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<—The Refuge for Friendless Girls                               Marie —>

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary

I never knew places like this existed.  Matron said I was lucky to be here because this is a Catholic refuge and other girls in my state end up in the workhouse, which, she says, are very unpleasant places and the treatment of the women in them is often cruel and harsh.

 “Here”, she said,  “they will treat you well and take care of you until you have your baby”. 

 My room is cold and bare, with an iron bed, a table, a chest of drawers, a large white enamel jug and bowl.   On the wall is a big crucifix of Jesus on the cross.  I like the cross being there.  It makes me feel I’m not so alone.  

There are eight other women here, all waiting to have their babies.   I spend my days cleaning the refuge or peeling vegetables in the kitchen.  When I’m not working I stay in my room and say my rosary.   We are forbidden to speak to each other during the day but can talk for one hour in the evening after prayers.  But I don’t want to talk to anyone.  I feel ashamed.  I keep myself to myself. 

Why do I dream of the things I can’t have. 

Last night it was Cissie’s wedding.  I saw everything so clearly. 

Father Baker performed her wedding ceremony at the Holy Trinity Cathedral and there were flowers everywhere.  Cissie walked down the aisle on Sydney’s arm to the music of the wedding hymn, looking beautiful in a simple white silk dress with a long tulle veil and a spray of orange blossom in her hair.  The tots and I were the bridesmaids and we wore pale blue dresses with broad hats trimmed with blue lace and chiffon.    Over sixty people attended the service, as well as Dyke’s family and friends and including three of Cissie and Dyke’s children.

After the ceremony everyone went back to Mission House.  In the back garden Mammie had arranged for a large booth made of bamboo and coconut leaves to be built and decorated with lignum vitae and pink bougainvillea.  This was where all the wedding presents were put before they were unwrapped.  There was a table in the garden covered with a white linen table cloth and on it stood the wedding cake with a net over it and pinned in several places.   

After the bride, the wedding cake was the centre of interest and the guests had to bid money to uncover the cake.  They would try and outbid each other and by the time the cake was uncovered Cissie and Dyke would have several pounds, as well as lots of lovely presents.  It was such a happy, noisy day with so much laughter. 

I thought about Michael Sales and the pretty earrings he gave me at my leaving party in Kingston and how he said he’d wait for me to return so I could be his girlfriend.  But not now… not me Michael.  I hope you find someone nice.

 

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<—The Refuge for Friendless Girls                            Marie —>

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Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

War:    Moores and I were in Oxford Street, when the air raid siren went, shopping for a new dress for her date that night with an army officer.  We’d just reached John Lewis when it sounded and we knew it meant we were going to be bombed by the Germans. Suddenly people started running like mad in all directions including us.  Terrified we hopped onto a bus without even knowing where it was going just to get off the street. 

By the time we got back to the hospital we had learnt it been a false alarm, but our relief didn’t last long because we were told that Britain was finally at war with Germany.  There’d been lots of talk about war before but I wouldn’t listen.

 I don’t want to go home, I want to stay and become a nurse, but I made a promise to Sydney and Mammie so, sooner or later Olga, you’re going to have to leave.  Moores and Ethel say I should go; at least I’ll be safe in Jamaica.  I told them I was frightened of being bombed, but I don’t want to return home not having achieved anything after spending six months in England, especially as it has cost my brother a lot of money.  

A few days later, great big silver barrage balloons hanging from cables were seen in the sky all over London.  They were to stop the German bombs from hitting their targets in the city.  I thought they looked like big silver elephants.  One of our first jobs when we started our training was to put black material over the windows so that at night time no light from the hospital wards could escape and the Germans wouldn’t be able to see London from the air and drop their bombs.  

We have all been given a gas mask and Sister Tutor demonstrated how to put it on.  You have to thrust your chin forward pulling the black rubber over the face and up over the forehead leaving your eyes peering out from the two holes.  There’re horrible smelly things and I tore mine off, I couldn’t breathe with it on. 

Then we had to fill out a form so the Government could issue everyone with an identity card.

And now ration books have appeared, although nurses don’t have them because we eat at the hospital. Ethel’s family are poor and she says ration books are a wonderful thing because food is distributed evenly and, poor families like hers, get the same as rich ones like Moores. 

But some days I’d be so hungry my mind would start thinking about the food markets back home where you can buy lovely meals very cheaply.  I find I’m dreaming of gungo peas soup with large pieces of yam and salt beef, vegetables and lovely dumplings or salt-fish and ackee or chicken with rice and peas and yam with half a boiled plantain.   And in the end I just feel hungrier than ever.  Now I’ve developed a taste for sugar sandwiches.

 

Dear Diary

Unhappy news:   War doesn’t make any difference to Sister Tutor; she’s still very strict and only has to raise an eyebrow to show her disapproval about something I’ve done or haven’t done. 

This morning I broke a thermometer and have to pay 6d out of my wages to replace it.   I’m not thinking about the war, all I can think about is passing the exam at the end of the three months.

 Moores, Ethel and I test each other whenever we have time and if I get really stuck on something, Joanne helps me.    Matron wants to see me.  I can’t think what I’ve done wrong.

 

Later:  I couldn’t stop shaking waiting outside Matron’s office.  When I entered she told me to sit down and I knew it was bad news.  She never tells nurses to sit down, we always have to stand to attention as if we’re on parade like soldiers in the army.

 “I have some bad news for you Olga” she said in such a kindly voice it barely sounded like her.

 “I’m afraid you cannot go home to Jamaica.  Because of the war the Government has banned all non essential travel out of Britain which means you will have to stay until the war ends”

I suddenly  burst into tears.

 “It’s not so bad really, is it Olga, think how proud your family be will when you do return home as a fully qualified nurse” she said. 

Then she sat down beside me and put her arm round my shoulders and I cried even more.  I was crying so much partly because Matron was being so kind and calling me Olga, instead of Browney, but also because, although I wanted to stay and finish my training, now I had no choice in the matter, I had to stay and suddenly I had such an urge to see Mammie and my sisters. 

“I’m sure the war won’t last long and in the meantime we need you here”. 

“Yes Matron, thank you Matron,” I sobbed.

 I was still crying as I reached the door to leave and she called out to me.

“Wait, I nearly forgot”.  She was holding a sheet of paper in her hand and there was a little smile on her face.

 “Congratulations, Browney, you passed your first exam”.

 

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

 At last, I have been able to talk to Olga on the telephone, not that I could hear very much because the line was poor and crackly and we only had three minutes.   The tots and Birdie all managed to say hello and tell her they loved her.  At least now I know she’s well and safe, but her place is here at home. 

I should have insisted that Sydney brought her back. Lucy was right all along when she said Hitler couldn’t be trusted and had invaded Poland.   It’s all very well for people to say that the war between Britain and Germany won’t last long, but how do they know, it could go on longer than the first war.  No one knows for sure except God. 

There are reports that people are starving in England.  Could this be true.  Olga starving?  The Daily Gleaner says that the predicted bombing hasn’t happened and many who evacuated London when war was declared are returning to their homes. So maybe things will not be as bad as everyone first thought.     

Olga says she hasn’t seen Martha for weeks.  Why, I wonder?  What has been happening between those two?  Now I have something else to worry about.  There was no mention of anything wrong between them in Olga’s last letter.  There wasn’t much of anything really because there was so little to read since most of it had been censored with heavy black ink. 

But she has passed an exam we are all very proud of her.  I went down to the meat market for the first time for years, just to tell Henry.  Olga’s status seems to have gone up a lot already as far as the younger girls are concerned and she has certainly impressed the rest of the family with her resolve to come home a fully qualified nurse.  As Birdie says “beats working in a bicycle shop”.

It sounds as if Olga has become very fond of her friend Joanne. 

Do you know what I think?  I think the hand of God was at work there.  He sent Joanne to look after Olga.  But even so, we will still continue to pray for Olga’s safety.

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<—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                     Olga – A Student Nurse –>

When I asked my mother (Olga) how safe she felt in London during the first part of 1939, she said she wasn’t worried because people felt that war with Adolph Hitler had been averted.   

Maybe the previous war was still fresh in people’s minds (after all in 1939  it was less than 20 years since the end of WWI) and that was why they simply couldn’t believe that the world could go through all that devastation again.   Personally, had I been in my mother’s shoes, I’d have headed straight back to the safety of  Kingston, Jamaica.

The reality for my mother was that war was a heartbeat away and she was in a strange country living with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt and had no idea that world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent would all combine to prevent her from returning home to Jamaica.  

the-browneys-tree

(Olga’s Diary Continued)

Dear Diary

Fate steps in:  Three days later two things happened one after the other. 

First, Sydney got a big discount, bigger than he anticipated, on some bicycles he ordered for the shops and the second thing that happened was that he took ill and was rushed, by ambulance, to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington with appendicitis.  Hours later his appendix was out and he was being looked after by Nurse Megan Lloyd who comes from Wales. 

My “good old holiday” with Sydney is now being spent sitting by his bed every day in St Mary’s watching the nurses do their work while he sleeps.   I noticed that the patients have a great respect for the nurses, which is nice, and, as I like the idea of helping people get well, a plan was beginning to develop that would mean I could stay in London and make Mammie and the family really proud of me.   

When I thought the time was right I mentioned to Sydney I would like to become a nurse.  His immediate reaction was definitely not, you’re going home with me and no arguing.  So I enlisted help.  Joanne and Nurse Lloyd.  Sydney had taken a shine to Joanne and she pointed out to him the benefits of being a nurse and how it would help our community back home when I returned to Jamaica a fully qualified nurse whose training had been in a big London hospital.  It took both of them to persuade Sydney to at least have an interview with Matron at St Mary’s.  When AM heard her reaction was disbelief. 

“A great hospital like St Mary’s only takes white, middle class young ladies to train as nurses” she told us.

“They would never accept a coloured person so don’t waste your time seeing Matron, just to be told no.” 

She was right, but, for the wrong reason.  Within five minutes of sitting in Matron’s office she announced I couldn’t study nursing there because I didn’t have a school leaving certificate but suggested we try the smaller St Giles Cottage Hospital in Camberwell. 

“You’ll have more success there because not too long ago and before it became a hospital, it used to be a work house and they’re not so particular about their nurses”, AM told me, when Sydney was out of earshot.

We had an interview with Matron at St Giles, and shortly afterwards I was offered a place on a residential three month basic nursing programme, but first I had to have a medical. 

  

Dear Diary 

Good news:    I’ve been offered a nursing place and the best part of my new job is that I’ll be living in the Nurses’ Home at the hospital so don’t have to live with AM any more.  Oh happy days! 

I could see Sydney was proud of me and I knew Mammie would be too, in spite of being disappointed that I wouldn’t be going home now.  I had to promise Sydney that if war broke out I would come home immediately.  He gave me enough money for my fare and to keep me going until I got my first month’s wages which was going to be £2 a month.   He also bought all the books I needed for studying, plus three pairs of thick black stockings and my black shoes.  The rest of my nurses’ uniform would be provided by the hospital.

The night before Sydney left to go home he took Joanne and me to the theatre to see the Ivor Novello musical, The Dancing Years, and afterwards we had supper in a posh late night restaurant. 

 If I hadn’t met Joanne I’m not sure I would have chosen to become a nurse, but knowing that she would be close by,  helped me to decide and that was a big comfort, not only to me, but to Sydney too, I think.   He could reassure Mammie that I had at least one good friend.  Sitting at the dining table watching them dance together, I thought wouldn’t it be just perfect if one day Joanne became my sister-in-law. 

Something to pray for Olga.

 <—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                    Olga – A Student Nurse –>

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<—A Change of Plan for Olga                     Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

My Great Aunt Martha was the oldest and not at all like her sisters, Becky and Lucy, either in temperament or looks. She was a short, stout woman with a badly pockmarked face – apparently the result of chicken pox. Every now and again nature produces an offspring that bears little resemblance to either its parents or siblings, well by all accounts, that was Martha Ross.  My mother, Olga,  told that in the early part of the 1930s Aunt Martha worked as a seamstress at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.  Mum told me many times, she didn’t like her Aunt Martha.

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

The wicked witch:  Aunt Martha (AM) being horrible. Very bad tempered.  There are two versions of her, the English version in Paddington (the true one) and the Jamaican version, when she’s with Mammie in Kingston  (the false one). She still says I’m eating too much and I have to eat less even though I’ve given her nearly all of my money and I don’t think I have enough to last until Sydney comes.   

She says I have to pay my way so I must clean the flat and do her washing and ironing.  Now she’s treating me like a servant. 

“You might as well wash and iron Mr Kitchen’s clothes the same time you do mine” she said.

“I’ll do your chores, because I have the time, but I’m not doing his and if you insist then I’ll write to Mammie and Sydney and tell them what you’re asking me to do” I threatened.   

 “There’s no need for that, Olga, just do mine”.  

Good job done, Olga, a small  victory and very nice it feels too. Mr Kitchen is AM’s latest “gentleman friend” and the pair of them go out drinking nearly every night.  They always come home drunk and Mr Kitchen usually stays overnight (in AM’s bedroom!) and I hear him creeping out of the front door early in the morning.  Mammie and Sydney would be shocked if they knew. 

AM says they’re engaged to be married, but I don’t think Mr Kitchen knows that. 

Wonder what the neighbours think? 

AM is cruel when she’s been drinking.  Told me that I would never get a husband.

 “No man would find someone as plain and boring as you, Olga, attractive. Where were you when God was handing out the looks”. She’s not a very nice person, you know. I know I’m not as pretty as my sisters, but Mammie says I have other qualities which are more important than looks. 

Should have said to her “where were you when God was handing out the looks”.  But that would have been unkind too and, anyway, after hearing her give Mr Kitchen a good few slaps with the frying pan the other evening, I stay in my room now when she’s been drinking. 

AM had chicken pox when she was a child and to stop her picking at the sores on her face her parents bandaged her hands.  But AM still managed to pick them and as a result her face is badly pockmarked.  She was teased a lot at school by the other children because of it and Aunt Lucy says that contributed to AM’s “effortless transition from bad tempered child to a cantankerous, mean spirited woman”.  Had to look up in the dictionary what cantankerous meant and Aunt Lucy’s got it dead right.  AM’s bad tempered and unreasonable.

To keep out of her way I spend a lot of time wandering around London and one day I was walking along Baker Street when this car hooted and when I turned round to see who it was, it was Roy McKenzie from Jamaica.   I couldn’t believe it, in fact, I didn’t even know he was in London

I immediately remembered that day when I was hanging from a tree by my knickers and felt embarrassed when we said hello, even though Aunt Lucy and Mammie had got me down from the tree before he saw me. 

 “Olga, look at you, you look good, how nice to see you”.  He seemed really pleased to see me,

He told me to hop in the car and he took me for a lovely drive around London.  He asked me what I was doing in London and how long I was staying.  I told him about the dance school and what I’d been doing since I arrived and he told me he ran a gambling and drinking club in London called the Frivolity.  He knew I had a good singing voice and asked me to come down and sing at his club now and again.  Because I had no money I was tempted.  Maybe I’ll pop down one evening I thought to myself, it might be fun.

I asked him if he thought there was going to be a war with Germany and he said he hoped not because it could be bad for his business.

He stopped the car round the corner from Chilworth Street and wrote down the address of the Frivolty on a piece of paper and handed it to me. 

He asked me how things were going with Aunt Martha and I just shrugged my shoulders.  He took out his wallet, which, by the way, was full of money, and took out one of the notes in it.

“Here, take this, but don’t tell Aunt Martha you’ve got it or she’ll talk you into giving it to her and, definitely, don’t tell her that you’ve seen me.  I’ve seen her operating in the Den of Iniquity and I don’t want her in my club.”  I looked in my hand and there was a lovely big white £5 note.  I hugged him.  I told him Sydney would be over soon and would repay him.  

“Remember, Olga, anytime you want to earn some money singing, you know where I am now”. And then he was gone.   I had such a lovely afternoon with Roy, but most of all it was comforting to know there was someone who would help me if I needed it.

 <—A Change of Plan for Olga                       Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

 

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 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place            A Change of Plan for Olga—->

 

Family Tree

My mother, Olga Browney, arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica on 1st April 1939 intending to stay only a few months. The plan was that Olga would stay with her Aunt Martha in Paddington. Although in the months before there had been talk of a war between England and Germany, Olga’s mother, Becky, believed that war had been averted, thanks to the Munich Agreement. This was a Pact made between Adolph Hitler and the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain whereby Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he would not make any more territorial demands into Europe and so Chamberlain believed that war between the two countries had been averted.

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary

            “How did you get here?” Aunt Martha asked me incredulously.

She was still in bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  If it had been Birdie standing at the bottom of her bed instead of me, the reply would have said something smart like “I just flew in on Aggie Burns broomstick”, but I just said lamely,

“I thought you were expecting me”. 

“Jesus Christ, what day is it”?

“April 1st” I said, shocked by her blaspheming. 

And then she started laughing “Trust you to arrive on April Fool’s Day, Olga”.

I didn’t answer not understanding what she meant, but, I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. I was hungry, cold, tired and this was not the welcome I had been expecting.

For a start Aunt Martha should have met me when the S.S. Jamaica Progress docked this morning in London.  The Progress is a cargo boat carrying fruit, mainly bananas, and the Royal Mail, but also has room for a few passengers.  On this trip there were 12 of us including me and, of course, my chaperone, Mrs Brodie, a friend of the family, who was going to England for a holiday and whom Sydney had asked to keep an eye on me during the trip. 

Did he think I might fall overboard?  

Anyway, it never occurred to me that Aunt Martha wouldn’t be there and I was very grateful that Mrs Brodie waited with me a for a while, but eventually she said she had to leave.  With a confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling I assured her I would be fine on my own.   Just in case Aunt Martha didn’t arrive Mrs. Brodie showed me where there was a taxi rank and, checking I had enough money to pay for it, kissed me goodbye and went on her way.   Sitting in the waiting room I felt very homesick.

After waiting for her for nearly three hours I decided to take a taxi to Aunt Martha’s home, 23 Chilworth Street, Paddington.   I knew she lived on the third floor of a block of flats because last time she was in Kingston she told us at dinner one evening how Londoners were not very friendly.  Aunt Martha likes a drink and one day she was in a pub when a lady sitting a few feet away from her became ill.  Aunt Martha offered to take her back to her home and discovered that the woman lived in the flat beneath her in Chilworth Street

As I struggled up the three flights of concrete steps to Aunt Martha’s flat with two heavy suitcases I thought, Londoners are not only unfriendly, they’re unreliable too.

 

Letter to Mammie, Mission House, Kingston 

from

Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London

 

Dearest  Mammie

I couldn’t sleep last night.  When I closed my eyes I saw us all on Kingston docks crying.  It was hard saying goodbye, wasn’t it, and Mammie you looked so worried.  Fancy Pops coming down as well.  It was nice you were both there.  I don’t remember ever seeing you together before. And wasn’t Sydney thoughtful and kind making sure I had everything I needed. He told me to be sure to ask Aunt Martha if I need anything and he said he’d be coming to London in two or three months, so I would see him them.

Including me and Mrs Brodie, there were only twelve passengers on the boat, two widow ladies, myself and another single young lady and two married couples, three single men, two were students and the third single man was an engineer.  We all got on very well together and made up our own entertainment in the evening with little concerts which we all took part in.  I was persuaded to sing a few times and got a very nice round of applause each time.  The engineer performed some magic tricks, which sometimes went wrong, but we pretended we hadn’t noticed or else we played card games like gin rummy or canasta while the older people played bridge.  

 As a matter of fact Mammie, I was invited to sit at the Captain’s table four times during the journey; it’s a great honour, you know and I felt very important.  The crossing seemed to go quickly and it was very good until we got close to England and then it rained a lot and the sea was a bit rough.

Aunt Martha has a nice little two bedroom flat and, guess what, I have my own bedroom but you probably know that. 

On my first morning here, Aunt Martha brought me breakfast in bed and later on took me to Lyons Corner House which is huge and there are restaurants on four levels.    On the ground floor level is the food hall where you can buy different things like ham and cheese, pastries and specially made chocolates, wines, tea and, guess what, coffee and fruit from, guess where? ……Jamaica! 

And on the floors above are more restaurants with an orchestra playing in each one.  Aunt Martha and I went to the tearoom and she ordered afternoon tea which arrived on delicate china plates with some scones, dainty sandwiches and little cakes.  I only had a little bit to eat because I thought it was good manners not to eat all the food in front of us.  But I was wrong, I should have eaten more, because AM finished the whole lot.

All the waitresses wore black and white uniforms, Ruby, and AM says their called Nippies, when I asked her why ,she said “because they nip in and out of the tables quickly”.  Isn’t that funny?  I thought they looked so smart in their uniforms and said to AM that I might change my mind about going to Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance and become a Nippie for a few months. 

“I don’t think so dear,” AM said. 

“To come all this way from Jamaica and end up as a waitress doesn’t seem such a good idea to me”

  Well, at least it’s work, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.  With so many out of work back home I bet lots of people would love a job like that.  When the bill came, Aunt Martha said,

“Oh, that’s a bit expensive, but never mind Olga, you’re worth it”.  Wasn’t that nice? 

The weather has been horrible, cold and wet.  One day smog covered the whole of London all day and you could barely see in front of your hand and bus conductors were walking in front of their buses to guide them.  I missed Jamaica a lot that day.  Aunt Martha says its smoke that comes from factory chimneys and buses.  There are signs that Londoners are preparing for war.  There are air raid shelters being built and sticky tape is stuck across windows to prevent people being cut by flying glass and splinters when the bombs come.  Aunt Martha says it’s difficult to know what to think because one minute the war’s on and the next it’s off. 

My favourite place, Mammie, is Regent’s Park Zoo.  There are all sorts of animals there, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, beautiful big birds and sweet little birds.   Even before I get to the zoo I can hear the lions roaring and the monkeys whooping.  I feed the monkeys but you’re not allowed to feed the wilder animals, so I watch the zoo keepers feed the elephants, lions and bears. 

And I’ve discovered a beautiful Catholic church called St James’ in Spanish Place, not far from Aunt Martha but, do you know what, I don’t think she goes to church quite so much in London as she does in Jamaica. 

I say my prayers every night Mammie and go to mass on Sundays at St James’ .  It doesn’t feel the same as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, but I still like it a lot.  

I miss you all.  Please write soon.

                                Your loving daughter and sister            Signed Olga

 

 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live        A Change of Plan for Olga – London 1939—->

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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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 <—Sydney & The Cook                                      Sydney Shoots a Burglar—->

 

When I was a child my mother, Olga, used to tell me that her family practiced witchcraft (Obeah) in Jamaica, but I didn’t believe her.  Being a good Catholic girl, I didn’t countenance such ‘mumbo jumbo’! 

After Emancipation in 1834  the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that it would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much like when my mother was living in Jamaica in the 1920s and 1930s, and probably still continues today.   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, like my family! 

 

 Family Tree

Olga’s Diary (Continued from “Sydney and the Cook“)

Dear Diary

She’s put a spell on him:   Later Mammie told us why Sydney had stormed out of the house when he told us he was going to live with Aggie Burns.  He called Mammie a hypocrite and said it was ok for her to live with a black man and cause huge misery and pain, not only for her parents, but also her sisters and children, of course, he meant Vivie and Aunt Martha.  

Mammie replied that at least she and Pops had got married and anyway she didn’t think Aggie was the right person for him.

 Sydney was in such a rage, Mammie said she was too frightened to say anything more to him.    She told us that Sydney had been right about her objections to Aggie Burns because she was black. 

“I experienced such hatred from people I never dreamt could behave in such an ugly manner and I don’t want any of my children to go through the treatment I received nor do I want Sydney’s children turning on him one day  because of their colour.

“We’re not all prejudice like some of the others” dear Pearl told Mammie. 

But Mammie’s convinced that Aggie Burns has put a spell on Sydney to make him fall in love with her.  That’s the only explanation she says.

“Why else would he choose a short, fat, ugly black woman who practises voodoo. 

“I’m going to turn the tables on Aggie Burns”.

“Olga, get Cassie.  We’re going to see Annie Harvey.” 

She’s the woman we go to for herbal remedies sometimes when we were ill.   Well, as everyone knows, she also practises Obeah and Mammie wants Annie to work Obeah on Sydney to make him come home. 

 But I was worried about us going there because the punishment for practising Obeah is very harsh if you are caught by the police.  It can be 20 lashes and a prison sentence of six months, with hard labour, if you are found guilty and even if you’re a woman.

 I tried to talk Mammie out of it, but she was determined to go.

Annie Harvey makes quite an impression and is still a very striking woman in her white turban and red cloak.  I was surprised when I saw her house, it’s rather nice, with a little white fence and pretty flowers in the garden.  The sort of house I’d like myself one day.  Anyway, Annie took us out to a shack in the backyard.  Inside it was dark, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust before I could see properly.  You couldn’t see a single bit of the ceiling because there were dried herbs hanging from it everywhere. 

There were wooden shelves on one side of the room with different sized coloured bottles and some were full of liquid, but others only half full.  I recognised some zinc powder and ingredients for making a “medicine bath” and poultices.  There was also a tin of Epsom salts sitting on one of the shelves, which I thought strange, because we have that at home.  

There was another shelf with some pimento leaves and pieces of logwood bark, bird feathers, broken egg shells and some ashes.  Cassie told me later she saw a chicken’s foot and a lizard’s tail.  

Mammie explained to Annie Harvey that she wanted Sydney to return to the family.  He had deserted us in favour of a bad woman who was a danger to him. 

“We wanted to protect him from this evil woman who has cast a spell on him and taken him away from us” said Mammie to Annie.

Annie Harvey left the shack for a minute and when she returned she was holding a bunch of green leaves which she put into a wooden bowl and with a small piece of wood, rounded at the end; then she pounded the leaves together until they turned into a thick green paste. 

Then she sprinkled some ashes into the paste and from a small blue bottle around her neck she sprinkled just two drops of a dark brown liquid into the mixture and then mixed it up again. Each time she mixed the paste she talked in a strange language that none of us had heard before.  She covered the paste with some muslin cloth and then wrapped it in brown paper and tied it up with string and told Mammie to put it in Sydney’s food and he would come home. 

On the way home, Mammie said we were going to stop at the Holy Trinity Cathedral to offer prayers to Jesus to pray for Sydney’s return and when I asked why after having just come from the balm yard, she said she was covering all options.

 When we got home Mammie said she was sure Cassie would tell Aggie Burns that she had been to Annie Harvey’s balm yard and worked Obeah on him.

“It won’t be long before Sydney comes homes, but, in the meantime, Olga, you’re going to have to put the paste into Sydney’s food.”.  I knew it.

When Annie Harvey gave Mammie the paste, I thought to myself, guess who’s going to have to do that little job Olga”.

“I can’t do it, I’ll get caught” I told her. 

“Choose your time, when he’s out, make a nice sandwich for him, his favourite, pork with apple and ginger.  Spread the paste in between the slices of meat or mix it in with the apples. 

“You can do it Olga”. 

“Mammie, if he catches me I’ll get a whipping”

“If he catches you, I’ll tell him it’s my fault.  Please Olga, we need him”. 

So I agreed to do it and, lady luck was on my side. 

Sydney was expecting a shipment of bicycles to arrive from London the next day and fortunately for me the paper work was not in order, so he had to spend hours down on the docks sorting it out so by the time he got back to the shop he was ravenously hungry.  I produced the sandwiches each filled with thick juicy pieces of pork, sliced apple, ginger and the paste and he just gobbled the sandwiches and, obviously, never tasted anything unusual. 

Mammie was so happy when I told her.  Oh I do hope it works, with all our wages going into the household pot, we have hardly anything to spend on ourselves and Sydney has a whole heap of money, tons of it, he’s just being nasty by making us suffer.

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<——–Sydney & The Cook                                                             Sydney Shoots a Burglar —–>

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<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                              More Spells and Obeah —->

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Letter to Vivie, Miami, USA
from
      Olga, Kingston, Jamaica.
      

 

Dearest Vivie 

There’s been a terrible scandal in the family.  You just won’t believe what happened last Saturday morning when we came down to breakfast.

“That’s strange; I can’t smell any burnt toast”.  Dolly said.  You remember how Aggie Burns insisted we eat burnt toast, because for some reason she thinks it’s good for us.  Mammie said Aggie hadn’t turned up for work and she asked Pearl to go to Aggie’s house and see if she was alright.

Pearl said “No, Mammie, I get frightened when I go near that house, it’s full of voodoo stuff”.  Pearl’s right.  If we have a boiled egg for our breakfast, Aggie Burns makes us smash the empty egg shell because she said if we don’t, then witches can use them as boats and control the winds.  What’s wrong with that, I wonder?  

“Aggie lives alone and maybe she’s ill or hurt, after all it’s very unusual for her not to turn up for work”.  Mammie was clearly very worried about her. 

But, as we all know, she doesn’t really live alone.  She lives with talking peacocks, voodoo dolls,  three scrawny chickens, a pet mongoose and that whopping big black cat of hers, called Lucifer, which follows her just about everywhere she goes. 

Do you remember when Aggie first started working for us it used to follow her here and, because Mammie wouldn’t allow it in the house, it used to curl up under the cotton tree out the front and wait for her to leave at the end of the day.  I tried to stroke it a couple of times but it would hiss at me.  

I certainly didn’t want to go to Aggie Burns house and neither did Ruby, so Mammie said she’d go, but in the meantime Cassie was to get  breakfast ready while Ruby went upstairs to wake Sydney, because he hadn’t appeared either.  Well, within minutes Ruby came running down the stairs and into the kitchen very excited and announced that Sydney’s bed hasn’t been slept in all night.


Now that’s quite unusual for Sydney I know, but I told Mammie that Sydney had probably been working late and fallen asleep on the couch in the office at the back of the bicycle shop. 

“I expect he’ll come home shortly to wash and change his clothes.  After breakfast I’ll go with you, Mammie, to Aggie Burns’ house” I said.

So, just as we’re finishing breakfast in walks Sydney and we all heave a sigh of relief.

He sits down and says “I have something to tell you” and without even pausing for breath he says “I’m getting married”. 

Mammie throws her arms around his neck and gives him a big hug; there’s lots of excitement and laughter. And then he says

 “I’m going to live with Aggie Burns”. 

Well, I don’t mind telling you, Vivie, there was silence, a big silence.  He’s not serious I thought.  Never mind she’s black, she’s a witch for heaven’s sake. 

How can the head of the Browney family live with a witch?    What will people think?  What will Father Butler think?  It’s quite common for Jamaicans to just live together without being married, although respectable people are expected marry. But Sydney is still married to Janetha and the Catholic Church doesn’t allow divorce so that’s why they’re going to live together.

Our faces must have shown the disbelief and disappointment we all felt. 

Ruby got up and quietly left the room.  Dolly and I followed leaving Mammie and Sydney to talk, but the talk didn’t last long or go well because Sydney came roaring out of the dining room saying he would never set foot in the house again and slammed the front door as he left. He was in a big rage Vivie.  Mammie started crying and in between her sobs she asked me to contact Cissie and Dyke in Montego Bay.  So, I left and sent Cissie a message.

 

Telegram to Cissie, and Dyke, Montego Bay fromOlga,  Kingston             

Urgent. Come quickly.  Sydney gone off  with  the cook . 

 

Dolly ran to Boysie to tell him what had happened.  He came round straightaway and gave Mammie a big hug and told her not to worry, he would talk to Sydney and everything would be alright. 

Later on, who do you think walked in, Vivie, none other than Aggie Burns herself, all dressed up and wearing, I must admit, a very nice straw hat with flowers all round the brim. 

“I’ve come for some of Sydney’s possessions”.

“Why would you want Mr Sydney’s things, Aggie” Mammie asked her.

“Because we are in love and he’s living with me now”.   Honestly, she was so cocky I wanted to hit her.  

“I’ve brought a suitcase with me so I’ll just pop upstairs and get a few things”. 

“Pop upstairs” sounded funny coming from Aggie Burns, it’s so English and she’s so witchy. 

And then she said to Mammie

“He won’t be giving you any more money.  He will need all his money for the family I will give him”. 

As she turned to go upstairs, Mammie jumped up, rushed over to Aggie Burns, put her hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from the stairs.  Dolly, Ruby and I joined in and the four of us pushed her right out the front door and told her never to set foot in our house again.   

The next day Cissie came up from Montego Bay and took charge of the kitchen.  She did lots of cooking, baking bread, bulla cakes and biscuits.  Oh, she was wonderful and she gave Mammie some money to stop her worrying. 

Boysie and I continued to go to the shop but Sydney didn’t appear for about a week and when he did he and Boysie went into the back office to have a little chat. Boysie was concerned that even though we were giving Mammie nearly all our wages now, we were still short of money.

 “It’s not like you can’t afford it”, Boysie told Sydney.  But Sydney wouldn’t budge.  He said he was going to start his own family now and was not prepared to support us any more.  Boysie was horrified, and what started off as a calm conversation developed into a huge quarrel with Boysie finally saying he was ending their partnership and wouldn’t be coming to the shop again. 

Now Sydney was coming to the shop every day but Boysie wasn’t.   I wasn’t happy working there and wanted to leave, but, couldn’t.   I’m trapped here, Vivie.  I hate him.    All my love,     Olga.

 

<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                               More Spells and Obeah —->                               

 

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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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