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<– More Spells and Obeah                 Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>

 

Family Tree

 Click to englarge image

Once my Mum (Olga) started to talk about her family to me and what her life was like growing up in Jamaica, she told me about the two biggest scandals in the family (and there were quite a few!).  Both were connected with Sydney, the oldest sibling.  One scandal was to do with him running off with the family cook whom everyone thought was a witch and mad as a hatter and the other scandal was about him shooting a burglar for which he was charged with manslaughter but acquitted on the grounds of self defense.   

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

 

Dear Diary

Sydney and the Burglar:       It’s the middle of the afternoon and, apart from a young woman and an old man, I’m alone in the Cathedral, the only place I know that is peaceful, quiet, and cool. Half my life’s been spent in this church, going to mass, confession, benediction, the stations of the cross.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, Jesus is important to me and I come to church because I want to be close to Him, or, when I want to think, like now. I wonder just how long Sydney and Aggie’s relationship has been going on.

 

I bet you it started with the robbery that time Sydney was working late in the shop. There was a knock on the door one evening and when Sydney opened it there was a tall, black man, with a handkerchief around the lower half of his face. He pushed Sydney back and forced his way inside and put a gun to Sydney’s face threatening to shoot him if he said a word. Then another man came into the house and started to ransack the place looking for money which Sydney usually kept on the premises, but he couldn’t find any money and said so to the man holding the gun.

 

This turned the man with the gun’s attention away from Sydney momentarily, so Sydney tried to grab the gun and there was a struggle when suddenly the gun went off and the robber was shot dead. The second man immediately ran from the shop and Sydney called the police who recognised the dead man as Alphonse Williams and said the other man was probably his brother Didnot.  Didnot was soon picked up by the police and, because he wasn’t wearing a mask, Sydney easily identified him as the second man.

 

Sydney was charged with the manslaughter of Alphonse but at the end of the trial was found not guilty because the jury said it was self-defence and the law says a man is entitled to protect himself.  And that was that, thought Sydney, although to prevent any further thieving Sydney resorted to Obeah.

 

I bet that’s where Aggie Burns came in. He pinned bits of red rag and some bird feathers to the front door of the shop. If any would-be thief saw these items.  Sydney said it would be enough to deter them from going into the shop. But then strange things started happening. A fire broke out one Sunday afternoon, behind the main shop, in the workshop where bicycles are repaired. Mrs Clarkson, who lives next door, saw a small blaze in the workshop and raised the alarm. The fire brigade arrived very quickly, put out the blaze so not too much damage was done.  

And then something else happened that really scared Sydney.

 

He told us he was walking home one night when he felt warm air on the back of his neck which he described like someone’s hot breath. This happened more than once and Aggie Burns said she had found out that Didnot Williams had set a duppy on Sydney and that an Obeah man must have caught his shadow and now the shadow will do whatever the Obeah man demands. Aggie said the best way to stop the duppy from following Sydney was to carry a piece of chalk and, whenever he felt the hot breath on the back of his neck, Sydney was to make an x on the ground with the chalk, representing the figure ten.  Aggie Burns said duppies can only count up to nine and will spend the rest of the night trying to count to x.

 

Aggie said duppies are clever, but I wasn’t too sure about that if they can’t count any higher than nine. But she said they are because they can do similar things to living people, like talking, laughing, whistling and singing, even cooking. That made me wonder if Aggie Burns was a duppy too. Anyway, believe it or not, putting a cross on the ground worked for a while and Sydney stopped feeling warm air on his neck and he was more confident walking home.

 

But then one lovely clear moonlit night Sydney and Ruby were walking home together and they saw a big owl sitting in the cotton tree outside Mission House. When Aggie heard she got everybody worked up again and said that was a very bad sign because the duppy was still on Sydney. She said he had now to find a powerful Obeah man to remove the curse or he would be in serious trouble.

 

Of course, Aggie Burns knew one and Sydney agreed to go with her but made me go with him as well. I said I’d only go if Dolly could come as well. And reluctantly he and Dolly agreed.  

So off I go again to another balm yard and went into a very dark, smelly room. I remember it only had one window and the light couldn’t get through it was so dirty and grimy. Oh, Lord, was I terrified.

 

The Obeah man’s name was Ali Acquabar, an old man, with a short sharp looking face. He sat at a table in the middle of the room and beside his chair was a walking stick with the head of a serpent on the top. He told us to sit in the chairs facing him. I noticed a nail with three different size rosaries made out of bloodstained beans hanging from it and there was a mirror on a wall. On the table was a pack of cards and a dark blue piece of cloth with some sulphur, what looked like human hair, small bones and feathers.

 

By now I just wanted to get out of there but, once again, my courage failed me and I stayed. There were two other chairs and on one of these he put a glass and filled it with water and put a 1/- piece in the glass and on the other he put a candle which he had taken from a small bag nearby and asked Sydney to light it. Ali then opened a pack of cards, which he separated into four piles.

 

He selected one and said to Sydney “this is death”; then selected another and said “this is Jesus Christ”;

 

Then he selected a third and said “this is the Ghost” and with the fourth card he looked Sydney straight in the eye and said “Your life is in danger”. Then he took a bottle of rum off a shelf and threw some of it around the room.

 

“I am feeding my ghosts” he chanted and then looked in the magic mirror and turned to Sydney. “It is a pity you are not able to see, if you could, you would behold two duppies who are working on the case against you”. My brother is a tough man, you now, and I didn’t think he could scare easily. But, sitting on that chair, he looked very frightened to me. Ali looked in the glass of water on the other chair and said

 

“It is the brother that is after your life. I charge you £5 to take off the ghosts”. Sydney gave Ali his money and Ali told him they would all have to go to Mission House and “to run the duppies out”. Well, we trooped out and walked home.

 

When we got there Ali told us he would go into the house first and Dolly, Aggie and I should follow in a few minutes but Sydney was to wait outside until he was called. When we went in Ali had already lit three different colour candles in our hallway and then he took out three bottles – one containing some seeds, one with some kind of powder in it and the third with some dirty looking liquid in it. He threw some of the liquid and some of the powder into a cup which Aggie had handed him and he struck a match, lit the mixture in the cup and gave it to Aggie to take outside and bury it at the gateway to the house. Ali then asked Sydney for a further £5 as the job was now completed. The potion was buried at the gateway and this would ensure that no more duppies bothered anyone who lived in this house.

 

After that Sydney was more relaxed because one Obeah man had been knocked out by another and the more I think about it the more sure I am that was when things started to happen between our cook Aggie and Sydney.

<—- More Spells and Obeah                            Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>            

 

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<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                           Kingston Riots —>

browney-tree-c

 

I regret I never met my Aunt Vivie but, unfortunately, she died just a couple of years before I made contact with Mum’s (Olga) family in Jamaica.  I think I would have liked her even though there was one aspect of her character I would have struggled with. It does sound as if Vivie was a bit of a loose canon – a one off.   She was tough and certainly not afraid to speak her mind, particularly to her older brother, Sydney, if she thought he was being too free with his belt when he chastised their younger siblings.   In the 1930s Jamaican society was a mirror image of Great Britain replicating its prejudices and social morals.   Women like my Aunt Vivie, who flew in the face of convention, were few and far between in an era that expected women to be seen and not heard. 

 

Vivie was married, yet quite openly having an affair with another man, Freddie Howell; she helped run an illegal gambling house with Freddie and, according to Mum, had the threat of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church hanging over her head because of her relationship with him.  If what people thought bothered her she didn’t show it.

 

What I wouldn’t have liked about my Aunt Vivie though was her racial prejudiced in spite of being coloured herself.  This is something I struggle to understand.  The colour of one’s skin was important to Vivie and, she had made it very clear to her mother, Becky, that she was angry with her for marrying a black man.  She recognised that the white Jamaicans had social prestige, status and political power.  And that they saw as inferior those whose colour ranged from almost white to pure black even though they may have been educated people with good jobs such as lawyers, doctors, business men or women, teachers, clergy, and skilled tradesmen.

 

Colour mattered and that mindset was demonstrated to me personally decades later.  When I was in Jamaica in 1996, one of my cousins offered me a job running a franchise operation in Montego Bay that she was considering investing in.  I asked her why she wanted me and didn’t do the job herself.  Her reply was “because your skin is the right colour”.   I was gobsmacked!

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued from ‘A Loose Canon and the Catholic Church’)


Carlton heard about what happened that Sunday in Church and there was a terrible row between Vivie and Carlton. She told Carlton she was leaving him.    He begged her not to go and when she said it was all over between them and she didn’t love him any more, he started to cry and pleaded with her to give him another chance.  Vivie told him that she was taking their children and going to live with Freddie.  She said he suddenly stopped crying then and there was silence, except for the sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the house.

 Carlton didn’t say anything for ages but just kept looking at her.  Then he shrugged his shoulders a little, as if to say, “ok, you win” and, without a word, left the house.  Vivie said she thought he was going to find Freddie to punch him on the nose but she wasn’t worried about Freddie because he could take care of himself.

Carlton and Vivie had a whirlwind romance.  Within weeks of meeting they went off to Montego Bay and got married without telling any of the family, except for Cissie and Dyke who were their witnesses at the wedding.  Sydney said if Vivie hadn’t been so desperate to marry a white man she’d have saved both families a lot of heart ache and realised that charm, good looks and receiving a small allowance from his parents was not enough to support a family. 

Sometime during the afternoon on the day following the big row, Carlton’s body was found by some people out walking in a valley in the Blue Mountains.  It appears his car went over a precipice just past the army post at Newcastle and his body flung from the car.  He’d been dead for hours and to this day no one ever really knew if it was suicide or an accident. 

I was grateful that I was asked to look after the children in the family so Chickie, Boysie and Cissie could go to the funeral.   Carlton’s coffin was left open for mourners to pay their last respects and I didn’t want my last sight of Carlton to be lying dead in a coffin.  I wanted to remember him how I always saw him – full of life and laughing.

If I had been married to Carlton I wouldn’t have minded Carlton being a poor white man because he had other qualities.   Tall, fair-haired, very good looking, funny, nice to talk to, always joking.  Women were very attracted to him and I think it’s easy to see why Vivie fell in love with him.  They met when he was playing tennis at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and Vivie said the first thing she noticed about him was that his legs were better than hers.  He was always invited to the best clubs, parties and social events in Kingston and he may not have had much money of his own but people liked him, because he was nice, and he was friends with all sorts of people.  What made him different from other white Jamaicans was that he wasn’t prejudice towards coloured or black people in the slightest. 

The day of Carlton’s funeral was unusually hot for that time of the year and there was a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind in the air.  A black choir sang hymns at his funeral and Dolly told me later that this  was Carlton’s “second family”. 

As a baby Carlton had a black nurse whose name was Ambrosine Williams and he spent much of his childhood with her and her thirteen children rather than his own white family.  When his coffin was being lowered into the ground Ambrosine Williams bent down and picked up a handful of earth and threw it at Vivie.  She told Vivie that she was going to set a duppy on her for causing Carlton’s death and that she would be cursed until the day she died. 

That night the wind began to pick up and get stronger and continued until well into the evening.  Then, according to a report in the paper “the lightening started building up in strength until it lit up the whole sky, dancing in fantastic forms in the night sky, whilst the thunder that followed the lightening seemed to shake the earth as if to say the end of the world is near and then finally in the early hours of the next morning the rain came down.”

 

<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                                      Kingston Riots —>

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<–Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey        Carlton —>                                 

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

browney-tree-cDear Diary

 

Big Scandal:    My very favourite nun, Sister Marie-Thérèse, told me one day when I was at Alpha Academy, that Jamaica has the largest number of churches per square mile in the entire world.  Many are beautiful, old, stone buildings going back to the 1800s.  Religion has always been important to Jamaicans and especially to my family.  Mammie says we are high Catholics, which I think makes us sound special, but to be honest, I don’t know what the difference is between a high Catholic and a low one.  It’s one of those questions I don’t like to ask in case people think I’m stupid.  

We always put on our best Sunday clothes when we go to mass.   Mammie says how we dress is important because clothes say a lot about you.  Ragged clothes are a sign of poverty but even the poorest person wouldn’t dream of going to church without putting their best clothes on, clean shoes and a proper hat, and not a scarf, because that doesn’t cover your head properly.  Mammie is very particular about us all looking clean and smart and when we were at school she would keep us away rather than send any of us off without clean, ironed school uniforms.  In Jamaica being well dressed is a sign of your social status and it’s important to your sense of self respect and self worth, Mammie says.

Going to church is a social occasion and after mass, standing around outside the Church, you can catch up on all the gossip.  Unfortunately, quite a lot of it has been about the Browneys lately so we haven’t hung around for too long.

 

 

Whit Sunday:   My sisters Dolly, Ruby, Pearl and I had decided to go to an early mass so that afterwards we could catch a boat to Port Royal and spend the day on the beach and swim and have a picnic.  We had just returned to our pew after receiving Holy Communion when I was aware of a click-clacking sound coming from behind me and turned round to see what it was.  It was coming from Vivie and her silver dance shoes.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.   There she was, still wearing the tight, low cut red dress she had bought to go to Freddie Howell’s birthday party the previous night.  On her head was a small scarf which didn’t quite cover her newly bleached blonde hair. 

“Is it a wig” Dolly whispered to me? 

Vivie must have been aware of the stir she was causing in the Church, but, her faith is as important to her as it is to the rest of us and she knew that even if the congregation and God judged her to be a sinner, God, at least, would forgive her.  

All eyes were on her and at the same time varying commotions erupted around the Church.  There were plenty of gasps from onlookers as she click clacked down the aisle towards the altar rail.  Some people were whispering, quite a few were muttering loudly and some distinct words could be heard…… “common, trash, looks like a whore”…… and some whose mouths were opened in astonishment. 

Vivie and her shoes click clacked their way down the aisle heading straight for the altar rail.  She knelt down and waited to receive Communion from Father Butler.   He had seen Vivie approaching and was aware of the stir she was causing in the Church. 

Father Butler told Mammie later that before he reached Vivie he had decided what he was going to do.   And he did it.  In front of hundreds of people he walked straight past her without giving her Holy Communion.

 It was a slight of monumental proportions, and by now you could have heard a pin drop because there was total silence in the cathedral.and for what seemed like forever Vivie remained on her own kneeling at the altar rail.

Then she stood up and turned to face the congregation.    She looked around at the faces in front of her, lifted her hand and slowly removed the scarf.   That one defiant gesture, or it may have been the sight of the blonde hair, caused the entire congregation to act together and they gasped. 

Vivie then calmly walked out of the Church.  

 

Father Frank Butler was a newly ordained priest when he came to Kingston from Ireland shortly after the Great Exhibition in 1891 which, apparently, was Jamaica’s way of telling the rest of the world what a lot of opportunities there were here. 

Although Father Butler’s very old now, he’s still a big man and fat.  He says he’s not fat but “well nourished” and he’s got white hair and a very weather beaten complexion from too much sun. 

He’s taken part in most of the important religious occasions to do with the Browneys – when we were baptised, our first Holy Communion, our confirmation and our confessions.  He probably knows more about all of us than either Mammie or Sydney. 

 I was never very happy when he heard my confession on a Friday evening because he and Sydney are good friends and every Sunday night Father Butler comes to Mission House to see Sydney and the pair of them would sit for hours talking and smoking smelly cigars in the upstairs drawing room every Sunday night. 

For a long time I was frightened that Father Butler would tell Sydney about the sins I’d confessed to and I’d get a whipping, but Mammie told me that a priest has to take an oath of silence and can never repeat anything to anyone else that he hears in the confessional box even if he was asked to by a judge in a court of law.

In the beginning Father Butler called on us for donations, either money or clothes which we had grown out of and he’d give to the St Vincent de Paul Society which helps the poor people of Kingston. 

Priests are important to Jamaican families because if a family has no money they will always go to their priest for help and they will always receive a few pence for food and clothes.  But things have to be really awful if you have to go to the priest and ask for money.  

Anyway, this Sunday, Mammie didn’t attend mass that particular morning and, Sydney was away up country on business, so missed the incident in Church, but Father Butler told Mammie later what had happened and said he was concerned about Vivie’s “moral welfare”.  Having an affair with a married man and committing adultery are mortal sins and were forbidden by the Catholic Church and if Vivie continued on her wayward journey to damnation, he would have to have her excommunicated from the Church.   Most Catholics I know would say that being put in front of a firing squad was better than being excommunicated from the Church.

Mammie tried to explain that Vivie was going to ask Carlton for a divorce because she wanted to marry Freddie.

“You know as well as I do Becky, the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce and will never allow Vivie to marry Freddie”.                                  But worse was to come……………………

 

<–Pops, Aunt Martha & Marcus Garvey                                     Carlton —> 

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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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