Main content

John and Martha Bowen Letter Book Concerning Bowen Hall Sugar Plantation


Held at: Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division [Contact Us]

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Bowen, John, 1794-1835

John Bowen, Jr. (1794-1835), son of John Bowen (d. 1798) and Mary Swope (1768-1823), was born to an early and prominent Philadelphia (Pa.) family. He married Martha Powell Anthony (1797-1849) with whom he had several children, including Mary Bowen (1820-1822), Isabella Montgomery Bowen (1823- 1841), John Francis Bowen (1832- 1832).

A sugar planter, John Bowen was the owner of Bowen Hall Sugar Plantation located in Vere, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, which Bowen oversaw from his Spruce Street residence in Philadelphia. After his death in 1835, Bowen's wife Martha assisted with the plantation's management until her death in 1849.

John and Martha Bowen's outgoing letters, which date from 1831 to 1848 and number 136, document in great detail the management of Bowen Hall, including the sugar plantation's varied finances, seasonal production and export of sugar and rum, and the treatment of its enslaved workers and newly-emancipated population. Besides providing information about the plantation's day-to-day business and operations, the letters offer insight into the final throes of the institution of slavery in Jamaica, including the slave revolt, or Baptist War, of 1831-1832, and the abolishment of the practice in 1834; the Jamaican sugar industry; and Britain's politics of the early 19th century in relation to its colonies and trade.

John Bowen's letters are mostly to Charles Sconce, his Jamaican attorney in Vere responsible for the administration of Bowen Hall, and Joseph Brooks Yates & Company, the Liverpool commission house that brokered Bowen Hall's yearly sugar and rum production. Throughout his letters, Bowen reveals intense hostility to the British government's heavy regulations imposed upon colonial planters and their exports, which he claimed were ruining Jamaica's sugar industry. In a letter dated October 29, 1831, he writes, "I have just seen a London price current of 16 Sept. in which an opinion is expressed that the law admitting foreign sugar to be refined would be renewed in its former iniquitous shape to the very great detriment of the British Sugar Planter. Should such a measure be adopted no one will any longer hesitate to believe that the present Government leagued with the anti Slavery faction have determined upon the downfall and final destruction of our Islands-- rather than cut our throats at once they are trying [to] bleed us to death."

Bowen was staunchly opposed to abolishing slavery and the gradual emancipation of Jamaica's enslaved population noting, "I mean to hold on to every man woman and child of them with the convulsive grip of desperation till that hold is loosened by a stronger band than mine (July 12, 1833)."

With regards to the day-to-day management of the plantation, Bowen's letters include specific instructions regarding sugar and rum production, such as directives for soil and crop rotation, and the import, use, and repair of machinery (in place of enslaved workers and cattle) for sugar production and rum distillation. There are also annual production statistics for the plantation's exported quantities of sugar and rum to Liverpool, slated business expenses, and the purchase and shipment of food and goods for Bowen Hall, including clothes for the enslaved workers.

Letters also provide information about the treatment of Bowen Hall's enslaved workers including the medical treatment they were provided. For example, Bowen discusses the provision of inoculations and the construction of a hospital. He also discusses the monetary allowances given to mothers upon the birth of a child.

Martha Bowen's letters describe a variety of business and personal topics, including her serious financial plight caused by the failure of the Bank of the United States, intense grief caused by the death of her daughter, and, above all, the managerial and financial decisions regarding Bowen Hall. They are primarily addressed to John Brown, who became the plantation's manager, Jamaican attorneys Charles Sconce and Charles Douglas, the Liverpool Commission merchant Joseph Brooks Yates, and the Kingston firm of Scott Leacroft. Also included are copies of some letters relating to Austin Montgomery, Martha's brother-in-law and co-executor of her late husband.

Her letters indicate that Martha was well acquainted with the goings on of the plantation and managed the property with business acumen. For example, due to financial irregularities on the part of her husband's attorney and manager of Bowen Hall, Charles Sconce, Martha dismissed him, hired another attorney, Charles Douglas, and rehired the former plantation overseer, John Brown.

The letters provide information about specific day-to-day operations of Bowen Hall as well as larger issues including the emancipation of Jamaica's enslaved population. On this issue, Martha's opinions seem less harsh than those of her husband and others invested in the plantation, but she is clearly concerned about the repercussions of enacting such laws. In a letter to Joseph Brooks Yates written shortly after Jamaica's enslaved population was granted unrestricted freedom (August 1, 1838), she writes that her friends in Jamaica, "write encouragingly, as to the probability of the new system working well, but I confess I do not feel very sanguine, not do some of my friends here, seem to think that Jamaica will be many years under the dominion of the whites. The accounts vary very much in the different parts of the Island. On our side they always have done better than on the North- but let the standard of Rebellion once be raised on any side the other will not be slow to follow. I do not think the British government has done much kindness to either the slave or his Master. I hope sincerely it may prove otherwise for as regards myself I am much attached to many of the people at Bowen Hall and believe that there is not a better set of negroes in the Island, and for whom I am most anxious to do everything that will contribute to their happiness and comfort. I suppose that we will obtain higher prices for our Sugar, now that it is no longer made by Slave labour (September 18, 1838)."

Description largely based on dealer information and research.

Purchased, 2014. AM 2015-32

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

This collection was processed by Faith Charlton in October 2014. Finding aid written by Faith Charlton in October 2014.

This collection was processed by Faith Charlton in October 2014. Finding aid written by Faith Charlton in October 2014.

No material was separated during 2014 processing.

Manuscripts Division
Finding Aid Author
Faith Charlton
Finding Aid Date
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Collection Inventory

John and Martha Bowen Letter Book Concerning Bowen Hall Sugar Plantation, 1831 July 2-1848 December 1. 1 folder.
Physical Description

1 folder

Loose Letters Concerning Bowen Hall Sugar Plantation, 1822-1843. 1 folder.
Physical Description

1 folder

Print, Suggest