A Trip Through Time
The Planters Cemetery at Johnson's Ghut
by Claudia Colli
Wandering amongst the headstones stones and covered vaults in the Planter’s Cemetery at Johnson’s Ghut is like being transported back in time. Over 50 graves of some of the Virgin Islands’ original settlers are located here in this quiet corner of Road Town. An ancient stonewall surrounds the site and an austere iron gate marks its entrance. It is a quietly effecting place, with large overhanging trees shading the graves. It speaks of a time when the planter class owned vast estates covered with sugar cane and cotton, and when life on an isolated tropical island could be perilously short.
The cemetery at Johnson’s Ghut is the largest of these centuries old burial grounds and echoes with the most history. Barristers, merchants and sea captains are buried here, as is the wife of one of the islands’ earliest British administrators. Described on her headstone as “the late affectionate wife of John Purcell esq Lieutenant Governor of the Virgin Islands,” Mary Purcell was laid to rest here in 1768 at the age of 39.
Not all those interred were island residents; some like Brigadier General Robert Sparrow were just passing through. Sparrow’s above ground vault is as large as his life was brief. “On his return to England from Barbados,” reads the inscription, “he was suddenly seized by the fatal fever and died August 29 1805, aged 32 years.”
And all too often, young children were buried here, as reminded by the headstone for “William Wallace, the infant son of William and Catherine Wallace, who died in 1798 at the age of 22 months and two days.” Their small tombs are poignant reminders of the tenuous nature of life in the 18th century.
As members of the Millennium Committee, Xandra Adamson, Jennie Wheatley and Ermine Penn have taken a special interest in the restoration of the islands’ historical sites. Founding members of the Millennium Committee their work has included the renovation of the 1780 Sugar Works Museum in Road Town and the erection of plaques on four buildings of historical significance on Main Street.
In 2001 and 2002, the group set out to restore the badly deteriorating Johnson’s Ghut burial site with the assistance of a group of senior volunteers from the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions/Elderhostel program. In conjunction with the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College’s Virgin Islands Studies Program, they conducted an initial cleanup effort on the long neglected cemetery. Dr. Michael Kent, a historian and archeologist at the college, worked with the group, compiling a report on the project, noting at the time that, “The site is reminiscent of an 18th Century English churchyard.” He also observed that the Johnson’s Ghut site was “in fact grander than the average churchyard since “it was only used to inter the elite of colonial BVI society.”
A decade later, Xandra Adamson is once again spearheading a restoration effort at the cemetery. Assisting her is architect, Jon Osman, who has been supervising remedial work on many of the grounds’ headstones and tombs, many of which were little more than piles of stone and brick.
Putting together some of these graves was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle,” comments Xandra who had been dismayed at the level of disrepair. It has become her personal mission to ensure that the graveyard is well maintained. She points out there is more work to be done – the headstones need to be cleaned and at some point she would like to see interpretive signs erected.
“We have very few places we can hold onto and preserve,” adds Jennie Wheatley, who observes that this site stands out as one of the island’s earliest plantation era burial grounds. Jennie, who is former head of the Virgin Islands Study Program at the College, has taken a special interest in the names on the gravestones – family names like Hodge, Turnbull, Crabbe and Nibbs. These and many other planter names are still common here because following Emancipation, freed slaves often adopted the surname of the owner of the plantation where they had worked.
Mary Hunt, wife of the second Governor of the Virgin Islands, John Hunt, is among those buried here. For every name on a headstone, there is often an intriguing backstory, and notes Dr. Kent, an expert in plantation era history, “apparently Mary Hunt upon the death of her first husband, remarried Samuel Nottingham and together they emancipated their slaves at Long Look.”
He adds, that one of the most recent stones to be found marks the grave of William George Crabbe who died on January 8th 1888 aged 74. Crabbe, in partnership with William Roger Isaac, kept his offices in what is now known as the Fireproof Building on Main Street in Road Town, and served as a representative for Reid Irving and Company who managed the majority of encumbered estates on Tortola after emancipation. “Crabbe would have witnessed slavery and emancipation and the subsequent decline of the plantocracy once the sugar revolution diminished,” he explains.
According to Millennium Committee member, Ermin Penn, the cemetery at Johnson’s Ghut was reserved for the islands’ upper class, and the quality of the gravestones and mausoleums were testament to the wealth of planter society. Slave burial sites on the other hand, she notes, were largely unmarked.
Other plantation era cemeteries are scattered throughout the island with little more to show for them than crumbled stone and brick headstones obscured by centuries of tropical bush. There is the Quaker burial ground in East End and one at the remains of St Michael’s Church on Windy Hill. On Little Jost Van Dyke the parents of John Lettsom, a Quaker and the founder of the London Medical Society, were according to a 1795 letter, buried “under two tamarind trees.” Over 200 years later these same large tamarinds still shade the place of their burial. Another place of interest is a burial ground at St Philips Church at Kingstown for a community of free black apprentices, which was established in 1833; the roofless remains of the community’s Anglican church are also located here.
Following the plantation era, which came to a close shortly after Emancipation in 1834, there was a shift to burying community members in church cemeteries like the ones at the Methodist Church and St. George’s Anglican Church, both in Road Town. But the majority of people in the 18th and early 19th century were buried in family plots on their property, says Ermin Penn.
Carved from marble and granite, the gravestones at the Planters Cemetery at Johnsons Ghut, as Ms. Penn aptly notes, are an expression of a privileged class. “The cemetery is an important record of this community that once lived here.”
The 1771 headstone of William Turnbull illustrates how this planter class was held in high regard by family and peers:
"William Turnbull, Esq, Many years an eminent merchant and planter in these islands. A man who excelled in public ad private life endeared him to all who were happy to know him. . . .”
History books are often a dry rendering of the past. The inscriptions on the headstones of the Planters Cemetery bring life to a people who died long ago.