The Story of George Stiebel, Jamaica's first black millionaire

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G.Stiebelpict2.jpgThere was every indication at a very early stage that George Stiebel was destined to lead an intriguing life. Born to a Jamaican housekeeper, and a German Jew in the 1820s, George was subject to a range of criticisms and harsh treatment from his peers as a result of his mixed parentage. School was therefore not as fulfilling an experience as it should have been, and he quit the classroom at age fourteen to become a carpenter’s apprentice. George quickly developed a flair for carpentry, and by age 19 he played an integral role in the reconstruction of the famous Ferry Inn, between Kingston and Spanish Town.

In the 1840's, George's father gave him start up capital to purchase a ship, which he began using to transport cargo between North and South America. Shortly after he purchased two additional ships to develop his new business venture in the Caribbean, including Cuba where a revolution was in high gear. He realized that the island would be ideal to undertake a lucrative gun-trading ring. While he did manage to make respectable profits from trading guns, he also fell in trouble with the law for his activities.

In 1851, George's life took a turn for the better when he married long time sweetheart Magdalene Baker, daughter of a Moravian Missionary. Soon after their son, Sigismund, named after George's father, was born. Two years later a girl, Theresa, joined the Stiebel family. Five years after their marriage, his ships were caught in a terrible storm, which destroyed the vessels. Unfortunately Stiebel was aboard one of the ships which sank off the coast of Venezuela. He managed to survive the wreckage and luckily he had the foresight to secure all his money which was stored in a leather belt. Stiebel's tenacity soon began to show results, because shortly after arriving in Venezuela he became a peddler, and with his savings he purchased a mule to assist in transporting his goods. His misfortune at sea quickly dulled when he began trading gold in Venezuela. He invested in a gold mine with his friends, and fifteen years later in 1873 the business was showing huge profits. George Stiebel had undoubtedly made an impressive stake in the gold mining business and the accolade awarded to him as Jamaica's first millionaire of African descend seemed very deserving and appropriate. His achievements were shattered however with the death of his son, and he returned home to Jamaica.

Stiebel's love for his country and sense of civic duty kicked in almost immediately after his return to Jamaica. It is reported that he purchased 99 properties (it was illegal to own 100 properties during the period) including two sugar estates, a wharf at Church Street, Great Salt Pond and a Cattle Pen named Minard, in St. Ann.

He built a lavish home at Minard, which became the family’s favorite vacation getaway. In 1881 he commissioned the services of contractor Charles P. Lazarus to build the magnificent Devon House. The house boasted a library, gaming room, ballroom, sitting rooms, a sewing room, dining room, and bedrooms. The kitchen (now occupied by the Brick Oven) was located towards the back away from the House.

In addition to investing in property in Jamaica, Stiebel was a philanthropist, assisting the poor and disadvantaged, as well as exhibiting continuous interest in the socio-economic state of the country. Several civic authorities and local groups invited Stiebel to sit on their Boards including the Jamaica Permanent Benefit Society, the Jamaica Co-operative Fruit Insurance Company, the Board of Education and the Kingston and St. Andrew Union Poorhouse. Stiebel's most noted civic duty came when he was named a Justice of the Peace (JP) and later Custos of St. Andrew. It was during his tenure as Custos that the Great Exhibition of 1891 was staged in Kingston. The Exhibition, which sought to introduce tourism to the island, required extensive financing which the government was unable to undertake. Stiebel was among a small group of entrepreneurs who loaned the Government funds to stage the exhibition. In recognition of his services in the interest of the island, Her Majesty the Queen bestowed on Stiebel the honour of Companion of the Most Distinguished Order (C.M.G.).

Over the next ten years George Stiebel lived happily at Devon House with his wife Magdalene, and surrounded by his grandchildren. The Stiebels also did an impressive job of holding lavish parties for friends and family. It was not surprising then that they employed a large staff which reportedly included four gardeners, two house maids, a butler, cook, laundress, grooms and coachman. Servants' Quarters were located in the space now used as the property's commercial complex.

Sadness again befell Devon House when Stiebel's wife Magdalene died in October 1892. Magdalene was buried at the St. Andrew Parish Cemetery under a grey granite tombstone with a white marble cross-wreathed in white marble flowers. It is said that at the time Stiebel imported enough grey granite from Scotland to bury his entire family. Tragedy
continued to mark the Stiebel family. In 1895 his grandson Douglas died of typhoid, and only a week later his son in law Richard Hill Jackson (who served as Mayor of Kingston) passed away.

George Stiebel died in 1896 at age 75. Stiebel's generous spirit lived on even after his death, as he ensured that his family was well taken care of. His daughter for example was granted an annual annuity of three thousand pounds, and she was assured a permanent place at Devon House while she was alive. A total of ten thousand pounds was to be allotted to each of his grandchildren once they turned 21. The Stiebel- Jacksons occupied Devon House until 1922 following the death of Theresa Stiebel- Jackson.

  • Elaine

    Please do not think about changing the name of Lady Musgrave Road.  Like it or not this is all part of our history and the reason it was built is also what led us to examine the life of George Stiebel.   It is a wonderful tale of old Jamaica.

  • Avril James

    Interesting history about Devon House and the

    Steibels.I admire his Entrepreneurial spirit.

    I am pleased everyone declined COMMENTS about

    Lady Musgrave's behaviour-- well deserved.

    In honour of Mr Steibel, I am suggesting that

    the Government change the name of that Road to

    GEORGE STEIBEL ROAD.

  • Michael Stephenson

    Just read the facts about George Stiebal.Let us remember that Stilbels family was wealthy enough to give him funds to buy ships.The black millionaire story would be more creditable if Stilbel was from poor black slavery stock and not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

  • M.

    Hi Ms. Stewart:

    Came across your comments about your father and

    wondering if you were born and raised in Jamaica.

    And, if yes..would you be my guest on www.blogtalkradio.com/backyard..., where we talk about life in Jamaica in the 30s, 40s, & 50s. Please let me know at info@backyardlabrish.com

    Thank you.

    MM

  • Lloyd G. Tapper

    Yes, let's rub His Excellency's nose in the mud. Fresh and out of order! Change the name to "George Stiebel Avenue".

    Great article.

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