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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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<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                              More Spells and Obeah —->

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Letter to Vivie, Miami, USA
from
      Olga, Kingston, Jamaica.
      

 

Dearest Vivie 

There’s been a terrible scandal in the family.  You just won’t believe what happened last Saturday morning when we came down to breakfast.

“That’s strange; I can’t smell any burnt toast”.  Dolly said.  You remember how Aggie Burns insisted we eat burnt toast, because for some reason she thinks it’s good for us.  Mammie said Aggie hadn’t turned up for work and she asked Pearl to go to Aggie’s house and see if she was alright.

Pearl said “No, Mammie, I get frightened when I go near that house, it’s full of voodoo stuff”.  Pearl’s right.  If we have a boiled egg for our breakfast, Aggie Burns makes us smash the empty egg shell because she said if we don’t, then witches can use them as boats and control the winds.  What’s wrong with that, I wonder?  

“Aggie lives alone and maybe she’s ill or hurt, after all it’s very unusual for her not to turn up for work”.  Mammie was clearly very worried about her. 

But, as we all know, she doesn’t really live alone.  She lives with talking peacocks, voodoo dolls,  three scrawny chickens, a pet mongoose and that whopping big black cat of hers, called Lucifer, which follows her just about everywhere she goes. 

Do you remember when Aggie first started working for us it used to follow her here and, because Mammie wouldn’t allow it in the house, it used to curl up under the cotton tree out the front and wait for her to leave at the end of the day.  I tried to stroke it a couple of times but it would hiss at me.  

I certainly didn’t want to go to Aggie Burns house and neither did Ruby, so Mammie said she’d go, but in the meantime Cassie was to get  breakfast ready while Ruby went upstairs to wake Sydney, because he hadn’t appeared either.  Well, within minutes Ruby came running down the stairs and into the kitchen very excited and announced that Sydney’s bed hasn’t been slept in all night.


Now that’s quite unusual for Sydney I know, but I told Mammie that Sydney had probably been working late and fallen asleep on the couch in the office at the back of the bicycle shop. 

“I expect he’ll come home shortly to wash and change his clothes.  After breakfast I’ll go with you, Mammie, to Aggie Burns’ house” I said.

So, just as we’re finishing breakfast in walks Sydney and we all heave a sigh of relief.

He sits down and says “I have something to tell you” and without even pausing for breath he says “I’m getting married”. 

Mammie throws her arms around his neck and gives him a big hug; there’s lots of excitement and laughter. And then he says

 “I’m going to live with Aggie Burns”. 

Well, I don’t mind telling you, Vivie, there was silence, a big silence.  He’s not serious I thought.  Never mind she’s black, she’s a witch for heaven’s sake. 

How can the head of the Browney family live with a witch?    What will people think?  What will Father Butler think?  It’s quite common for Jamaicans to just live together without being married, although respectable people are expected marry. But Sydney is still married to Janetha and the Catholic Church doesn’t allow divorce so that’s why they’re going to live together.

Our faces must have shown the disbelief and disappointment we all felt. 

Ruby got up and quietly left the room.  Dolly and I followed leaving Mammie and Sydney to talk, but the talk didn’t last long or go well because Sydney came roaring out of the dining room saying he would never set foot in the house again and slammed the front door as he left. He was in a big rage Vivie.  Mammie started crying and in between her sobs she asked me to contact Cissie and Dyke in Montego Bay.  So, I left and sent Cissie a message.

 

Telegram to Cissie, and Dyke, Montego Bay fromOlga,  Kingston             

Urgent. Come quickly.  Sydney gone off  with  the cook . 

 

Dolly ran to Boysie to tell him what had happened.  He came round straightaway and gave Mammie a big hug and told her not to worry, he would talk to Sydney and everything would be alright. 

Later on, who do you think walked in, Vivie, none other than Aggie Burns herself, all dressed up and wearing, I must admit, a very nice straw hat with flowers all round the brim. 

“I’ve come for some of Sydney’s possessions”.

“Why would you want Mr Sydney’s things, Aggie” Mammie asked her.

“Because we are in love and he’s living with me now”.   Honestly, she was so cocky I wanted to hit her.  

“I’ve brought a suitcase with me so I’ll just pop upstairs and get a few things”. 

“Pop upstairs” sounded funny coming from Aggie Burns, it’s so English and she’s so witchy. 

And then she said to Mammie

“He won’t be giving you any more money.  He will need all his money for the family I will give him”. 

As she turned to go upstairs, Mammie jumped up, rushed over to Aggie Burns, put her hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from the stairs.  Dolly, Ruby and I joined in and the four of us pushed her right out the front door and told her never to set foot in our house again.   

The next day Cissie came up from Montego Bay and took charge of the kitchen.  She did lots of cooking, baking bread, bulla cakes and biscuits.  Oh, she was wonderful and she gave Mammie some money to stop her worrying. 

Boysie and I continued to go to the shop but Sydney didn’t appear for about a week and when he did he and Boysie went into the back office to have a little chat. Boysie was concerned that even though we were giving Mammie nearly all our wages now, we were still short of money.

 “It’s not like you can’t afford it”, Boysie told Sydney.  But Sydney wouldn’t budge.  He said he was going to start his own family now and was not prepared to support us any more.  Boysie was horrified, and what started off as a calm conversation developed into a huge quarrel with Boysie finally saying he was ending their partnership and wouldn’t be coming to the shop again. 

Now Sydney was coming to the shop every day but Boysie wasn’t.   I wasn’t happy working there and wanted to leave, but, couldn’t.   I’m trapped here, Vivie.  I hate him.    All my love,     Olga.

 

<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                               More Spells and Obeah —->                               

 

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<—Carlton                                                  Aunt Lucy & Ananacy Stories —>

 

 

Family Tree

In May 1938 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.

My grandmother, Becky, wrote in her diary :

Poor Vivie.   The knowledge that Ambrosine Williams had worked Obeah against her for Carlton’s death is having a bad effect on Vivie.  She is ill and has become withdrawn and quiet., she doesn’t sleep at night and has been vomiting so violently no food stays in her stomach.  Sydney says it’s all in her mind, after all, the doctor’s examined Vivie twice and can find nothing wrong with her, but, whether it’s real or imaginary there’s no mistaking that she is wasting away.   She and her daughters are spending their last few days in Jamaica with us here at Mission House before they sail to America to live with Freddie H.  Roy Mackenzie’s family now own the Den of Inequity.

Vivie hates Jamaica and talks as if she is never coming back. America sounds an exciting country with lots of opportunities to make money, but I’m not sure I would want to live there and I’m surprised Vivie does really.  I’ve read that in the some parts of America they are very prejudice towards coloured and black people.

Thousands of blacks cannot find work so they have no money to buy food or clothes for their families.  Smith’s Village is one of the worst areas in the city covered with shacks where conditions of squalor are beyond imagination and made worse by appalling overcrowding.

It makes me furious when I read the Gleaner newspaper and they say the reports are exaggerated.  I have seen for myself, little children and old men, stark born naked, on the streets begging for money and food.  Soup kitchens are springing up over the city to feed these poor people.   Is this an exaggeration?  Of course, the paper is controlled by the upper white ruling classes – these Jamaicans are a disgrace. 

While the Catholic Church is doing what it can, the Protestant Church seems to be trying to conceal the gravity of the painful conditions under which thousands of people are living.  Children are running around naked because they have no clothes to go to school and those that do have clothes, have no food at home, nothing in their little stomachs.  When they come home from school it is to a hungry and crying mother, brothers and sisters and a father almost demented because he cannot feed his children.   Thank goodness for Bustamante.  His constant flow of letters to the Gleaner is making people aware of the problems but I fear for this island’s future. 

 

 Extract of letter written by Alexander Bustamante

to The Editor, Daily Gleaner, Kingston 

…………….shame, and because some have refused to do their duty and they want to minimise that which does not need to be magnified – unemployment.

 The mongoose and the rats in certain parts of the island are being disturbed at nights, because the cane-fields, their resting places, have now become the sleeping place of many workers.  Many of them rush out at nights so nude they dare not come out in the days, just to buy little necessities to return to their shelter – the canefields.

I have been to St Ann,  and the poverty there is something I hate to describe.  Neither minister nor politician should try to prevent it being exposed.  Visit Newton, Kinowl, Mullings Bush Districts in St Elizabeth; Marlie Hill and Plowden and see the poverty – the misery.   But why go to such places when we have them next door to us; go to Trench Pen, Smith’s Village, Ackee Walk and  Rose Town and the apostolic Lanes, etc.

Too late it is for anyone through any peculiar reasons to try and cover up the truth of the lamentable conditions.  Things were bad a few years gone by; they were no better last year, this year they are getting worse, there must be better days ahead.   

I am etc.                       

Alexander Bustamante

  <—Carlton                                                Aunt Lucy & Ananacy Stories —>

 

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<—Olga’s Diary                                     Vivie, Sydney & the Den of Inequity—>

 

the-browneys-tree


Dear Diary

 

When we were little, Mammie used to take in lodgers and we still have one, Mr Delgado who has one of the rooms downstairs.  He is a salesman, from the Cockpit Country and a direct descendent of the Maroons, who, by the way, hate the British.  Mr Delgado loves to tell stories, and always the same one, how years ago the Maroons defeated the British when they tried to recapture the slaves that the Spanish set free after the British had taken Jamaica from Spain.  The slaves headed up the mountains and forests into the remote Cockpit Country area of Jamaica and set up communities there.

 

The British soldiers tried to re-capture them several times but the Maroons, led by a woman called Nanny, outsmarted them.    Eventually a truce was called and the Maroons won the right to virtually govern themselves.  And every year, Mr Delgado tells us how they celebrate the fact that they were the first black people in the West Indies to gain their freedom nearly 100 years before Emancipation.  

 

Miss Wedderburn, who was my history teacher when I was at Alpha School, was very impressed the day I told the whole class the history of the Maroons – I didn’t tell her I’d heard the story so many times I could repeat it in my sleep and, no doubt, I’ll hear it again. 

 

Viviana is my oldest sister but everyone calls her Vivie.  Vivie’s my heroine because she is always prepared to speak up, usually against Sydney, for the “tots” which is the pet name the family use when they’re talking about Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me. 

 

At one time we had a lodger called Alfred Moncrieff, a coloured man from Clarendon.  I didn’t like Mr Moncrieff one little bit and one day he told me to collect his dirty laundry from his room and give it to Cassie to wash.  Well, I turned my back on him, tossed my head in the air and at the same time flicked the back of my skirt in a haughty manner (I saw Jean Harlow do this once in a film) and told him I wasn’t a servant. 

 

That night, when Ruby and I were in bed asleep, Sydney came into our bedroom and dragged me out of bed and gave me a whipping.  Mr Moncrieff had told him I had lifted my skirt right up and shown him my knickers.  It was a lie. 

 

When Vivie heard what had happened she tore into Sydney something terrible.  She was fearless and told him that there was something unnatural about a brother giving his sister a whipping on the bottom and that he should be ashamed of himself. 

 

“You’re too free with your hands on the tots” she told Sydney.

 

 “How could you believe that nasty little man with his dirty little mind and not even ask Olga her side of the story before you dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night”. 

 

          She called him cruel, a bully and said “you’re just as bad as Moncrieff”.

 

I can tell you Sydney’s not used to being spoken to like that. As a matter of fact the whole family was very angry about what Sydney did to me but he’s taken over the role of head of the family now and that’s that.   I don’t know whether Mammie ever said anything to Sydney about the whipping he gave me, but the next day she told Moncrieff to get out.

 

Another lodger was a salesman called Victor Condell, a coloured Jamaican who came from Canada.   He used to sell tractors and other kinds of farm machinery.    Well, Victor Condell lived with us for over a year and one day, out of the blue, he said he was returning to Canada at the end of the month.  My sister, Chickie, was heart broken and cried for days.  Eventually she stopped crying long enough to tell us that she and Victor had been courting and she’d fallen in love with him.  It came as a big shock to me, I can tell you, I never suspected anything.

 

To stop Chickie crying, our cook, Aggie Burns, took her to see Annie Harvey, an Obeah woman, to get a love potion to secretly give to Victor to make him stay with her.  Annie called it “come to me sauce” and it was in a little blue bottle which Chickie had to mix into Victor’s food, and then wait for the potion to work.  Once it works, Annie told Chickie, you can then give Victor another potion called “stay at home sauce” and that keeps him from looking at other women. 

 

Unfortunately, the second potion wasn’t needed because the first one didn’t work.  Victor left.   So, Aggie Burns, who has a big collection of voodoo dolls, then asked Chickie if she’d like to choose one and she could stick pins in it so Victor would get sick, but Chickie said no.

 

One day, long after Victor Condell had left, I heard screams coming from Chickie’s bedroom.  Mammie told me Chickie was fine, not to worry and to stay right away from her room.  But curiosity always got the better of me, so I went up to peek through the keyhole of her bedroom door.  Before I could see anything, Sydney had come up behind me, grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to my bedroom and gave me a good whipping.  “That’s for not doing what you were told” he said.  A few days later Pearl, Ruby, Dolly and me were shown Maurice and Mammie told us that Chickie had a little baby boy.

 

“A gift from God” she said.

<—Olga’s Diary                             Vivie, Sydney & the Den of Inequity—>


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<—The Browneys                                     Siblings, Lodgers and a Gift from God—>
 
Mum’s writing started back in Jamaica.  Her oldest sister, Vivie (Viviana) gave her a green diary that had a little gold lock on it and came with its own special key.         

  

Olga

Olga's Diary  

Growing up I remember so well how my Mum, Olga, loved to write. She’d write her stories in school exercise books – simple romantic stories – boy meets girl, they fall in love, marry and live happily every after.  Just the backgrounds changed. Mum liked to read the same type of stories that she wrote.  In the 1950s there were weekly women’s magazines, like Red Letter and Secrets and others that were filled with these romantic tales. Mum loved reading them and invariably had three or four magazines on the go. 

 

 

Dear Diary

 

the-browneys-tree

 

My First Entry:   Jamaicans love big families and the Browneys are no exception.  There are thirteen of us including Mammie and Pops.  Now only my mother, Mammie, my brother Sydney, me and my sisters Ruby, Dolly and Pearl live in Mission House. 

 

That’s what our house is called and it’s in the same grounds as the Wesleyan Church.   It’s quite grand, imposing and very big.  At the front of the house there’s a huge old cotton tree which always looks to me as if it is standing guard over us.  But the tree does more than that, it keeps the house cool and dry protecting us from the heat and humidity in the summer.   The house is red bricked and square, with green shutters at all the windows, which are kept open all the time, except when a hurricane is due.  Everyone says the best thing about our house is the upstairs verandas at the front and back because from the front you can see the Caribbean Sea and from the back you can see the Blue Mountains.

 

Downstairs there is another drawing room, three more bedrooms, a dining room, the kitchen, a pantry and a storeroom.  Outside a veranda made from cedar wood surrounds the entire ground floor of the house and out the back is a yard with a big cooking range under a lean to, a bath house, a water closet and, of course, our lovely garden.  

 

Upstairs there are three very large bedrooms, one smaller one and a drawing room.  I share one of the bedrooms with my sister, Ruby.  Ruby is the most studious and brightest of the younger sisters and loves reading and writing.   In secret she writes short stories which she reads to me when we are in bed.  I feel very honoured because Ruby doesn’t read her stories to anyone else in the family, just me.  Quite often they’re romances where the heroine is a simple country girl who falls in love with the son of a rich landowner and he loves her but his father forbids him to have anything to do with her because she’s not good enough for him, so they don’t see each other any more.  But the son can’t bear it and they run off together, get married and live happily every after.  That’s why I like Ruby’s stories, they always have a happy ending. 

 

My two other sisters, Dolly and Pearl, share another bedroom.  Dolly and Pearl couldn’t be more different.  Pearl is quiet and thoughtful and very sweet, so is Dolly, but she is a younger version of my older sister, Vivie, lively and outspoken. 

Sometimes I think Dolly is jealous of me.  She says I’m Mammie’s favourite.  Maybe.

 

Then there’s my older brother, Sydney.  Sydney is married but he and his wife, Janetha, have been separated for years and he lives with us now.  

 

I have another brother, Boysie, whom I adore because he is always laughing and is so much fun to be with.  He’s happily married to Minah and even though he has his own family he still finds time to visit us.  We all go to Boysie with our problems, never Sydney.  I like Minah, she’s nice, but I must admit some of the family don’t like her because she’s Jewish.  She’s very pretty with long black straight hair and is quite dark skinned.  They have four children and have a very nice house nearby in Duke Street and we’re always in and out of each other’s homes.  

 

One of my older sisters, Birdie, is in London at the moment studying dancing at Madame Verschuka’s School of Dance.  This is her second trip to London and Vivie’s been as well and I’m hoping to go soon too.  Mammie has a sister, Martha, who lives in Paddington and when ever any of the family goes to England, we stay with Aunt Martha.  Birdie says she’s an old trout and doesn’t like her.  

 

I have another older sister, Cissie, who is married to Dyke and they too have four children.  They have a coffee plantation in Montego Bay and have been married for about five years.  Dyke is lovely.  Mammie calls him a gentle giant because he towers over everyone including Sydney.  We don’t see much of them at all really, except at family gatherings at Christmas time, or when there’s an occasion, like a wedding or a funeral, or a family crisis. 

 

My Pops doesn’t live with us now, so Sydney is head of the house and supports the family financially. At school I was always top of my class in arithmetic, and when I left Sydney told Mammie he wanted me to work for him in the shop and keep the books in order.  I didn’t want the job;  what I wanted to do was go to England but Mammie asked me to take the job, so I did. 

 

Sydney says Mission House is far too big to maintain and now there are not so many people living here, we should move to a smaller house.  Mammie says he’s right but it’s difficult for her to make the move.  Too many memories, she says, good ones and some bad, so for now we’re staying put.

 

We have two servants, our maid Cassie who’s nearly the same age as me and I like a lot, and our cook, Aggie Burns, who gives me the creeps.  One day Sydney decided that Mammie needed help so off he went to find someone and came back with Aggie.   But she’s a crazy woman. She believes in Obeah and comes to work some mornings and tells me about great big peacocks that come to her front door and talk to her.  Mammie says to ignore her and not upset her because she’s the best cook we’ve ever had.  

 

 

<—The Browneys                                    Siblings, Lodgers and a Gift from God—>

 

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<—Prejudice                                                                 The Browneys —>

 

I was in awe of my grandmother, Becky, a white woman from Paddington in London who had, sometime in 1901-1902 while on holiday in Kingston, fallen in love and against all social convention of the time married a black Jamaican. 

 

It wasn’t just white and coloured Jamaicans who would have shown and demonstrated contempt for Becky, but the blacks as well.  A white woman marrying a black man was unheard of at that time – in fact there was a time when it was illegal!  I think that’s one of the things I found most surprising during my research about my family;  how, even after Emancipation, Jamaica had continued to practice Great Britain’s colour and social prejudices – whites looking down on coloureds, coloureds looking down on blacks and black accepting they were the lowest class in Jamaican society.   My grandmother’s social standing would have been on a par with the blacks or maybe even lower, if that’s possible. 

 

I wish I had known her.  I thought how brave she was and what courage she had.  Saying goodbye on the dockside at Avonmouth before she boarded the S.S. Port Morant, expecting only to be away from England for a few weeks, was to be the last time she saw or spoke to her parents.  My grandmother never returned to England but she did keep the telegram her father sent her when he heard about her plans to marry Henry Browney from my Great Aunt Martha. 

 

Telegram from Samuel Ross, Droop Street,  London

to

Becky Ross c/o “Mon Repose”, St Andrews, Jamaica

 

Martha has told us of your plans to marry.  Please reconsider.  Cannot agree with this marriage.  If you proceed you will cease to be our daughter and do not wish to see you or speak to ever again.  We beg you to reconsider.

                                                                                                                              Pa

 

  

Becky’s Diary (circa 1930s)

 

Holy Trinity Cathedral, North Street:  The Cathedral stands in its own spacious grounds and is a very impressive piece of architecture with a great copper dome and four Minarets which can be seen from a distance.  The cathedral was rebuilt after being totally destroyed in the 1907 earthquake and although it’s very big and grand inside I get a great sense of peace in here, perhaps because the delicate shades of the colour scheme are restful to the eye. 

 

White marble steeps lead to the Main Altar and the life size figure of Our Lord hanging on the Cross.  The rose windows tower above the mosaic decoration on the walls where the 14 stations of the cross hang and there are also the statues of St. Anthony, the patron saint of missing people, St Francis, the patron saint of animals and the Little Flower, St Therese.  Left of the main altar is the Altar of Our Lady and on the right of it is the Altar of St Joseph with the Child Jesus in his arms.   

 

Another year, another candle.  Eight years since Ma died and six since Pa.  I thought he’d go first.  Who would have guessed that when I said goodbye to them that foggy afternoon on Avonmouth docks all those years ago, it would be the last time I’d see or speak to them?  I still have all the letters I sent them and which they returned, unopened.  They never found it in their hearts to forgive me for marrying Henry. 

 

“Ma, did you find it as heartbreaking as I did to remove me so completely from your life; did I really cease to exist for you?” 

 

“Did you ever think about your grandchildren?  Did you ever wonder what they looked like?”

 

“Why did you punish them, for my actions?  You paid a high price for your prejudice, never knowing the love or experiencing the joy of getting to know your wonderful 11 grandchildren. 

 

Settling down:   Coming to Jamaica for a holiday was one thing, but settling down to live here permanently was another.  I had so much to adjust to in Kingston.    The heat, humidity and dust were the worst things to cope with, especially when I was pregnant with Sydney, my first child; the heat drains you of all energy.  And then there were the insects – the mosquito bites, oh I was bitten from top to bottom and sometimes I would get ill and develop a fever. 

 

Henry said I had very sweet blood and that’s why they would bite me. Hardly any consolation, but night time was better because we slept with a net over our beds.  We  threw out all our upholstered furniture and rugs because fleas were breeding in them and replaced them with polished floors and cane furniture.  Ants were a terrible nuisance; they were everywhere, particularly where there was food.  

 

Earthquakes terrified me. One of the worst happened one day when I was visiting Lucy and I had Sydney, Cissie and Vivie with me.  Lucy and I were sitting on her veranda and as she got up to go and make tea, without any warning the ground began to tremble and there was a terrible noise.  It was as if we were underneath a railway arch and a very long train was passing over our heads, but the noise was like a great roar and a hundred times greater than a train.  The whole experience only lasted about 10 seconds.  Vivie slept through it but Sydney and Cissie started crying because the noise was so loud. 

 

The earthquake was felt all over the island and the fires which followed just about destroyed Kingston. People rushed out into open to places like Victoria Park and Kingston race course, where they stayed for days. 

 

Life was hard then, but manageable, especially when you’re in love.   Because of my marriage, I became infamous.

 

“You’re a notorious wanton woman now” Henry would say teasing me.

 

People would point at me or just stand and stare and many, including people I had once considered to be friends, would cross the road to avoid walking past me.  White and coloured Jamaicans would spit at me and the name calling was endless; nigger-lover was the most common. 

 

I tried to understand how Jamaica’s Christian middle and upper classes, supposedly wise, intelligent and intellectual people, could treat others in such a cruel manner. 

 

But these inconveniences, as I called them, were more than made up for by the charm, dignity and generosity of spirit I found among the black Jamaicans in spite of their circumstances.  I smile inwardly when I read in the papers how the Government likes to promote the view overseas and, particularly to tourists who visit the island, that whites and blacks live side by side in perfect harmony.   What rubbish, what lies! 

 

You would have to be blind not to notice that the majority of blacks are uneducated, poor and despised by both the middle and white upper class groups who never bother to disguise their contempt for them.  They’re more concerned about their own status than those of the black masses.  The blacks live within the twin boundaries of poverty and unemployment and cannot step outside them unless they have education or money and if they can’t get those they will remain where they are.  Jamaica opened my eyes to the frailties of human nature.  Until I came here I hadn’t realised that humanity could come in varying degrees and that there could be such a dramatic class distinction in the social structure of one race of people. 

 

Kingston is still an attractive city with wide streets and buildings painted in shades of pink, cream and blue, the gardens full of hibiscus and blood red poinsettias and rich purple splashes of gorgeous bougainvillea vines.   But I prefer the old capital, Spanish Town, and even though it’s now shabby, neglected and damaged by earthquakes, there still remains some splendid Spanish architecture and the ancient cathedral.  

 

There are shops of every kind in Kingston, but never the one I want when I need it. 

 

There is an increase in motorcars now but I find them a nuisance because their motor horns are so loud and drivers use them constantly.  And they are dangerous because of the “Blow and Go” war-cry of the drivers.  If two cars are at a cross roads and both blow their horns simultaneously, each one hears only the sound of his own horn and if both “go”, which usually happens, there’s a crash.  The utter and complete disregard of the speed limit by car drivers is only equalled by the utter and complete disregard of the police to enforce the speed limit in the city. 

 

The side streets of Kingston are where the blacks live.  Women wearing brightly coloured turbans gossip from the windows with neighbours on the pavement below and men standing in the shade discussing something in patois, a language I never learnt.  Mangy dogs, wandering the streets, full of fleas and with prominent ribs sticking out, worry me as well as goats with their kids which amble through the city in search of grass.  But my heart breaks for the poor little donkeys with their big gentle eyes, long ears and delicate tiny feet, heavily loaded either side and the owner perched in the middle, smoking ganja and half asleep. 

 

My marriage to Henry didn’t last but it did produced 11 beautiful children.  Before we married I knew of his reputation for living a reckless life.  Too much drinking, gambling and he had known plenty of women.  But I loved him and I thought he would change, in fact, I thought I could change him.  But the habits he had before we married continued during our marriage and caused me great pain.  I would have put up with his peccadilloes, but not his drinking and gambling. When he drank, he gambled, when he gambled he usually lost all his money and then we had no food.  I would have to go to the priest and beg for money to feed our children.  That was too much.   I couldn’t stand begging. 

 

 

  <—Prejudice                                                                  The Browneys —>

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