OLGA – A DAUGHTER’S TALE
Marie-Thérèse Browne (Marie Campbell)
Olga – A Daughter’s Tale
Copyright © 2007 by Marie-Thérèse Browne
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
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Note from the Author
In 1994, my mother Carmen Browne, was admitted to the RoyalSussexCountyHospital in Brighton seriously ill. As she slowly recovered, I realised had she died so, also, would the chance for me to find out about our past, her family in Jamaica and, of great importance to me, who my father was, information she had resolutely refused to share with me. So, I decided to find out for myself.
My first discovery was that my mother was in fact Olga Browney, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and one of eleven children from a close-knit coloured Catholic family. A kind, naive and gentle girl, Olga came to London in 1939 to live with her malevolent, alcoholic aunt and intending to stay only six months. But world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent all combined to prevent her from returning to her family in Kingston.
Written in the form of biographical fiction with diary entries and letters, “Olga – A Daughter’s Tale” is based on a true story about cruelty, revenge and jealousy inflicted on an innocent young woman and about her moral courage, dignity, resilience and, in particular, love. It is the story of a remarkable woman who because of circumstances made a choice which resulted in her losing contact with her beloved family in Jamaica. That is, until nearly half a century later, when her past caught up with her.
Marie-Thérèse Browne (Marie Campbell)
OLGA – A DAUGHTER’S TALE
Christopher Columbus, the explorer, had been so mesmerized by Jamaica’s beauty he had described it in 1494 as “…the fairest land my eyes have ever seen” and had been greeted by a kind, friendly, gentle people known as the Arawaks who gave the island its name, Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water”. But the Arawaks suffered great ill-treatment at the hands of their Spanish conquerors and by the time Britain took Jamaica from Spain in 1655 they had all died.
Throughout the entire period of British rule and, not including the huge numbers born into slavery, it was estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Africans were imported against their will into Jamaica. People forced to work as slaves on plantations owned by rich white men and women and subjected to extreme cruel and brutal treatment.
During slavery the plantation remained the most important unit and a rigid class system existed. You were judged to be important according to the type of work you did, the colour of your skin and how much money and land you owned.
There were three groups of people – the whites, the coloureds and the slaves who were black. Among the whites, the most important in society were the planters who were very rich from the sale of sugar and owned vast areas of land on which they built great houses usually on a hill overlooking the plantations and slave houses. Built by expert slave labour, they were manorial with fine wood panelling, vast rooms, and opening one into another, windows that reached to the floor and wide staircases modelled on the Georgian style. Below these ample living-rooms gleaming with their shining smooth wood polished floors were the quarters of the slaves who lived in cramped airless conditions behind stout iron bars at small windows.
Next in importance were the traders who sold merchandise to the people; tools for the estates, food items such as flour, fish, salt beef, cheese, wine, clothing and candles. They were very wealthy people but because they didn’t own any land they were considered less important than the planters.
After the traders, came the coloureds, half white and half black – ‘mulatto’ the result of a white man having a child by a black woman, although it was against the law for white women to have children with a black man. The coloureds thought they were better than the slaves mainly because they were not fully black, their reasoning being that the closer they came to being white, the more important they were. But some planters did free their mulatto children and in this way a large number of coloureds were free to start their own businesses.
Then there were skilled slaves. Among these people were midwifes, wheelwrights, masons and carpenters.
Next came the house slaves, the Blacks who worked as butlers, cooks, nurses, ladies’ maids, and coachmen in the kitchen, stable or garden. They worked close to their master and were frequently beaten particularly if he or she was upset about something. Punishment was often brutal, for example when a little girl was beaten and nailed through her ears to a tree for having broken a special cup belonging to her master.
The lowliest, and they amounted to more than half the slaves in Jamaica, were field slaves and it was primarily on their backs Jamaica became a jewel in the British Empire. They prepared the land, planted, cut and carried the canes to the mills, then ground it, made the sugar and carried it to the ships.
Jamaica reinvented itself when slavery ended in 1838. The workers legally had their freedom and now the owners of the sugar plantations had to pay the men who had once been their slaves. But many refused to work for the planters. Because they were free the black workers went into the hills and either squatted on Government property or bought small pieces of land from the missionaries who bought land from the Government specially for the purpose of selling it back to the freed blacks and coloureds at a fair price so they could become independent and grow their own crops.
They established themselves as free settlers and grew coconuts, spices, tobacco, coco, pimentos and, of course, bananas. They formed hardworking, independent small businesses, selling their produce to local markets and, not only were they financially successful themselves, their efforts went some considerable way to making Jamaica economically solvent again after the demise of the sugar market.
The planters needed workers so now free, but poor, immigrants arrived from Africa, Portugal, China, India, Syria and the Lebanon to work. The new immigrants were neither black nor white and many didn’t adapt to plantation work so some, like the Chinese, started their own businesses. These people brought with them their religion, language and cultures and enriched an already complicated society.
New shipping routes opened up between London and the West Indies and there was a lot of commercial activity in Jamaica. The British Government and the Institute of Jamaica encouraged men and women from Great Britain to move to Jamaica. Together they instigated a scheme whereby young men could pay a premium to plantation owners in exchange for instruction in the cultivation of crops indigenous to Jamaica. Once they had served an apprenticeship they would be able to buy government land well below the market price.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
CUTTING FROM “THE TIMES” LONDON – July 1900
Opportunity for Hard Working Reliable Young Man
ARTICLE PUPIL SCHEME
Pupil for pen-keeping, banana and coffee plantation. Pupil will be required to assist in the management of coffee fields, surveying and laying out roads for plantation purposes, keep the plantation books and accounts in order and superintend labourers. In exchange pupil will receive practical instruction in coffee planting and preparing coffee for market, and instruction in the cultivation of bananas.
Pupil must be sober and honest, write a fair hand. A horse and forage will be supplied. Must have good outfit for working and other clothes, strong boots, riding breeches, leggings, waterproof cloak. Linen, etc. supplied. Polo, shooting, lawn tennis, other British sports. Good society. Will be required to furnish first-class references.
Premium required £100 p.a. for 1 year or 2 years payable quarterly in advance.
(Reference in England. Henry N. Pollock, Esq. Ravenswood House, Windsor, Surrey.)
Letter – from Henry Pollock, Esq., Windsor, Surrey, England
Hon. Lt. Col. Bertram Pollock, Kingston, Jamaica
My dear Bertie
Good news! There has been a splendid response to your recent advertisement in The Times for an articled apprentice and I have been busy all week interviewing a variety of young men for the position. But I have now finally made a decision on your behalf and I think you will be well pleased with my choice. His background is thus:
John Sinclair, a young man of some financial means, not excessive, but certainly enough for him not only to be able to pay the premium, but also to buy a small estate in Kingston. Both his parents are dead and his money has come from the sale of a small farm they owned in Inverness in Scotland.
He is a tall, strapping young man, with a pleasant demeanour, 25 years of age and recently married to Lucy Ross (there are no children!). Sinclair has had a reasonable education, is quite well read and I must say I thought he held a good conversation. I sensed in him an eagerness to learn new things and gain new experiences which is why I feel sure he will make an industrious and apt pupil and both of you will benefit.
Sinclair and his wife have been temporarily living with her family in Droop Street, Paddington, while they decide what they want to do with their future. He is adamant that he doesn’t want to return to Scotland. Says he’s had enough of the freezing winters and being knee deep in snow! (He’ll be alright in Jamaica then, won’t he, old boy?) Naturally, I wanted to meet his wife as well, so I arranged a visit to her at the family home. I felt it would be a good idea to see them in situ, so to speak, in order to form a better opinion as to their suitability.
The head of the family is Samuel Ross, a constable with the Metropolitan Police, and a pillar of the community. I found him a bit overbearing and his wife, Harriet, the opposite, timid but pleasant enough. I suspect they are a church going family since what looked like the family bible was prominently displayed along with a number of other religious artefacts in the house – Catholics, I think.
I must say Bertie I was very impressed with Sinclair’s wife, Lucy. A sweet, gentle and intelligent young lady who obviously adores her new husband and vice versa. They both impressed me with their knowledge of Jamaica, its politics and social structure. I believe she paints watercolours, so she should be well occupied painting the abundance of beauty and variety of scenery there is in Jamaica, particularly while Sinclair is out at work on the plantation.
Mrs Sinclair has two unmarried sisters, Martha and Becky and clearly has a very close relationship with her younger sister, Becky, who is similar in both looks and demeanour to Lucy tall, slender with fair hair, blue eyes.
Martha is the oldest and most unlike the other two, short and stout, with a badly pockmarked face, result of chicken pox I suppose. You know, Bertie, how every now and again in a family, nature produces an offspring that bears little resemblance to either its parents or siblings, well that’s Martha Ross. She works as a seamstress for the DruryLaneTheatre in London and didn’t hesitate to tell me she is the best they have.
I came away from the meeting with a most favourable opinion of Sinclair and his wife’s suitability and adaptability to moving to the tropics. Sinclair’s references are exemplary (enclosed herewith) and I have told him that you will write direct to him offering the position assuming, of course, you concur with me.
Yours ever Henry
Letter from Lucy Sinclair, Constant Spring Hotel, St Andrews, Jamaica
Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London, England
Bertram Pollock is a charming man, born and bred in Jamaica. I like him a lot and John speaks favourably of him as a man who is fair and reasonable. The plantation is a few miles outside of Kingston, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. Because our new home is not ready to live in, John is boarding in a room above the stables on the estate and I am staying here at the Constant Spring Hotel, which is quite nearby.
I have been here a short amount of time Becky and have seen little of the island, but already I have discovered so much beauty here.
Jamaica attacks one’s senses, the sight of brightly coloured parrots, mocking-birds, sugar birds or to use their more common name, the banana quit and right now, Becky, as I sit here in the hotel’s gardens writing to you, flying in and out of the trees and shrubs are beautiful long-tailed hummingbirds.
The other day I saw a sinister looking blue black bird with a huge beak. I’m told it’s called a john crow bird and is the most often seen bird on the island. It’s a great scavenger, very clumsy and ugly on the ground but so beautiful and majestic in flight Becky.
Jamaica is full of vibrant colour and beauty and is a naturalist’s paradise. The spectacular scenery is enriched by the vivid flowers and scent of the roses that abound, roses and bourgainvillea in every conceivable colour, as well as bright yellow allamandas, the annatto which has rose coloured flowers and purplish pods, the ebony which has yellow flowers and always comes out after rain and the pale blue flower of the lignum-vitae which grows over most of the island. To wake early and see the stars fade away and in their place watch a glorious sunrise and at sunset every night the frogs, crickets and fireflies all make their presence felt and voices heard.
From the fruit trees which are everywhere Becky, you can just pick and eat mangos, guava, papaw, oranges and other more exotic fruits that I have never heard of like ackee, which is very popular here. And if you can find something sharp and heavy enough to crack open a coconut, you can drink the milk from it.
I long to be settled in our house so I can explore the island more and paint instead of the pencil sketches I continually do whenever I’m out and about.
Socially, Jamaica has a lot to offer, but, I do miss the theatres, art galleries and museums in London. But in spite of that, I am convinced we made the right choice about coming here. In fact I have almost forgotten what my former life in London was like because we have both settled down so well.
Tell Martha that Jamaican women are very fashion conscious and do seem to spend a lot of money on clothes which are certainly more expensive here than in London and I’m told they often arrange for material and patterns to be shipped over from London. We must persuade Ma and Pa to let you come for a visit.
Your loving sister Lucy
Letter – from Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London
Lucy Sinclair, Constant Spring Hotel, Jamaica
It was lovely to receive your last letter. Martha was very interested with your remarks about Jamaican women and how fashion conscious they are. Maybe there is an opportunity for her skills over there, although at the moment she’s got a “gentleman friend”, a private in the army and they certainly do see a lot of each other.
I’m working as a governess in Kensington for a very nice young couple who have two children, Emily and Robert, but it’s only a temporary position because they have an elderly governess who has been with the family for ages (handed down from generation to generation I think) but took a leave of absence and will be returning to her position in about two months. That suits me well because when I finish I want to enrol in a housekeeping and basic cookery course with Marshall’s CookerySchool in Marylebone Road.
I think the more things I can turn my hand too the less chance I’ll be pressured by Pa into marrying a man of his choice. Would you believe it, Lucy, in the past few weeks he has brought home three police constables to dinner with the express purpose of them looking me over to see if I am suitable marriage material. I’ve no intention of being press ganged into marrying someone I don’t love even if it means I do end up a spinster of the parish.
It’s wonderful to hear about your life over there. I read your letters over and over again, usually on the way home from work, freezing cold and trudging through London smog, snow or rain, Jamaica seems magical, like a fairy land.
Ma and Pa send their love to you and ask if you are going to mass on Sunday. I assured them that we were all too scared of the hell and damnation that would befall us were we not to.
Your loving sister Becky
Letter from Lucy Sinclair, “Mon Repose”, Jamaica
Becky and Martha Ross, Droop Street, London.
Dearest Becky and Martha
It is barely a year ago that we arrived here; such a lot has happened in a short space of time. John has found a small estate for sale, about 1,050 acres, and it is within our budget so, we have bought it and named our first home “Mon Repose”. It is in the parish of St Andrews which is a few miles from Kingston and John says it is in a good position as it is on fairly level land and has a stream running through it. There are stables and a large barn which house some 50 or so cattle, 3 horses, 3 mules, a wagon cart and some other equipment that came with the land. The horses and mules will be useful but John is undecided about whether he wants to raise cattle. He is keen to grow more crops and make use of what he has learnt with Bertie Pollock. The land is divided by wire fences, most of which need repairing and has considerable cultivation in bananas, coffee, pimentos, over 150 bearing coconut trees and other bits and bobs.
The house is quite large though it does need an awful lot of renovation because it has been empty for years, but its structure is sound. It has a drawing room, dining room and four bedrooms and is quite well furnished. That takes care of one immediate problem, having to furnish it. There is a kitchen and outside a water closet as well as an outhouse for bathing.
Oh it’s perfect Becky. You and Martha must come and visit very soon. There is plenty of room in the house, lots to see, and so much I want to show you. Are you and Martha working on persuading Pa and Ma to let you come for a holiday?
Your loving sister Lucy
Telegram from Martha and Becky Ross, London
Lucy Sinclair, Jamaica
SUCCESS AT LAST!. MARTHA AND I LEAVING AVONMOUTH AT 4.45 PM ON 16TH JULY FOR KINGSTON ON “S. S. PORT MORANT”. ALL BEING WELL SHOULD ARRIVE ON 28TH . VERY EXCITED. LONGING TO SEE YOU. LOVE BECKY.
On Board Port Morant: My goodness, Pa took a lot of persuading to let me go. He said I was too young to travel such a distance on my own and only agreed because suddenly Martha announced she wanted to see Jamaica too. For the longest time Martha said she didn’t want to go. I know the reason; a man. Alfred Trotter’s his name. He’s a private in the army. Maybe because he was used to taking orders in the army he didn’t mind being bossed around by Martha. If she’d told him to jump off TowerBridge I think he would have done. No mind of his own. You need one when you’re around Martha otherwise she walks all over you, doesn’t she Private Trotter. Anyway, Trotter lasted a few months and now he’s gone and Martha and I are going to see Lucy and John.
Ma gave me this lovely leather bound book to keep an account of my holiday. The Port Morant is a beautiful boat and as well as passengers she carries fruit and the Royal Mail. Our cabin is comfortable, spacious and well ventilated and with, of all things, an electric light.
The dining room is decorated with light coloured woods and carved panels and has been divided into a number of recesses, each with a separate dining table with seating for up to six people. The seats are upholstered in royal blue and, this I thought wonderful, the glass in the doors have been hand painted with views of Jamaican scenery.
Our departure from Avonmouth was delayed because of dense fog and it was not until it cleared some hours later that we were able to proceed on our way. No sooner had we cleared the fog than we sailed straight into rough weather and the Captain confined all passengers to their cabins for safety.
Martha and I have discovered we have no sea legs. I’ve been ill for days now and am convinced there is nothing more miserable than seasickness. Except perhaps listening to the wailing through the cabin walls of others as miserable as we are. It’s all very distressing, I don’t think I shall ever forget these last few days.
Martha said she anticipated that there might be rough weather and brought some linctus which she keeps in a silver flask. She says it is good for keeping the contents of her stomach in place. It also appears to be good as a sleeping draught since she sleeps so soundly at night and is oblivious to the pitching and rolling of the boat. I tried it myself but didn’t like it. Martha says it is an acquired taste.
7th day at sea: The weather has cleared and is glorious now, calm seas and lots of sunshine. It was a shock to get on the deck and see the chaos that the storm had caused. Deck chairs were lying broken in pieces and wooden benches were on their sides but it wasn’t long before the crew got everything shipshape. There is plenty of space on the deck for walking and it is wonderful to finally be able to stroll and get lots of lovely fresh air.
There was a “get together dinner” so we could all get acquainted with each other. The dining salon was ablaze with little coloured lights, paper streamers and balloons. Paper hats were provided for everybody and on the table were whistles and wooden things you twirl which make a bit of a racket.
At our dining table were Dr and Mrs Turton who are planning to retire to Jamaica permanently as they do not like the cold and damp winters in England. Many of the passengers are tourists, some are parents taking their children home from boarding school for the holidays and there are a couple of army officers who are going to be stationed on the island, one of whom I think Martha has already taken a shine to; she does seem to like a man in uniform.
After dinner, music sheets were handed out to us all containing verses of several well known songs and the ship’s orchestra started playing. At first we all started timidly singing, but it wasn’t long before everyone was participating with great gusto.
The closer we get to Jamaica the brighter the sun and the air becomes balmy. It’s lovely at night to walk round the deck looking at the stars which are so clear and twinkle in the night sky and feel the softness in the air and a warm breeze that wraps itself around you.
Our last night: Tomorrow night there is to be a last dinner with a special menu and we are going to put on our best frocks, although Martha says we should be wearing evening dresses, but we don’t have any.
Diner d’Adieu Menu
Croutes au Parmesan
Cockie Leekie Soup
Boned Halibut, Sauce Hollandaise
Coteletes d’Agneau, Sauce Soubice, Asperges eu branches
Roast Fillet Veal, Lemon Sauce
Perdreaux á la Anglaise
Roast and Boiled Potatoes, Haricot Verts
Banana Pudding, Pineapple Jellies, Iced Pears
According to the new, soon to be Manager of the Constant Spring Hotel, Mr James McTavis, we drank French champagne, German white wine and Italian dessert wine. He didn’t believe me when I told him I’d never drunk either wine or champagne before and then he and Martha seemed to be in competition as to who could drink the most. My money was on Martha.
After dinner Lord Walsingham, who is a well known famous traveller, but not to me, thanked the Captain on behalf of the passengers for his “watchfulness and never ceasing supervision of the ship, particularly during those difficult early days in our journey”.
The Captain replied that the success of the voyage was not only his doing but also that of the officers and crew under his command. If he had not got such an able crew the ship could not have done so well.
Then Lord Walsingham called for three cheers for the Captain and his crew and then the Captain called for three cheers for Lord Walsingham and the passengers. All very friendly.
These last wonderful days have been the most enjoyable I have ever spent. Martha has enjoyed herself too and she has been a good travelling companion. She and I are not as close as Lucy and I are, and I don’t really know why. I have tried in the past to get close to her but she discourages me. Sometimes I don’t think she even likes me.
As the steamer nears Jamaica I can see in the distance the mangroves and waving palm leafs and huge mountain ridges that are thick with acres and acres of vegetation. A blue haze wafts lazily over the top of the mountains like a long pale blue-grey chiffon scarf. These are the Blue Mountains, the back drop to Kingston.
While we waited to disembark from the boat I watched the men tie the steamer to its berth in KingstonHarbour. On the dockside black men, women and children are working at a furious pace loading the boats with bananas for their return journey to England. Great piles of green bananas carefully stacked in sizes are being loaded onto the steamer I’m waiting to disembark from. I watched in fascination as the dirty, ragged figures of women and young girls ran up and down the gangplanks, in and out of the hatches in the sides of the boat below carrying the bananas on their heads with such consummate ease.
Some of the men have cutlasses and are using them to slice the stalks off the bananas if they are too long. I’ve never seen black men before and can’t stop staring at them. When they’ve finished loading the bananas the women and girls are handed a piece of paper from the negro foreman and take it to the paymaster to collect their wages, I think. Watching the hustle and bustle of the Negroes going about their work remind me of armies of ants soldiering away.
“Mon Repose”: I still can’t quite believe the news that greeted Martha and me when we got off the boat at Kingston. There was Lucy standing on the dockside heavily pregnant. It came as such a shock because she hadn’t mentioned it in any of her letters.
“I wanted it to be a surprise” she said. It was certainly that.
The long journey to “Mon Repose” was in a horse drawn buggy, very uncomfortable because of the rough roads, but scenically beautiful and at times a frightening experience up 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.
The house is wonderful, spacious and cool with mahogany wood panelling in most rooms and windows that go from the highly polished floor to the ceiling and left open all day to let the mountain breeze run through the house.
Lucy has been busy sketching and the house is full of pencil drawings and watercolours of exotic flowers, and ferns, as well as brightly coloured parrots, hummingbirds and the mockingbird. Coming from Paddington, it’s taking me some time to get used 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.
Yesterday was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced. It started innocently enough with Lucy and I having breakfast on the veranda overlooking their plantain field. A plantain is almost exactly like a banana and grows in enormous bunches just the way bananas do, but they are bigger and green, not yellow.
From the verandah I could see John at the entrance to a field listening intently to a wizened old man. Standing next to the old man was a small black boy who carried a large basket.
“Who is the old man” I asked Lucy
“He’s an Obeah man and he’s going to dress the garden”
“What on earth are you talking about, Lucy?”
Then she explained Obeah was a form of witchcraft and that an Obeah man or woman is the person, or practitioner, as they like to be called, who controls the supernatural world using spirits to harm people with techniques passed down in secret from one generation to another. I was fascinated and wanted to hear more.
“There could be many reasons why someone might want the services of an Obeah man. It may be for a medical reason, if someone is ill in which case the patient would be given a bottle of something to take or they would have to follow certain instructions. But often it’s to do with getting revenge on someone who has caused you harm in some way; maybe you wanted to discover a thief or sometimes it’s for more romantic reasons – you want to make a particular person fall in love with you or you might want to win at gambling.”
“But do you and John believe in it, Lucy?”
“We don’t, but many white Jamaicans do and John is certainly prepared to indulge in it if it is to his advantage.”
“We’re being robbed of six or seven bunches of plantain every week in spite of employing extra men to watch the fields and that’s why we’ve arranged for an Obeah man to solve the problem for us” she said.
“There could be something in it, Becky, if for no other reason than the Obeah man’s knowledge of poisons is far beyond that of the European druggists. Most practitioners learned how to use herbs for cures. The practitioners knowledge of the roots and herbs brought over from Africa remained with them since most of the same plants grew in the tropical climate of Jamaica and so the customs and practices were passed down from generation to generation.”
The old man took the basket from the boy and went into the field where there were rows and rows of plantain trees. He took out from his basket different sized bottles, which had some sort of liquid inside them. Then, he walked up and down the rows of plantains and tied a bottle on to some of the fruit, at the same time muttering some sort of incantation. When he had done that he would wave his arms over the plantain and genuflect. Once that was done he would move on to another row of plantain and perform the whole ceremony over again and continue to do that until he’d done the whole field.
After that he produced, from his basket, a tiny little black wooden coffin which, with great pomp and circumstance, he placed in the branches of a big old cotton tree. Then he took a saucer from his basket and put some water in it and dropped some egg shells in the water and then put the saucer on top of the coffin in the cotton tree. The old man walked right round the field again waving his arms all over the place, still muttering and went over to John who gave the old man some money and he and the boy then left the field.
“And that little exhibition is known as “dressing the garden” and, hopefully, that will be the end of the thieving now” Lucy said .
She continued, “Once word gets around that the Obeah man has been in the field people will believe he has put a curse on anyone entering it. They will be convinced that terrible things will happen to them if they do.”
According to John the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that after emancipation, with the missionaries bringing Christianity to the freed slaves, Obeah would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much the same as now. It’s deep rooted in the black and coloured Jamaican’s heritage and culture and even though you might come across a family that is both Christian and well educated, the likelihood is that someone in it will be dabbling in Obeah.
It strikes me that emancipation hasn’t changed much in Jamaica, her present is still very much tied to her past.
Becky and Martha spend a lot of time in Kingston doing different things. Becky likes to go to the many markets there are 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 have grown and set themselves up with a stall and sell their provisions to the local people. Martha likes to go to the Constant Spring Hotel where I suspect she’s taken a fancy to James McTavis, the manager.
It has been good to have them both here. 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.
Last night: News reached me that Becky and Martha were returning to “Mon Repose” after visiting friends at MountJames and involved in an accident with the horse and buggy they were travelling in. One of the horses slipped under the trace whilst going down the hill and the hind legs of the horse, nearest to the edge of a precipice, slid down the descent and pulled the other horse and buggy down the precipice also. Neither Becky, Martha or the driver had any time to get out of the buggy and they too went, about 36 feet, down the cliff.
Some people, who lived nearby, saw the accident occur and gave the alarm with the result that help was soon on the scene and the girls and driver were rescued. The two horses were uninjured but the buggy was completely smashed up. Becky and Martha and the driver were taken to a house nearby which was owned by a Mrs Nutall and who very kindly arranged for her buggy to bring the girls back to “Mon Repose”. Although they have not sustained any life threatening injuries, they were severely battered, bruised and are in a state of shock. Our doctor will visit them this evening.
Telegram from Lucy Sinclair, “Mon Repose”, Jamaica
Samuel and Harriet Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London
BECKY AND MARTHA INVOLVED IN BUGGY ACCIDENT. NO LIFE THREATENING INJURIES. DOCTOR ADVISES GIRLS DO NOT UNDERTAKE JOURNEY BACK TO ENGLAND UNTIL THEY ARE FEELING BETTER. PLEASE ADVISE THEATRE ROYAL, DRURY LANE, MARTHA’S RETURN DELAYED. LOVE LUCY.
Strange Folklore: Lucy and John have a baby boy and they’ve named him Bobbie. Lucy say’s it was the shock of hearing about our recent accident that hastened his arrival. I’m amazed that Lucy wasn’t attended by her own doctor but instead by a black woman called Ernestine who has no nursing qualifications although is well know in the area for having delivered scores of babies, black, white and coloured.
“I was in good hands Becky. Ernestine gave me some herbs which helped me relax and, believe me Becky, I’ve been long enough in Jamaica to know that old women like her understand how and when to use herbs that grow naturally in Jamaica and I was happy to take whatever medicine she prescribed”.
According to Lucy it was a straightforward birth, long and painful, but bearable and both Lucy and little Bobbie are fine. I’ve learnt a lot about Jamaica’s history and culture in a short space of time, but Rosa, one of Lucy’s servants, gave me a severe shock a few days after Bobbie was born.
I was lying on the lawn in the back garden, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my body, inhaling the heady scent of the flowers and listening to the hum of the bees as they flew between the flowers when, suddenly, Rosa came running into the garden shattering the stillness of the afternoon and I noticed that she was holding something.
Whatever it was Rosa wasn’t very happy about it, running with her arms outstretched and holding her head back and tilted to one side – looking like she wanted to be as far away as possible from what she was carrying. I got up and went towards her and as I did so I saw Rosa was carrying a brown paper parcel and asked her what she was holding.
“I got the plenta thing and string!”
“Ernestine give it to me and tell me bury it in the garden for the new baby tree”.
Rosa put the parcel on the ground and with the tips of her fingers gingerly pulled back the brown paper to reveal a bloodstained cloth. Then she slowly pulled back each corner of the cloth carefully as if she didn’t want to disturb what was in there until finally she revealed Bobbie’s three day old baby placenta and umbilical cord in all its gruesome glory.
“In the country the placenta and umbilical cord are kept for three days after a baby is born and then buried in the ground. A young tree will be planted in the same spot and the tree would be known as the baby tree. It’s our custom” Rosa told me.
“We been doing it this way in the country for hundreds of years. It bring good luck for the new baby.”
Later, I told Lucy the story and asked if she known about this particular custom.
“Of course not” she replied, “what’s more the thought of keeping a three day old placenta is disgusting and Bobbie will have to manage without his own baby tree.
But it’s amazing,” she said, “just when I thought I’d learnt everything there was to know about Jamaican customs and traditions, up pops a really bizarre one.”
Constant Spring Hotel: 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.
Both girls had recovered from their accident surprisingly quickly but had been reluctant to rebook their passage home to England. 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. Since Becky’s recovery I hadn’t seen too much of her either. Bobbie keeps me busy and 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 me 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 wait 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 KingstonHarbour. 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. Slavery has left some legacies.
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 she returned home alone to England.
Telegram from Samuel Ross, Droop Street, London
Becky Ross c/o “Mon Repose”, St Andrews, Jamaica
MARTHA HAS TOLD US OF YOUR PLANS TO MARRY. PLEASE RECONSIDER. CANNOT AGREE WITH THIS MARRIAGE. IF YOU PROCEED YOU WILL CEASE TO BE OUR DAUGHTER AND DO NOT WISH TO SEE YOU OR SPEAK TO YOU EVER AGAIN. WE BEG YOU TO RECONSIDER. PA.
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