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 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place            A Change of Plan for Olga—->

 

Family Tree

My mother, Olga Browney, arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica on 1st April 1939 intending to stay only a few months. The plan was that Olga would stay with her Aunt Martha in Paddington. Although in the months before there had been talk of a war between England and Germany, Olga’s mother, Becky, believed that war had been averted, thanks to the Munich Agreement. This was a Pact made between Adolph Hitler and the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain whereby Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he would not make any more territorial demands into Europe and so Chamberlain believed that war between the two countries had been averted.

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary

            “How did you get here?” Aunt Martha asked me incredulously.

She was still in bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  If it had been Birdie standing at the bottom of her bed instead of me, the reply would have said something smart like “I just flew in on Aggie Burns broomstick”, but I just said lamely,

“I thought you were expecting me”. 

“Jesus Christ, what day is it”?

“April 1st” I said, shocked by her blaspheming. 

And then she started laughing “Trust you to arrive on April Fool’s Day, Olga”.

I didn’t answer not understanding what she meant, but, I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. I was hungry, cold, tired and this was not the welcome I had been expecting.

For a start Aunt Martha should have met me when the S.S. Jamaica Progress docked this morning in London.  The Progress is a cargo boat carrying fruit, mainly bananas, and the Royal Mail, but also has room for a few passengers.  On this trip there were 12 of us including me and, of course, my chaperone, Mrs Brodie, a friend of the family, who was going to England for a holiday and whom Sydney had asked to keep an eye on me during the trip. 

Did he think I might fall overboard?  

Anyway, it never occurred to me that Aunt Martha wouldn’t be there and I was very grateful that Mrs Brodie waited with me a for a while, but eventually she said she had to leave.  With a confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling I assured her I would be fine on my own.   Just in case Aunt Martha didn’t arrive Mrs. Brodie showed me where there was a taxi rank and, checking I had enough money to pay for it, kissed me goodbye and went on her way.   Sitting in the waiting room I felt very homesick.

After waiting for her for nearly three hours I decided to take a taxi to Aunt Martha’s home, 23 Chilworth Street, Paddington.   I knew she lived on the third floor of a block of flats because last time she was in Kingston she told us at dinner one evening how Londoners were not very friendly.  Aunt Martha likes a drink and one day she was in a pub when a lady sitting a few feet away from her became ill.  Aunt Martha offered to take her back to her home and discovered that the woman lived in the flat beneath her in Chilworth Street

As I struggled up the three flights of concrete steps to Aunt Martha’s flat with two heavy suitcases I thought, Londoners are not only unfriendly, they’re unreliable too.

 

Letter to Mammie, Mission House, Kingston 

from

Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London

 

Dearest  Mammie

I couldn’t sleep last night.  When I closed my eyes I saw us all on Kingston docks crying.  It was hard saying goodbye, wasn’t it, and Mammie you looked so worried.  Fancy Pops coming down as well.  It was nice you were both there.  I don’t remember ever seeing you together before. And wasn’t Sydney thoughtful and kind making sure I had everything I needed. He told me to be sure to ask Aunt Martha if I need anything and he said he’d be coming to London in two or three months, so I would see him them.

Including me and Mrs Brodie, there were only twelve passengers on the boat, two widow ladies, myself and another single young lady and two married couples, three single men, two were students and the third single man was an engineer.  We all got on very well together and made up our own entertainment in the evening with little concerts which we all took part in.  I was persuaded to sing a few times and got a very nice round of applause each time.  The engineer performed some magic tricks, which sometimes went wrong, but we pretended we hadn’t noticed or else we played card games like gin rummy or canasta while the older people played bridge.  

 As a matter of fact Mammie, I was invited to sit at the Captain’s table four times during the journey; it’s a great honour, you know and I felt very important.  The crossing seemed to go quickly and it was very good until we got close to England and then it rained a lot and the sea was a bit rough.

Aunt Martha has a nice little two bedroom flat and, guess what, I have my own bedroom but you probably know that. 

On my first morning here, Aunt Martha brought me breakfast in bed and later on took me to Lyons Corner House which is huge and there are restaurants on four levels.    On the ground floor level is the food hall where you can buy different things like ham and cheese, pastries and specially made chocolates, wines, tea and, guess what, coffee and fruit from, guess where? ……Jamaica! 

And on the floors above are more restaurants with an orchestra playing in each one.  Aunt Martha and I went to the tearoom and she ordered afternoon tea which arrived on delicate china plates with some scones, dainty sandwiches and little cakes.  I only had a little bit to eat because I thought it was good manners not to eat all the food in front of us.  But I was wrong, I should have eaten more, because AM finished the whole lot.

All the waitresses wore black and white uniforms, Ruby, and AM says their called Nippies, when I asked her why ,she said “because they nip in and out of the tables quickly”.  Isn’t that funny?  I thought they looked so smart in their uniforms and said to AM that I might change my mind about going to Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance and become a Nippie for a few months. 

“I don’t think so dear,” AM said. 

“To come all this way from Jamaica and end up as a waitress doesn’t seem such a good idea to me”

  Well, at least it’s work, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.  With so many out of work back home I bet lots of people would love a job like that.  When the bill came, Aunt Martha said,

“Oh, that’s a bit expensive, but never mind Olga, you’re worth it”.  Wasn’t that nice? 

The weather has been horrible, cold and wet.  One day smog covered the whole of London all day and you could barely see in front of your hand and bus conductors were walking in front of their buses to guide them.  I missed Jamaica a lot that day.  Aunt Martha says its smoke that comes from factory chimneys and buses.  There are signs that Londoners are preparing for war.  There are air raid shelters being built and sticky tape is stuck across windows to prevent people being cut by flying glass and splinters when the bombs come.  Aunt Martha says it’s difficult to know what to think because one minute the war’s on and the next it’s off. 

My favourite place, Mammie, is Regent’s Park Zoo.  There are all sorts of animals there, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, beautiful big birds and sweet little birds.   Even before I get to the zoo I can hear the lions roaring and the monkeys whooping.  I feed the monkeys but you’re not allowed to feed the wilder animals, so I watch the zoo keepers feed the elephants, lions and bears. 

And I’ve discovered a beautiful Catholic church called St James’ in Spanish Place, not far from Aunt Martha but, do you know what, I don’t think she goes to church quite so much in London as she does in Jamaica. 

I say my prayers every night Mammie and go to mass on Sundays at St James’ .  It doesn’t feel the same as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, but I still like it a lot.  

I miss you all.  Please write soon.

                                Your loving daughter and sister            Signed Olga

 

 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live        A Change of Plan for Olga – London 1939—->

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<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live                  London 1939 —->

I couldn’t help but be amused when I discovered this Christmas card that my Uncle Sydney used to send to his customers in Jamaica.  It depicts snow – in Jamaica!!

  

Jamaican Christmas Card with Snow! 

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Family Tree

 

Dear Diary

Christmas Eve:   Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me went to midnight mass at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.  Mammie never forces us to go to church and we can choose whether we want to.  I always want to go, I like the feeling of peace when I’m in Church.  The Cathedral  bells always start ringing half an hour before midnight and as they died away the Holy Trinity Choir sang “Adeste Fideles”. 

Father Butler preached the sermon and talked about the true meaning and spirit of Christmas and that it was a season of love and we should love one another and live happily and peacefully together.  Father Butler knows my family well and I’m sure he wrote that sermon just for the Browney family.  It certainly felt like it.  

Christmas is a special time in Jamaica and we celebrate it in a big way.  I love it, there is always so much happening and it’s one of the few times, apart from family crisis, a wedding or a funeral, when my family is together.

 

Christmas Day:   Today is such a beautiful day, warm with a little breeze and Mammie is sitting in her favourite rocking chair on the back veranda, pretending she’s dozing, but I know she is watching to make sure Cassie and me lay the dining table properly for Christmas lunch. 

We nearly always eat in the garden and Cassie and I are laying the huge mahogany table that’s been moved from the dining room onto the lawn and has been in the family as long as I can remember.  Mammie had it specially made years ago and told the craftsman it had to be big enough to hold at least twenty people because she was going to have lots of children. 

Cassie and I have done a good job with the table, even if I say so myself.  At each end there is a large bowl of fruit overflowing with mangoes, oranges, figs, papaw, bananas, star apples, dates, pineapple, naseberry and tamarind.   Down the centre we’ve put sprays of green maiden hair fern with white Christmas blossoms and lots of deep crimson roses.  Each place setting has been laid up with a crystal wine glass and Mammie’s best silver cutlery, a Xmas cracker and a crisp white folded linen serviette in the shape of a water lily and placed in the middle of each setting.  As an extra touch I’ve put a few tiny silver dishes of sweets, raisins and nuts on the table. 

We have a real feast on Christmas Day, lots of different things to choose from.   Rice and peas, cod fish and ackee, which grows in pods on a large tree, as well as the usual Christmas lunch of roast turkey, roasted plantain, sweet potatoes, calalue, cassada and yams.   For pudding we’ll be having boiled Jamaica plum pudding with wine sauce as well and mince pies.  Oh, I do love my food.  Mammie says my eyes are bigger than my belly.  I have a big scar on my upper arm where Dolly threw hot porridge at me one morning at breakfast.

I remember when I was little the family were sitting down to breakfast one morning, and we normally had porridge, and there was a sideboard where the porridge was laid out in dishes.   I usually examined them all to see which was the biggest one.  Dolly was standing beside me and I picked up the biggest one and she picked up hers and she threw it at me and said

“Here you take this too” and the porridge hit me on my right upper arm. 

I’ve still got the burn mark all these years later.   Mammie was furious with Dolly and she got smacked and Mammie took me to the bathroom and put bicarbonate of soda on it.  It stung like anything.  I cried a little bit because it hurt and then Mammie took me back down to breakfast.

After that we got ready for school and Mammie gave us a coconut cake.   She made them every day for us.  I can see Dolly, Ruby and myself, three little tots, going off to school, crying and hugging each other all the way.  We made friends quickly and never kept malice.   We were always together and did everything together, went to school together, played together, when we were very little we even slept in the same bed together.  

Mammie is lovely, you know, we only have to say we have a headache and she’ll cuddle you.

Next to the chairs which have been stacked ready to be placed around the Christmas table is a big wicker basket which will soon be full of Christmas presents. 

We have a custom at Christmas where we put everyone’s name in a hat and then you pick a name from the hat and have to buy a present for that person, costing no more than 1/-.  It takes a lot of imagination sometimes to find the right present for the right person. 

 

John Canoe:   In the distance I can hear the music from the John Canoe celebrations which we’ll all go and join up with after lunch.  John Canoe parades date back to slavery when Christmas was the only extended holiday the slaves had and it was a very special holiday for them. 

Some people say John Canoe was a great African chief and loved so much by his people that in his honour a festival is held every year.  Men wear “John Canoe faces”, which are masks worn by the performers.  

One performer will wear a sort of house on his head, some wear a cow’s head, one or two of them wear the head of a horse, some of the men dress in women’s clothes and all are dancing in the streets accompanied by drums, tambourines, banjos, flutes or homemade musical instruments and there is lots of noise and dancing in the streets. 

The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside.  On his head is a cardboard cylinder which rests on a flat square piece of cardboard and his entire costume is black.  He pokes people with his pitchfork and frightens, not only children, but grown ups as well, me included sometimes.

Another performer plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady who makes her belly move in time to the music.  She is very funny and another character,

Pitchy-Patchy, has the most colourful costume of all, with layered strips of brightly coloured cloth.  He is very energetic doing handstands and cartwheels all the time. In the evening most of us will go to Winchester Park which will be just one mass of people, young and old, rich and poor, all determined to have a good time.

At the entrance to the park last year was a thirty foot Christmas tree brilliantly lit and flooded with coloured lights from a gigantic searchlight and there were different booths, some designed to look like English cottages, and others had comic cartoons painted on them.  In each booth there are usually games of chance and lots of ways of winning prizes.

There is always a special exhibition in the flower booth where the floral creations of school children are on display and when the Browney children were small, it was our custom to display our floral designs there.  It’s one of my favourite booths and Maurice has told me that his floral design is on display this year.  Dear Maurice, I can’t wait to see it.

 But the booth I’ll head for first is the one with the fortune teller.  I’m off to England soon, so I must find out what’s in store for me.

 

Telegram from Rebecca Browney, Kingston, Jamaica to

Martha Ross, Paddington, England

 Olga sailing on S.S Jamaica Progress arriving London 1st April 1939.  Please meet her.  Becky.

 

 Dear Diary

 On my way:    On a crystal clear morning, the S.S Jamaica Progress steams slowly out of Kingston Harbour into the blue waters of the Caribbean, past small fishing boats, with the fringe of the coconut palms that front the Blue Mountains, gradually disappearing from view.

 She passes Port Royal and what remains of the buccaneer city that an earthquake sank beneath the ocean hundreds of years ago.  Overhead, in a cloudless blue sky, three long-tailed humming birds, so vivid in colour, sweep across the sky in unison and the sight of them takes my breath away. 

An omen, perhaps, a sign of good luck, Olga?

<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live               London 1939 —->

 

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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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<—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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<—Becky – Living in Kingston, Jamaica                               Olga’s Diary —>

 

 

When I visited my family in Jamaica in 1996 only six of Mum’s siblings were still alive.  Boysie, Birdie, Pearl, Chickie (christened Kathleen), Ruby and Dolly.  Boysie was living in Canada and I never got to meet him, although Mum spoke to him on the phone. 

 

It was wonderful to finally meet some of Mum’s family – my extended family, the family that as a child I’d always longed for but which, in the main, Mum didn’t like to talk about.  She’d say, “it makes me sad”.  But ironically, when she was sad, that was when she’d open up a bit and I gleaned little bits of information about her family.  I knew that as small children Mum, Ruby and Dolly had been very close and it was interesting to see just how much Ruby and Dolly looked like Mum, as well as being a bit unnerving. 

 

Although I’d warned my aunts before I left the UK that Mum wouldn’t be coming with me to Kingston because she had serious health problems, I think a little bit of them was hoping she would appear at the last minute.  But her non appearance didn’t diminish in anyway the reception they gave me.  They had thrown a “Welcome Home” party for me attended by their children – my cousins – and family and their friends.   It was all a bit overwhelming really.  I was so glad my son Stuart had come with me.  My aunts made a great fuss of Stuart too and it took some of the pressure of me.

 

My aunts made a huge fuss of me and were genuinely excited to meet Olga’s daughter.  They were so excited, like small children, constantly chattering and interrupting each other so they could speak to me, hugging me and always one of them holding my hand.  They’d ask me over and over again “How is Olga?”.  “Why didn’t Olga let us know she was alive”?   It was strange to hear Mum being called Olga, because I’d only every known her as Carmen.  When I asked them why she changed her name from Olga to Carmen, they said they had no idea.  She was always Olga to them.  I was to find out the answer to that one later.

 

the-browneys-tree

 

<—Becky – Living in Kingston, Jamaica                                  Olga’s Diary —>

 

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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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