White Witch of Rose Hall.”

According to the myth, Annie Palmer was either an English or Irish native raised in Haiti where a priestess, probably a servant, introduced her to voodoo art and black magic. She was cruel, sadistic, and as told in many stories, ruthlessly disposed of her husbands and slave lovers. In 1831, Annie was murdered in her bed. Since then people believe, they have seen her haunting the corridors and bedrooms of the Great House.

Although the legend makes a great story and certainly attracts lots of visitors to the house, it is probably more fiction than fact. There was an Annie Palmer at Rose Hall but she had only one husband and died a respectful citizen in 1846. Rosa Palmer, the original owner of Rose Hall, did marry 4 times; however not only did she have an impeccable reputation and kept her last husband for 23 years, but it was him, in fact, who buried her in the Montego Bay churchyard.

After Annie’s death, Rose Hall changed hands many times before being abandoned.

In 1965 John W. Rollins, a millionaire and one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, bought the property and along with his wife began an extensive $2.5 million restoration project. They replaced the mahogany of the floors, interior windows, and doorways and added authentic colonial-style silk wallpaper lines to the walls as well as period chandeliers in the ceilings. The final touch was furnishing the rooms with fine 18th-century art and antiques.

Today, restored to its grandeur and glory, the Rose Hall Estate is one of the premier tourist destinations in the Caribbean, and the Great House is one of its main attractions.

To see more images of The Rose Hall Estate visit the gallery: Destination Jamaica