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
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.
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.
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