Betsy Austin and Hannah Lewis: Female Entrepreneurs in Jane Austen’s Transatlantic World

In our recent article in Modern Philology, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife,” Devoney Looser and I discuss Jane Austen’s literary legacy and its connection through her naval brother with two Barbadian freewomen: Betsy Austin (d. 1848) and Hannah Lewis (c. 1792), two women who ran successful hotels in Bridgetown, Barbados. We describe two newly published letters by Jane Austen’s brother Charles (1779-1852) that depict his business relationships with Austin and Lewis and his friendship with the artist, travel writer, and diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842). We comment on how Charles Austen discussed these businesswomen—who we argue would have functioned as madams, as well as innkeepers—in the same breath as he discussed British women novelists. His mention of Austin and Lewis is brief, but as Looser and I observe, the connection “ought to make us wonder whether Charles Austen’s support of his sister’s literary career had an impact on his interactions with women who ran businesses of a very different kind.” 1)Many thanks to Devoney Looser for her invaluable assistance in unearthing the scattered information on Austin and Lewis, and for her contributions in piecing together this information into a useful and cogent discussion. After having this article and the Austen/Austin comparison highlighted in the ArtsBeat Blog of the New York Times, as well as in a forthcoming article in Jane Austen’s Regency World (the official magazine of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath), I was prompted to do more with the Austin/Austen connection and to ask, what do we know of these women beyond the portrait painted by Charles Austen in these documents from the late 1820s?

A closer look into the often-colorful histories of Austin (not to be confused with Austen) and Lewis reveals the intricacies of the lives of free, mixed-race, female entrepreneurs in colonial Barbados in the decades leading up to the Emancipation Act of 1833 (effected in 1834). Nineteenth-century Bridgetown was a hub of colonial naval and tourist travel in the West Indies. And, perhaps in association with this travel, Bridgetown was also well known for its hotels—and the prostitutes who operated out of them—which were traditionally run by mixed-race freewomen. These hotels came to define Bridgetown’s cityscape and commerce. Historians, including Hilary McD. Beckles, note that often these prostitutes were sent to “go on board ships of war for the purpose of selling sex for money” and “were leased out to visiting ‘gentlemen,’ ships’ captains, and other clients for ‘a specified period.’” In fact, when European men hired the services of female laborers of any kind—including lodging—it is more than likely that they did so with the “general expectation” that “sexual benefits were included.” Lodging and sexual services went hand-in-hand; as late as 1837, most hotels and taverns in Bridgetown were “considered ‘houses of debauchery.’” 2)Hilary McD. Beckles, Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados (London: Zed, 1989), 142-43. These “houses of debauchery” ranged in quality and in price, and as traveler Charles William Day suggestively states, the rooms may have been inexpensive, but they came “with an infinity of extras which swell the bill to an enormous amount.” 3)Charles William Day, Five Year’s Residence in the West Indies. 2 vols. (London, 1852), 1:13.

The hotels were generally respected, but they skirted respectability. Nevertheless, they remained popular with European travelers despite their salacious associations and representations in visual and verbal arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Day notes, “respectable passengers by the steamers take their wives and daughters to a locale that one would suppose to be sufficiently notorious, as no one in Barbadoes pretends to be ignorant of the nature of the establishment.” 4)Ibid.; italics in original. Few British travelers would be naïve of the hotels’ reputations and services provided. What’s more, the reputation of the hotels’ services had been transported across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century in Thomas Rowlandson’s highly sexualized portrayal of famous eighteenth-century innkeeper, Rachel Pringle Polgreen (1753-91) in Rachel Pringle of Barbadoes (1796).

Rachel Pringle of Barbadoes (1796) By Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2015

Rachel Pringle of Barbadoes (1796)
By Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2015

Looser and I unpack this painting’s imagery of sexuality and language of consumption (the “Pawpaw sweetmeats & Pickles of all sorts” on the sign behind the sultry Pringle) in concert with Charles Austen’s potential innuendoes in his correspondence with Porter in “Jane Austen’s Afterlife.” But here, I want to focus more on Betsy Austin and Hannah Lewis themselves, how they have been remembered, and how they might reshape the ways we read Austen’s novels.

Even after her death, Pringle—and her sweetmeats with their sexual associations—remained the symbol of Barbadian hospitality. Following in Pringle’s legacy, Miss Eliza Howard Austin (more popularly known as Miss Betsy Austin) and Miss Hannah Lewis were also renowned, robust innkeepers in Bridgetown in the early nineteenth century, known for offering premier and high-priced services in “entertainment, both mental and corporeal,” as author and abolitionist Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886) wrote in his Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies (1835). Madden followed up this assessment with the assertion that if the “intelligent traveler” wishes “a specimen of Creole dignity, he must go to the hotel of Miss Betsy Austin; if he wishes for a sample of the indolent tranquility of a large brown lady, he must take up his quarters at the house of Miss Hannah Lewis. Either will afford him a very tolerable specimen of the species she belongs to.” 5)Richard Robert Madden, A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies, During the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship: with Incidental Notices on the State of Society, Prospects, and Natural Resources of Jamaica and Other Islands. 2 vols. (London, 1835), 1:16.

Many other contemporary references to these West Indian madams appear as anecdotes in letters and diaries, such as Charles Austen’s, and in travel writing, such as Madden’s. These anecdotes consistently characterize Austin and Lewis as mulatto or creole archrivals, implicitly linking the women’s bodies with their businesses as innkeepers—and more. In his travel narrative, West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859), novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) ponders pointedly about the hospitality services offered by the female entrepreneurs, while managing to skirt any outright references to prostitution:

There is a mystery about hotels in the British West Indies. They are always kept by fat, middle-aged coloured ladies, who have no husbands…but they invariably seemed to have a knowledge of the world, especially of the male hotel-frequenting world, hardly compatible with a retiring maiden state of life…it did strike me as singular that the profession should always be in the hands of these ladies, and that they should never get husbands. 6)Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main, 4th. ed. (London, 1860), 195-96.

The New Monthly Magazine calls the population of female innkeepers in Barbados a “peculiar race” and likewise suggests that it is “difficult to know at first which they most pique themselves upon, the title of the maiden or the performance of the matron.” 7)The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1845): 2.255. On the economic and social history resulting in the primacy of females as hoteliers, see Melanie J. Newton, The Children of Africa in the Colonies: Free People of Color in Barbados in the Age of Emancipation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 61-65; and Pedro Welch and Richard Goodridge, “Red” and Black over White: Free Coloured Women in Pre-Emancipation Barbados (Bridgetown: Carib Research and Publications, 2000), 72-78. Despite (or maybe because of) their services and reputations, these “peculiar” and “female” innkeepers were considered among the “celebrated of Barbados,” as the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review suggests in this less-than-flattering anecdote of Betsy Austin, published along with notice of her death in 1848:

Amongst the celebrated of Barbados whom I deemed it my duty to visit was the renowned Betsy Austin, once (in the days when the late King William was a jolly mod.) the pride of the ’Badian dignity balls, but now in ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ fat as a turtle. I found the ancient beauty sitting in the verandah of her house, surrounded by a dozen sable and yellow handmaidens, who were engaged in pickling and preserving West India fruits. She insisted on my joining her in a sangaree, with was prepared in a tumbler holding about half a gallon; and shaking my hand at parting, being crying drunk, slobbered out a ‘Gar bless you, sar!’ 8)The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review 185 (May 1849): 450

Henry Nelson Coleridge (nephew of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), conversely, highlights Lewis’s respectability in Six Months in the West Indies in 1825 (1826) and even recommends her lodgings: “Hannah Lewis (every one knows Hannah Lewis) is very fat, and, I believe, tolerably respectable…I recommend Miss Lewis’s Hotel to the stranger in Barbados.” 9)Henry Nelson Coleridge, Six Months in the West Indies in 1825 (London, 1826), 142. Further descriptions of these women’s physical appearance and business services abound, all generally portraying Lewis, Austin, and their fellow female landladies as portly, loud, efficient, and often associated with the preserves and condiments depicted by Rowlandson and mentioned by Charles Austen. 10)See also [Frederic William Bayley], Four Year’s Residence in the West Indies (London, 1833), 27-33, 149-50; William Lloyd, Letters from the West Indies (London, 1839), 7; “Reminisces of Foreign Service,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal 24 (1864): 508-509.

Little is known of Hannah Lewis beyond what is relayed here—despite Coleridge’s aside that “every one knows Hannah Lewis,” despite Madden’s assertion that “who, pray, so ignorant of Caribbean hostelry as not to have heard of…Miss Hannah Lewis—the brown lady?”, and despite Charles Austen’s obvious preference of Lewis’s establishment over Austin’s. 11)Madden, 17; Ruth Knezevich and Devoney Looser, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife, West Indian Madams, and the Literary Porter Family: Two New Letters from Charles Austen” Modern Philology 112.3 (2015): 559. What little else we know of Lewis is that hers was one of two hotels to remain unscathed in a tragic fire that swept through Bridgetown’s commercial district in 1845, according to reports in the London-based Standard. 12)“Destructive Fire at Barbados,” The Standard (March 12, 1845): n.p. Betsy Austin has retained a slightly stronger foothold in the popular imagination beyond mere bawdy references. Her legacy is largely due to Frederick Marryat’s (1792-1848) fictional representation of Austin in his novel Peter Simple (1834). Marryat’s characterization of Austin “rendered her name familiar in various parts of the globe,” as her obituary observed. 13)The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser (January 19, 1849): 8. Furthermore, Marryat’s portrayal builds upon travel narratives’ illustration of her range of services, presenting the character’s speech in saucy, proverbial phrases like “Here to de hen what nebber refuses, / Let cock pay compliment whenebber he chooses.” 14)[Frederick Marryat], Peter Simple. 3 vols. (London, 1834), 2:205. Perhaps it is only coincidence, but when Miss Betsy Austin died in 1848, still serving as proprietor of the Clarence Hotel, the colorful accounts of the “celebrated of Barbados” did so too.

When we look beyond the “mental and corporeal” entertainments provided by Austin and Lewis that many writers and travelers emphasized, we might instead regard these women as the successful entrepreneurs and central figures in the Bridgetown social scene that they were. Free Afro-Barbadian women were synonymous with public houses, taverns, and hotels ubiquitous in nineteenth-century Barbados, as scholars have noted, and these women used their social standing to bolster their colonial community by sponsoring prominent social events. 15)Tara Inniss, Ins and Outs of Barbados 2012 Special Edition (The Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association); Newton, 61, 107. See also See Neville Connell, “Hotel Keepers and Hotels in Barbados” Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 33 (1970): 162-85; Beckles, “Property Rights in Pleasure: The Marketing of Slave Women’s Sexuality in the West Indies,” in West Indies Accounts: Essays on the History of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic Economy: In Honour of Richard Sheridan, ed. Roderick A. McDonald (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 1996), 169-87; Kari J. Winter, “Jeffrey Brace in Barbados: Slavery, Interracial Relationships, and the Emergence of a Global Economy,” in Nineteenth-Century Worlds: Global Formations Past and Present, eds. Keith Hanley and Greg Kucich (New York: Routledge, 2008), 39-54. Jerome S. Handler, The Unappropriated People: Freedmen in the Slave Society of Barbados (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 33-37, 136; and Marisa J. Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive” Gender and History 22 (2010): 564-84. One such event would be the “dignity balls,” preferred over even the governor’s balls, mentioned in Gentleman’s Magazine, which Marryat brings to life in Peter Simple, describing the dignity balls as respected events “given by the most consequential of [Barbadians].” 16)[Marryat], 2:193-202. Based on this assessment of Austin’s and Lewis’s social standing in their communities alone, these entrepreneurs hold great importance in women’s history.

The legacies of Miss Betsy Austin and Miss Hannah Lewis (and their relative anonymity today, even with their contemporary renown) speak to the dynamism of history, especially when we revisit “herstory” and explore new perspectives on women’s professions in the nineteenth century and the public portrayal of these professional women—the relative respectability and success of life as a novelist, on the one hand, or life as an innkeeper, on the other. Betsy Austin’s death in 1848 came with more notice than had Jane Austen’s in 1817. In fact, both during her lifetime and upon her death, Betsy Austin was arguably better known in Barbados than Jane Austen was in England. But that balance would shift radically in the coming years. In the spirit of Devoney Looser’s recent remarks on “herstory,” here in the Bluestocking Salon, I suggest that there is room for us to remember and research the impact of another Austin.

Ruth Knezevich

Ruth Knezevich

Doctoral Candidate at University of Missouri
I am a doctoral candidate at the University in Missouri, studying 18th-century British Literature and Romanticism. My dissertation-in-progress, entitled "Narrative as Archive: Ethnographic Paratexts in British Literature, 1760-1830," explores the ethno-historical footnote in narrative poetry and novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Additionally, I serve on the editorial staff for the Journal of Oral Tradition. For more on my research and professional development, please visit http://english.missouri.edu/gradstudents/538-ruth-knezevich.html
Ruth Knezevich

References   [ + ]

1. Many thanks to Devoney Looser for her invaluable assistance in unearthing the scattered information on Austin and Lewis, and for her contributions in piecing together this information into a useful and cogent discussion.
2. Hilary McD. Beckles, Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados (London: Zed, 1989), 142-43.
3. Charles William Day, Five Year’s Residence in the West Indies. 2 vols. (London, 1852), 1:13.
4. Ibid.; italics in original.
5. Richard Robert Madden, A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies, During the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship: with Incidental Notices on the State of Society, Prospects, and Natural Resources of Jamaica and Other Islands. 2 vols. (London, 1835), 1:16.
6. Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main, 4th. ed. (London, 1860), 195-96.
7. The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1845): 2.255. On the economic and social history resulting in the primacy of females as hoteliers, see Melanie J. Newton, The Children of Africa in the Colonies: Free People of Color in Barbados in the Age of Emancipation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 61-65; and Pedro Welch and Richard Goodridge, “Red” and Black over White: Free Coloured Women in Pre-Emancipation Barbados (Bridgetown: Carib Research and Publications, 2000), 72-78.
8. The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review 185 (May 1849): 450
9. Henry Nelson Coleridge, Six Months in the West Indies in 1825 (London, 1826), 142.
10. See also [Frederic William Bayley], Four Year’s Residence in the West Indies (London, 1833), 27-33, 149-50; William Lloyd, Letters from the West Indies (London, 1839), 7; “Reminisces of Foreign Service,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal 24 (1864): 508-509.
11. Madden, 17; Ruth Knezevich and Devoney Looser, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife, West Indian Madams, and the Literary Porter Family: Two New Letters from Charles Austen” Modern Philology 112.3 (2015): 559.
12. “Destructive Fire at Barbados,” The Standard (March 12, 1845): n.p.
13. The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser (January 19, 1849): 8.
14. [Frederick Marryat], Peter Simple. 3 vols. (London, 1834), 2:205.
15. Tara Inniss, Ins and Outs of Barbados 2012 Special Edition (The Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association); Newton, 61, 107. See also See Neville Connell, “Hotel Keepers and Hotels in Barbados” Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 33 (1970): 162-85; Beckles, “Property Rights in Pleasure: The Marketing of Slave Women’s Sexuality in the West Indies,” in West Indies Accounts: Essays on the History of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic Economy: In Honour of Richard Sheridan, ed. Roderick A. McDonald (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 1996), 169-87; Kari J. Winter, “Jeffrey Brace in Barbados: Slavery, Interracial Relationships, and the Emergence of a Global Economy,” in Nineteenth-Century Worlds: Global Formations Past and Present, eds. Keith Hanley and Greg Kucich (New York: Routledge, 2008), 39-54. Jerome S. Handler, The Unappropriated People: Freedmen in the Slave Society of Barbados (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 33-37, 136; and Marisa J. Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive” Gender and History 22 (2010): 564-84.
16. [Marryat], 2:193-202.

  1 comment for “Betsy Austin and Hannah Lewis: Female Entrepreneurs in Jane Austen’s Transatlantic World

  1. c
    June 10, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    As a Barbadian who as a teenager loved Austin’s work, I found this article fascinating. I will definitely be sharing this with my History Forum facebook crew.

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