Sugar, slaves and the dry bellyache: Edward Atcherley in Jamaica

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Sometime in the early 1670s Edward Atcherley, a young man in his twenties and a native of Shrewsbury, gave up his career as a merchant in London and set sail for the West Indies. There, as a plantation manager in Jamaica, he grew sugar, bought slaves, drank rather too much rum – and suffered from a crippling colic known as the dry bellyache.

The earliest record of Edward’s presence in Jamaica dates from 1675 when, as “a young Jamaican merchant” he was employed by William Whaley as an assistant manager on the Bybrook estate in the parish of St Catherine (see map below). He had evidently already been on the island for some time at that point. Writing to the estate’s owner, William Helyar, who remained in England, Whaley reported that Edward “understands the affairs of this country very well”. By this, he meant that Edward Atcherley was familiar how thinsg worked in Jamaica, including the many corrupt practices. As Edward himself wrote: “I find not in my neighbours but in several others honey upon their tongues, but much more poison in their hearts”. He vowed that he would be cautious of such people.

The plantation at Bybrook had been established in 1669 by William Helyar’s brother Cary, who died in 1672 before the estate had made any profit. William Helyar, who had owned a half share of the venture and pumped much of his own money into it, subsequently became the sole owner. Whaley, his godson, who had previously worked under Cary Helyar, became manager at Bybrook and with continued financial support from Helyar, continued to develop the sugar plantation by purchasing more slaves and building a sugar works, water mill, boiling house, distillery and curing house.

Despite the increased sugar-producing capacity at Bybrook, the estate’s output did not match its potential. Both Whaley and Atcherley suffered ill health in the first half of 1676. Whaley wrote to Helyar “I am daily troubled with the fever and cough, as also Mr. Atcherly who had a hard bout of it being taken sick in few days after he arrived.” Europeans had little resistance to the diseases of the tropics, and lacking the knowledge required to treat them many died there. On 2 July 1676, William Whaley joined their number.

Following Whaley’s death, Edward Atcherley took over management of the plantation and carried on where Whaley left off. Although he did manage to export eight hogsheads of sugar to England in 1677 – the first such shipment to be sent – like Whaley he sold most of the sugar produced at Bybrook in Jamaica, drawing bills of exchange on Helyar for more supplies. And just as Whaley’s name had appeared on invoices for the purchase of slaves from 1674 to 1676, so an invoice from a company sale of slaves in 1677 bore the name of ‘Edward Atcherly’. That Edward, brother of my 8x great grandfather John Atcherley, was involved in buying and working slaves is not something I am proud of. All I can do, some 350 years later, is to “tell it like it was.”

The harsh reality is that Bybrook plantation was operated with a large number of enslaved Africans. Conditions in the West Indies were such that slaves were not expected to live much more than seven years after their arrival; around 25% died during their first three years. During his four years in charge, Whaley had bought at least 59 slaves, increasing the number on the plantation to 104. This total was one of the largest totals on any plantation in Jamaica at the time.

There were servants from England too. Whaley had written regularly to William Helyar requesting that skilled servants such as coopers and potters be sent to build and maintain Bybrook’s sugar-producing infrastructure. Helyar had obliged. Some of the men were indentured for periods of just a few years, but on 1 January 1675 Helyar and a Somerset potter named Nathaniel Creech had entered into an agreement which obliged Creech to serve for 21 years, with a salary. It was not long before another potter was needed to replace Creech, and Helyar once again agreed a term of 21 years, with Thomas Ford. Edward Atcherley, however, renegotiated this contract, advising Helyar in a letter dated 23 July 1677:

I have agreed with Thomas fforde Potter to serve you three yeares (deducting his Sallary which hee was to Receive yearly) teaching two of your negroes to make potts and dripps and burne and Sett as well as himselfe which thought Convenient to bee done, for the Thought of one and Twenty yeares for him to serve would Certainely have beene the end of his dayes in a shorte tyme (as I suppose was the occation of the other Potter Natll and his wife death).

Edward Atcherley did not remain the sole manager of Bybrook for long. During the course of 1677, William Helyar articled two additional agents (neither of whom had any experience of sugar making) to run the plantation jointly with Edward. Helyar, who had previously suspected Whaley of dishonesty, was probably experiencing feelings of déjà vu as the estate continued to swallow his money while generating very little by way of a return. He would not have been reassured by a letter he received in that year from fellow plantation owner (and former Governor of Jamaica) Sir Thomas Modyford, who wrote: “Your chief man Atcherly is a very drunken idle fellow, for which reason my son turned him out of his employ, and by this time you have reason to thinke him a lyeing one alsoe.”

Modyford’s accusations of drunkenness were not without foundation, as one author has written that “Atcherley lost the use of his arms from a disease known as the dry bellyache.” Although the root cause of ‘the dry bellyache’ was not known back in the 1600s it came to be associated with, among other things, “travelling in the night after too free ingurgitation of spirituous liquors.” The excruciating effects of the condition were described by Towne in 1726 as follows:

There is not in the whole compass of infirmities which flesh is heir to, any one that afflicts human nature in a more exquisite degree than this unmerciful torture. The belly is seized with an intolerable piercing pain, sometimes in one point only, and sometimes in several parts of the intestines. … during this scene of the distemper, which sometimes continues eight, ten, or fourteen days, the patient is upon a perpetual rack, with scarce any remission or pause from pain. He undergoes all the various modifications of torment [which] by turns afflict him with a diversity of grievous sensations.

While all this was going on the belly remained “obstinately costive” or in other words, constipated. In addition (according to Dr William Hillary, writing in 1766) “the Patient discharges but little Urine, and that often with Pain and much Difficulty.” Hence the dry bellyache. As for Edward losing the use of his arms, this was another symptom of this catastrophic colic. To return to Towne’s description:

When the extremity of pain begins to abate, the sick person often observes a sort of tingling uneasiness through the spinal marrow, which propagates itself from thence to the nerves of the arms and legs, which at this time are very weak and debilitated. This weakness and inability increase daily, till in a short time they terminate in a confirmed paralysis of the extremities.

“Spirituous liquors” – specifically rum (or rather the impurities within it) – did indeed cause the dry bellyache, though this wasn’t known for certain until the late 1700s. The Encyclopædia Britannica then carried an entry on Colica Pictonum which stated that “Another cause to which violent colics are frequently to be ascribed … is lead … received into the body.” Those colics were said to include “what is called the dry bellyach in the West Indies”.

Rum became contaminated because it was distilled in lead equipment. And the liquor was readily available: in 1675 William Whaley had written that there was little profit to be made from the sale of rum as it was a “mere drug” on the market, so many people were making it.

Edward Atcherley’s bout of the dry bellyache was therefore self-inflicted, he was probably unaware that his rum-drinking would have such devastating consequences. I can’t help but feel sorry for him, as he must have suffered terribly. However, the fact that he continued as a manager at Bybrook until 1678 suggests that he may have received treatment and recovered from the worst effects of his illness.

It seems likely that Edward was still at Bybrook when a number of Jamaican slaves rose up against their white owners on 28 April 1678. The rebellion began on the plantation of Captain Duck, where the guards were overpowered, guns were seized, and the Captain’s wife along with several others were killed. The rebels made off into the forest and, having connections with some of the slaves working on the plantation of Sir Thomas Modyford, headed for the woods in that vicinity. There, slaves from both estates allegedly plotted to “kill all the white men”.

Modyford, after being informed of what was happening, had those who were suspected of involvement in the rebellion rounded up. What followed was, in the words of author Amy Marie Johnson, “the most gruesome torture imaginable”. In fear for their lives, slave turned against slave. One saved his own life by implicating eight of his fellow bondmen in the rebellion. Of those eight, one was spared from the fate of having his arms and legs broken and “soe to be starv’d to death” by accusing some of the slaves at Bybrook of complicity in the uprising. The other seven were burned alive, a slow and unimaginably painful process. While being burned, one of these unfortunate men named another Bybrook slave as a co-conspirator, one Quashee Eddoo.

Eddoo was the most trusted slave on the Bybrook estate, and had served Cary Helyar, William Whaley and Edward Atcherley in turn. One of Edward’s co-managers, Joseph Bryan, wrote “I could have put my life in his hands I judged him to be so trusty a Negro; and this Negro was one of the chiefest rogues in the conspiracy.” Eddoo gave evidence against 12 other slaves to save himself. Following a court-martial four of the 12 were burned alive like those on Thomas Modyford’s estate, while the other eight were killed by hanging before their bodies were also burned. Quashee Eddoo was deported.

The events I have just described make grim reading. I try not to judge those who went before us for the things they did so long ago, in very different times, especially when in today’s more ‘enlightened’ world there are still so many examples of people being oppressed, abused and killed because of the colour of their skin, their beliefs, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation or their position in society. But neither will I attempt to excuse the men responsible for the atrocities which took place in the Jamaican parish of St Catherine’s in 1678.

Was Edward Atcherley one of those men? I have found no information regarding what part, if any, he played in the court-martial and subsequent killings of the slaves on the Bybrook estate. What I do know is that Edward’s days in the West Indies – and indeed upon this earth – were nearly over. Later in 1678, acting on advice from Thomas Modyford, William Helyar dismissed Edward (and presumably his co-managers), and appointed Thomas Hillyard to run the plantation in return for a third of the profits made.

Out of work and probably not in the best of health (he may still have been suffering from the effects of the dry bellyache), Edward Atcherley left the West Indies for England aboard the ship Robert and Richard in 1679. The ship, which was of “of Barbadoes”, was described as having “lately arrived in London” in August that year in a petition made to the King by Sir Philip Howard. Edward Atcherley however did not survive the voyage.  Probate lawsuits which took place in 1679 and 1680 show that “the deceased Edward Acherley, bachelor,” had “died overseas in the ship Robert and Richard”.

Picture credits. Map showing St Catherine, Kingston and Port Royal, Jamaica: cropped from image on page 26 of The History of the Maroons, taken from British Library Flickr Photostream. No known copyright restrictions. Extract from The modern practice of physic, page 175, published 1760 and so out of copyright.

[1] Shrewsbury St Mary, Shropshire parish register covering 1644/45: entry for Edward Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1911), Shropshire Parish Registers. Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XII, page 99 viewed at Mocavo and at Mel Lockie’s website. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P00681-1, Film 908234.
[2] J Harry Bennett (1965), William Whaley, Planter of Seventeenth Century Jamaica. In: Agricultural History, 40:2, pp 113-123. Copy viewed at JSTOR (website).
[3] Susan Dwyer Amussen (2007), Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700. Previewed at Google Books.
[4] Richard Dunn (1972), Sugar and slaves. Pages 215-8. Pages viewed at and snippets viewed at Google Books.
[5] Anton Gill (1997), The devil’s mariner: a life of William Dampier, pirate and explorer, 1651-1715. Page 38. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
[6] David W Galenson (2002), Traders, planters and slaves: market behaviour in Early English America.
[7] Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh (1972), No Peace Beyond the Line. Page 305. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
[8] Jerome S Handler et al (1986), Lead Contact and Poisoning in Barbados Slaves: Historical, Chemical, and Biological Evidence. In: Social Science History, 10 (4): 399-427. PDF copy downloaded from Jerome S Handler (website).
[9] John Ball (1760), The modern practice of physic. Page 175 et seq. (Quotes from Towne (1726).) Copy viewed at Google Books.
[10] William Hillary (1766), Observations on the Changes of the Air and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbadoes. Page 182. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Third Edition, Volume XI, 1797. Page 268. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[12] Amy Marie Johnson (2007), Expectations of Slavery: African Captives, White Planters, and Slave Rebelliousness in Early Colonial Jamaica. Pages 176-7. Previewed at Google books.
[13] Susan D Amussen (2010), Violence, Gender and Race in the Seventeenth Century English Atlantic. In: Masculinities, Violence, Childhood. Page 293. Copy previewed at Google Books.
[14] W. Noel Sainsbury and J.W. Fortescue (editors) (1896), Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 10: 1677-1680. Pages 403-411. Electronic copy viewed at British History Online (website).
[15] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/11/5, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherley. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[16] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/11/29, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherley. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[17] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/12/51, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherly and Cox. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[18] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/12/62, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherly and Cox. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.

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An Atcherley family’s World War One: The Canadian Home Front

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< More Atcherley stories from World War 1

The ‘military fete’ and garden bridge party to be held at the home of Mrs. A. E. Bull, ‘The Hedges,’ 1375 Burnaby street, on Wednesday, August 25, from 4 to 6 p. m., under the auspices of the Burrard chapter of the Daughters of the Empire, promises to be one of the most popular social events of the week. The proceeds will be used for the Canadian soldiers … A special treat will be the Hawaiian orchestra ‘Aloha,’ formed by the Misses Sybil and Lani Atcherley, Messrs. John Atcherley, Jr., L. P. Mackintosh and Mr. Rex Gallagher. The Misses and Mr. Atcherley, while born in Hawaii, are children of Dr. John Atcherley of [H.M.C.S.] Shearwater, a loyal British subject, and are volunteering their services as they have so generously done on all previous occasions.  — Vancouver Daily World, 23 Aug 1915

A group of Hawaiian musicians (with guitar and ukuleles) and dancers, 1907

Dr John Atcherley, with his Hawaiian-born wife and children, had established a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1911. After the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914, John joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve and became Surgeon of the submarine tender Shearwater on 1 May 1915 (see Dr John Atcherley’s World War One). As can be seen from the above newspaper report, John was not the only member of his family to contribute to the war effort. During the course of the Great War, his wife Mary and older children Sybil, John junior and Lani lent their talents, and gave a special Hawaiian flavour, to many events raising funds to support Canada’s fighting men.

The fete of 25 August 1915 was evidently not the first such event enlivened by the presence of the Atcherley family. It is however the first for which I have found a good description, and it was a great success, raising “a very good sum” to buy “comforts for the soldiers.” Twelve tables of bridge had been arranged in the drawing room, on the veranda and also on the lawn of The Hedges, tea was served at a long and richly decorated table under the shade of the trees, while elsewhere in the grounds, which were adorned with flags and bunting, there was a candy booth, fortune tellers, and Aunt Sally run by the Boy Scouts, who also sold ices. The Vancouver Daily World reported: “The music provided by the Hawaiian orchestra was very much appreciated by the guests. Miss Sybil Atcherley, Miss Lani Atcherley and Mr. Jack Atcherley, daughters and son of Dr. and Mrs. Atcherley, with Miss V. Tingley, played beautifully all afternoon.”

This particular event had been organised by one of several bodies working in Canada to provide support for the country’s soldiers, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. Originally formed in 1900 for the benefit of Canadians fighting for the British Empire in South Africa, the organisation was very active during the First World War. In 1917 the Vancouver Daily World gave details of an address by Mrs Ralph Smith (sadly, it was the custom back then to refer to married women by the names of their husbands), to a meeting of the Daughters of the Empire, as follows:

It means much these days, she said, to be a daughter of the Empire, for when war broke out the women of the Empire were called to arms as well as the men, and now there is a standing army of 30,000 Daughters of the Empire ready for service, determined not to give in or let up until the last shot has been fired and peace with honor proclaimed. ‘Much as we long for peace, we do not want peace without honor, and we are determined to be as brave in our way as our brave lads in the trenches.’

At another meeting of the organisation in 1918, a Capt. Herald left the Daughters of the Empire in no doubt as to the value of their work. He described the return of soldiers to their billets from the trenches: mud-smeared and blood-stained, dejected by the loss of comrades, the men were worn out physically and mentally, but their mood changed on seeing a letter or parcel from home. “When they thus feel in touch with the people at home, the Hun can never break their spirit or inflict defeat upon them.” The parcels they received were needed and appreciated, and those sending them were “amply repaid by the gratitude shown.”

The Daughters of the Empire were not the only beneficiaries of the Atcherley family’s musical prowess. In 1917 “the Atcherley trio” was one of several acts to perform at a parlour concert in aid of the material fund of the Kerrisdale Red Cross Society in Vancouver. During the previous year, a Hawaiian Carnival given at Lester Court was so successful that it was repeated a few weeks later, “under the direction of Mrs. Lester and Mrs. Atcherley” with a third of the takings going to the Red Cross and part of the remainder being spent on “comfort bags for the soldiers.”

Soldier in front of boxes of Canadian Field Comforts

Also held at Lester Court, in 1917, was a bazaar arranged by the Ladies’ Aid of the Pro-Cathedral. A “cabaret entertainment” held in connection with this featured “A Night in Hawaii” with Sybil, Lani and “Mr. J. K. Atcherley” and others, plus additional performers including the wonderfully-named Miss O. B. Joyful, Queen of Syncopation; Mr. Willie Smile, the Demon Drummer; and A. Nut, from the Pecan University!

Lester Court was a teetotal ballroom owned by Frederick William Lester, whose wife Maude was the Mrs Lester mentioned above. Mrs Lester seems to have been part of the Atcherley family’s circle of friends in Vancouver. In 1916 “Miss Sybil Atcherley and Mr. Jack Atcherley entertained at a theatre party” in her honour. It was perhaps because of their connections with Mrs Lester, or others in the temperance movement, that “The Misses Atcherley’s Hawaiian orchestra very kindly gave a number of orchestral selections and glees” at a tea meeting held in the Sixth Avenue Methodist church in 1915.

Hawaiian music was not the exclusive preserve of the Atcherley children during the family’s years in Vancouver. When arrangements were made for Miss Charlotte Spencer of Victoria to sing at an Empire concert in the Mount Pleasant Methodist church in 1917, it was announced that “Mrs. Atcherley, a native of Hawaii, and wife of [Doctor] Atcherley of the British naval services, will sing, and also her two daughters. Miss Sybil and Miss [Lani], accompanied by Hawaiian guitars.”

Not only did Mary Atcherley sing in Vancouver, she also had opportunities to meet other vocalists there. Perhaps the most famous of those whom she encountered was Dame Nellie Melba (pictured left), the Australiam operatic soprano known to many as Madame Melba, who visited British Columbia in 1917. The Daily Colonist reported:

Several delightful social affairs have been given by Vancouver hostesses in compliment to Madame Melba, and Lady Susan Fitz-Clarence, who is accompanying the famous prima donna on her present tour. One of the most enjoyable of these was the tea given on Wednesday afternoon by Mrs. George E. MacDonald, at “Trenear,” Shaughnessy Heights, when a number of her friends were given the pleasure of meeting the distinguished visitors. Among the guests were: Messrs. Jan, Leo, and Mischel Cherniavsky, Mrs. Ashburton and Mrs. J. R. Green, of Victoria, Mr. St. Leger, Mr. Justice and Mrs. W. A. Macdonald, Mrs. Atcherly, …

In 1918 Lani Atcherley decided to supporting the armed forces in a very different way – by joining them. She returned to Hawaii and on 5 August 1918, four years and a day after Britain had entered the First World War, she enrolled with the US Navy Reserve Force at Pearl Harbour as a Yeoman 3rd Class. 98 days later on 11 November 1918, the armistice was signed and Lani’s active service came to end. She was officially discharged on 4 August 1920.

The efforts made by the family of John and Mary Atcherley to support Canadian soldiers did not stop when the Great War ended. Many of those who returned were injured and some required long-term medical treatment at military hospitals. One of those hospitals was established at Craigdarroch Castle, Victoria (pictured below). On the evening of 20 January 1920, in a little piece of Scotland in western Canada, men who had survived the horrors of the battlefields of Europe were treated to a ray of Hawaiian sunshine thanks to John Atcherley junior :

At Craigdarroch tonight — The Women’s Auxilliary to the Great War Veterans will entertain the soldier patients at Craigdarrock this evening with an informal concert and dance. The programme, which will commence at 8 o’clock, will include selections on the steel guitar by Mr. J. K. Atcherley, violin solos by Miss Irene Blok and vocal numbers by Mrs. Hamlett, Mrs. Paterson, Mrs. L. W. Bick and Mr. Arthur Gore, Mrs. Ross acting as accompanist at the piano. Refreshments provided by the visitors will be provided at the conclusion of the concert, after which informal dancing will be in order, with Mrs. Warren providing the music. Mrs. Lewis, social convener, is directing the arrangements for the affair, which promises to bring much enjoyment to the convalescents.

Picture credits. A group of Hawaiian musicians (with guitar and ukuleles) and dancers, 1907: cropped from an image taken from Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired. Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire emblem: image taken from a copy of The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire Preventorium at the Internet Archive website, book published 1919 and not in copyright. Soldier in front of boxes of Canadian Field Comforts: cropped from public domain image taken from City of Vancouver Archives website. Madame Melba: adapted from public domain image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Craigdarroch Castle: picture by Hugh Lee, taken from Wikimedia Commons, adapted, used, and made available for re-use under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.


[1] Vancouver Daily World, 23 Aug 1915, page 5.
[2] Vancouver Daily World, 26 Aug 1915, page 5.
[3] Our History. At: IODE website (accessed 12 July 2014).
[4] Vancouver Daily World, 5 June 1917, page 3.
[5] Vancouver Daily World, 1 May 1918, page 7.
[6] Vancouver Daily World, 5 Nov 1917, page 5.
[7] Vancouver Daily World, 16 Oct 1916, page 16.
[8] Vancouver Daily World, 27 Nov 1917, page 5.
[9] Know your history – Celebrities. At: (website, accessed 8 Feb 2015).
[10] Vancouver Daily World, 4 Nov 1921, page 19. Mrs. Lester Divorced Twice From Husband.
[11] Vancouver Daily World, 5 Sep 1916, page 5.
[12] Vancouver Daily World, 20 Oct 1915, page 5.
[13] Vancouver Daily World, 30 Jun 1917, page 28.
[14] The Daily Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia), 6 Oct 1917, page 4. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
[15] US Navy Reserve Force card for Lani Ulwin Atcherley. Copy viewed at Hawai`i State Archives website.
[16] The Daily Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia), 20 Jan 1920, page 6. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
[17] Craigdarroch Castle. At Wikipedia (website, accessed 8 February 2015).

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