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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

the-browneys-tree

 

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

 

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<—Prejudice                                                                 The Browneys —>

 

I was in awe of my grandmother, Becky, a white woman from Paddington in London who had, sometime in 1901-1902 while on holiday in Kingston, fallen in love and against all social convention of the time married a black Jamaican. 

 

It wasn’t just white and coloured Jamaicans who would have shown and demonstrated contempt for Becky, but the blacks as well.  A white woman marrying a black man was unheard of at that time – in fact there was a time when it was illegal!  I think that’s one of the things I found most surprising during my research about my family;  how, even after Emancipation, Jamaica had continued to practice Great Britain’s colour and social prejudices – whites looking down on coloureds, coloureds looking down on blacks and black accepting they were the lowest class in Jamaican society.   My grandmother’s social standing would have been on a par with the blacks or maybe even lower, if that’s possible. 

 

I wish I had known her.  I thought how brave she was and what courage she had.  Saying goodbye on the dockside at Avonmouth before she boarded the S.S. Port Morant, expecting only to be away from England for a few weeks, was to be the last time she saw or spoke to her parents.  My grandmother never returned to England but she did keep the telegram her father sent her when he heard about her plans to marry Henry Browney from my Great Aunt Martha. 

 

Telegram from Samuel Ross, Droop Street,  London

to

Becky Ross c/o “Mon Repose”, St Andrews, Jamaica

 

Martha has told us of your plans to marry.  Please reconsider.  Cannot agree with this marriage.  If you proceed you will cease to be our daughter and do not wish to see you or speak to ever again.  We beg you to reconsider.

                                                                                                                              Pa

 

  

Becky’s Diary (circa 1930s)

 

Holy Trinity Cathedral, North Street:  The Cathedral stands in its own spacious grounds and is a very impressive piece of architecture with a great copper dome and four Minarets which can be seen from a distance.  The cathedral was rebuilt after being totally destroyed in the 1907 earthquake and although it’s very big and grand inside I get a great sense of peace in here, perhaps because the delicate shades of the colour scheme are restful to the eye. 

 

White marble steeps lead to the Main Altar and the life size figure of Our Lord hanging on the Cross.  The rose windows tower above the mosaic decoration on the walls where the 14 stations of the cross hang and there are also the statues of St. Anthony, the patron saint of missing people, St Francis, the patron saint of animals and the Little Flower, St Therese.  Left of the main altar is the Altar of Our Lady and on the right of it is the Altar of St Joseph with the Child Jesus in his arms.   

 

Another year, another candle.  Eight years since Ma died and six since Pa.  I thought he’d go first.  Who would have guessed that when I said goodbye to them that foggy afternoon on Avonmouth docks all those years ago, it would be the last time I’d see or speak to them?  I still have all the letters I sent them and which they returned, unopened.  They never found it in their hearts to forgive me for marrying Henry. 

 

“Ma, did you find it as heartbreaking as I did to remove me so completely from your life; did I really cease to exist for you?” 

 

“Did you ever think about your grandchildren?  Did you ever wonder what they looked like?”

 

“Why did you punish them, for my actions?  You paid a high price for your prejudice, never knowing the love or experiencing the joy of getting to know your wonderful 11 grandchildren. 

 

Settling down:   Coming to Jamaica for a holiday was one thing, but settling down to live here permanently was another.  I had so much to adjust to in Kingston.    The heat, humidity and dust were the worst things to cope with, especially when I was pregnant with Sydney, my first child; the heat drains you of all energy.  And then there were the insects – the mosquito bites, oh I was bitten from top to bottom and sometimes I would get ill and develop a fever. 

 

Henry said I had very sweet blood and that’s why they would bite me. Hardly any consolation, but night time was better because we slept with a net over our beds.  We  threw out all our upholstered furniture and rugs because fleas were breeding in them and replaced them with polished floors and cane furniture.  Ants were a terrible nuisance; they were everywhere, particularly where there was food.  

 

Earthquakes terrified me. One of the worst happened one day when I was visiting Lucy and I had Sydney, Cissie and Vivie with me.  Lucy and I were sitting on her veranda and as she got up to go and make tea, without any warning the ground began to tremble and there was a terrible noise.  It was as if we were underneath a railway arch and a very long train was passing over our heads, but the noise was like a great roar and a hundred times greater than a train.  The whole experience only lasted about 10 seconds.  Vivie slept through it but Sydney and Cissie started crying because the noise was so loud. 

 

The earthquake was felt all over the island and the fires which followed just about destroyed Kingston. People rushed out into open to places like Victoria Park and Kingston race course, where they stayed for days. 

 

Life was hard then, but manageable, especially when you’re in love.   Because of my marriage, I became infamous.

 

“You’re a notorious wanton woman now” Henry would say teasing me.

 

People would point at me or just stand and stare and many, including people I had once considered to be friends, would cross the road to avoid walking past me.  White and coloured Jamaicans would spit at me and the name calling was endless; nigger-lover was the most common. 

 

I tried to understand how Jamaica’s Christian middle and upper classes, supposedly wise, intelligent and intellectual people, could treat others in such a cruel manner. 

 

But these inconveniences, as I called them, were more than made up for by the charm, dignity and generosity of spirit I found among the black Jamaicans in spite of their circumstances.  I smile inwardly when I read in the papers how the Government likes to promote the view overseas and, particularly to tourists who visit the island, that whites and blacks live side by side in perfect harmony.   What rubbish, what lies! 

 

You would have to be blind not to notice that the majority of blacks are uneducated, poor and despised by both the middle and white upper class groups who never bother to disguise their contempt for them.  They’re more concerned about their own status than those of the black masses.  The blacks live within the twin boundaries of poverty and unemployment and cannot step outside them unless they have education or money and if they can’t get those they will remain where they are.  Jamaica opened my eyes to the frailties of human nature.  Until I came here I hadn’t realised that humanity could come in varying degrees and that there could be such a dramatic class distinction in the social structure of one race of people. 

 

Kingston is still an attractive city with wide streets and buildings painted in shades of pink, cream and blue, the gardens full of hibiscus and blood red poinsettias and rich purple splashes of gorgeous bougainvillea vines.   But I prefer the old capital, Spanish Town, and even though it’s now shabby, neglected and damaged by earthquakes, there still remains some splendid Spanish architecture and the ancient cathedral.  

 

There are shops of every kind in Kingston, but never the one I want when I need it. 

 

There is an increase in motorcars now but I find them a nuisance because their motor horns are so loud and drivers use them constantly.  And they are dangerous because of the “Blow and Go” war-cry of the drivers.  If two cars are at a cross roads and both blow their horns simultaneously, each one hears only the sound of his own horn and if both “go”, which usually happens, there’s a crash.  The utter and complete disregard of the speed limit by car drivers is only equalled by the utter and complete disregard of the police to enforce the speed limit in the city. 

 

The side streets of Kingston are where the blacks live.  Women wearing brightly coloured turbans gossip from the windows with neighbours on the pavement below and men standing in the shade discussing something in patois, a language I never learnt.  Mangy dogs, wandering the streets, full of fleas and with prominent ribs sticking out, worry me as well as goats with their kids which amble through the city in search of grass.  But my heart breaks for the poor little donkeys with their big gentle eyes, long ears and delicate tiny feet, heavily loaded either side and the owner perched in the middle, smoking ganja and half asleep. 

 

My marriage to Henry didn’t last but it did produced 11 beautiful children.  Before we married I knew of his reputation for living a reckless life.  Too much drinking, gambling and he had known plenty of women.  But I loved him and I thought he would change, in fact, I thought I could change him.  But the habits he had before we married continued during our marriage and caused me great pain.  I would have put up with his peccadilloes, but not his drinking and gambling. When he drank, he gambled, when he gambled he usually lost all his money and then we had no food.  I would have to go to the priest and beg for money to feed our children.  That was too much.   I couldn’t stand begging. 

 

 

  <—Prejudice                                                                  The Browneys —>

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<–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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