By Barbara Arrindell
“At an important historical gathering in 1813, Elizabeth Hart Thwaites and her husband met with teachers and five hundred children from neighbouring plantations on the estate belonging to the Lyon family and instituted a plan to teach the children to read.
Halfway between English Harbour, where the Thwaiteses lived, and the Lyons’ estate, slave volunteers built a schoolroom within six weeks to house this project. Elizabeth Hart Thwaites named it Bethesda and daily taught some two to three hundred children and adults there.” (Page 15, The Hart Sisters, Edited by Moira Ferguson, Published by University of Nebraska Press).
Long before the Antigua Grammar School was established. Long before attempts by the Roman Catholics to start their own system of education. There was Bethesda: a place of mercy.
Sketchy records suggest that one of Antigua’s early schoolrooms, certainly the first schoolroom built for the purpose of educating the masses, “the black population”, both free-blacks and slaves, was located in the area that we now refer to as Bethesda.
Constructed by volunteers, most of whom were enslaved Africans, the wooden schoolroom is said to have sat on a hillside near the old town of Bridgetown where the winds rolling off the waves of Willoughby Bay could keep the students cool and comfortable. The location appears to have been chosen as a half way point between Lyons’ Estate and English Harbour where the two Hart Sisters, the school mistresses, lived.
This schoolroom and its spin-offs afforded an unusually large portion of the slave population in Antigua the opportunity to receive some level of education. Some Historians believe that it might have been as a result of this more widespread education that full emancipation was granted in Antigua in 1834 compared to the partial emancipation that slaves in almost all other territories received.
Who were the Hart Sisters?
Ann Hart Gilbert and Elizabeth Hart Thwaites were referred to at that time as free “coloured” women. Their father, was among a handful of black plantation owners, and was himself an enslaver. He owned and operated Popeshead Estate not far from St. John’s.
Black massa Barry Conyers Hart was a poet who wrote for a newspaper in Antigua in the late 1700’s. He was considered to have been different: a humane slave master. This is in contrast to the typical black slave owners who were labelled as exceptionally cruel, perhaps as a way of stamping authority over ‘property’ whose faces so resembled theirs and their children’s.
Mr. Hart’s willingness to stand apart was apparently inherited by his eldest daughter Ann. She created quite a stir in all quarters of Antiguan society when she agreed to accept the proposal of Antiguan born John Gilbert. John Gilbert was white; she was not. Such a union was considered “illegal” or at least immoral. His family, though religious, opposed the marriage to the point of instructing every clergyman and all ship-captains not to perform the ceremony. In 1798, John and Ann left the island and returned as Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert. They found that the door to John’s place of business had been symbolically repainted, one half was painted white and the other was yellow.
There are no records to show how the Hart Sisters obtained their education, but, at that time and continuing into the early part of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for estate owners to employ a teacher to privately educate their children. Although their work touched the lives of people throughout Antigua, the sisters spent a great deal of their time in the English Harbour area, working under the banner of both the Methodists and Anglican churches. Both ladies, having prepared much of the slave population for emancipation and having agitated for it in many ways, died in 1833, a year before the educated slaves of Antigua became free educated men and women.
Post note: John Gilbert was the son or nephew of Nathaniel Gilbert, one of the founders of Methodism in Antigua and Barbuda.
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