Carolyn Cooper | Servants' quarters for some visitors to Devon House – Jamaica Gleaner

Delusional Jamaicans do not like to acknowledge the fact that racial discrimination is a major problem in this country. They readily admit that class prejudice is an issue. If I had substituted ‘poor’ for ‘some’ in my headline, it wouldn’t have bothered them. They know that poor people are often excluded from many entertainment centres because they simply can’t afford the entrance fee. Or even the bus fare to get there!
If I had put ‘black’ instead of ‘some’, I would have been accused of racism. Highlighting the exclusion of black people from places of privilege would be seen as stirring up trouble. Drawing the race card! Shortsighted Jamaicans refuse to acknowledge the fact that class and race intersect in this society. The majority of poor people are black. And the majority of black people are poor. However you look at it, there’s no escaping this reality.
A relatively small number of black people are born to wealth. Others manage to step up in life out of poverty, largely through tertiary education. There are also illegal routes. Those who have travelled the furthest often have the shortest memory. They conveniently forget their origins. Some of us choose to remember our roots. Mine are on Norfolk Lane in Franklyn Town. The name of the lane has gone upmarket. It’s now Franklyn Avenue. What a poppyshow!
Last Wednesday, I sent an email to the marketing and events manager at Devon House: “I’m getting in touch to ask about the policy regarding public access to the grounds of Devon House. Which sites on the property are open to the public at no cost? I have been recently informed by visitors that the front lawn is reserved for patrons who have paid to take the tour of the house. Can you please confirm if this is so? And if it is, can you please let me know the rationale for the policy? I write a column for the Sunday Gleaner and I would like to be able to speak accurately about the policy. I do look forward your response.”
I followed up with a telephone call on Thursday. Up to the time of writing this column on Friday, I hadn’t got an answer. I checked the Devon House website but couldn’t find any information about access to the front lawn. I did discover that the tour costs US$15 for international adults and US$13 for children. For local adults, it’s $1,300 and for children, it’s J$1,100. For university; high school; and basic, prep and primary school students, it’s $900, J$750 and J$ 700, respectively. Who are the local children to be charged $1,100? Those who are homeschooled? If so, that’s not fair.
Let’s suppose a family of five locals wanted to tour the house – mother, father and three students, ranging from university to basic school. The cost would add up to $4,950. Bear in mind that the minimum wage is $9,000 per week! The cost of the 30-minute tour is more than half of that. How many poor black people can afford this? The tour is, in effect, off limits. Why couldn’t there be even one day per month when admission is free, as happens in many museums across the world?
The Government of Jamaica owns Devon House. The property is managed by the Devon House Development Company Ltd., located within the Ministry of Tourism. Does profit take precedence over public access?
Why does the tour of the house cost so much more than the entry fee to other museums? It costs $600 for local adults and $300 for children to visit the National Museum of Jamaica. The same goes for the Jamaica Music Museum.
The Devon House website announces that the mansion has “evolved from being home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, to being synonymous with fun, family entertainment and recreation in Kingston, where guests can tour, shop, dine and relax”. First of all, George Stiebel never black to dat. To claim him as ‘black’ is to deny the colour hierarchy in this society that distinguishes between black and brown Jamaicans.
According to Wikipedia, Stiebel’s parents were “Sigismund Stiebel (1790-1859), a Jew who emigrated from Germany and his housekeeper, a Jamaican of African descent.” Stiebel’s mother is not named and her dates of birth and death are not noted. These omissions clearly signify the low status of the generic black woman. Unlike Stiebel, his mother was black fi true. Both racially and socially!
Furthermore, Stiebel became a millionaire because, like so many Jamaicans, he left the island to seek his fortune. When he finished school at 14, he worked as a carpenter. In his twenties, Stiebel received a substantial inheritance from his father that enabled him to buy ships that carried goods between North and South America. He even engaged in highly profitable gun running, for which he was imprisoned in Cuba. I suppose Stiebel is a kind of role model for illegal wealth creation. It was the discovery of a gold mine in Venezuela that allowed him to become respectable.
Unlike George Stiebel, poor black Jamaicans must stay at the back of Devon House. They can’t afford to pay to walk on the front lawn. Presumably, the former servants’ quarters that have been converted into the courtyard shops are the natural place of poor black people, like Stiebel’s mother. And if his father hadn’t been rich, Stiebel might have remained a relatively poor carpenter. He would have been lucky to get a job in his trade at a grand home of wealthy Jamaicans. Like Devon House!

– Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com
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