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The Pennant Family History

Dubbed as one of North Wales most powerful families, the Pennants accumulated their vast wealth through their ownership of plantations in Jamaica in Clarendon and Westmoreland, for nearly 300 years beginning in the late 1650’s up until 1940. These dates are directly correlated with British colonisation of Jamaica in 1655 and Jamaican independence in 1962. The family came to own six sugar plantations and three livestock pens for rearing livestock. This wealth was used by the Pennant family to increase their land ownership in North Wales and to offset the development of the largest slate quarry in the world and the expansion of the Pennant fortune and their extensive political connections, as well as creating the large Penrhyn Castle, which they used for entertaining important guests during their stays there.

Early Foundations


Gifford Pennant, originally from Flintshire was a soldier in the invading British fleet sent to Jamaica by Oliver Cromwell in a ‘coup de etat’ that successfully seized control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1665. Shortly afterwards, the British monarch was reinstated. This prompted Pennant’s decision to settle in Jamaica; one that later resulted in him procuring great wealth, cementing him in history as the founder of the Pennant Sugar Dynasty.

As a settler, Pennant was granted land in the Jamaican parish of Clarendon on November 5, 1665, as a part of the Crown’s attempt to develop Jamaica. This signified the start of a series of acquisitions that contributed to the accumulation of the generational wealth inherited by the Pennant family and the stronghold of power they would come to possess which enabled them to become the centre of the British sugar industry. Additionally, in November 1669, William Marten assigned 360 acres in the parish to him. Following this acquisition, two months later, Pennant was granted three more parcels of land by the Crown bringing his landholdings to a total of nearly 1,500 acres for which in that same year he had added more than 2000 acres to. In his continual progression of acquiring land to expand his wealth, two years later in 1671, he acquired 1,500 acres near Lucea, Hanover.

 Not only gifted with a sharp acumen for business, Pennant ventured into politics on the island becoming a captain in the horse regiment based in Jamaica in 1670 and a member of the Assembly for Clarendon from 1672 to 1675.

 Focusing his entrepreneurial energy primarily on acquiring and turning his landholdings into profitable plantations, by the time of his death in 1676, he came to own one of the largest estates in the island-  eighteen to twenty times larger than the average land holdings and possessed 7,327 acres of land in the parishes of Clarendon and Westmoreland. With the majority of his planation’s located in Clarendon, the community of Pennants was named in honour of him.






















 The legacy begins








After the death of Gifford Pennant, the socio-political responsibilities of overlooking the plantations and assisting with governance in the parish through the Assembly for Clarendon were passed on to his son Edward Pennant (born in 1672). Possessing the same political prowess, business acumen and entrepreneurial drive, Edward became the chief justice of Jamaica in 1707, accumulated further landholdings in the island through Crown grants and personal purchases which he further developed into profitable plantations.

The properties owned and acquired by Pennant were known as:

The Denbigh Estate and plantation

The Cotes Estate and Plantation

The Bullards Estate and Plantation

The Main Savannah Estate and Plantation

 The 500 acres Kupuis plantation (acquired from the estate of a deceased child of Dutch descent).




Much of these estates were located close to the Rio Minho, Jamaica’s longest river.






Building on the legacy












John, the eldest son of Edward Pennant inherited 8,365 acres of plantations and pens upon his father’s death in 1736. Fortuitously, this amount of land was augmented by another 2000 acres of land in Lacovia and Black River (both in the parish of St. Elizabeth) through his judicious marriage to the Jamaican heiress Bonella Hodges, daughter of Joseph Hodges in 1734.  In the year 1754, John Pennant was listed in the Jamaican Quit Rent as the owner of 2956 acres of land in Clarendon and 2980 acres of land in Westmoreland.

With these acquisitions, the Pennant landholdings became the following:

Clarendon                                                           Westmoreland                        

Bullards Pen                                                King’s Valley Plantation

Coates Pens

Main Savannah Pen

Denbigh Plantation

Cave River

Kupois Plantation


Thomas River















The era of landowner absenteeism

In 1750, John and his wife Bonella became absentee landowners, an already common practice in the English speaking Caribbean, where many wealthy planters left the colonies to reside in Britain. Residing in the chic St. George, Hanover Square in London. Per the customs of this practice, the day to day operations and management of the estate was left in the hands of agents (other plantation owners who resided in the colonies). In 1775 the plantation agent wrote to John to share news of the productiveness of the Pennant plantations which had shipped 1,000 hogsheads.

To maintain this level of production, the Pennants bought 12 more slaves for their plantations in Denbigh and Kupois respectively, 10 for Bullards and 15 for Coates. From this position John held onto his Jamaican landholdings diligently and expanded his family’s business by holding several shares in a number of cargo ships securing a means of transport for the sugar and rum produced on his Jamaican plantations to Britain. Additionally, the wealth accumulated from the sale of Jamaican sugar was invested in the purchasing of land in North West Wales- half of what had been the medieval Penrhyn estates.


Further expansion of the legacy:









Dubbed the first baron of Penrhyn, North West Wales, Richard Pennant, the son of John Pennant and Bonella Hodges, in 1765, married heiress Anne Susannah Warbuton, the daughter of General Hugh Warbuton, acquiring the other half of the Pennant estate in Caernarvonshire and part ownership of a slate quarry in Bethesda near Bangor.


 Applying the profits from his family’s West Indian sugar plantations, his business acumen and entrepreneurial drive he turned the quarry into a mining enterprise becoming in that time the world’s largest slate mine, highly industrialized with its own tramway, galleries at different levels allowing 2000 men to eventually mine 100,000 tons a year and a seaport to transport slate for export. This allowed him to capitalize on the popularity of slate as an inexpensive material used in Britain for the production of writing tablets and blackboards.

In 1781, Richard took over his father’s correspondence after John suffered from a debilitating stroke which left him with severe memory loss and limited speech capabilities. Eventually succumbing to this disease a year later in 1782, Richard Pennant inherited his father’s estates, businesses and investments which had grown to include thousands of acres of farmlands in Wales and England.

Richard The Improver


Following the traditions of his father Richard Pennant controlled his Jamaican plantations by letters of instruction to the mangers of these estates, many of which can now be found in the archives of the university of Wales, Bangor. They provide considerably remarkable insight into planation life in the colonies and the business interests of Richard himself and the treatment of those enslaved on his plantations.

An enthusiastic propertier, in these letters Pennants constantly forwarded suggestions that would improve output and profitability.  Many of these were taken into consideration and as a result in 1804 the Pennant’s plantations became highly productive and profitable, exporting 606 hogsheads (a large barrel capable of holding 14 cwt/710 kg of sugar)) and 174 tierces (smaller barrels capable of holding 9 cwt/460 kg of sugars) to the U.K, which were sold for £7,035; today £526, 322.







In 1805, his estates grew exponentially with the number of enslaved people increasing to nearly a 1000 across all four plantations to meet the level of output desired by Pennant. The number of slaves on these plantations far surpassed the average number of slaves on any Jamaican plantation with an average of 250 slaves per planation compared to the Jamaican average of 150.








The largest slave population owned by Pennant was at the Denbigh Estate, their largest plantation which in the year of 1805, required at least twenty different occupations to keep it operating. These included 135 cane cutters, twenty- one carpenters, nine coopers and fourteen distillers. Supplementing the above mentioned labourers were three midwives who were used advantageously for the “breeding” of slaves, ensuring the futurity and maintenance of the plantation’s slave population. This method was additionally much cheaper than purchasing new slaves. From a letter written to Pennant one of his managers, in an additional attempt to bolster the slave population, he suggested the offering of bonuses

to midwives for every live birth.

























                                       Figure 11: Slave names and their price

In another letter addressing the conditions of slaves on the plantations and their attitudes to plantation life. Pennant describes these enslaved peoples as his ‘chattel’ possessions grouping both them and the cattle in the pens together under the same term- “I do not wish the cattle nor negros to be overworked.” The true intention of this statement is unclear with many scholars postulating whether it was said from a point of compassion for the slaves or to protect his possessions.


Other letters were concerned with the following:


  The management of the estates

   Influence of weather and terrain on sugar production

  The impact of the American revolution (war of independence) on the island

   Slave rebellions

  Matters associated with the import and export of goods and those concerning legislature and the movement of enslaved workers








A real Fixer- Upper

As a pro-slavery advocate, Pennant believed slavery was an acceptable form of labour, maintaining that slaves should be treated fairly. He encouraged apprenticeship in several trades, brought in ploughs to make fieldwork easier for the slaves, experimented with fertilizers to increase crop yields and installed steam engines to pump water for the plantations needs. In the same year, Richard oversaw the installation of tiles produced from slate (a cheap and durable product extracted in his quarry in North west Wales) in his Jamaican factories, with the manager of the King’s Valley estate requesting 70,000 slate tiles to reroof the boiler house.











The legacy intact







In the year 1816, the second son of George Henry Dawkins (who is the cousin of Richard Pennant) and the husband of Edward Pennant’s daughter Elizabeth Pennant, George Hay Dawkins, upon adding Pennant to his surname was willed the Jamaican and British estates of Richard Pennant after he had passed without leaving an heir.  




The nature of slavery on the plantations









Slaves were subjected to back-breaking, hard, manual labour for long gruelling hours under the hot sun, supervised by overseers or slave drivers who were quick to use the whip to punish slaves who failed to work hard enough. A customary labour day was one that consisted of shifts starting from dawn til dusk, lasting up to 18 hours six or seven days a week, only getting small periods of breaks at breakfast, lunch, dinner and on Sundays for worship. Work on the plantation was divided grouped and issued according to the gender, age, physical strength, colour and skills of the slaves. The enslaved population could either be those that were field, skilled or domestic slaves.


In the 19th century approximately 90% of slaves worked the plantation fields. Field slaves were often those who were wholly unskilled.

These field slaves were further divided into groups called gangs. The first gang or ‘Big Gang’ consisted of the strongest men and women in their late teens who did the heaviest work. After ten or twelve years of hard work within the fields these men and women were relegated to the second gang which worked hard but not as hard as the first gang. After perhaps twenty years in the second gang, a slave now in their 40’s or 50’s would be demoted to the third gang or ‘Pickney Gang’ (a group who made up 10% of the slave population), they would join the sick and infirmed, very young children, the elderly and invalids who were excused to seemingly lighter work. This work included the weeding of sugarcane, feeding the animals within the cattle pens.











Domestic Slaves



















Skilled Slaves






























Tasks for the cultivation and processing of sugarcane

Gang responsible for the task


Preparing the fields for planting- this was done in the early summer and included turning over the soil with hoes.


The first and second gangs.


Planting sugarcane- done in the late summer to early autumn using the cane holing process


The first gang


Manuring the planted sugarcane-  done with huge baskets of animal manure, containing at least 80 pounds of manure carried on their heads.


Mainly women from the first and second gang


Weeding the crop


The third gang


Harvesting sugarcane- done in February or March with billhooks (very sharp, curved knifes).

Cutting sugarcane


 Tying canes into bundles and loading them on wagons


The first and second gang




First Gang


Second Gang



Processing sugarcane:


Crushing sugarcane – done in mills powered by animals, wind or slaves. Sugarcane was crushed and juices collected in pans


Boiling sugarcane- done in the period of February to April in boiling houses. In this process the sugarcane juice was crystallized and then cured with lime juice. This was drained of any molasses which in turn was taken to the distillery to be distilled into rum. The semi refined sugar was sun dried, packaged and sent to Europe.












The highly skilled slaves with specialised skills in the first and second gang who were divided into two groups each working twelve hour shifts during the day and night

Ratooning old sugarcane roots from previous crops

The second gang

Resistance to work









In an attempt to get some sort of relief from their strenuous manual labour, some slaves practiced several passive and active resistance to working on the plantation.


Forms of active and passive resistance used by slaves to avoid working were:


Feigning illness

Breaking tools

Staging slowdowns

Committing acts of arson and sabotage

Pretending to be ignorant when asked to do tasks

Deliberate carelessness


Mimicking pains felt during menstruation

Taking long ‘bush’ breaks- going to the bathroom








Treatment of Slaves on Pennant Plantations










Not much is generally known about how Pennant family treated the slaves who worked on their plantations, except for the information obtained from the few letters written by Richard to his managers in the island. However, with their plantations being in Jamaica, a former British colony, we can draw parallels about the treatment of slaves from other stories on other plantations and in historical literature.



Laws of Control


It was well documented fact that slaves in the British colonies, particularly those in Jamaica were treated comparatively harsher than their counterparts in the French, Dutch, Danish or Spanish colonies. Although these slaves formed the bulk of the population, they were seen as insignificant and inferior, their relevance only depending on their usefulness to their European masters, (who made up a relatively smaller part of the population).

To these masters, their slaves, whether purchased or inherited were similar to chattels. They were private possessions and property which could be sold to settle debts or disposed of. Such an act was in accordance to the stringent legal codes of the English laws of inheritance of real estate and the security of property; more suitably referred to as Slave Codes, which kept them their positions of power and privilege.

A separate law was deemed necessary for the differentiation between masters and slaves as one group was seen as superior while the other was inferior. Being described as heathenish and brutish, slaves were unfit to be represented by the laws of English men and as such were to be governed as property and possessions under the aforementioned legal codes.


These punitive and coercive laws gave no consideration to existing or pre-existing family ties, the welfare of slaves and violated the rights of the slave women by subjecting them to rape and sexual abuse with many overworked and undernourished even during pregnancy. 


The scope of control that an owner exercised over his slaves increased, with such laws permitting flogging (a defining characteristic of plantation life), torture, maiming, mutilation, killing, physical and sexual abuse and the deprivation of their physical needs.  The varied offences for which a slave could be punished were constantly increasing with punishments becoming more severe and inhumane.


Consequently, these laws succeeded in the deprivation of even the smallest, most inconsequential freedoms and liberties afforded to slaves. They served not only as a means of differentiation but stated what slaves were prohibited to do. Slaves were prohibited from making unauthorised movements, congregating in large numbers, owning weapons or other possessions besides those given to them by their masters, practicing secret rituals or any religion separate from Christianity.


Many of the slaves, in an attempt to acquire some amount of freedom often stole food and other necessities from their masters or became runways to avoid the back- breaking labour required of them on the plantations. In a response to this they were brought to special slave trials were the courts dispensed summary justice, allowing them to be severely punished by their masters. Other offences committed by slaves such as failing to work hard enough or disrespecting their masters warranted the same punishments.

Such punishments included:

Public whippings or floggings which could either be accompanied by mutilation or the performance of disgusting acts.


Public hangings




Some slaves were hung until they were near death, resuscitated and then disembowelled and cut into pieces


Being burned alive. This was legalised in Jamaica in the 1740’s as suitable punishment for slaves who struck their masters



Ruled by brutality and sadism, these punishments were designed to prolong the agony of the offender, serving more for humiliating the slave who committed the offence and as a deterrence for similar behaviours and infringements.










Physical Conditions of slaves


Diet and Nutrition








Slaves were fed on a monotonous diet mainly consisting of rations of slated mackerel or herring, maize and West Indian turtles given to them weekly by plantation workers. The average ration allocated by the slaves amounted to 1500 to 2000 calories with 45 grams of protein daily. This was severely lacking as men under normal conditions require roughly 3200 calories while women require 2300 calories daily.  Under the strenuous conditions of plantation life both male and female needed an additional 450 to 500 calories.

In an effort to increase their nutrient profiles slaves additionally consumed wild animals such as grasshoppers, locusts or cane rats which they wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over fire pits.

The slaves additionally consumed grain vegetables (popularly known as cash crops in Jamaica) self-cultivated in small garden plots or provision grounds given to them by plantation owners to supplement the meagre rations given to them. These provision grounds were usually stony, mountainous marginal lands with poor soil quality where slaves cultivated peanuts, yams, sweet potatoes, cassava and plantain.

These crops were not only used for their own sustenance but were additionally sold or exchanged in local markets popularly on Saturdays, along with livestock reared in cattle pens. This helped to supplement the meagre rations given to them by the planters with the average allowance amounting.


Even with these provisions and the eating of wild animals, slaves were still malnourished, underfed and had several nutritional deficiencies in protein, calcium, thiamine, iron and Vitamin A, many causing beri-beri and night blindness were due to inadequate rations, overworking and poor harvests. This contributed significantly to slave morbidity and mortality rates.


Deficiencies in these nutrients and vitamins and the inadequacy of the diets consumed affected the physiology of female slaves more severely more than their male counterparts. Such an inadequate diet had many negative physiological effects on slave women who were not only expected to work in the fields or man the great houses but also replenish the slave population. In this eventuality women required:

Three more times iron, given the monthly passing of their menses.


Significantly higher protein and calcium than men, who historically were given the most protein with meals in which they were served


30 to 50 percent more thiamine is required for lactation and breastfeeding. A deficiency in thiamine meant that the B vitamins riboflavin and niacin would not be utilized.  It was a popular custom for slave women to engage in dirt eating, consuming baked clayey cakes called ‘aboo’ as a natural response to nutritional deficiency in thiamine, for which the eating of dirt is incredibly beneficial.




In the region at that time were numerous infectious diseases for which there existed no known cure or protection against. Many of these diseases afflicted the slave population in Jamaica contributing greatly to morbidity and mortality rates and devastating effects on pregnancies.

Syphilis, Yaws, Elephantiasis were among those diseases responsible for numerous deaths, miscarriages and stillbirths.


Others such as Yellow Fever, Dengue, Smallpox and Measles frequently added to the mortality rate being the infectious epidemics they were.


Diseases spread by the unsanitary conditions in which slaves were kept, referred to ‘Negro Diseases’ such as dysentery, flux (diarrhoeal) were major killers of slaves overworked and weakened by malnourishment. 


Slaves sometimes caught the common cold and fevers from wearing wet clothes in fields.


Cuts and scrapes received from working in the fields, floggings and walking barefooted contributed to the morbidity as they could turn into septic sores and gangrene. The lack of shoes allowed chigoes and hookworms to enter into the body through open wounds causing Elephantiasis and the depletion of the slaves’ nutrition.










Slave quarters were allotted by the planters for the lodging of slaves on the plantations. These structures were erected on the plantation some distance away from the Great House. The structural integrity of the huts was dependent on wooden posts rooted in the ground, these posts was erected to hold up the roofs and sides of the huts which were thickly thatched with cane trash. Furnishing was sparse and crude with slaves displaying the few items they were allowed to have. Among these were a small table, two or three low stools, earthen jars for holding water and calabashes of several sizes suitably used as plates, dishes and bowls, there was no bed and as result slaves would lay on the ground.












Slaves were annually issued clothing by their masters suitable and practical for the plantation work. These were of inferior quality often being made from calico, osnaburg or pennystone. Clothes were designed to cover the bodies of slaves to reduce the risks of diseases. They functioned as a mode of differentiation between slaves and their owners, emphasizing the superiority of the masters. These clothes were mass produced and made from unrefined, course material, were drab, lacked style and bore no individuality.

They were distributed according to the rank and status of slaves with men getting more clothing than women who in these eventualities resorted to wearing of loin clothes or performing sexual favours for white men for extra clothing.

In times where the masters wanted to reduce the overhead costs of maintaining slaves, they passed down to them their worn out and ill-fitting clothes or distributed to them raw materials needed to make their own clothes.


Plantation Dress code


Women: women wore loose- fitting blouses with a collar or frill. Skirts were long reaching the calf or ankles and were gathered and tied at the waist by a string. Undergarments known as chemise and drawers were worn beneath skirts and blouses. The outfit was completed with long aprons or bibs covering the chest.

Additionally, head wraps adorned the heads of slave women, these were sometimes made from Bandana that when worn with a cotta on top enabled them to balance loads on their heads and were worn during religious rituals. During church, it was mandatory for women to cover their heads and so slave women wore sun bonnets woven from plant fibre during church services.

To accessorize their outfits, Jamaican slave women adorned their necks with materials purchased at the local markets, often time beads and corals. These helped the wearer to communicate age, marital status and religious belief.



Men: men wore short or long sleeve shirts that were rolled up whilst working. This was paired with trousers or dungarees rolled up to the calves or knee. Like women men held up their trousers with strings or ropes.


Both male and female slaves, worked barefoot as shoes were not a part of the annual clothing allowance. To protect their feet during work they fashioned foot coverings from leaves or grass.

Favourite Pastimes of slaves












To amuse and distract themselves from the sobering reality of their lives, slaves participated in several leisure activities after work was done.  These activities are derived from African cultural practices and were infused with aspects of British culture. Such activities included the playing of drums and banjos and the singing of spiritual songs in which the slaves would lament on their experiences working on the plantation during times of festivities.  To accompany this music enslaved men and women would mock their masters by imitating the way they danced, talked or behaved in soirees at the Great House in the company of other planters. From this, the popular Jamaican folkdances of Quadrille and Dinki Mini were born. Further amusement was achieved through the telling of ‘duppy’ stories and animal tales which often featured trickery or some sort of magical realism with characters such as ghosts, the devil or the popular African spider Anansi. These stories often had several proverbial elements with morale for slave children, warning and deterring them from certain behaviours.


Formal celebrations of Johnkunnu were done during Christmas time. In this celebration slaves would walk and dance on the streets in colourful costumes representing popular characters in the aforementioned stories.






















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