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Archive for July, 2009

<—- Sydney Shoots a Burglar                 Christmas in Jamaica with John Canoe —->

 

1938 was a very diffcult and dangerous time for the Browney family living in Kingston.  In May of that year workers all over Jamaica went on strike and the unemployed joined them marching and demonstrations.  The banana trade had declined drastically and unemployment was high, there was only occasional work, bad nutrition, poor housing, very little health service and a high cost of living.

The strikes started with the men working on the Kingston docks striking for better wages and the unemployed joined the strike demanding work.  It was a brutal time with strikers and demonstrators being imprisoned or beaten to death. 

In that year, Mammie (my grandmother Becky) made a decision regarding her daughter Olga (my mother) that was to have far reaching consequences for Olga that no one could have foreseen and changed her life irrevocably.

 

 

Family Tree

Click to Enlarge Image

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

Today started with some astonishing news in the newspaper.  Several passengers on the train from Kingston to Montego Bay were seriously injured and taken to hospital when the train they were travelling on derailed at high speed.  A trackman, who witnessed the accident, said the train was going very fast, so much so that he said to the rail man next to him “that the train is moving as fast as an aeroplane.” 

Passengers reported that they had to hold on to something when the train went round bends because it was going so fast and the carriages were wobbling badly. 

What made this news so startling to me was that Olga should have been travelling on that train.  She had wanted to spend the weekend with Cissie and Dyke but because of the riots in Kingston she didn’t want to leave me and her sisters alone, even though Boysie had promised to look in on us from time to time, assuming, of course, he could get through the mobs uninjured himself.   So she didn’t make the journey.  Olga has a guardian angel, I’m sure of it. 

Strikes and Demonstrations:   The rest of the news is still very bad.  Industry is in decline and conditions are terrible.  Unemployment is high, there is irregular work, wages are low, and there is poor housing, poor nutrition and a high cost of living.  This, of course, only applies to the blacks.  We middle and the white upper classes still manage to live quite well. 

There is rioting on the streets of Kingston and I have forbidden the girls to go outside unless they are accompanied by Boysie. 

No cargo has been unloaded from the ships in the harbour for days.  The dock workers in Kingston and the sugar workers in Westmoreland and Clarendon have all gone on strike for better wages and working conditions.     Everywhere on the island, workers are asking for jobs, higher wages and better living conditions. From early in the morning, yesterday, thousands of men and women marched in procession through the streets of Kingston visiting public offices and stopping at the various wharves and forcing work to stop at Myer’s Sugar Wharf, where some labourers had broken the strike. 

The owners of the businesses have threatened that if a solution is not found soon, they will close their businesses down altogether and move off the island    By all accounts it was an ugly scene.  The security forces are everywhere eyeball to eyeball with Alexander Bustamante, who is organising the labourers now.  Mobs are forcing shops to put up their shutters and molesting people in cars, sometimes robbing them of their money.  Mobs are pulling people off the trams and buses and forcing the drivers to take the vehicles off the road.  Last night this leaflet was slipped under our front door. 

 Vengence 

Later on I stood on the veranda upstairs and watched an enormous crowd gather at the end of King Street and then march up the street headed by a large negro with a big drum which he was beating vigorously.   Right in the middle of King Street the crowd was met by a line of police all armed with batons.  Behind them were a line of police with rifles.  The mob was stopped and cleared right off the street with hardly a blow made. 

That same night dozens of cars full of “special constables” armed with any and every kind of weapon patrolled the streets of Kingston and St Andrews.  Stones and bricks were hurled at them from all sides, but they chased people off the streets and beat up those who resisted.  These are frightening times in Jamaica.   

Later that evening:   Sydney came to see me, the first time I’ve seen him since our quarrel, because he is concerned for our welfare and safety.  We talked, rather uncomfortably at first, and Sydney explained at some length what I had failed to realise.  That his business is also feeling the economic downturn,  just like most others in Kingston.   He has agreed to resume helping me financially providing I agree to move to a smaller house.   

We talked about Olga wanting to go to England and I have told Sydney I think she should have the opportunity.   He agreed that with all the unrest on the island and the bicycle  business being quieter these days, it would be good for Olga to go now, particularly, as the threat of Britain going to war has receded since Neville Chamberlain secured Adolf Hitler’s promise that he will not invade Europe further (Munich Agreement).   Sydney has agreed to pay Olga’s fare, providing she only stays six months.  We both agreed this unrest cannot continue for much longer and he is keen that Olga should continue doing his business accounts. 

As Sydney was leaving he bent down and picked up an envelope with my name on and had been slipped under the front door.  In the envelope was a note from Henry and a newspaper cutting.

 Report 3

Henry wrote that the top half of the newspaper was missing, so there was no way of knowing how old the article was.  I decided not to send it to Vivie as she is well and happy in America so why stir up bad memories.  But it demonstrates the power of suggestion. Vivie thought she was Obeahed and suffered genuinely as a result, but here is proof that the act was thwarted, so is Obeah all in the mind?   I have always thought so. 

I know my sojourns into Obeah are of great concern to Father Butler but there is a method to my madness which I have not confided in him because I know he would disapprove.   I believe that psychologically Obeah is very powerful and I learnt from Lucy and John to use Obeah to get the results I want.  I knew that once Aggie Burns heard I’d been to Annie Harvey, she would change her tune and encourage Sydney to be reconciled with us.

 

<—- Sydney Shoots a Burglar                Christmas in Jamaica with John Canoe —>

 

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<– More Spells and Obeah                 Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>

 

Family Tree

 Click to englarge image

Once my Mum (Olga) started to talk about her family to me and what her life was like growing up in Jamaica, she told me about the two biggest scandals in the family (and there were quite a few!).  Both were connected with Sydney, the oldest sibling.  One scandal was to do with him running off with the family cook whom everyone thought was a witch and mad as a hatter and the other scandal was about him shooting a burglar for which he was charged with manslaughter but acquitted on the grounds of self defense.   

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

 

Dear Diary

Sydney and the Burglar:       It’s the middle of the afternoon and, apart from a young woman and an old man, I’m alone in the Cathedral, the only place I know that is peaceful, quiet, and cool. Half my life’s been spent in this church, going to mass, confession, benediction, the stations of the cross.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, Jesus is important to me and I come to church because I want to be close to Him, or, when I want to think, like now. I wonder just how long Sydney and Aggie’s relationship has been going on.

 

I bet you it started with the robbery that time Sydney was working late in the shop. There was a knock on the door one evening and when Sydney opened it there was a tall, black man, with a handkerchief around the lower half of his face. He pushed Sydney back and forced his way inside and put a gun to Sydney’s face threatening to shoot him if he said a word. Then another man came into the house and started to ransack the place looking for money which Sydney usually kept on the premises, but he couldn’t find any money and said so to the man holding the gun.

 

This turned the man with the gun’s attention away from Sydney momentarily, so Sydney tried to grab the gun and there was a struggle when suddenly the gun went off and the robber was shot dead. The second man immediately ran from the shop and Sydney called the police who recognised the dead man as Alphonse Williams and said the other man was probably his brother Didnot.  Didnot was soon picked up by the police and, because he wasn’t wearing a mask, Sydney easily identified him as the second man.

 

Sydney was charged with the manslaughter of Alphonse but at the end of the trial was found not guilty because the jury said it was self-defence and the law says a man is entitled to protect himself.  And that was that, thought Sydney, although to prevent any further thieving Sydney resorted to Obeah.

 

I bet that’s where Aggie Burns came in. He pinned bits of red rag and some bird feathers to the front door of the shop. If any would-be thief saw these items.  Sydney said it would be enough to deter them from going into the shop. But then strange things started happening. A fire broke out one Sunday afternoon, behind the main shop, in the workshop where bicycles are repaired. Mrs Clarkson, who lives next door, saw a small blaze in the workshop and raised the alarm. The fire brigade arrived very quickly, put out the blaze so not too much damage was done.  

And then something else happened that really scared Sydney.

 

He told us he was walking home one night when he felt warm air on the back of his neck which he described like someone’s hot breath. This happened more than once and Aggie Burns said she had found out that Didnot Williams had set a duppy on Sydney and that an Obeah man must have caught his shadow and now the shadow will do whatever the Obeah man demands. Aggie said the best way to stop the duppy from following Sydney was to carry a piece of chalk and, whenever he felt the hot breath on the back of his neck, Sydney was to make an x on the ground with the chalk, representing the figure ten.  Aggie Burns said duppies can only count up to nine and will spend the rest of the night trying to count to x.

 

Aggie said duppies are clever, but I wasn’t too sure about that if they can’t count any higher than nine. But she said they are because they can do similar things to living people, like talking, laughing, whistling and singing, even cooking. That made me wonder if Aggie Burns was a duppy too. Anyway, believe it or not, putting a cross on the ground worked for a while and Sydney stopped feeling warm air on his neck and he was more confident walking home.

 

But then one lovely clear moonlit night Sydney and Ruby were walking home together and they saw a big owl sitting in the cotton tree outside Mission House. When Aggie heard she got everybody worked up again and said that was a very bad sign because the duppy was still on Sydney. She said he had now to find a powerful Obeah man to remove the curse or he would be in serious trouble.

 

Of course, Aggie Burns knew one and Sydney agreed to go with her but made me go with him as well. I said I’d only go if Dolly could come as well. And reluctantly he and Dolly agreed.  

So off I go again to another balm yard and went into a very dark, smelly room. I remember it only had one window and the light couldn’t get through it was so dirty and grimy. Oh, Lord, was I terrified.

 

The Obeah man’s name was Ali Acquabar, an old man, with a short sharp looking face. He sat at a table in the middle of the room and beside his chair was a walking stick with the head of a serpent on the top. He told us to sit in the chairs facing him. I noticed a nail with three different size rosaries made out of bloodstained beans hanging from it and there was a mirror on a wall. On the table was a pack of cards and a dark blue piece of cloth with some sulphur, what looked like human hair, small bones and feathers.

 

By now I just wanted to get out of there but, once again, my courage failed me and I stayed. There were two other chairs and on one of these he put a glass and filled it with water and put a 1/- piece in the glass and on the other he put a candle which he had taken from a small bag nearby and asked Sydney to light it. Ali then opened a pack of cards, which he separated into four piles.

 

He selected one and said to Sydney “this is death”; then selected another and said “this is Jesus Christ”;

 

Then he selected a third and said “this is the Ghost” and with the fourth card he looked Sydney straight in the eye and said “Your life is in danger”. Then he took a bottle of rum off a shelf and threw some of it around the room.

 

“I am feeding my ghosts” he chanted and then looked in the magic mirror and turned to Sydney. “It is a pity you are not able to see, if you could, you would behold two duppies who are working on the case against you”. My brother is a tough man, you now, and I didn’t think he could scare easily. But, sitting on that chair, he looked very frightened to me. Ali looked in the glass of water on the other chair and said

 

“It is the brother that is after your life. I charge you £5 to take off the ghosts”. Sydney gave Ali his money and Ali told him they would all have to go to Mission House and “to run the duppies out”. Well, we trooped out and walked home.

 

When we got there Ali told us he would go into the house first and Dolly, Aggie and I should follow in a few minutes but Sydney was to wait outside until he was called. When we went in Ali had already lit three different colour candles in our hallway and then he took out three bottles – one containing some seeds, one with some kind of powder in it and the third with some dirty looking liquid in it. He threw some of the liquid and some of the powder into a cup which Aggie had handed him and he struck a match, lit the mixture in the cup and gave it to Aggie to take outside and bury it at the gateway to the house. Ali then asked Sydney for a further £5 as the job was now completed. The potion was buried at the gateway and this would ensure that no more duppies bothered anyone who lived in this house.

 

After that Sydney was more relaxed because one Obeah man had been knocked out by another and the more I think about it the more sure I am that was when things started to happen between our cook Aggie and Sydney.

<—- More Spells and Obeah                            Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>            

 

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 <—Sydney & The Cook                                      Sydney Shoots a Burglar—->

 

When I was a child my mother, Olga, used to tell me that her family practiced witchcraft (Obeah) in Jamaica, but I didn’t believe her.  Being a good Catholic girl, I didn’t countenance such ‘mumbo jumbo’! 

After Emancipation in 1834  the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that it would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much like when my mother was living in Jamaica in the 1920s and 1930s, and probably still continues today.   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, like my family! 

 

 Family Tree

Olga’s Diary (Continued from “Sydney and the Cook“)

Dear Diary

She’s put a spell on him:   Later Mammie told us why Sydney had stormed out of the house when he told us he was going to live with Aggie Burns.  He called Mammie a hypocrite and said it was ok for her to live with a black man and cause huge misery and pain, not only for her parents, but also her sisters and children, of course, he meant Vivie and Aunt Martha.  

Mammie replied that at least she and Pops had got married and anyway she didn’t think Aggie was the right person for him.

 Sydney was in such a rage, Mammie said she was too frightened to say anything more to him.    She told us that Sydney had been right about her objections to Aggie Burns because she was black. 

“I experienced such hatred from people I never dreamt could behave in such an ugly manner and I don’t want any of my children to go through the treatment I received nor do I want Sydney’s children turning on him one day  because of their colour.

“We’re not all prejudice like some of the others” dear Pearl told Mammie. 

But Mammie’s convinced that Aggie Burns has put a spell on Sydney to make him fall in love with her.  That’s the only explanation she says.

“Why else would he choose a short, fat, ugly black woman who practises voodoo. 

“I’m going to turn the tables on Aggie Burns”.

“Olga, get Cassie.  We’re going to see Annie Harvey.” 

She’s the woman we go to for herbal remedies sometimes when we were ill.   Well, as everyone knows, she also practises Obeah and Mammie wants Annie to work Obeah on Sydney to make him come home. 

 But I was worried about us going there because the punishment for practising Obeah is very harsh if you are caught by the police.  It can be 20 lashes and a prison sentence of six months, with hard labour, if you are found guilty and even if you’re a woman.

 I tried to talk Mammie out of it, but she was determined to go.

Annie Harvey makes quite an impression and is still a very striking woman in her white turban and red cloak.  I was surprised when I saw her house, it’s rather nice, with a little white fence and pretty flowers in the garden.  The sort of house I’d like myself one day.  Anyway, Annie took us out to a shack in the backyard.  Inside it was dark, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust before I could see properly.  You couldn’t see a single bit of the ceiling because there were dried herbs hanging from it everywhere. 

There were wooden shelves on one side of the room with different sized coloured bottles and some were full of liquid, but others only half full.  I recognised some zinc powder and ingredients for making a “medicine bath” and poultices.  There was also a tin of Epsom salts sitting on one of the shelves, which I thought strange, because we have that at home.  

There was another shelf with some pimento leaves and pieces of logwood bark, bird feathers, broken egg shells and some ashes.  Cassie told me later she saw a chicken’s foot and a lizard’s tail.  

Mammie explained to Annie Harvey that she wanted Sydney to return to the family.  He had deserted us in favour of a bad woman who was a danger to him. 

“We wanted to protect him from this evil woman who has cast a spell on him and taken him away from us” said Mammie to Annie.

Annie Harvey left the shack for a minute and when she returned she was holding a bunch of green leaves which she put into a wooden bowl and with a small piece of wood, rounded at the end; then she pounded the leaves together until they turned into a thick green paste. 

Then she sprinkled some ashes into the paste and from a small blue bottle around her neck she sprinkled just two drops of a dark brown liquid into the mixture and then mixed it up again. Each time she mixed the paste she talked in a strange language that none of us had heard before.  She covered the paste with some muslin cloth and then wrapped it in brown paper and tied it up with string and told Mammie to put it in Sydney’s food and he would come home. 

On the way home, Mammie said we were going to stop at the Holy Trinity Cathedral to offer prayers to Jesus to pray for Sydney’s return and when I asked why after having just come from the balm yard, she said she was covering all options.

 When we got home Mammie said she was sure Cassie would tell Aggie Burns that she had been to Annie Harvey’s balm yard and worked Obeah on him.

“It won’t be long before Sydney comes homes, but, in the meantime, Olga, you’re going to have to put the paste into Sydney’s food.”.  I knew it.

When Annie Harvey gave Mammie the paste, I thought to myself, guess who’s going to have to do that little job Olga”.

“I can’t do it, I’ll get caught” I told her. 

“Choose your time, when he’s out, make a nice sandwich for him, his favourite, pork with apple and ginger.  Spread the paste in between the slices of meat or mix it in with the apples. 

“You can do it Olga”. 

“Mammie, if he catches me I’ll get a whipping”

“If he catches you, I’ll tell him it’s my fault.  Please Olga, we need him”. 

So I agreed to do it and, lady luck was on my side. 

Sydney was expecting a shipment of bicycles to arrive from London the next day and fortunately for me the paper work was not in order, so he had to spend hours down on the docks sorting it out so by the time he got back to the shop he was ravenously hungry.  I produced the sandwiches each filled with thick juicy pieces of pork, sliced apple, ginger and the paste and he just gobbled the sandwiches and, obviously, never tasted anything unusual. 

Mammie was so happy when I told her.  Oh I do hope it works, with all our wages going into the household pot, we have hardly anything to spend on ourselves and Sydney has a whole heap of money, tons of it, he’s just being nasty by making us suffer.

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<——–Sydney & The Cook                                                             Sydney Shoots a Burglar —–>

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