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Archive for January, 2009

<—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

The Advertisement in The Gleaner

Mum had been consistent over the years in refusing to tell me anything about my father or allowing me to attempt to make contact with her family back in Kingston, Jamaica. Whenever I asked about either the reply was always the same. In response to the family question she would say “I don’t want to see them, they’ll only ask questions and, anyway, they’re probably all dead by now”. And in response to questions about my father she’d say “It’s too painful to talk about”.

At that stage I had no idea who my father was nor the circumstances surrounding my birth. In the nineteen forties, when I was born, there was a huge stigma attached to being an unmarried mother, coloured or not, and I assumed it was that stigma which was imbedded in my Mums psyche.  I was later to find that there was another reason.

Her near death experience made me determined to find out more about my family, so I placed the following advertisement in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s national daily newspaper.

    ad-in-gleaner42

A Result!

I suppose, because Mum had been so adamant over the years that all her famiy were dead, I didn’t hold out much hope of a reply. But 24 hours after the ad appeared in the paper I had a phone call a woman called Audrey who was married to Anthony Shim. Anthony was Ruby’s son and Ruby was an older sister of Mum’s and he and his wife lived in London. It was highly emotional phone call for me particuarly when Audrey told me the family in Jamaica believed Mum to be dead. And within hours of that phone call I received a telegram from my Aunt Ruby:

telegram-copy

 

On My Way

The first inhabitants of Jamaica, the Arawaks,  gave the island its name Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water” and as I looked at it from the air, the name seemed very appropriate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to see their Jamaica or even the idyllc island Mum had left behind so long ago.  Kingston had changed a lot since Jamaica gained its Independence.  Now, because of the violence, certain parts were  ‘no go’ areas and visitors were warned to be vigilant to ensure their safety.  

Our plane had started its descent into Kingston and I looked out of the small cabin window at the island I had spent much of my childhood daydreaming about.  From the air, it looked stunning.  Jamaica is a mountainous island with the rugged mountain ranges of the spectacular Blue Mountains to the east of the island. One of the flight attendants announced that we were in a holding pattern over Norman Manley Airport and would have to circle over the island for 10-15 minutes until we could make our final descent into Kingston.

And so the captain gave us a bird’s eye view of Jamaica – I could see the smaller John Crow Mountains next to the Blue Mountain range. I thought I could have been flying over the Amazon Jungle as I looked down at a dense tropical forest no doubt completely uninhabited. A blue haze, from which the Mountains get their name from, wafted lazily over the top of them like a long pale blue gray chiffon scarf. Now we were flying over Cockpit Country in the center of the island where direct descendants of the Maroons still lived. The word Maroons comes from the Spanish word “marron” meaning brown.

The Maroons were slaves owned by the Spaniards when Spain ruled Jamaica. After the British conquered the Spaniards and took Jamaica for themselves, many of the slaves escaped into the mountains and forests in the remote Cockpit Country and set up communities there. The British soldiers tried on several occasions to recapture the slaves for themselves but the Maroons were fierce and resourceful fighters who could outsmart the British soldiers. They were led by a woman, the indomitable and formidable Nanny – now one of Jamaica’s national treasures! Eventually a truce was called and the Maroons gained a considerable measure of self-government they still enjoy today. And every year on 6th January the Maroons celebrate the fact that they were the first black people in the West Indies to gain their freedom, nearly 100 years before Emancipation.

As we continued to fly over the island I could see through my cabin window rivers that criss-crossed over the island and ran from the mountains all the way down to the coastline. I could even see huge waterfalls on the side of the mountains, We carried on flying westward and there were miles and miles of white sandy beaches surrounded by the clean, clear sapphire-blue water of the Caribbean.

We passed over fertile fields crammed with healthy looking crops and I couldn’t help wondering whether we were flying over fields where ganja was growing. Mum had told me how it was smoked quite openly when she was a child in Jamaica, most notably by my Great Aunt Lucy.  I took one more look at the Blue Mountains we started our descent into Kingston.

 

marie-stuart-patsy-and-aunt-ruby-welcome-home-partyfor-marie12 

“Welcome Home to Jamaica” Party for Marie
from l. to r. Patsy, Aunt Ruby, Marie and Stuart

 <—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

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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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<—How It All Began                                                         London 1900 –>

 

Christopher Columbus, the explorer, had been so mesmerized by Jamaica’s beauty he had described it in 1494 as “…the fairest land my eyes have ever seen” and had been greeted by a kind, friendly, gentle people known as the Arawaks who gave the island its name Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water”. But the Arawaks suffered great ill-treatment at the hands of their Spanish conquerors and by the time Britain took Jamaica from Spain in 1655 they had all died. 

Staggering Statistic

Throughout the entire period of British rule and, not including the huge numbers born into slavery, it was estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Africans were imported against their will into Jamaica. People forced to work as slaves on plantations owned by rich white men and women and subjected to extreme cruel and brutal treatment.

Social and Class Distinction

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, the colour of your skin and how much money and land you owned. There were three groups of people – the whites, the coloureds and the slaves who were black. 

Among the whites, the most important in society were the planters who were very rich from the sale of sugar and owned vast areas of land on which they built great houses usually on a hill overlooking the plantations and slave houses.

            rose-hall-home-of-annie-palmer-ww         b-and-w-interior-of-rose-hall-22

Built by expert slave labour, they were manorial, with fine wood panelling, vast rooms, and opening one into another, windows that reached to the floor and wide staircases modelled on the Georgian style. Below these ample living-rooms gleaming with their shining smooth wood polished floors, were the quarters of the slaves who lived in cramped airless conditions behind stout iron bars at small windows.

Next in importance were the traders who sold merchandise to the people; tools for the estates, food items such as flour, fish, salt beef, cheese, wine, clothing and candles. They were very wealthy people but because they didn’t own any land they were considered less important than the planters.

After the traders, came the coloureds, half white and half black – ‘mulatto’ the result of a white man having a child by a black woman, although it was against the law for white women to have children with a black man. The coloureds thought they were better than the slaves mainly because they were not fully black, their reasoning being that the closer they came to being white, the more important they were. But some planters did free their mulatto children and in this way a large number of coloureds were free to start their own businesses.

Then there were skilled slaves. Among these people were midwifes, wheelwrights, masons and carpenters.

Next came the house slaves, the Blacks who worked as butlers, cooks, nurses, ladies’ maids, and coachmen in the kitchen, stable or garden. They worked close to their master and were frequently beaten particularly if he or she was upset about something. Punishment was often brutal, for example when a little girl was beaten and nailed through her ears to a tree for having broken a special cup belonging to her master.

The lowliest, and these amounted to more than half the slaves in Jamaica, were field slaves and it was primarily on their backs Jamaica became a jewel in the British Empire. They prepared the land, planted, cut and carried the canes to the mills, then ground it, made the sugar and carried it to the ships.

 After Emancipation

Jamaica reinvented itself when slavery ended in 1838. The workers legally had their freedom and now the owners of the sugar plantations had to pay the men who had once been their slaves. But many refused to work for the planters. Because they were free the black workers went into the hills and either squatted on Government property or bought small pieces of land from the missionarieswho bought land from the Government specially for the purpose of selling it back to the freed blacks and coloureds at a fair price so they could become independent and grow their own crops.

They established themselves as free settlers and grew coconuts, spices, tobacco, coco, pimentos and, of course, bananas.

 Peasant Banana Cultivation

Peasant Banana Cultivation

They formed hardworking, independent small businesses, selling their produce to local markets and, not only were they financially successful themselves, their efforts went some considerable way to making Jamaica solvent again after the demise of the sugar market/economy.

The planters needed workers so now free, but poor, immigrants arrived from Africa, Portugal, China, India, Syria and the Lebanon to work. The new immigrants were neither black nor white and many didn’t adapt to plantation work so some, like the Chinese, started their own businesses. These people brought with them their religion, language and cultures and enriched an already complicated society.

New shipping routes opened up between London and the West Indies and there was a lot of commercial activity in Jamaica. The British Government and the Institute of Jamaica encouraged men and women from Great Britain to move to Jamaica. Together they instigated a scheme whereby young men could pay a premium to plantation owners in exchange for instruction in the cultivation of crops indigenous to Jamaica.

Once they had served an apprenticeship they would be able to buy government land well below the market price.

 

<—How It All Began                                                          London 1900 —> 

 

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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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