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<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                           Kingston Riots —>

browney-tree-c

 

I regret I never met my Aunt Vivie but, unfortunately, she died just a couple of years before I made contact with Mum’s (Olga) family in Jamaica.  I think I would have liked her even though there was one aspect of her character I would have struggled with. It does sound as if Vivie was a bit of a loose canon – a one off.   She was tough and certainly not afraid to speak her mind, particularly to her older brother, Sydney, if she thought he was being too free with his belt when he chastised their younger siblings.   In the 1930s Jamaican society was a mirror image of Great Britain replicating its prejudices and social morals.   Women like my Aunt Vivie, who flew in the face of convention, were few and far between in an era that expected women to be seen and not heard. 

 

Vivie was married, yet quite openly having an affair with another man, Freddie Howell; she helped run an illegal gambling house with Freddie and, according to Mum, had the threat of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church hanging over her head because of her relationship with him.  If what people thought bothered her she didn’t show it.

 

What I wouldn’t have liked about my Aunt Vivie though was her racial prejudiced in spite of being coloured herself.  This is something I struggle to understand.  The colour of one’s skin was important to Vivie and, she had made it very clear to her mother, Becky, that she was angry with her for marrying a black man.  She recognised that the white Jamaicans had social prestige, status and political power.  And that they saw as inferior those whose colour ranged from almost white to pure black even though they may have been educated people with good jobs such as lawyers, doctors, business men or women, teachers, clergy, and skilled tradesmen.

 

Colour mattered and that mindset was demonstrated to me personally decades later.  When I was in Jamaica in 1996, one of my cousins offered me a job running a franchise operation in Montego Bay that she was considering investing in.  I asked her why she wanted me and didn’t do the job herself.  Her reply was “because your skin is the right colour”.   I was gobsmacked!

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued from ‘A Loose Canon and the Catholic Church’)


Carlton heard about what happened that Sunday in Church and there was a terrible row between Vivie and Carlton. She told Carlton she was leaving him.    He begged her not to go and when she said it was all over between them and she didn’t love him any more, he started to cry and pleaded with her to give him another chance.  Vivie told him that she was taking their children and going to live with Freddie.  She said he suddenly stopped crying then and there was silence, except for the sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the house.

 Carlton didn’t say anything for ages but just kept looking at her.  Then he shrugged his shoulders a little, as if to say, “ok, you win” and, without a word, left the house.  Vivie said she thought he was going to find Freddie to punch him on the nose but she wasn’t worried about Freddie because he could take care of himself.

Carlton and Vivie had a whirlwind romance.  Within weeks of meeting they went off to Montego Bay and got married without telling any of the family, except for Cissie and Dyke who were their witnesses at the wedding.  Sydney said if Vivie hadn’t been so desperate to marry a white man she’d have saved both families a lot of heart ache and realised that charm, good looks and receiving a small allowance from his parents was not enough to support a family. 

Sometime during the afternoon on the day following the big row, Carlton’s body was found by some people out walking in a valley in the Blue Mountains.  It appears his car went over a precipice just past the army post at Newcastle and his body flung from the car.  He’d been dead for hours and to this day no one ever really knew if it was suicide or an accident. 

I was grateful that I was asked to look after the children in the family so Chickie, Boysie and Cissie could go to the funeral.   Carlton’s coffin was left open for mourners to pay their last respects and I didn’t want my last sight of Carlton to be lying dead in a coffin.  I wanted to remember him how I always saw him – full of life and laughing.

If I had been married to Carlton I wouldn’t have minded Carlton being a poor white man because he had other qualities.   Tall, fair-haired, very good looking, funny, nice to talk to, always joking.  Women were very attracted to him and I think it’s easy to see why Vivie fell in love with him.  They met when he was playing tennis at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and Vivie said the first thing she noticed about him was that his legs were better than hers.  He was always invited to the best clubs, parties and social events in Kingston and he may not have had much money of his own but people liked him, because he was nice, and he was friends with all sorts of people.  What made him different from other white Jamaicans was that he wasn’t prejudice towards coloured or black people in the slightest. 

The day of Carlton’s funeral was unusually hot for that time of the year and there was a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind in the air.  A black choir sang hymns at his funeral and Dolly told me later that this  was Carlton’s “second family”. 

As a baby Carlton had a black nurse whose name was Ambrosine Williams and he spent much of his childhood with her and her thirteen children rather than his own white family.  When his coffin was being lowered into the ground Ambrosine Williams bent down and picked up a handful of earth and threw it at Vivie.  She told Vivie that she was going to set a duppy on her for causing Carlton’s death and that she would be cursed until the day she died. 

That night the wind began to pick up and get stronger and continued until well into the evening.  Then, according to a report in the paper “the lightening started building up in strength until it lit up the whole sky, dancing in fantastic forms in the night sky, whilst the thunder that followed the lightening seemed to shake the earth as if to say the end of the world is near and then finally in the early hours of the next morning the rain came down.”

 

<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                                      Kingston Riots —>

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<–Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey        Carlton —>                                 

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

browney-tree-cDear Diary

 

Big Scandal:    My very favourite nun, Sister Marie-Thérèse, told me one day when I was at Alpha Academy, that Jamaica has the largest number of churches per square mile in the entire world.  Many are beautiful, old, stone buildings going back to the 1800s.  Religion has always been important to Jamaicans and especially to my family.  Mammie says we are high Catholics, which I think makes us sound special, but to be honest, I don’t know what the difference is between a high Catholic and a low one.  It’s one of those questions I don’t like to ask in case people think I’m stupid.  

We always put on our best Sunday clothes when we go to mass.   Mammie says how we dress is important because clothes say a lot about you.  Ragged clothes are a sign of poverty but even the poorest person wouldn’t dream of going to church without putting their best clothes on, clean shoes and a proper hat, and not a scarf, because that doesn’t cover your head properly.  Mammie is very particular about us all looking clean and smart and when we were at school she would keep us away rather than send any of us off without clean, ironed school uniforms.  In Jamaica being well dressed is a sign of your social status and it’s important to your sense of self respect and self worth, Mammie says.

Going to church is a social occasion and after mass, standing around outside the Church, you can catch up on all the gossip.  Unfortunately, quite a lot of it has been about the Browneys lately so we haven’t hung around for too long.

 

 

Whit Sunday:   My sisters Dolly, Ruby, Pearl and I had decided to go to an early mass so that afterwards we could catch a boat to Port Royal and spend the day on the beach and swim and have a picnic.  We had just returned to our pew after receiving Holy Communion when I was aware of a click-clacking sound coming from behind me and turned round to see what it was.  It was coming from Vivie and her silver dance shoes.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.   There she was, still wearing the tight, low cut red dress she had bought to go to Freddie Howell’s birthday party the previous night.  On her head was a small scarf which didn’t quite cover her newly bleached blonde hair. 

“Is it a wig” Dolly whispered to me? 

Vivie must have been aware of the stir she was causing in the Church, but, her faith is as important to her as it is to the rest of us and she knew that even if the congregation and God judged her to be a sinner, God, at least, would forgive her.  

All eyes were on her and at the same time varying commotions erupted around the Church.  There were plenty of gasps from onlookers as she click clacked down the aisle towards the altar rail.  Some people were whispering, quite a few were muttering loudly and some distinct words could be heard…… “common, trash, looks like a whore”…… and some whose mouths were opened in astonishment. 

Vivie and her shoes click clacked their way down the aisle heading straight for the altar rail.  She knelt down and waited to receive Communion from Father Butler.   He had seen Vivie approaching and was aware of the stir she was causing in the Church. 

Father Butler told Mammie later that before he reached Vivie he had decided what he was going to do.   And he did it.  In front of hundreds of people he walked straight past her without giving her Holy Communion.

 It was a slight of monumental proportions, and by now you could have heard a pin drop because there was total silence in the cathedral.and for what seemed like forever Vivie remained on her own kneeling at the altar rail.

Then she stood up and turned to face the congregation.    She looked around at the faces in front of her, lifted her hand and slowly removed the scarf.   That one defiant gesture, or it may have been the sight of the blonde hair, caused the entire congregation to act together and they gasped. 

Vivie then calmly walked out of the Church.  

 

Father Frank Butler was a newly ordained priest when he came to Kingston from Ireland shortly after the Great Exhibition in 1891 which, apparently, was Jamaica’s way of telling the rest of the world what a lot of opportunities there were here. 

Although Father Butler’s very old now, he’s still a big man and fat.  He says he’s not fat but “well nourished” and he’s got white hair and a very weather beaten complexion from too much sun. 

He’s taken part in most of the important religious occasions to do with the Browneys – when we were baptised, our first Holy Communion, our confirmation and our confessions.  He probably knows more about all of us than either Mammie or Sydney. 

 I was never very happy when he heard my confession on a Friday evening because he and Sydney are good friends and every Sunday night Father Butler comes to Mission House to see Sydney and the pair of them would sit for hours talking and smoking smelly cigars in the upstairs drawing room every Sunday night. 

For a long time I was frightened that Father Butler would tell Sydney about the sins I’d confessed to and I’d get a whipping, but Mammie told me that a priest has to take an oath of silence and can never repeat anything to anyone else that he hears in the confessional box even if he was asked to by a judge in a court of law.

In the beginning Father Butler called on us for donations, either money or clothes which we had grown out of and he’d give to the St Vincent de Paul Society which helps the poor people of Kingston. 

Priests are important to Jamaican families because if a family has no money they will always go to their priest for help and they will always receive a few pence for food and clothes.  But things have to be really awful if you have to go to the priest and ask for money.  

Anyway, this Sunday, Mammie didn’t attend mass that particular morning and, Sydney was away up country on business, so missed the incident in Church, but Father Butler told Mammie later what had happened and said he was concerned about Vivie’s “moral welfare”.  Having an affair with a married man and committing adultery are mortal sins and were forbidden by the Catholic Church and if Vivie continued on her wayward journey to damnation, he would have to have her excommunicated from the Church.   Most Catholics I know would say that being put in front of a firing squad was better than being excommunicated from the Church.

Mammie tried to explain that Vivie was going to ask Carlton for a divorce because she wanted to marry Freddie.

“You know as well as I do Becky, the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce and will never allow Vivie to marry Freddie”.                                  But worse was to come……………………

 

<–Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey                                     Carlton —> 

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<-Vivie, Sydney & The Den of Inequity     A Loose Cannon & The Catholic Church–>

 

browney-tree-c 

 

Some might say that dysfunctional would be an appropriate word to describe my mother’s family, but I prefer the word colourful!  Mum had described her family to me as high Catholics, a phrase I have never understood the meaning of, but she would say it with such pride and a complete lack of irony, which amused me, particularly when I heard about some of the things the family got up to and which went completely against the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

 

For example they practiced Obeah – a form of witchcraft which was illegal and, if found guilty of practising it the penalty was flogging and/or imprisonment.

 

Some of them were involved in an illegal gaming club where prominent Jamaican men could be entertained by women in private rooms upstairs in the Den of Inequity – isn’t that called a brothel?

 

My Aunt Vivie was having an affair. 

 

My Aunt Chickie had an illegitimate son called Maurice.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that illegitimacy was the norm in Jamaica at that time, but it certainly wasn’t as frowned upon in Jamaican society as it was in England where the stigma attached to unmarried mothers was huge. 

 

My Aunt Gwennie had a very unpleasant boyfriend, Keith Rousseau, who used to beat her up and ended up in Court on a charge of causing her bodily harm.  The Daily Gleaner reported that he was fined £15, which I thought was a huge amount in those days – early 1930s.   His mitigating circumstances were that he had had too much to drink and couldn’t help himself! 

 

There were to be many more revelations in store for me on this journey discovering my Mum’s past – some not good at all, but some great, like hearing from Mum about my grandfather Henry, or Pops as she called him.  My grandfather was a bit of a rogue, by all accounts, and I have no idea whether we bore any similarities.  However, we did have two things in common.  We both had the same hero – Marcus Garvey and we both disliked my Great Aunt Martha, my grandmother’s (Becky) sister.  

 

 Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

                 Pops:     My Pops lives in one roomed shack behind the meat market now that he doesn’t live with us any more.  Mammie threw him out because of his womanising ways and drinking.   He has a meat stall in the Victoria Market down on the harbour side and every Saturday morning, regular as clockwork, I have to go down there and collect the meat for the weekend.

                 We always have a little talk before he hands over our meat.  You see, that’s Pop’s way of contributing to the family.  He always asks after Mammie.  I feel sorry for him, he’s all alone and I think he still loves Mammie.

  My brothers and sister don’t often see him.   I think it’s because he’s black.  To be honest, I don’t like being seen with him really either, but he is my Pops and I do it because Mammie asks me to.

 

In spite of his drinking, Pops is a proud and dignified, but lonely man who collects his memories in a big thick scrapbook;   things that have a special meaning, like the letters Mammie wrote to him before they were married.  He says when he reads them they remind him of how much they were in love and how they thought they could break down the colour prejudice barriers that there were because a black man and a white woman “had the temerity” to marry. “

 

“That was what people said” he’d tell me.   Pops likes to mimic the posh British accent.

 

“Mammie and I had the temerity to marry, Olga, isn’t it simply awful, my dear”.  He can be very funny sometimes.

 

Pops has a big stamp collection as well and, do you know, I have no idea where he gets those stamps from because the only people I know who live abroad are my sister, Birdie and Aunt Martha and I know Birdie doesn’t write to him and Aunt Martha and Pops don’t even speak to each other let alone write, they hate each other so.   Pops knows I want to go to England for six months so I can study at the same dance school as Birdie and Mammie will only agree to my going if I stay with Aunt Martha. 

 

It was my Pops who first called Aunt Martha the “White Witch of Paddington” hinting that she was like Annie Palmer, a well known, but evil woman, from Jamaica’s past. 

 

Annie Palmer was known as the “White Witch of Rose Hall” and married John Palmer who owned a Great House, called Rose Hall, which had been built at great expense on a hillside overlooking their vast plantation and the Caribbean. 

 

Annie Palmer practised Obeah, smoked ganja, drank heavily and was often seen dancing naked in the moonlight.  She also tortured her slaves, murdered three previous husbands – poisoning one, stabbing another and then, if that wasn’t enough, poured boiling oil into his ears, and she strangled the third husband.  Eventually one of her slaves murdered her in her bed.

 

I didn’t think there was that much similarity between Aunt Martha and Annie Palmer, except maybe their height, Annie Palmer was 4’ 11” and Aunt Martha’s not much more, but Pops said if I was ever unlucky enough to get to know Aunt Martha better,  I’d be able to work out for myself the similarities between them.

 

“Don’t trust her, particularly if she’s being nice, because she’s bound to be plotting something” he once told me.

 

On the front cover of Pops scrapbook are photographs of all of us at various stages in our lives, usually to do with a religious occasion. 

 

There’s one of Birdie being confirmed, Chickie cradling her son, Maurice, after he had been baptised, and a separate one of Dolly, Ruby, Pearl and me, after we’d made our First Holy Communion wearing our long white dresses with wreaths in our hair, and a beautiful wedding photograph of Boysie and Minah and all the family outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral.  But in pride of place, right in the middle of us all is a cutting from the London Evening News.

 

Pops’ hero is Marcus Garvey.  He gets his cuttings from the supply of old newspapers he keeps to wrap the meat in that he sells.

 

 

Extract from Marcus Garvey’s Speech to an audience at The Royal Albert Hall, London, 1928 

  

“….you can enslave as you did for 300 years the bodies of men, you can shackle the hands of men, you can shackle the feet of men, you can imprison the bodies of men, but you cannot shackle or imprison the minds of men.  No race has the last word on culture and on civilisation.  You do not know what the black man is capable of; you do not know what he is thinking and therefore you do not know what the oppressed and suppressed Negro, by virtue of his condition and circumstance, may give to the world as a surprise”

 

           

We all know Marcus Garvey.  He’s a bit of a troublemaker.  Mad as a hatter going round preaching and stirring up trouble.  The first time I heard his name was a few years ago and I’d gone down to the market to pick up our meat. Wherever I looked on the docks there were hundreds of red, black and green flags tied to everything and anything, all waving in the wind.  Pops told me that all the decoration and bunting was for a “glorious man” The Hon. Marcus Garvey, D.C.L. who was arriving from the United States.  When I asked him what D.C.L. stood for he said “Distinguished Coloured Leader”. 

 

Garvey is Jamaican and from a big family too.  His parents were poor and as a child he knew about hunger and colour prejudice and some people say that’s why Garvey hates white people.  But he says what he hates is the system in Jamaica which keeps the poor man down and the poor are mostly black people. 

 

Pops says black people lack self-esteem and Garvey wants them to have sense of pride in their race, colour and country.  Garvey encourages them to “study hard and go into business and unite and help each other and become independent of white Jamaican society who have created two Jamaicas, one white or near white and wealthy and the other black and poor”.

 

 Sydney hates Garvey and says he’s a troublemaker, a swindler, a crook only wanting to get rich quickly and Vivie says he practises Obeah. 

 

Well, honestly, doesn’t everybody?

 

Garvey holds political gatherings in Edelweiss Park where he puts on entertainment, shows, dance contests, musical presentations, plays and boxing for the benefit of the black people in Kingston.  Ruby, Dolly and I were forbidden to go to his rallies, but in true Jamaican tradition, we go in secret. 

  

<–Vivie, Sydney & The Den of Inequity             A Loose Cannon & The Catholic Church—>

 

 

 

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<–Siblings, Lodgers & a Gift from God                    Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey ->

 

 

Up until I was about 12 my Mum, Olga, (although at the time I knew her as Carmen) and I shared a bed.  It was when I snuggled up to her at night that sometimes she would talk about some of her family, particularly her mother whom she adored.  My grandmother had thrown Henry out of the house because of his womanising, gambling and drinking. That must have been when Mum was very young because once she told me that for a long time, when she was little, she thought Sydney was her father.

 

Mum talked about Sydney, but never fondly.  She hated him because of the beatings he gave her. Sydney died in 1980 and, to be honest, I’m glad I never met him – I know I wouldn’t have liked him.  For me, there’s something insidious about a man who can beat his sisters and feel it is justified – the girls weren’t bad, just boisterous. 

 

But, the more I learnt about my family, the more I wished I’d tried to find them years earlier than I did.  

 the-browneys-tree

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

 

Viviana:   She’s my oldest sister but everyone calls her Vivie and she’s fearless.  She’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 and 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.

 

Vivie is going out with Freddie Howell even though she’s still married to Carlton Puyatt.  Freddie is a very rich white man, who by the way, is also married and has two children.  Vivie wants a divorce from Carlton because she is in love with Freddie who owns a gambling club on Harbour Street.  Freddie’s partner is Roy Mackenzie who is also white and comes from a very rich, prominent, white family who own three plantations, one of which is near Aunt Lucy’s. Roy’s really nice looking and a bit of a rogue but the ladies love him.  I like him quite a lot myself but he doesn’t even know I exist.  Boysie says one day Roy will be even richer than his father because he never misses an opportunity to make money and no matter how much money he earns, it’s never enough. 

 

Gambling is very popular in Kingston, particularly the Chinese numbers game, peaka pow although it’s illegal, but, as with everything else that‘s illegal in Jamaica, everyone does..  Every now and again the Gleaner newspaper and the Church elders get all hot and bothered about the gambling that goes on and Freddie’s club always comes in for a lot of attention. 

 

 

The Den of Inquity

The Den of Inquity

 

 

The Church elders call it a den of inequity and Freddie thought the description amusing so that’s what he named his club.  The elders wanted the police to close it down, but Freddie has friends in high places and the police tip him off when they’re going to raid the club.  Then he closes it down for a while and re-opens three or four weeks later.    Every Saturday night Vivie cooks a special meal for the gamblers, something like chicken with rice and peas or cod fish and ackee and I often go there during the day to help her with the cooking. 

 

Sometimes Freddie lets me stay on in the evening helping in the cloakroom. Freddie says I’m never to tell anyone who I see coming into the club otherwise I won’t be allowed to help any more. I never realised how popular Freddie’s club was with so many well known men and women from Kingston and you’d be amazed how much private entertaining is done in the upstairs rooms by members of the government, famous actors and a lot of Jamaica’s white and coloured high society.

 

Sydney:           Sydney was Mammie’s first child.    As soon as he was born the gossip started up again about Mammie because, would you believe it, by a fluke of nature, he was more white than coloured.  That set tongues wagging about Mammie even more.  But she didn’t care what people were saying.  She loved her baby and she loved Pops and went on to have ten more children, all coloured, except Pearl who, like Sydney was more white than coloured.

 

From an early age Sydney was always determined to be successful and at 14 he started a bicycle repair business from our back yard.  He attached a wooden cart to the back of his bicycle and cycle around Kingston asking people if they had any old bicycles they didn’t want or were too battered to repair.  Sydney did so well he had to hire someone to help him and it wasn’t long before he bought his first shop and gave people the chance to buy a new bicycle making a small payment each week.  To keep up with the demand for bicycles Sydney regularly goes to England now.  At the same time he needed a partner in the business, someone he could trust, so he asked Boysie to become his partner and, of course, he agreed. 

 

Mammie taught us all to follow her example of being proud, polite, to act with dignity and not do anything that we would be ashamed of.  Her favourite phrase is “civility costs nothing”.  Sydney says following Mammie’s example is the reason he is a successful businessman and people respect him.

 

Vivie says it’s because he’s more white than coloured.  Unfortunately for Vivie she was born more coloured than white.  I say unfortunately because Vivie desperately wants to be white and although she loves Mammie, has always been angry with her for marrying a black man. 

 

Sometimes I think she is more colour prejudice than anyone else I know and I’m not sure how our lives would have been better if Mammie had married a white man.   But Vivie says we’re all prejudice because all our friends are either white or coloured.

 

“How many black people are our neighbours or friends or we even know”?

 

 “How many black pupils went to Alpha Academy”? 

 

Of course, none of us have any black friends and black pupils go to other schools, not Alpha – as a matter of fact the only black people I know are our servants, and of course, Pops.  But we know lots of Chinese people.  There’s a Chinese shopkeeper next door and as a matter of fact nearly all the shopkeepers are Chinese.

 

“Well, they’re not black” says Vivie always determined to have the last word.

 

Sydney is very protective of Mammie.  He says he saw for himself when he was a small boy how unkindly she was treated because of her marriage to Pops.  I can never remember a time when Pops lived with us, and for a long time when I was growing up I thought Sydney was my father.  He always told us what to do and whipped us when he thought we were doing something wrong.   We tots used to ask why Mammie didn’t stop him and I think it’s because she was scared Sydney would leave and there would be no money coming in.  My older sisters say Pops would never have beaten any of us no matter how naughty we were. 

 

 <–Siblings, Lodgers & a Gift from God                    Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey —>

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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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<–Becky’s First Encounter with Obeah         Becky & Living in Kingston, Jamaica –>

 

During slavery, the plantation remained the most important unit and a rigid class system existed.  You were judged to be important according to the type of work you did, by the colour of your skin and how much money and land you owned. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, slavery’s legacy was the social structure it had created before Emancipation – a three-tier class structure at the top of which was the white upper class.  Then came the coloureds, followed by the blacks.  Although Jamaican whites did mix with coloureds in official and business circles, because of their colour prejudice, they refused to mix with them socially.  As for the blacks, both the whites and the coloureds treated them as if they were less than human, although there were some exceptions.   

 

Extract from Great Aunt Lucy’s Diary 1902

 
 

 

 

 

<–Becky’s First Encounter with Obeah             Becky & Living in Kingston, Jamaica —>

Becky left “Mon Repose” very early this morning leaving a note asking Martha and me to meet her at the hotel in the afternoon as she had something to tell us.  Martha is considering staying on in Jamaica and opening a dress salon, but is hesitant about taking such a big step. She has struck up a friendship with Thomas Bonnett who owns a large department store on Harbour Street.   Apparently he was very impressed when she told him she worked at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and he realised she had skills he could make use of.  Thomas suggested she stayed on in Jamaica and work for him, until she felt the time was right to start up on her own, or returned to England, whichever she decided to do.

 

Becky’s always been self-sufficient and can amuse herself. Sometimes she takes a boat to Port Royal, the train to Montego Bay or Port Antonio.  One day I asked her if she makes these trips alone and she confessed she had met someone special.  I suspect this “someone special” is the reason she has asked Martha and I to meet her here. 

 

The Constant Spring must be the most beautifully situated Hotel in the whole of Jamaica. It’s as tropical as you can get, set 600 feet above sea level and at the foot of the Blue Mountains amid sugar, banana, pineapple and coffee estates.  

 

As you come up the front steps of the hotel there is a splendid Royal Palm tree standing in the main entrance. Inside it is cool, comfortable and elegantly furnished and outside there are spacious cool verandas where you can sit and take in the scent given off from the exotic and colourful tropical plants and shrubs that fill the hotel’s gardens. The hotel serves wonderful ice cold fresh fruit drinks, like pineapple and coconut or the hotel’s specialty, a drink called matrimony, made with the pulp of an orange and a custard apple which is what Martha and I are drinking while we waited for Becky. 

 

On an immaculate green lawn to my left a group of men and women are playing croquet. On my right, elderly guests, who find the sun too hot, sit under shaded arbours and tropical foliage which provides shelter from the unrelenting sun, either reading or quietly talking; elsewhere some children are shrieking and laughing while playing, what sounds like, a game of hide and seek, in the hotel’s specially designed children’s garden. 

 

Sitting a few tables away from me are some men and women talking and laughing loudly at the tactics that had taken place at a practice game on the polo field that morning.  And in front of me beyond the gardens and shrubbery, is the tennis court from where, in the distance, I can hear a game is being played and the players calling out “well played” and “good shot” as a winning point is scored. 

 

At last I saw Becky coming towards me. She looked beautiful. Her long blond hair tied loosely back with a yellow ribbon and wearing a simple white dress which showed off her perfect, slim figure. She was holding hands with a good looking young man and laughing at something he was saying to her, both of them completely oblivious to the glances the other guests were giving them.  

 

 I knew immediately they were in love. They sat down still holding hands and Becky introduced him to Martha and me. 

“This is Henry” Becky said and then she paused before she added “and Henry has asked me to marry him.”

 

His name was Henry Alexander Browney and he owned a meat market down by Kingston Harbour. Becky chatted away, telling us how they met and Henry sat quietly listening. There was a pounding in my head and I felt dizzy and slightly nauseous. I reached out for my drink, my matrimony, but knocked it over – an involuntary action or a reaction. I couldn’t say. Becky was still chattering away singing Henry’s praises. 

 

“He’s charming, intelligent, articulate, well read and very amusing” she told us. I agree that any man with those attributes one would consider to be a real catch for a woman. But as Becky sat next to him in her pretty white dress I could only focus on the fact that Henry was as black as coal! 

 

It is not an exaggeration to call Jamaica a paradise. But it has an ugly past. Non whites far outnumber whites and the colour and social prejudice, which was the mainstay of slavery, remains today.  The white upper classes still have all the economic control, social prestige, political power and status. They still see as inferior the middle class, who range from almost white to pure black and who may be lawyers, doctors, business men or women, teachers, clergy, and skilled tradesmen. 

 

 It is true that this class is not barred from occupying a position in any walk of life, including public service, providing they are suitably educated and qualified. Some of them are magistrates of Petty Sessions, and some are Chief Magistrates of their Parishes. In the capacity of their professional positions they can and do associate with white people on equal terms. But that is where the association stops. In their private social life white Jamaican, with a few minor exceptions, refuse to mix with educated and wealthy coloureds or blacks. 

 

It came as a surprise to me that these middle classes don’t want or expect to be invited into white Jamaican circles. Because of indoctrination during slavery, the coloureds believed they were inferior to white people but superior to the blacks and in turn the blacks believed they were inferior to both groups. 

 

But what has changed significantly with the middle classes is the tendency to be very obsessed with skin colour and what they consider to be good European-type features, like the shape of a nose and hair. It seems that with emancipation the question of colour seems to have become more, rather than less, important as a sign of status.  

 

A marriage between a coloured man and white woman would be superficially acceptable if he were very rich and influential, which in itself would be a very rare occurrence, but would also be considered damaging to the purity of the white race. 

 

A marriage between a white man and coloured woman would be tolerated. I saw this advertisement recently in the Daily Gleaner.

 

SCOTTISH MAN, 28, SEEKS ATTRACTIVE WEALTHY COLOURED LADY
WITH A VIEW TO MARRIAGE.
PLEASE SEND PHOTOGRAPH AND DETAILS IN CONFIDENCE TO:
P O BOX 999, DAILY GLEANER, KINGSTON

                 It was not the first time I had seen something like this and I expect the young man will find what he’s looking for since there are quite a few rich coloured Jamaican women. He will get financially security and she will get a very cool and limited entry into white Jamaican society being excluded from the more prestigious events that were held. 

The only relationship between a white man and a black woman that I have heard of was during slavery. White men don’t advertise for black woman to marry, even if they are wealthy and educated. 

 

If Becky, a white woman, plans to go ahead with this marriage to a black man, she can expect, with a possible few exceptions, to be ostracised completely by Jamaicans whatever their colour, after all it wasn’t too long ago that it was against the law for a white woman to marry or have children with a black man. 

 

I knew that with Becky’s news, Martha’s dream of owning a successful dress salon would suffer. I felt sorry for her because she had been tantalisingly close to achieving what she wanted most but being Becky’s sister would ensure that she too was excluded from Kingston’s elite social circle. 

 

Martha said nothing throughout the meeting, but I read her eyes and her reaction was cold fury. I don’t think she looked at Henry but, as she got up to leave the table, she leaned towards Becky and whispered something in her ear. 

 

As Martha left I realised the rest of the guests had all been watching us.   Lucy and Henry were still sitting holding hands and maybe the enormity of what they were about to undertake was beginning to dawn on Becky.  I worry for Becky’s future but am overwhelmed with admiration and so very proud of her.  Prejudice does exist between Jamaicans and it is a strong person whose voice or actions make it clear that they are not part of the colour and social structure that operates here. 

 

As Henry, Becky and I prepared to leave the hotel, I asked her what Martha had whispered.  “Nothing. She was just being silly”.

 

That evening was a typical tropical night, still, beautiful and clear with the moon riding high in a cloudless sky.   A wind slowly started to get up throughout the night and steadily increased in force until by about 2 am in the morning when it must have reached over 100 m.p.h. With it came a ferocious rainstorm and relentless thunder and lightning.

 

The next day the devastation was awful.  Coconut trees that had stood for fifty years were torn up by the roots and thrown yards away as if they were matchsticks.  Plantations, including my own, have been hit badly, but nowhere near as badly as the peasants who will have lost their homes as well as their crops. Years of work wiped out in one night. God knows what these poor people will do without money or means to restore the crops on which their livelihood entirely depends. 

 

Martha called it retribution for Becky’s actions.   A little dramatic, I thought. Shortly afterwards Martha returned home alone to England.

 

 

<–Becky’s First Encounter with Obeah         Becky & Living in Kingston, Jamaica –>

  

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 <—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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<–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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<—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

The Advertisement in The Gleaner

Mum had been consistent over the years in refusing to tell me anything about my father or allowing me to attempt to make contact with her family back in Kingston, Jamaica. Whenever I asked about either the reply was always the same. In response to the family question she would say “I don’t want to see them, they’ll only ask questions and, anyway, they’re probably all dead by now”. And in response to questions about my father she’d say “It’s too painful to talk about”.

At that stage I had no idea who my father was nor the circumstances surrounding my birth. In the nineteen forties, when I was born, there was a huge stigma attached to being an unmarried mother, coloured or not, and I assumed it was that stigma which was imbedded in my Mums psyche.  I was later to find that there was another reason.

Her near death experience made me determined to find out more about my family, so I placed the following advertisement in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s national daily newspaper.

    ad-in-gleaner42

A Result!

I suppose, because Mum had been so adamant over the years that all her famiy were dead, I didn’t hold out much hope of a reply. But 24 hours after the ad appeared in the paper I had a phone call a woman called Audrey who was married to Anthony Shim. Anthony was Ruby’s son and Ruby was an older sister of Mum’s and he and his wife lived in London. It was highly emotional phone call for me particuarly when Audrey told me the family in Jamaica believed Mum to be dead. And within hours of that phone call I received a telegram from my Aunt Ruby:

telegram-copy

 

On My Way

The first inhabitants of Jamaica, the Arawaks,  gave the island its name Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water” and as I looked at it from the air, the name seemed very appropriate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to see their Jamaica or even the idyllc island Mum had left behind so long ago.  Kingston had changed a lot since Jamaica gained its Independence.  Now, because of the violence, certain parts were  ‘no go’ areas and visitors were warned to be vigilant to ensure their safety.  

Our plane had started its descent into Kingston and I looked out of the small cabin window at the island I had spent much of my childhood daydreaming about.  From the air, it looked stunning.  Jamaica is a mountainous island with the rugged mountain ranges of the spectacular Blue Mountains to the east of the island. One of the flight attendants announced that we were in a holding pattern over Norman Manley Airport and would have to circle over the island for 10-15 minutes until we could make our final descent into Kingston.

And so the captain gave us a bird’s eye view of Jamaica – I could see the smaller John Crow Mountains next to the Blue Mountain range. I thought I could have been flying over the Amazon Jungle as I looked down at a dense tropical forest no doubt completely uninhabited. A blue haze, from which the Mountains get their name from, wafted lazily over the top of them like a long pale blue gray chiffon scarf. Now we were flying over Cockpit Country in the center of the island where direct descendants of the Maroons still lived. The word Maroons comes from the Spanish word “marron” meaning brown.

The Maroons were slaves owned by the Spaniards when Spain ruled Jamaica. After the British conquered the Spaniards and took Jamaica for themselves, many of the slaves escaped into the mountains and forests in the remote Cockpit Country and set up communities there. The British soldiers tried on several occasions to recapture the slaves for themselves but the Maroons were fierce and resourceful fighters who could outsmart the British soldiers. They were led by a woman, the indomitable and formidable Nanny – now one of Jamaica’s national treasures! Eventually a truce was called and the Maroons gained a considerable measure of self-government they still enjoy today. And every year on 6th January the Maroons celebrate the fact that they were the first black people in the West Indies to gain their freedom, nearly 100 years before Emancipation.

As we continued to fly over the island I could see through my cabin window rivers that criss-crossed over the island and ran from the mountains all the way down to the coastline. I could even see huge waterfalls on the side of the mountains, We carried on flying westward and there were miles and miles of white sandy beaches surrounded by the clean, clear sapphire-blue water of the Caribbean.

We passed over fertile fields crammed with healthy looking crops and I couldn’t help wondering whether we were flying over fields where ganja was growing. Mum had told me how it was smoked quite openly when she was a child in Jamaica, most notably by my Great Aunt Lucy.  I took one more look at the Blue Mountains we started our descent into Kingston.

 

marie-stuart-patsy-and-aunt-ruby-welcome-home-partyfor-marie12 

“Welcome Home to Jamaica” Party for Marie
from l. to r. Patsy, Aunt Ruby, Marie and Stuart

 <—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

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