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History of Montpelier Plantation Inn, Nevis

Montpelier Plantation Inn has existed as a hotel since the 1960s, but before that it was a plantation for around three hundred hundreds years. And as one of the leading estates in Nevis some illustrious figures have passed through Montpelier’s doors. Here is the story of Montpelier as told by the late Lincoln and his son Timothy Hoffman. The Hoffman family own Montpelier Plantation Inn.

It has been speculated that the name may have been conferred by one of these visitors, Sir Hans Sloane, the physician, Secretary of the Royal Society and avid collector of plants. Sloane had spent several years studying medicine in Montpellier, France where he graduated on July 28, 1683. The “medical/scholarly” reputation of the name Montpellier name became eclipsed by a more dominant association with that of a place with “singularly healthy and attractive setting”. Montpellier became a by-word; an example so well known that further explanation was unnecessary. In December 1687 Sir Hans Sloane visited Nevis for five days on his way to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle in HMS Assistance, a 44 gun ‘man-of-war’. Sloane walked to the top of Mount Nevis where he took plant samples from which he made copperplate engravings later printed in England (which can now be found in the Natural History Museum, London). After a long and arduous journey, no doubt Sloane felt he had found the “Montpelier of the Caribbean.”

A hundred years later a courageous resistance to French attack was orchestrated from Montpelier Plantation in 1782. John Herbert, President of Nevis and owner of Montpelier Plantation would have seen the approach of nearly 50 ships heading for the island from steps of Montpelier. The fleet was led by French Admiral Count Francois de Grasse in his flagship, the mighty 130-gun three-decker ship of the line Ville de Paris, and the most powerful vessel afloat. Nevis was to surrender on February 3, 1782. It is of some note that prior to his venture into the Caribbean, where de Grasse captured Nevis, Montserrat, and St Kitts, he had held off the British fleet at Yorktown, Virginia, enabling George Washington to defeat Lord Cornwallis in the decisive battle of the American Revolution. It is the present owner’s great-great- great grandfather, Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted the defeat from Lord Cornwallis on October 19, 1781.

As Nevis struggled to recover from the defeat, Fanny Nesbit came to Nevis with her infant son Josiah. Fanny had recently been widowed and it was in Nevis that she sought to rebuild her life with the help of her uncle John Herbert, President of the Council of Nevis, as she managed his household. In 1785 a young Horatio Nelson arrived as captain of HMS Boreas, a 28-gun frigate. As President of Nevis, Mr. Herbert and his niece frequently hosted dignitaries at Montpelier as guests of Nevis. Indeed, it was Mr. Herbert who would find, to his amazement, Nelson playing on all fours under the dining room table with the young Josiah during a visit.

Montpelier found its place in history once again on March 11, 1787 as the witness to the marriage of Fanny Nisbet to Horatio Nelson. Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence later King William IV gave away the bride at the wedding. Prince William Henry was commander of HMS Pegasus and Prince William Street in Charlestown is named in his honour.

As one of several hundred sugar plantations, Montpelier contributed to the rapid growth of the island. In 1727 a gallon of cane juice from Nevis yielded 24 ounces of sugar, while a gallon of juice from St. Kitts yielded only 16 oz. The richness of Nevis’s soil made it the leading sugar producer in the Leeward Islands, and the richest of the islands. As early as 1650 it was said Nevis sugar was the best in the West Indies. In the 1830s slavery came to end in Nevis and around the same time the sugar beet was introduced to Europe. When it was discovered that crystallized sugar could be obtained from beets grown in Europe the distance and growing expense of sugar cane in the Caribbean became unviable. By 1922, there was a full-blown depression in the sugar industry in Nevis. In addition, the sugar monopoly the Caribbean Islands had enjoyed in the British Empire had been lost, forcing prices lower still. Production costs in Nevis were high and prices were low.

Like so much of Nevis, Montpelier fell into disrepair in the 19th century. According to a 1907 guidebook, only ruined walls and a gate were then visible. An American visitor to Nevis in 1895 described the end of one era and the beginning of a new one as follows: ….

“On the hill behind [the great stone mansion] rises the tower of the windmill, still intact, with its huge arms still motionless in the air. The sugar-boiling house is a thorough ruin with the roof fallen in… A great square stone tank sunk in the ground is still full of water, but the house and the buildings are empty and abandoned. Some of the fields are grown up, but others are being cultivated in small patches by the Negroes whose huts and cabins are scattered about. Their huts, too, are more neat and better kept than in other islands, and one sometimes sees a flower garden with roses and other brilliant blossoms…”

It remained a ruin for another fifty years, but then in the early 1960s Montpelier Estate and 200 acres of land were purchased by James Milnes Gaskell. After a restoration of the estate house ruins, re-using the cut stone, curved arches and lush landscaping, he opened it as a hotel in 1965. He and his wife Celia ran the hotel for the next 35 years. You will be amazed to know that the ficus tree that stands right at the entrance of the hotel, and which looks as though it might have been there for over a century, was in fact planted at the time of the restoration.

In April 2002 the Milnes Gaskells sold Montpelier to the Hoffman Family.