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Archive for February, 2009

 

 <—Obeah                                                       Prejudice —>

 

“Yesterday was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced.  It started innocently enough with Lucy and I having breakfast on the veranda overlooking their plantain field.  A plantain is almost exactly like a banana and grows in enormous bunches just the way bananas do, but they are bigger and green, not yellow.   

  

From the verandah I could see John at the entrance to a field listening intently to a wizened old man.  Standing next to the old man was a small black boy who carried a large basket. 

 

“Who is the old man” I asked Lucy

 

“He’s an Obeah man and he’s going to dress the garden”

 

“What on earth are you talking about, Lucy?”

 

Then she explained Obeah was a form of witchcraft and that an Obeah man or woman is the person, or practitioner, as they like to be called, who controls the supernatural world using spirits to harm people with techniques passed down in secret from one generation to another.  I was fascinated and wanted to hear more. 

 

“There could be many reasons why someone might want the services of an Obeah man.  It may be for a medical reason, if someone is ill in which case the patient would be given a bottle of something to take or they would have to follow certain instructions.   But often it’s to do with getting revenge on someone who has caused you harm in some way; maybe you wanted to discover a thief or sometimes it’s for  more romantic reasons – you want to make a particular person fall in love with you or you might want to win at gambling.”

 

But do you and John believe in it, Lucy?”

 

“We don’t, but many white Jamaicans do and John is certainly prepared to indulge in it if it is to his advantage.”

 

“We’re being robbed of six or seven bunches of plantain every week in spite of employing extra men to watch the fields and that’s why we’ve arranged for an Obeah man to solve the problem for us” she said. 

 

There could be something in it, Becky, if for no other reason than the Obeah man’s knowledge of poisons is far beyond that of the European druggists.  Most practitioners learned how to use herbs for cures.  The practitioners knowledge of the roots and herbs brought over from Africa remained with them since most of the same plants grew in the tropical climate of Jamaica and so the customs and practices were passed down from generation to generation.” 

 

The old man took the basket from the boy and went into the field where there were rows and rows of plantain trees.  He took out from his basket different sized bottles, which had some sort of liquid inside them.  Then, he walked up and down the rows of plantains and tied a bottle on to some of the fruit, at the same time muttering some sort of incantation.  When he had done that he would wave his arms over the plantain and genuflect.   Once that was done he would move on to another row of plantain and perform the whole ceremony over again and continue to do that until he’d done the whole field.  

 

After that he produced, from his basket, a tiny little black wooden coffin, which with great pomp and circumstance he placed in the branches of a big old cotton tree.  Then he took a saucer from his basket and put some water in it and dropped some egg shells in the water and then put the saucer on top of the coffin in the cotton tree.  The old man walked right round the field again waving his arms all over the place, still muttering and went over to John who gave the old man some money and he and the boy then left the field.  “And that little exhibition is known as “dressing the garden” and, hopefully, that will be the end of the thieving now”. Lucy said.

 

She continued, “Once word gets around that the Obeah man has been in the field people will believe he has put a curse on anyone entering it.  They will be convinced that terrible things will happen to them if they do.”

 

According to John the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that after emancipation, with the missionaries bringing Christianity to the freed slaves, Obeah would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much the same as now. It’s deep rooted in the black and coloured Jamaican’s heritage and culture and even though you might come across a family that is both Christian and well educated, the likelihood is that someone in it will be dabbling in Obeah.

 

It strikes me that emancipation hasn’t changed much in Jamaica, her present is still very much tied to her past.”

<—Obeah                                          Prejudice —>

 

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<—Colonising the “land of wood & water        Becky’s Diary - My 1st Encounter with Obeah–>              

Even though my mother was deeply religious, and obeah was against the teachings of the Catholic Church, Mum couldn’t let go of the culture that had been so much part of her life growing up in Kingston, Jamaica.  I grew up in Brighton on the south-east coast of England in the 1950s, where there were no obeah practitioners to work their ‘magic’, but Mum often told me stories of how when someone upset any member of her family – her mother, my grandmother Becky –  would contact their local obeahman to make a spell so the person would be punished for their wrongdoing.  

 

As far as I could work out from my research, obeah’s power lay in a practitioner working on the fears of a people who were fundamentally superstitious to start with and that included my Mum.  Since just about every black and coloured person in Jamaica during the 1920-30s (and the years beyond)  believed in obeah, once they knew it was being worked against them, they were convinced they were doomed to either some kind of  excruciating pain or worse, death. 

 

Obeah practitioners had other skills too and were often consulted over medical problems rather than a conventional doctor.  They were very knowledgeable about plants and herbs that grew in Jamaica, information which had been passed down through the centuries from generation to generation. They would successfully prescribe herbal remedies for a variety of ailments, not only for coloured and black Jamaicans, but white also.  

 

The South East of England is not the West Indies, so when I was ill as a child I wasn’t treated with exotic herbs.  My alternative treatments were more down to earth - I can’t tell you the number of times I had boiled onions wrapped in muslin and tied around my feet to bring my temperature down or had to put a matchstick behind my right ear to get rid of some pain I had - usually a  stomach ache.  Mum told me her mother, Becky, used to do this for her when she was a child.  She said it worked for her and it did for me too.  Power of suggestion, maybe?                                             

 

<—Colonising the “land of wood & water           Becky”s Diary “My First Encounter with Obeah”   —>

 
 
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<—London to Kingston Life on SS Port Morant 1902         Obeah—->

 

My Great Aunt Lucy’s plantation was called “Mon Repose” situated in the Blue Mountains and accessible by a horse drawn buggy, up rough but scenically beautiful roads, steep hills, past towering coca palms with their feathery plumes waving in the breeze, around sudden sharp bends with  waterfalls cascading down the side of the mountain. 

 

By all accounts the house was wonderful, spacious and cool with mahogany wood panelling in most rooms and windows that went from the highly polished floor to the ceiling and left open all day to let the mountain breeze run through the house.  Lucy’s sketches were all over the house as well as her water-colour paintings of exotic flowers and ferns, and brightly coloured parrots, hummingbirds and mockingbirds. 

 

My grandmother Becky wrote:

 

“Coming from Paddington, it’s taking me some time to get use to seeing such a richness of scenery that thrives under a sun that shines constantly in a cloudless clear blue sky.

 

John and Lucy are a popular couple on Kingston’s social circuit and Lucy tells us that new arrivals, even if they are only staying a short time, always attract interest, curiosity and lots of invitations to different social and sporting occasions abound.  A garden party at Winchester Park, a concert at Port Antonio, a picnic on the beach, the theatre and an invitation to Kingston Races, are just a few of the invitations we’ve received. 

 

I haven’t the stamina to accept all the invitations but Martha is making the most of the social life here which is why she sleeps late every morning.  But in spite of all that is new to us, there are some things that are very familiar about this island. 

 

Britain’s habit of colonising a country in its own image has not escaped here.  Jamaica, the exotic “land of wood and water” is divided into three counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall.  The English settlers brought with them their recreations and pastimes.   Horseracing is very popular with everyone and race meetings are held in several parts of the island. 

 

           John says there’s a cricket club in virtually every major town for the well off Jamaican, and just about every open space has become a cricket pitch for poor blacks who seem to have developed a passion for the game and would use an oil tin for the wickets and the rib of a palm leaf for a bat.  All the best hotels have tennis courts and fallow fields have been turned into polo fields.”

 

Becky and Martha spent a lot of time in Kingston doing different things.  Apparently Becky liked to go to the many markets there were around the city where women and children come down from the hillside, virtually every day, sometimes with donkeys and mules but more often, carrying baskets on their heads, laden with vegetables, sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, pimento, annatto, honey, bananas, ackee, spices, ropes of tobacco and whatever else they had grown and set themselves up with a stall and sell their provisions to the local people. 

 
market-women-going-to-kingston market
 

Martha, on the other hand, liked to go to the Constant Spring Hotel where she’d taken a fancy to James McTavis, the Manager. 

 

My Great Aunt Lucy wrote: 

 

Martha’s demeanour has changed since she has been in Jamaica probably because she is happy and has been enjoying herself.  I think she is considering settling here and it is understandable, Martha has seen that she can have a standard of living and a way of life she cannot equal in London and her skills with a needle will help her find employment on the island so, who knows, it may work well for her.” 

 

My Mum, Olga, was a very superstitious woman and it wasn’t until I started doing the research on her family and Jamaica that I realised where it came from……….Obeah, a form of witchcraft which, although illegal, had flourished unchecked in Jamaica and had superstitious rites and practices which were observed with regard to every phase of life from birth to death.

 

Most Jamaicans were Christians and certainly aware that Obeah went against the teachings of the Catholic Church, yet it was obvious how important religion was to Jamaicans simply because of all the many churches and chapels of different denominations there were on the island. Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, a few Anglican and, of course, the Catholic Church were all there. 

 

In Jamaica it was believed by most that when a man dies, his body goes to the ground and his soul goes to God, but his spirit, which is known as a duppy, stays for a while or even permanently.  There are good duppies and bad ones, but all are feared because, apparently, one doesn’t know how they’re going to behave.  They are deemed to be the instrument of the Obeah man or woman and do revengeful and malicious things.   

 

Just about everywhere on the island any accident or misfortune, illness or death was attributed to the malign influence of the spirits of the dead either initiated by the duppy’s own wicked purpose or carried out through envy, or else by someone bent on revenge towards a perceived enemy of the sufferer. 

 

Instead of offering a prayer to heaven, a man or woman would give three pounds to an Obeah practitioner and then offer a pray to God that the Obeah man is successful in what was asked of him.  The man would say that Heaven keeps him waiting but the Obeah man does not because he settles matters satisfactorily and quickly.  

 

Every parish on the island had its corners where the art of Obeah was practised and some localities had a particular reputation for it.  An Obeah man’s influence was strong because the people believed that he cannot not be harmed by the law or any white person.  People of every calling, including well educated men and women, white, coloured or black, used Obeah in some shape or form to fix a problem they might have had.   

 

It was only a matter of days before Becky had her first experience of Obeah……

 

<—London to Kingston Life on SS Port Morant 1902                Obeah—->

 

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<–Letters between Lucy & Becky 1901      Colonising the “land of wood & water” ->

 ssportmorant2

The S.S. Port Morant was for that time, a ‘state of the art’ ship and brand new.  She had electricity and refrigeration which kept the bananas that were carried from the West Indies to London, fresh.  But that wasn’t all she had…….she had style.   In the Victorian era when the British built something, whether it was a building or a ship,  it had style.   Unlike today when most things are built for functionality and are plain and sometimes downright ugly.   The Port Morant not only carried bananas, but also the Royal Mail and passengers.  

 

For my grandmother Becky and my Great Aunt Martha just travelling on the Port Morant to Kingston would have been an adventure in itself, never mind going to Jamaica for a holiday.  Becky wrote in her journal:

 

The Port Morant is a beautiful boat. Our cabin is comfortable, spacious and well ventilated and with, of all things, an electric light.  The dining room is decorated with light coloured woods and carved panels and has been divided into a number of recesses, each with a separate dining table with seating for up to six people. The seats are upholstered in royal blue and, this I thought wonderful, the glass in the doors have been hand painted with views of Jamaican scenery.

Dining Room - S.S. Port Morant
Dining Room – S.S. Port Morant

 

 

Our departure from Avonmouth was delayed because of dense fog and it was not until it cleared some hours later that we were able to proceed on our way. No sooner had we cleared the fog than we sailed straight into rough weather and the Captain confined all passengers to their cabins for safety. Martha and I have discovered we have no sea legs.  I’ve been ill for days now and am convinced there is nothing more miserable than seasickness. Except perhaps listening to the wailing through the cabin walls of others as miserable as we are. It’s all very distressing, I don’t think I shall ever forget these last few days.

 

 

Martha said she anticipated that there might be rough weather and brought some linctus which she keeps in a silver flask. She says it is good for keeping the contents of her stomach in place. It also appears to be good as a sleeping draught since she sleeps so soundly at night and is oblivious to the pitching and rolling of the boat. I tried it myself but didn’t like it. Martha says it is an acquired taste.

 

The weather has cleared and is glorious now, calm seas and lots of sunshine. It was a shock to get on the deck and see the chaos that the storm had caused. Deck chairs were lying broken in pieces and wooden benches were on their sides but it wasn’t long before the crew got everything shipshape. There is plenty of space on the deck for walking and it is wonderful to finally be able to stroll and get lots of lovely fresh air.

 

Getting to know you

 

There was a “get together dinner” so we could all get acquainted with each other. The dining salon was ablaze with little coloured lights, paper streamers and balloons. Paper hats were provided for everybody and on the table were whistles and wooden things you twirl which make a bit of a racket. At our dining table were Dr and Mrs Turton who are planning to retire to Jamaica permanently as they do not like the cold and damp winters in England.

 

Many of the passengers are tourists, some are parents taking their children home from boarding school for the holidays and there are a couple of army officers who are going to be stationed on the island, one of whom I think Martha has already taken a shine to; she does seem to like a man in uniform.

 

After dinner, music sheets were handed out to us all containing verses of several well known songs and the ship’s orchestra started playing. At first we all started timidly singing, but it wasn’t long before everyone was participating with great gusto. 

 

The closer we get to Jamaica the brighter the sun and the air becomes balmy. It’s lovely at night to walk round the deck looking at the stars which are so clear and twinkle in the night sky and feel the softness in the air and a warm breeze that wraps itself around you.

 

Diner d’Adieu Menu

 

Tomorrow night there is to be a last dinner with a special menu and we are going to put on our best frocks, although Martha says we should be wearing evening dresses, but we don’t have any.

 

menu

According to the new, soon to be Manager of the Constant Spring Hotel, Mr James McTavis, we drank French champagne, German white wine and Italian dessert wine. He didn’t believe me when I told him I’d never drunk either wine or champagne before and then he and Martha seemed to be in competition as to who could drink the most. My money was on Martha. After dinner Lord Walsingham, who is a well known famous traveller, but not to me, thanked the Captain on behalf of the passengers for his “watchfulness and never ceasing supervision of the ship, particularly during those difficult early days in our journey”.

 

The Captain replied that the success of the voyage was not only his doing but also that of the officers and crew under his command. If he had not got such an able crew the ship could not have done so well. Then Lord Walsingham called for three cheers for the Captain and his crew and then the Captain called for three cheers for Lord Walsingham and the passengers. All very friendly.

 

These last wonderful days have been the most enjoyable I have ever spent. Martha has enjoyed herself too and she has been a good travelling companion. She and I are not as close as Lucy and I are, and I don’t really know why. I have tried in the past to get close to her but she discourages me. Sometimes I don’t think she even likes me.

 

Kingston Harbour

 As the steamer nears Jamaica I can see in the distance the mangroves and waving palm leafs and huge mountain ridges that are thick with acres and acres of vegetation. A blue haze wafts lazily over the top of the mountains like a long pale blue-grey chiffon scarf. These are the Blue Mountains, the back drop to Kingston.

 While we waited to disembark from the boat I watched the men tie the steamer to its berth in Kingston Harbour.

  

  

 

Negro workers

Negro workers

On the dockside black men, women and children are working at a furious pace loading the boats with bananas for their return journey to England. Great piles of green bananas carefully stacked in sizes are being loaded onto the steamer I’m waiting to disembark from.

 

I watched in fascination as the dirty, ragged figures of women and young girls ran up and down the gangplanks, in and out of the hatches in the sides of the boat below carrying the bananas on their heads with such consummate ease. Some of the men have cutlasses and are using them to slice the stalks off the bananas if they are too long. I’ve never seen black men before and can’t stop staring at them. When they’ve finished loading the bananas the women and girls are handed a piece of paper from the negro foreman and take it to the paymaster to collect their wages, I think.

 

Watching the hustle and bustle of the Negroes going about their work remind me of armies of ants soldiering away. 

 

<—Letters between Lucy & Becky 1901                 Colonising the “land of wood and water” —>

 

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<—My First Contact                         Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

Letter – from Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Constant Spring Hotel,  Jamaica 

 

July 1901

 

Dearest Lucy

 

It was lovely to receive your last letter.   Martha was very interested with your remarks about Jamaican women and how fashion conscious they are.  Maybe there is an opportunity for her skills over there, although at the moment she’s got a “gentleman friend”, a private in the army and they certainly do see a lot of each other. 

 

I’m working as a governess in Kensington for a very nice young couple who have two children, Emily and Robert, but it’s only a temporary position because they have an elderly governess who has been with the family for ages (handed down from generation to generation I think) but took a leave of absence and will be returning to her position in about two months.  That suits me well, because when I finish I want to enrol in a housekeeping and basic cookery course with Marshall’s Cookery School in Marylebone Road.  

 

I think the more things I can turn my hand too the less chance I’ll be pressured by Pa into marrying a man of his choice.  Would you believe it, Lucy,  in the past few weeks he has brought home three police constables to dinner with the express purpose of them looking me over to see if I am suitable marriage material.   I’ve no intention of being press ganged into marrying someone I don’t love even if it means I do end up a spinster of the parish. 

 

It’s wonderful to hear about your life over there.  I read your letters over and over again, usually on the way home from work, freezing cold and trudging through London smog, snow or rain, Jamaica seems magical, like a fairy land. 

 

Ma and Pa send their love to you and ask if you are going to mass on Sunday.  I assured them that we were all too scared of the hell and damnation that would befall us were we not to.

 

Your loving sister (Signed Becky)

 
 
  

Letter from Lucy Sinclair, “Mon Repose”, Jamaica 

to

Becky and Martha Ross, Droop Street, London.

 

February 1902 

 

Dearest Becky and Martha

 

It is barely a year ago that we arrived here; such a lot has happened in a short space of time.  John has found a small estate for sale, about 1,050 acres, and it is within our budget so, we have bought it and named our first home “Mon Repose”.

 

It’s in the parish of St Andrews which is a few miles from Kingston and John says it is in a good position as it is on fairly level land and has a stream running through it.  There are stables and a large barn which house some  50 or so cattle, 3 horses, 3 mules, a wagon cart and some other equipment that came with the land.   The horses and mules will be useful but John is undecided about whether he wants to raise cattle. He is keen to grow more crops and make use of  what he has learnt with Bertie Pollock. 

 

The land is divided by wire fences, most of which need repairing and has considerable cultivation in bananas, coffee, pimentos, over 150 bearing coconut trees and other bits and bobs. 

 

The house is quite large though it does need an awful lot of renovation because it has been empty for years, but its structure is sound.  It has a drawing room, dining room and four bedrooms and is quite well furnished.  That takes care of  one immediate problem, having to furnish it.  There is a kitchen and outside a water closet as well as an outhouse for bathing.

 

Oh it’s perfect Becky.  You and Martha must come and visit very soon.  There is plenty of room in the house, lots to see, and so much I want to show you.  Are you and Martha working on persuading Pa and Ma to let you come for a holiday? 

 

Your loving sister  (Signed Lucy)

  

Telegram from Martha and Becky Ross, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Jamaica

 

Success at last!.  Martha and I leaving Avonmouth at 4.45 pm on 16th July for Kingston on “S. S. Port Morant”.   All being well should arrive on 28th .  Very excited.  Longing to see you.  Love Becky.

 

 

<—My First Contact                 Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

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