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

 

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

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

 

Extract from Great Aunt Lucy’s Diary 1902

 
 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

  

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 <—Obeah                                                       Prejudice —>

 

“Yesterday was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced.  It started innocently enough with Lucy and I having breakfast on the veranda overlooking their plantain field.  A plantain is almost exactly like a banana and grows in enormous bunches just the way bananas do, but they are bigger and green, not yellow.   

  

From the verandah I could see John at the entrance to a field listening intently to a wizened old man.  Standing next to the old man was a small black boy who carried a large basket. 

 

“Who is the old man” I asked Lucy

 

“He’s an Obeah man and he’s going to dress the garden”

 

“What on earth are you talking about, Lucy?”

 

Then she explained Obeah was a form of witchcraft and that an Obeah man or woman is the person, or practitioner, as they like to be called, who controls the supernatural world using spirits to harm people with techniques passed down in secret from one generation to another.  I was fascinated and wanted to hear more. 

 

“There could be many reasons why someone might want the services of an Obeah man.  It may be for a medical reason, if someone is ill in which case the patient would be given a bottle of something to take or they would have to follow certain instructions.   But often it’s to do with getting revenge on someone who has caused you harm in some way; maybe you wanted to discover a thief or sometimes it’s for  more romantic reasons – you want to make a particular person fall in love with you or you might want to win at gambling.”

 

But do you and John believe in it, Lucy?”

 

“We don’t, but many white Jamaicans do and John is certainly prepared to indulge in it if it is to his advantage.”

 

“We’re being robbed of six or seven bunches of plantain every week in spite of employing extra men to watch the fields and that’s why we’ve arranged for an Obeah man to solve the problem for us” she said. 

 

There could be something in it, Becky, if for no other reason than the Obeah man’s knowledge of poisons is far beyond that of the European druggists.  Most practitioners learned how to use herbs for cures.  The practitioners knowledge of the roots and herbs brought over from Africa remained with them since most of the same plants grew in the tropical climate of Jamaica and so the customs and practices were passed down from generation to generation.” 

 

The old man took the basket from the boy and went into the field where there were rows and rows of plantain trees.  He took out from his basket different sized bottles, which had some sort of liquid inside them.  Then, he walked up and down the rows of plantains and tied a bottle on to some of the fruit, at the same time muttering some sort of incantation.  When he had done that he would wave his arms over the plantain and genuflect.   Once that was done he would move on to another row of plantain and perform the whole ceremony over again and continue to do that until he’d done the whole field.  

 

After that he produced, from his basket, a tiny little black wooden coffin, which with great pomp and circumstance he placed in the branches of a big old cotton tree.  Then he took a saucer from his basket and put some water in it and dropped some egg shells in the water and then put the saucer on top of the coffin in the cotton tree.  The old man walked right round the field again waving his arms all over the place, still muttering and went over to John who gave the old man some money and he and the boy then left the field.  “And that little exhibition is known as “dressing the garden” and, hopefully, that will be the end of the thieving now”. Lucy said.

 

She continued, “Once word gets around that the Obeah man has been in the field people will believe he has put a curse on anyone entering it.  They will be convinced that terrible things will happen to them if they do.”

 

According to John the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that after emancipation, with the missionaries bringing Christianity to the freed slaves, Obeah would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much the same as now. It’s deep rooted in the black and coloured Jamaican’s heritage and culture and even though you might come across a family that is both Christian and well educated, the likelihood is that someone in it will be dabbling in Obeah.

 

It strikes me that emancipation hasn’t changed much in Jamaica, her present is still very much tied to her past.”

<—Obeah                                          Prejudice —>

 

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<—Colonising the “land of wood & water        Becky’s Diary – My 1st Encounter with Obeah–>              

Even though my mother was deeply religious, and obeah was against the teachings of the Catholic Church, Mum couldn’t let go of the culture that had been so much part of her life growing up in Kingston, Jamaica.  I grew up in Brighton on the south-east coast of England in the 1950s, where there were no obeah practitioners to work their ‘magic’, but Mum often told me stories of how when someone upset any member of her family – her mother, my grandmother Becky –  would contact their local obeahman to make a spell so the person would be punished for their wrongdoing.  

 

As far as I could work out from my research, obeah’s power lay in a practitioner working on the fears of a people who were fundamentally superstitious to start with and that included my Mum.  Since just about every black and coloured person in Jamaica during the 1920-30s (and the years beyond)  believed in obeah, once they knew it was being worked against them, they were convinced they were doomed to either some kind of  excruciating pain or worse, death. 

 

Obeah practitioners had other skills too and were often consulted over medical problems rather than a conventional doctor.  They were very knowledgeable about plants and herbs that grew in Jamaica, information which had been passed down through the centuries from generation to generation. They would successfully prescribe herbal remedies for a variety of ailments, not only for coloured and black Jamaicans, but white also.  

 

The South East of England is not the West Indies, so when I was ill as a child I wasn’t treated with exotic herbs.  My alternative treatments were more down to earth – I can’t tell you the number of times I had boiled onions wrapped in muslin and tied around my feet to bring my temperature down or had to put a matchstick behind my right ear to get rid of some pain I had – usually a  stomach ache.  Mum told me her mother, Becky, used to do this for her when she was a child.  She said it worked for her and it did for me too.  Power of suggestion, maybe?                                             

 

<—Colonising the “land of wood & water           Becky”s Diary “My First Encounter with Obeah”   —>

 
 
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<—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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<—My First Contact                         Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

Letter – from Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Constant Spring Hotel,  Jamaica 

 

July 1901

 

Dearest Lucy

 

It was lovely to receive your last letter.   Martha was very interested with your remarks about Jamaican women and how fashion conscious they are.  Maybe there is an opportunity for her skills over there, although at the moment she’s got a “gentleman friend”, a private in the army and they certainly do see a lot of each other. 

 

I’m working as a governess in Kensington for a very nice young couple who have two children, Emily and Robert, but it’s only a temporary position because they have an elderly governess who has been with the family for ages (handed down from generation to generation I think) but took a leave of absence and will be returning to her position in about two months.  That suits me well, because when I finish I want to enrol in a housekeeping and basic cookery course with Marshall’s Cookery School in Marylebone Road.  

 

I think the more things I can turn my hand too the less chance I’ll be pressured by Pa into marrying a man of his choice.  Would you believe it, Lucy,  in the past few weeks he has brought home three police constables to dinner with the express purpose of them looking me over to see if I am suitable marriage material.   I’ve no intention of being press ganged into marrying someone I don’t love even if it means I do end up a spinster of the parish. 

 

It’s wonderful to hear about your life over there.  I read your letters over and over again, usually on the way home from work, freezing cold and trudging through London smog, snow or rain, Jamaica seems magical, like a fairy land. 

 

Ma and Pa send their love to you and ask if you are going to mass on Sunday.  I assured them that we were all too scared of the hell and damnation that would befall us were we not to.

 

Your loving sister (Signed Becky)

 
 
  

Letter from Lucy Sinclair, “Mon Repose”, Jamaica 

to

Becky and Martha Ross, Droop Street, London.

 

February 1902 

 

Dearest Becky and Martha

 

It is barely a year ago that we arrived here; such a lot has happened in a short space of time.  John has found a small estate for sale, about 1,050 acres, and it is within our budget so, we have bought it and named our first home “Mon Repose”.

 

It’s in the parish of St Andrews which is a few miles from Kingston and John says it is in a good position as it is on fairly level land and has a stream running through it.  There are stables and a large barn which house some  50 or so cattle, 3 horses, 3 mules, a wagon cart and some other equipment that came with the land.   The horses and mules will be useful but John is undecided about whether he wants to raise cattle. He is keen to grow more crops and make use of  what he has learnt with Bertie Pollock. 

 

The land is divided by wire fences, most of which need repairing and has considerable cultivation in bananas, coffee, pimentos, over 150 bearing coconut trees and other bits and bobs. 

 

The house is quite large though it does need an awful lot of renovation because it has been empty for years, but its structure is sound.  It has a drawing room, dining room and four bedrooms and is quite well furnished.  That takes care of  one immediate problem, having to furnish it.  There is a kitchen and outside a water closet as well as an outhouse for bathing.

 

Oh it’s perfect Becky.  You and Martha must come and visit very soon.  There is plenty of room in the house, lots to see, and so much I want to show you.  Are you and Martha working on persuading Pa and Ma to let you come for a holiday? 

 

Your loving sister  (Signed Lucy)

  

Telegram from Martha and Becky Ross, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Jamaica

 

Success at last!.  Martha and I leaving Avonmouth at 4.45 pm on 16th July for Kingston on “S. S. Port Morant”.   All being well should arrive on 28th .  Very excited.  Longing to see you.  Love Becky.

 

 

<—My First Contact                 Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

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