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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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<—How It All Began                                                         London 1900 –>

 

Christopher Columbus, the explorer, had been so mesmerized by Jamaica’s beauty he had described it in 1494 as “…the fairest land my eyes have ever seen” and had been greeted by a kind, friendly, gentle people known as the Arawaks who gave the island its name Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water”. But the Arawaks suffered great ill-treatment at the hands of their Spanish conquerors and by the time Britain took Jamaica from Spain in 1655 they had all died. 

Staggering Statistic

Throughout the entire period of British rule and, not including the huge numbers born into slavery, it was estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Africans were imported against their will into Jamaica. People forced to work as slaves on plantations owned by rich white men and women and subjected to extreme cruel and brutal treatment.

Social and Class Distinction

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, the colour of your skin and how much money and land you owned. There were three groups of people – the whites, the coloureds and the slaves who were black. 

Among the whites, the most important in society were the planters who were very rich from the sale of sugar and owned vast areas of land on which they built great houses usually on a hill overlooking the plantations and slave houses.

            rose-hall-home-of-annie-palmer-ww         b-and-w-interior-of-rose-hall-22

Built by expert slave labour, they were manorial, with fine wood panelling, vast rooms, and opening one into another, windows that reached to the floor and wide staircases modelled on the Georgian style. Below these ample living-rooms gleaming with their shining smooth wood polished floors, were the quarters of the slaves who lived in cramped airless conditions behind stout iron bars at small windows.

Next in importance were the traders who sold merchandise to the people; tools for the estates, food items such as flour, fish, salt beef, cheese, wine, clothing and candles. They were very wealthy people but because they didn’t own any land they were considered less important than the planters.

After the traders, came the coloureds, half white and half black – ‘mulatto’ the result of a white man having a child by a black woman, although it was against the law for white women to have children with a black man. The coloureds thought they were better than the slaves mainly because they were not fully black, their reasoning being that the closer they came to being white, the more important they were. But some planters did free their mulatto children and in this way a large number of coloureds were free to start their own businesses.

Then there were skilled slaves. Among these people were midwifes, wheelwrights, masons and carpenters.

Next came the house slaves, the Blacks who worked as butlers, cooks, nurses, ladies’ maids, and coachmen in the kitchen, stable or garden. They worked close to their master and were frequently beaten particularly if he or she was upset about something. Punishment was often brutal, for example when a little girl was beaten and nailed through her ears to a tree for having broken a special cup belonging to her master.

The lowliest, and these amounted to more than half the slaves in Jamaica, were field slaves and it was primarily on their backs Jamaica became a jewel in the British Empire. They prepared the land, planted, cut and carried the canes to the mills, then ground it, made the sugar and carried it to the ships.

 After Emancipation

Jamaica reinvented itself when slavery ended in 1838. The workers legally had their freedom and now the owners of the sugar plantations had to pay the men who had once been their slaves. But many refused to work for the planters. Because they were free the black workers went into the hills and either squatted on Government property or bought small pieces of land from the missionarieswho bought land from the Government specially for the purpose of selling it back to the freed blacks and coloureds at a fair price so they could become independent and grow their own crops.

They established themselves as free settlers and grew coconuts, spices, tobacco, coco, pimentos and, of course, bananas.

 Peasant Banana Cultivation

Peasant Banana Cultivation

They formed hardworking, independent small businesses, selling their produce to local markets and, not only were they financially successful themselves, their efforts went some considerable way to making Jamaica solvent again after the demise of the sugar market/economy.

The planters needed workers so now free, but poor, immigrants arrived from Africa, Portugal, China, India, Syria and the Lebanon to work. The new immigrants were neither black nor white and many didn’t adapt to plantation work so some, like the Chinese, started their own businesses. These people brought with them their religion, language and cultures and enriched an already complicated society.

New shipping routes opened up between London and the West Indies and there was a lot of commercial activity in Jamaica. The British Government and the Institute of Jamaica encouraged men and women from Great Britain to move to Jamaica. Together they instigated a scheme whereby young men could pay a premium to plantation owners in exchange for instruction in the cultivation of crops indigenous to Jamaica.

Once they had served an apprenticeship they would be able to buy government land well below the market price.

 

<—How It All Began                                                          London 1900 —> 

 

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