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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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<–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 - 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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<—London to Kingston Life on SS Port Morant 1902         Obeah—->

 

My Great Aunt Lucy’s plantation was called “Mon Repose” situated in the Blue Mountains and accessible by a horse drawn buggy, up rough but scenically beautiful roads, steep hills, past towering coca palms with their feathery plumes waving in the breeze, around sudden sharp bends with  waterfalls cascading down the side of the mountain. 

 

By all accounts the house was wonderful, spacious and cool with mahogany wood panelling in most rooms and windows that went from the highly polished floor to the ceiling and left open all day to let the mountain breeze run through the house.  Lucy’s sketches were all over the house as well as her water-colour paintings of exotic flowers and ferns, and brightly coloured parrots, hummingbirds and mockingbirds. 

 

My grandmother Becky wrote:

 

“Coming from Paddington, it’s taking me some time to get use to seeing such a richness of scenery that thrives under a sun that shines constantly in a cloudless clear blue sky.

 

John and Lucy are a popular couple on Kingston’s social circuit and Lucy tells us that new arrivals, even if they are only staying a short time, always attract interest, curiosity and lots of invitations to different social and sporting occasions abound.  A garden party at Winchester Park, a concert at Port Antonio, a picnic on the beach, the theatre and an invitation to Kingston Races, are just a few of the invitations we’ve received. 

 

I haven’t the stamina to accept all the invitations but Martha is making the most of the social life here which is why she sleeps late every morning.  But in spite of all that is new to us, there are some things that are very familiar about this island. 

 

Britain’s habit of colonising a country in its own image has not escaped here.  Jamaica, the exotic “land of wood and water” is divided into three counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall.  The English settlers brought with them their recreations and pastimes.   Horseracing is very popular with everyone and race meetings are held in several parts of the island. 

 

           John says there’s a cricket club in virtually every major town for the well off Jamaican, and just about every open space has become a cricket pitch for poor blacks who seem to have developed a passion for the game and would use an oil tin for the wickets and the rib of a palm leaf for a bat.  All the best hotels have tennis courts and fallow fields have been turned into polo fields.”

 

Becky and Martha spent a lot of time in Kingston doing different things.  Apparently Becky liked to go to the many markets there were around the city where women and children come down from the hillside, virtually every day, sometimes with donkeys and mules but more often, carrying baskets on their heads, laden with vegetables, sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, pimento, annatto, honey, bananas, ackee, spices, ropes of tobacco and whatever else they had grown and set themselves up with a stall and sell their provisions to the local people. 

 
market-women-going-to-kingston market
 

Martha, on the other hand, liked to go to the Constant Spring Hotel where she’d taken a fancy to James McTavis, the Manager. 

 

My Great Aunt Lucy wrote: 

 

Martha’s demeanour has changed since she has been in Jamaica probably because she is happy and has been enjoying herself.  I think she is considering settling here and it is understandable, Martha has seen that she can have a standard of living and a way of life she cannot equal in London and her skills with a needle will help her find employment on the island so, who knows, it may work well for her.” 

 

My Mum, Olga, was a very superstitious woman and it wasn’t until I started doing the research on her family and Jamaica that I realised where it came from……….Obeah, a form of witchcraft which, although illegal, had flourished unchecked in Jamaica and had superstitious rites and practices which were observed with regard to every phase of life from birth to death.

 

Most Jamaicans were Christians and certainly aware that Obeah went against the teachings of the Catholic Church, yet it was obvious how important religion was to Jamaicans simply because of all the many churches and chapels of different denominations there were on the island. Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, a few Anglican and, of course, the Catholic Church were all there. 

 

In Jamaica it was believed by most that when a man dies, his body goes to the ground and his soul goes to God, but his spirit, which is known as a duppy, stays for a while or even permanently.  There are good duppies and bad ones, but all are feared because, apparently, one doesn’t know how they’re going to behave.  They are deemed to be the instrument of the Obeah man or woman and do revengeful and malicious things.   

 

Just about everywhere on the island any accident or misfortune, illness or death was attributed to the malign influence of the spirits of the dead either initiated by the duppy’s own wicked purpose or carried out through envy, or else by someone bent on revenge towards a perceived enemy of the sufferer. 

 

Instead of offering a prayer to heaven, a man or woman would give three pounds to an Obeah practitioner and then offer a pray to God that the Obeah man is successful in what was asked of him.  The man would say that Heaven keeps him waiting but the Obeah man does not because he settles matters satisfactorily and quickly.  

 

Every parish on the island had its corners where the art of Obeah was practised and some localities had a particular reputation for it.  An Obeah man’s influence was strong because the people believed that he cannot not be harmed by the law or any white person.  People of every calling, including well educated men and women, white, coloured or black, used Obeah in some shape or form to fix a problem they might have had.   

 

It was only a matter of days before Becky had her first experience of Obeah……

 

<—London to Kingston Life on SS Port Morant 1902                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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<— London 1900                                        My First Contact —>

 

My Great Aunt Lucy was a sweet, gentle and intelligent lady who loved to sketch and paint.

bird-sketches1

Becky and Lucy had aways been close and Becky missed Lucy a lot.   They were similar in looks and demeanour – slender with fair hair and blue eyes.  However, neither of them was close to their sister Martha, who actually didn’t resemble anyone in the Ross family.  She was short and stout with a badly pockmarked face as a result of chicken pox when she was a child.  Harriet woud bandage her hands so she couldn’t pick the scabs from her face, but it didn’t work.  Lucy reckoned that it was because of the pock mark scars on her face that contributed to Martha’s transition from normal chid to cantankerous young woman.  But even without the scars, Martha bore little resembance to her siblings. 

But what my Great Aunt Martha lacked for in looks and grace she made up for in talent.  Martha worked as a seamstress for the Drury Lane Theatre in London and was, by all accounts, one of the best.

Lucy wrote to Becky reguarly keeping Becky constantly in touch with her life in Jamaica.  For Becky, who would read Lucy’s letters over and over again, usually on her way home from work, freezing cold and trudging through London smog, snow or rain, Jamaica must have seemed magical, like  paradise.

 

Letter from Lucy Sincair, Constant Spring Hotel, St Andrews, Jamaica
to 
Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London, England

March 1901

Dearest Becky 

 Bertram Pollock is a charming man, born and bred in Jamaica.   I like him a lot and John speaks favourably of him as a man who is fair and reasonable.   The plantation is a few miles outside of Kingston, at the foot of the Blue Mountains.  Because our new home is not ready to live in, John is boarding in a room above the stables on the estate and I am staying here at the Constant Spring Hotel, which is quite nearby.

 

I have been here a short amount of time Becky and have seen little of the island, but already I have discovered so much beauty here. 

 

Jamaica attacks one’s senses, the sight of brightly coloured parrots, mocking-birds, sugar birds or to use their more common name, the banana quit and right now, Becky, as I sit here in the hotel’s gardens writing to you, flying in and out of the trees and shrubs are beautiful long-tailed hummingbirds. 

 

The other day I saw a sinister looking blue black bird with a huge beak.  I’m told it’s called a john crow bird and is the most often seen bird on the island.  It’s a great scavenger, very clumsy and ugly on the ground but so beautiful and majestic in flight Becky. 

 

Jamaica is full of vibrant colour and beauty and is a naturalist’s paradise.  The spectacular scenery is enriched by the vivid flowers and scent of the roses that abound, roses and bourgainvillea in every conceivable colour, as well as bright yellow allamandas, the annatto which has rose coloured flowers and purplish pods, the ebony which has yellow flowers and always comes out after rain and the pale blue flower of the lignum-vitae which grows over most of the island.  To wake early and see the stars fade away and in their place watch a glorious sunrise and at sunset every night the frogs, crickets and fireflies all make their presence felt and voices heard. 

 

From the fruit trees which are everywhere Becky, you can just pick and eat mangos, guava, papaw, oranges and other more exotic fruits that I have never heard of like ackee, which is very popular here.  And if you can find something sharp and heavy enough to crack open a coconut, you can drink the milk from it. 

 

I long to be settled in our house so I can explore the island more and paint instead of the pencil sketches I continually do whenever I’m out and about.   

 

Socially, Jamaica has a lot to offer, but, I do miss the theatres, art galleries and museums in London.  But in spite of that, I am convinced we made the right choice about coming here.  In fact I have almost forgotten what my former life in London was like because we have both settled down so well. 

 

Tell Martha that Jamaican women are very fashion conscious and do seem to spend a lot of money on clothes which are certainly more expensive here than in London and I’m told they often arrange for material and patterns to be shipped over fromLondon.

 

We must persuade Pa to let you visit.

Your loving sister (signed “Lucy”)

 

<— London 1900                                            My First Contact —> 

 

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<— But First the History Bit                                    St Andrews, Jamaica —>

 

In 1900 the head of the Ross family was Samuel Ross, a constable with the Metropolitan Police, somewhat overbearing but a pillar of the community and living in Droop Street, Paddington, London. His wife, Harriet, was the opposite of Samuel, quiet and timid. They had three daughters, Lucy, Rebecca (known to all as Becky) and Martha. They family were devout Catholics and never missed attending confession on Friday evening and mass on Sunday morning.

Also living with them was Lucy’s husband, John Sinclair, a young man from Inverness in Scotland, who had a small inheritance as a result of selling his family’s farm after the death of his parents.  John had seen and responded to this advertisement in The Times below: 

ad11

It was as a resut of his successful application that a few weeks later my Great Aunt Lucy and John were on their way to Jamaica where John was to take up an apprenticeship post working for Bertram Pollock on his plantation just outside Kingston, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. 

When Lucy and John arrived in Kingston they found a boom town and fell in love with the island almost immediately.

psalm-of-jamaica

<— But First the History Bit                                         St Andrews, Jamaica —>

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my-mum-aged-883

 

  • In 1994, my mother, Carmen Browne, was admitted to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, England seriously ill. As she slowly recovered I realized that had she died so too would the chance of my finding out about her past, her family in Jamaica and, of particular importance to me, who my father was information she had resolutely refused to share with me. So I decided to find out for myself.

  • My first discovery was that my mother’s real name was Olga Browney, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and one of eleven children from a close-knit, coloured Catholic family. A kind, naïve and gentle girl, my mother arrived in London on 1st April in 1939 and lived with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt, intending to stay for only six months. However, world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent all combined to prevent her from returning home to Kingston.

  • I discovered a story of cruelty, revenge and jealousy inflicted on an innocent young woman and how she demonstrated huge moral courage, dignity, resilience and, in particular, love. I learnt what a remarkable woman my mother was, who because of circumstances, made a choice, which resulted in her losing contact with her beloved family in Jamaica, until nearly half a century later when her past caught up her.

    This is her story ——->
     

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