Exuma History: Who was John Rolle?

John Rolle's name is still heard all over Exuma today, but who was this man and what role did he play in Exuma's history?

The Exuma Cays have a rich history, but it’s still relatively unknown by many. Many historical figures played vital roles in Exuma’s past, but Lord John Rolle’s presence can still be felt today.


So who was Lord John Rolle?


Background of John Rolle

Lord John Rolle was the eldest son of his father, Denys Rolle. The Rolle family was one of the richest and most powerful families in Devon, England. Denys Rolle owned a large plantation in Florida, which was run by African slave labor. After the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, when Florida was returned to Spain and Spain, in turn, gave control of the Bahamas to Britain, Denys Rolle was granted land on Exuma. Denys and John Rolle moved their entire operation to Exuma, including around 400 slaves.


Lord John Rolle was an influential British peer and an active member of the House of Lords. He was a large man known for lacking grace or elegance. In 1797, Denys Rolle passed away, and John Rolle inherited all of the family’s extensive estates.


John Rolle and Exuma

Interestingly, John Rolle never stepped foot on his Exuma plantation. This wasn’t uncommon at the time for landowners to run their plantations remotely. Although he supported movements to abolish slavery, John Rolle had inherited around 400 slaves from his father that worked on Exuma.


Rolle is historically linked to the Pompey Slave Revolt. In 1830, John Rolle ordered 77 of his slaves to be transferred to work on Cat Island. Pompey, a 32-year-old slave at the time, defied the transfer. He rallied fellow slaves and fled to the bush, where he avoided capture for several weeks. Eventually, he was able to petition the British Governor in Nassau to stop the transfer, which was granted. Pompey was hailed a hero until his return, but he received 39 lashes as punishment for running away and starting a rebellion. Today a statue still stands on Great Exuma marking this fight against slavery.


On August 1st, 1838 all of John Rolle’s slaves were officially declared free. The slaves took over the Rolle lands on Exuma, running them communally. There are differing stories on how the slaves came to own the land. Some reports say John Rolle gave it to them while other reports say that Rolle simply abandoned the lands allowing the slaves to claim it. Either way, Rolle is remembered fondly in Exuma to this day. A large portion of his freed slaves took up the last name Rolle. In fact, Rolle is one of the most common last names in Exuma.


John Rolle’s Legacy

John Rolle’s memory lives on Exuma to this day. It’s estimated that around 60% of local residents have the last name, Rolle. A number of towns were named after him in gratitude as well such as Rolletown and Rolleville, and are still standing today.


There are five Lord John Rolle Commonage Estates on Exuma today. These are protected properties that cannot be sold. These include:

  • Rolle Town
  • Rolleville
  • Steventon
  • Ramsey
  • Mount Thompson


John Rolle might not have been the generous revolutionary history remembers his as, but he still played a vital role in Exuma’s history.