December 2, 2004
Jamaican Elegance With a Jewish Twist
Set back from the Main Road behind the tall and majestic trees is the splendid mansion of Devon House. This stately mansion a regal tribute to the craftsmanship of Jamaica, and it also stands as a proud symbol of Jamaican Jewish history. Sitting on the aptly named Hope Road, this magnificent mansion is now open to the public.
The story of Devon House starts with George Stiebel. Born the son of a German Jew and a Jamaican housekeeper in the 1820s, his mixed parentage made his early years difficult. Taunted by his peers, young George left school at 14. At 19, he joined the crew building the Ferry Inn between Kingston and Spanish Town and by the time he reached his early 20s, his father rewarded his tenacity with enough money to buy a ship. One ship turned into three and soon his fleet was trading between the other West Indian islands. When the rebel slaves of Cuba wanted guns, Stiebel began delivering them aboard his ships. But that scheme came to an abrupt halt when he was thrown into a Cuban jail cell on a gunrunning conviction.
But young George wasn't all about making money. He was also a romantic who fell in love with Magdalen Baker, the Jamaican daughter of a missionary. Aware that his Cuban jail record and mixed background didn't exactly make him an attractive prospect for a son-in-law, the young couple waited until after the death of Magdalen's parents before getting married. A son and daughter soon followed, but so did tragedy.
Stiebel had moved to Venezuela where his trading business flourished. However, bad weather caused one of his ships to sink off the South American coast. Miraculously, he survived only to discover he had lost everything except the money belt he tied to his waist before jumping ship.
With a young family in Jamaica to support, Stiebel stayed in Venezuela, determined to recoup his lost fortune. Eventually his investments in Venezuelan gold mines paid off and he returned to Jamaica in 1873 as a man of great wealth.
But bad luck struck once again when he discovered his teenage son had died while he was away in Venezuela. While in his 50s and financially secure, Stiebel bought sugar estates and 99 Jamaican properties (local law at the time forbade owning 100 properties). Now officially Jamaica's first "black millionaire," the Honorable George Stiebel, as he was known, was a man of respect.
In 1879, he bought 53 acres of land from the St. Andrew Parish and built his dream house on the foundation that was the church rectory. He called that dream house Devon House and for 10 years, George and Magdalen, their daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Richard Hill Jackson, who had become the mayor of Kingston, lived like Jamaican royalty.
With its elegant single staircase in the grand lobby, European antiques and handcrafted mahogany furniture, Devon House was a sight to behold. Its many bedrooms, with their Southern-style verandahs, grand ballroom, library, gaming room, grand Wedgwood ceilings and exquisitely carved fanlights above the doorways, earned Devon House the coveted National Monument honor bestowed by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
But the fairy tale on Hope Road began to unravel for the Stiebels. In 1892, Magdalen died. In 1895, their grandson died of typhoid and, a week after that, Richard Hill Jackson died. Heartbroken again and in his 70s, George Siebel died in 1896 leaving behind his beloved Devon House.
After Theresa Stiebel Jackson's death in 1922, Devon House was sold to Reginald Melhado, another successful Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur whose descendants had been forced to leave Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. He lived in the mansion for five years and in 1928, passed the torch to another member of Jamaica's Jewish community.
The new owner, Cecil Lindo, was descended from a Sephardic family that fled to Costa Rica and Jamaica to keep from becoming Christian converts during the Inquisition. Lindo lived in Devon House until his death in 1960 at the age of 89.
Like Stiebel, Lindo left Devon House to his family. It was Lindo's wife who was approached by developers to sell it in 1965. However, under the National Trust Act, the Jamaican government stopped the developers from demolishing the mansion and began their own restoration process in 1967.
George Stiebel's life story is "an inspiration for all Jamaicans," said Janice Francis-Lindsay, the promotions coordinator for the Devon House Development Company, which owns Devon House today. "His monetary donation helped stage the Great Exhibition of 1891, which introduced tourism to Jamaica."
And so it is goes that Devon House was home to three families of Jamaican Jewish descent and today is one of the most visited attractions in Kingston, a turn of fate that would have made Stiebel smile.
The great ballroom has the original English crystal chandelier. The 200-year-old clock still ticks, and you can see some of the Stiebel family possessions in the master bedroom.
Once the servants' quarters, the Courtyard Shops sell a variety of Jamaican products in stores like Rum, Roast and Royals, Elaine Elegance and T and Treasures. Traditional Jamaican recipes can be sampled in what used to the Stiebel coach house and the best ice cream on the island is for sale in the lush courtyard. The west lawn gazebo is popular for craft fairs and picnics, and the majestic Great House is one of the islands preferred venues for elegant affairs.
"Tourists come for more than just a tour of the House," said Norma Rhodan, who has been conducting guided tours of Devon House for 16 years. "I've seen them spend an entire day here. It is one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in all of Jamaica."
Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. Tours offered Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $5 (adults), $3 (children). For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melanie Reffes is a travel journalist living in Montreal. She's a correspondent with the Montreal-based "Travel World Radio" as well as a regular contributor to several publications including the Montreal Gazette newspaper.