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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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<—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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