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By Venesha Johnson | Associate Writer
If you have ever been to Jamaica or even planning to come for a visit, one place that you have probably been recommended to visit is Devon House. While it is mostly known for its beautiful grounds, delicious ice cream and tasty pastries did you know it is also a historical site? This is all because of one great man, George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black Millionaire.
While we do not know Stiebel’s exact date of birth we are certain it was within the year 1821, in Kingston Jamaica. His parents were Eliza Catherine Bailey, a Jamaican-born woman who appeared to be of African heritage, and Sigismund Stiebel (1790–1859), a man of the Jewish faith from Frankfurt, Germany, who moved to Jamaica to take advantage of a chance provided by the British. Despite being born into modest circumstances, Stiebel's upbringing was filled with the promise of greatness.
At age 14, Stiebel dropped out of school and began working as a carpenter. At age 19, he began working at the renowned Ferry Inn in Jamaica, which is located halfway between Kingston and Spanish Town. He was employed by the merchant firm owned by the Schloss/Stiebel family, but in the 1840s, his father provided him money so he could launch his own commercial activities. He used the funds to establish maritime travel between North and South America by purchasing one ship, then two more, in the future. He changed to the more lucrative armaments trade in Cuba's late colonial era, which is why he had to spend some time in jail.
His ships were sunk in a storm in 1856, but he escaped, and he was able to use the money he had saved up to begin a career as a peddler in Venezuela because apparently, he had secured it all in a leather belt. He started out trading gold and eventually bought a gold mine. He is reported to have found a gold mine with three other black guys, which is said to have produced 80,000 pounds sterling each month for several years. He held onto his shares while the rest sold theirs at exorbitant prices, and when the mine was ultimately capitalized for $16,000,000. he became a billionaire. The first black millionaire on the island, George returned to Jamaica in 1873 thanks to the success of his extremely lucrative business.
After his return, he leveraged his family's business connections and the knowledge he had gained abroad. He invested wisely in real estate and eventually, he bought 99 properties, including two sugar plantations, Great Salt Pond, a wharf on Church Street, and a cattle pen at Minard in the Saint Ann's Bay District. George Stiebel was able to construct his own Devon House there two years after the Church of England's ownership of the Devon Penn in Kingston, which had been granted to the Geneva preacher James Zeller in 1644, ended in October 1879. The 1881-built neoclassical mansion, which is situated in a park, is today one of Kingston's top tourist attractions.
George Stiebel's personal life was as intriguing as his financial success. He fell in love with Magdalene Baker, the daughter of a wealthy planter. Their love story transcended social norms of the time, and they married despite opposition from Magdalene's family. Their union was not only a romantic triumph but also a symbol of George Stiebel's growing prominence in Jamaican society. In 1851 he married Magdalene Baker (1825-1892), with whom he had children Sigismund (1852-1871) and Theresa (1856-1922).
In addition to becoming a successful businessman in Kingston, Stiebel was also involved in philanthropy and persisted in his attempts to better the social and economic circumstances in the nation. Additionally, he served as a justice of the peace and strongly supported the constitutional amendment of 1884 that allowed for the restoration of certain elected lawmakers to the Jamaican legislature. In his capacity as Custos of St. Andrew, he played a crucial role in securing money for the Great Exhibition of 1891, which was intended to boost island tourism. The British Queen Victoria awarded Stiebel the title of Companion of the Most Distinguished Order (C.M.G.) in appreciation for his services to the island.
Theophilus Beanswell saw George Stiebel pass away at Devon House on June 29, 1896, without any immediate family members present. His five grandkids were in England with his daughter, who was unable to make it to his funeral. He passed away a year after the passing of both his son-in-law Richard Hill Jackson (1845-1895) and grandson Douglas Jackson (1884-1895). They passed away at Devon House one week apart.
George Stiebel's life is a captivating tale of resilience, ambition, and the pursuit of dreams. From his humble beginnings to his rise as Jamaica's first millionaire, Stiebel's journey is a testament to the endless possibilities that await those who dare to dream big and work tirelessly to achieve their goals. His legacy is etched in the walls of Devon House, the thriving businesses he founded, and the lives he touched through his philanthropy. George Stiebel remains an enigmatic figure in our history, a symbol of what one can achieve with determination and vision. His story is not just intriguing; it's an inspiration for generations to come.
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