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Archive for the ‘Jamaican folklore’ Category

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

 

Family Tree

 Click to englarge image

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

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

 

Dear Diary

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And then something else happened that really scared Sydney.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

After Emancipation in 1834  the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that it would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much like when my mother was living in Jamaica in the 1920s and 1930s, and probably still continues today.   It’s deep rooted in the black and coloured Jamaican’s heritage and culture and even though you might come across a family that is both Christian and well educated, the likelihood is that someone in it will be dabbling in Obeah, like my family! 

 

 Family Tree

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

Dear Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can do it Olga”. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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