An essay adapted from the forthcoming The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica.
One of the great books to have come out of the Jamaican–British encounter is Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain, by Donald Hinds. Published in London in 1966, it sympathetically conveys the plight of Jamaicans who, lost amid alien signs in Britain, tried to settle and earn a crust. The book is made up of a series of interviews with Jamaican (and other West Indian) migrants in Britain, interspersed with social commentary. The author is described on the dust jacket as a “Jamaican-born journalist and former London bus conductor.”
A recurring theme in the book is Hinds’s discovery that Britain was not only unmindful of the Commonwealth but disinclined to help Jamaicans. After World War II, Italians in Britain who sold ice cream and confectionery were made to feel more welcome, despite having fought on Hitler’s side in the conflict. The antipathy was especially galling to Donald Hinds, who as a teenager in Jamaica had read Dickens and Wordsworth, and watched endless genteel films—“tea party movies”—from the Gainsborough Studios. But for all his immersion in British culture, Hinds was, he recalled, “Struck dumb” on his arrival in Britain in 1955.
I met Hinds in a café in Eltham, south London, in 2006. He was looking relaxed in a pair of trainers and a tracksuit. His wife was a retired Jamaican nurse who had trained at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston. Hinds spoke of his days on the London buses with nostalgia, even amazement. At London Transport’s Brixton garage his driver, a Woodbine-smoking World War I veteran, was happy to have a Jamaican on board. “I fought alongside a lot of coloreds in the trenches,” he would say.
Jamaicans were not numerous in 1950s London, and an entire week could go by on the double-deckers without Hinds seeing another black face. Passengers, astonished to encounter a black “clippie” (bus conductor), asked him if they could pat his hair for “good luck.” After the civil rights movement asserted itself in America, Hinds came to resent such curiosity. Yet London Transport played its role, he now believes, in breaking down race prejudice in postwar Britain; the buses provided the British public with an opportunity to encounter West Indians for the first time and even (heavens!) talk to them. However, the sense of camaraderie did not last.
The race “disturbances” of 1958 dramatically altered the way Donald Hinds looked at Britain. Tensions erupted first in Nottingham, then, more grievously, in west London. White youths (“Teddy Boys” to the press) went out to beat up West Indians in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale between the factories of Wood Lane and the newly claimed middle-class streets of Notting Hill Gate. Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and other “Keep Britain White” parties were rallying working-class youths to go out “nigger hunting.” So began four days of the worst rioting the United Kingdom had ever seen.
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Why You Can’t Buy Lydia Davis’s New Book on Amazon
Why You Can’t Buy Lydia Davis’s New Book on Amazon
The Times, in a now celebrated editorial of September 4, 1958, “A Family of Nations,” announced: “The time has come to admit that there is a coloured problem in our midst.” The following year, on the night of May 17, 1959, a 32-year-old black carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was fatally stabbed under a railway bridge. His killers have still not been found.
Cochrane’s burial in Kensal Green Cemetery was attended by more than 1,000 mourners, black and white. The show of white support did little to prevent the notion, fast growing among Jamaicans, that the mother country was not so welcoming. As Hinds put it to me: “After Cochrane’s death we had to rethink everything; we had to revise our faith in the Union Jack.”
Between shifts on the buses, Hinds began to write for the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first black newspaper, founded in 1958 by the Trinidad-born civil rights activist Claudia Jones. It was through the efforts of “Miss Jones” (never “Claudia”) that Hinds became more politically aware. He interviewed Marcus Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood, in London, and offered trenchant reports on life in postwar black Britain. In her newspaper office at 250 Brixton Road, Claudia Jones received guests at all hours, like a West Indian high commissioner. Downstairs was London’s first black music shop (Theo Campbell’s), where Jamaican mento and boogie by Laurel Aitken and Monty Reynolds sold in quantities. Black London was finding a niche for itself. The Barbadian cricketer Gary Sobers, Hinds recalled, made a point of visiting the record shop during the 1963 Test at Lord’s.
Gradually, Hinds’s reverence for Britain and the Empire diminished. As he and his mother stayed on in Brixton at their house on Crawshay Road, he noticed the shelves in white-owned grocery shops begin to stock tins of Jamaican ackee and carrot juice. The “Jamaicanization” of London quickened apace after the island’s independence in 1962, when more Jamaicans came to Britain, and London was poised to become the most Jamaican city in Europe. Britain’s indigenous culture is now so influenced by Jamaica that a Jamaican inflection is hip among white British teenagers. Black Jamaican culture is youth culture in London.
Donald Hinds, for his part, was proud that Jamaicans were predominant among West Indian migrants. They were, he let slip, “better” than (certainly “different” from) their British Caribbean brothers. Meaning? Well, he replied, apart from the accident of their having been under British control, Barbadians, St. Lucians and Guyanese have very little in common with Jamaicans. “Superimpose a map of Europe on the West Indies,” Hinds explained, “and Jamaica is Edinburgh, Trinidad is north Africa, Barbados would be Italy—that’s how far apart we are.”
As Hinds spoke, the Polish owner of the café called out from the counter, “Excuse me, where is Jamaica?”
* * *
As Jamaica is mostly black, it might be thought that racial prejudice does not exist there. Jamaicans were always reminding me that they had no “color prejudice,” only “class prejudice.” Snobberies had been rife among British planters, as they ranged down the social scale from attorney to overseer to bookkeeper. But these were not British class distinctions (the typical Jamaican planter preferred to forget his class origin); rather, they were a variant designed by men who needed to keep their “position” in West Indian society as a reward for their self-exile.
Planter snobberies were inevitably shaped and defined by color (or, more properly, ethnicity). In order to bolster their social status, planters evolved an elaborate ranking of skin beginning with their white eminences at the top, and descending to the “salt-water Negro” at the bottom. Between true black and pure white were mustees, mustaphinos, quarteroons or quadroons, octoroons and Sambos (children of “mulatto” and African mix). Consequences of this “racialized” system—the minutely calibrated hierarchy of skin tones devised by the British—have survived in Jamaica to the present day.
It is nonsense to claim that color prejudice does not exist in Jamaica. Prejudice is strongest not between white and black but, I came to realize, between black and “browning.” Mixed-race Jamaicans, though “structurally black” (in anthropologist’s jargon), often seem more pugnacious in their disapproval and derision of Africa and African “mumby-jumby” than white Jamaicans. Most “brownings” who stayed on in Jamaica after abolition thought of themselves as staunchly British. Their Britishness was part of what it meant to be a cut above the poor, patois-speaking Jamaicans who said “Inglan” instead of “England.” Even freed Jamaican slaves were at pains to reject their African origin; Anthony Trollope, in his travel account The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859), wrote of how they refused to eat, drink or even work alongside immigrants newly arrived from Africa. Their faces scarred with Congo tribal distinctions, these Africans were reckoned to lack British manners and upbringing, what Jamaicans call “broughtupsy.”
Inevitably, in their move white-ward, mixed-race Jamaicans identified with planter-class Englishmen. (There were even some brownings who joined white slave-drivers in resisting emancipation.) On the other hand, many white Jamaicans today happily lapse into Afro-Jamaican patois; they have no reason to fear the mark of Africa. Such are the intricacies of skin color in Jamaica.
Mary Langford is a Jamaican writer and historian of the island’s Quaker movement. Like many of her mixed-race class and color, she lived in a smart Kingston house jammed with mahogany furniture, silver polo trophies, silver tea pots and, above all, maids. The maids were very black, and their blackness, contrasting with their pink blouses and pink skirts, served to highlight the “whiteness” of their employers. Likewise, wealthy black Jamaicans may choose to exhibit their equality with whites by employing white servants imported from Eastern Europe.
In much of what Mary Langford said I detected a sense of “African embarrassment.” She told me, “I’m not afraid ipso facto of Africa, or of African culture. But there’s too much ganja, too much dancehall and too much sleeping in the afternoon.” She sighed. “The yout bwoys, they have no work, but what they do have is a gun.” That word “yout”—youth, but with a connotation of delinquency—was a bad word with these brown people: it meant underdeveloped, non-English: in a word, African.
I asked Langford, with one eye on the polo trophies: “So Jamaica was better off under the British?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said with a cautious air. “Mark you, there was better law and order. The British police were marvelous. They didn’t boss it over others like the Jamaican police do today. Black Jamaicans—not that I have any prejudice—are just not as good at keeping law and order.” The People’s National Party under Michael Manley, with its black nationalism and project to “decolonize” Jamaica of its British influence, had taken Jamaica too far in the direction of Africa, said Langford. Cecil Langford, her husband, had served in Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party government and was part of the middle class, from which Jamaica’s political elite was drawn following independence. The world had moved fast for him and Mary Langford: what had long been consolidated by them—status, property—was being menaced by a new class risen up from the ghetto and the gully. They found it uncomfortable to have to jostle for position with the newcomers.
Four dogs—Rhodesian Ridgebacks—bounded up to me as the Langford chauffeur came to drive me back to midtown Kingston. He was wearing a khaki drill uniform to signify his owners’ wealth, and he opened and closed the door for me, addressing me as “sir.”
White skin in Jamaica is associated with wealth and high social rank, yet there are exceptions. Scattered across Jamaica are pockets of poor white country folk sometimes known as “rummers” after their fondness for drink, or “redlegs” for their sun-reddened skins. These white Jamaicans challenge the stereotype of dispossessed blacks and all-powerful whites.
Poor whites are to be found everywhere in the Caribbean. In Barbados they live in conditions of near-destitution along remote Martin’s Bay; in Haiti is a community of moun rouj (red people), believed to be descended from the Polish troops sent out by Napoleon to help quell the slave revolt. Most of the roughly 2,500 Poles died or defected, and following Haitian independence in 1805, they were granted the right to stay on the island and own property. But they would have to count themselves as part of the black majority; to my knowledge, this was the first time in history that the term “black” had been used in an ideological sense.
Two distinct communities of poor whites exist in Jamaica: one is notionally “Scottish,” the other “German.” The Scots live along the south coast in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Germans in Westmoreland parish deep in the interior. The whites of St. Elizabeth—“St. Bess whites”—have Scottish surnames such as Heron, Hamilton, Paterson and (easily the most common in Jamaica) Campbell. They live in villages with Scottish names: Culloden, Scott’s Cove, Ballards Valley.
The Germans are descended from indentured laborers drafted to Jamaica by the imperial British during the 1830s as a “civilizing” presence. As white, conscientious, God-fearing folk, they were expected to set a good example and, before emancipation, take up arms in defense of the planters should the slaves revolt. Among the estimated 1,500 original settlers were gunsmiths, metalworkers, cloth-weavers, stone-carvers, teachers, tinsmiths and cobblers. The British administration had promised them an amount of arable land in return for their labor. Inadequate preparation had been made for their reception, though, and before long Jamaica’s extremes of heat and hurricane overwhelmed them.
Some 250 of the Germans were settled on a wild tract of land owned by Lord Seaford, a white Jamaican whose family had been on the island since the mid-1600s. In Seaford Town they cultivated yams, plantains and ginger. “We was all of us poor in them days,” Olga Gardner, a 92-year-old Seaford Towner, told me. “Life was hard—hand to mouth—yes, we come from hungry-belly history.”
Bizarrely, some of their descendants later appeared as film extras in the prison saga Papillon, based on the novel by Henri Charrière and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The film was shot partly in Jamaica, in 1972. The extras were required to play the part of prison inmates in French Guyana. Each day fifty of them were bused to locations in Kingston and the north coast. (“There was no place for Negroes in Papillon,” one of them said to me. “If some of us was too dark—if we had mixed Negro and German blood—we got floured up.”) Filming went on for three weeks. Father Francis Friesen, the Catholic priest of Seaford Town, appeared in the film as the priest who administers the last rites to a poor devil about to be guillotined for attempted escape. Neither he nor any of the “convict” extras is credited in the two-hour-long epic. Father Francis complained to the director, but to no avail, and when he died in 2006, at the age of 85 in his native Holland, apparently he was still aggrieved.
Today, only 157 “full white” descendants of the original German settlers survive in Seaford Town. The German word Heimat—homeland—occasionally occurs in their speech, which contains traces of Westphalian and Rhenian dialects. But most Seaford Towners have no idea from where in Germany their ancestors came. Some of their houses, with their latticework gables and pastel-colored verandas, nevertheless have a Germanic aspect. Inside, certain items of furniture and kitchen utensils (ceramic-tiled stoves, scrubbing boards, sausage-making tools) enhance this impression. One elderly woman I met had been making pastry with a Nudelroller, and the gray dough clung to her hands. Her maiden name was Hacker. From a cupboard she removed two porcelain milk jugs with a pink floral pattern, which her great-grandparents had brought over in 1835, from Göttingen, perhaps. Holding one of them up to the light, she tried to remember the prayer she had been taught as a child. The prayer was recited, she said, during illness and natural disasters. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them—the words had come back to her:
Ich bin klein.
Mein Herz ist rein,
Soll niemand drin wohnen
als Jesus allein.
She translated: “I am small. My heart is pure, nobody may live in it but Jesus.” Like the porcelain jugs, the hymn had been handed down through the generations of Seaford Town as a talisman of Heimat. Yet, at this late hour in Jamaica’s history, the fate of the “Germaicans” is uncertain. In Seaford Town, cousins often marry cousins; and there are a number of deaf-mutes. “Cousin and cousin boil good soup,” goes the Jamaican proverb.
* * *
Exactly when the “Scots” came to St. Elizabeth’s is not known. But the isolation of the parish—with swamps to the east and west, mountains and desert savannah to the north, and sea to the south—has helped preserve them as a people apart. Legend has it that they came off a shipwreck sometime in the seventeenth century, stayed and left their Scottish names.
The first wave of Scots arrived as slaves or indentured servants to English planters in about 1655. A second wave, in 1745–46, was made up of Jacobite rebels captured before and immediately after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Yet a third wave, in the years after Culloden, went voluntarily and comprised doctors, engineers and sugar estate managers. As professionals, they planned to return to Scotland as soon as they had discreetly amassed a fortune or, in the expression of the time, a “comfortable independence.” Young Scots hoping to escape economic depression scoured the Caledonian Mercury and Edinburgh Advertiser for news of Jamaica-bound ships. Among them was the poet Robert Burns, who in 1786 was offered the position of bookkeeper. Jamaica was then at the peak of its slave-based sugar boom, but Burns never took the post.
The Scots, like the English, were ardent capitalists and agents of Empire. Yet they perceived themselves as oppressed by Empire, and their Calvinist morality often recoiled against the luxury and dissolution of the English planter class. Zachary Macaulay, the future abolitionist, arrived in Jamaica from Scotland in 1784 at the age of 16. He began work as a plantation bookkeeper and subsequently rose to assistant manager. He was not initially opposed to slavery, yet he balked at whipping the slaves in his care and disdained (so he later wrote) the “grossly vulgar manners” of the English masters. After four years in Jamaica he returned to Scotland, apparently in disgust.
Other Scots were not so lucky. They failed to accumulate sufficient capital to go home, and seduced by the tropic warmth and women of the island (or their Calvinistic conscience silenced by drink), became ensnared. By the 1750s, Scots were estimated to form nearly a third of Jamaica’s white European population. Place names in Scotland today attest to their migration: Jamaica Street in Glasgow; Jamaica Bridge over the River Clyde.
For years the “whites” of St. Elizabeth had kept to themselves along a fifteen-mile stretch of coast between Parottee Point and Great Bay. Ballards Valley, a little way inland, is still distinctly “white.”
Lena “Dimple” Henry, a Jubilee-trained nurse, lived in a house in St. Elizabeth hung with pink curtains ruched into swags. She and her three sisters, Blossom, Puxie and Cherry, had been raised by their white grandmother, Lina Hyam, in the St. Elizabeth village of Berlin. For the slightest misdemeanor “Miss Hyam” would flog her charges; above all, she prohibited them from mixing with black boys. The “Quashees” had to know their place but, Miss Hyam complained, they were always trying to “marry up”—marry light-skinned women in order to “improve” the social color of their children—and to add “a bit of cream to their coffee.” As the only “white” inhabitants of Berlin, the Henry girls would have to watch their backs.
One of the first St. Elizabeth “red men” to marry a black Jamaican was Zimroy James, a fisherman in the Treasure Beach area. His wife, Chrisida, had come from Brown Hill up-country, where no whites lived. “Yes,” James said to me, “she was a dark lady and I married her. Lord, everybody was fussing back when it happen, said I was spoiling the family by marrying a black. Well, what happened happen—it can’t unhappen.” Chrisida was among the early wave of Jamaicans who moved into the area in the 1950s as the bauxite industry expanded. St. Elizabeth’s demography changed as more outsiders came to work in the mines and tourism. As late arrivals—black, at that—they often found themselves unwelcome; today things have improved.
White Jamaican prejudice toward black Jamaicans works both ways. Sheila Hamilton, now 73, is a justice of the peace in Treasure Beach, and regards herself as a woman of Scottish descent. “Sometimes people call me black,” she said. “Maybe we Hamiltons do have African race in us—well, most Jamaicans do—but I’m not black. I’m brown. A light-brown lady.” She paused. “Actually I’m virtually white.” In the 1950s, when she worked as a nurse in Mandeville Hospital, the black nurses there called her Redskin, Mulatto, Red Nurse or Redibo. (“Redibo,” in modern Jamaica, designates a person of reddish-yellow complexion, and is usually derogatory.) “We clear-skinned folk were thought to have advantages which the blacks couldn’t have or get.” Such as? “Well, the full-blacks were jealous of my skin and my tall [straight] hair.”
Mrs. Hamilton concluded ruefully, “Our Scottish color’s dwindling down—we’re all getting Jamaicanized now.” Let us hope so. Color prejudice in Jamaica is as subtle as it is pernicious. Eunice, Lena’s younger sister, has worked since 1979 in the Passport Office at the Jamaican High Commission in London. She said to me, “There’s no one more prejudiced than black Jamaicans. Why, blacks are prejudiced even against themselves.” Even the black Jamaicans of her acquaintance did not like being called blacks, she said. “Maybe some of the young people. And those radicals. You know, Rastas. But not Jamaicans my age. Even people who really are black, they don’t like it.”
Recalling her St. Elizabeth childhood, Eunice told me of a friend of Miss Hyam’s in Berlin, called Miss “Goatfoot” Gertrude. “She used to say the only thing she liked about black was the color of her shoes. And you know what color Miss ‘Goatfoot’ was? Right. Black.”
“So would you like to go to Scotland?” My question, I realized, was ridiculous. Lancel Graham was an old Treasure Beach fisherman; how could he get to Scotland at his age? But he answered, “I have a brother in Scotland.” Graham, a physically slight, quick-witted man, agreed that his surname was “full-on Scottish.” He pointed to a LOCH NESS fridge magnet from his brother Aston in Scotland. Amazingly, Aston had lived in Peebles on the Scottish Borders for seventy years now and (according to Lancel) spoke English with a Jamaican-Scottish accent. The strangeness of Aston’s itinerary from the “Scottish” shores of Treasure Beach to Scotland was not atypical of Jamaica’s mixed bloods and destinies.
Lancel Graham had hints of blue in his eyes. “I don’t look right to black people,” he said, “but I’m not white, either—I’m a red man.” His wife, Vanita Simmonds, was effectively white. To me she said, “You’d be as brown-lookin’ as my husband if you’d stayed in Treasure Beach—brown as a berry.”
“He’d be a red man,” Lancel offered.
“My husband,” Vanita said, “is really a black Scotsman. Yes, he’s a black man at heart, with a little Scottish blood.”
About the Scottish shipwreck Lancel knew very little, only that it had happened in 1690 or perhaps 1750.
“You’ve been asking me all the questions,” Dick Kinkead said to me. “Now let me ask you some. Are you Scottish? You have a Scottish name.”
“My father was born in Glasgow,” I said. “I don’t have an English bone in my body.”
“I’ve never been to Scotland,” said Kinkead. “I’d like to one day.” He added quickly, with a look of regret, “But there won’t be time now, not at my age.”
Kinkead was a pharmacist based in Kingston. The family business used to operate from 20 King Street. It has moved to a disheveled harbor-side street near the Air Jamaica offices, where it stocks Victorian-sounding tinctures—Swimmer’s Ear Drops, Witch Hazel Gel—as well as sick room and nursery requisites. Errol Flynn, who owned much property in Jamaica, obtained his prescriptions for morphine there, and the Duke of York, the future King George V of Britain, paid for some pills with a check simply signed “George.” It’s on display above the Kinkead cash register.
Kinkead’s great-grandfather had run a sugar estate outside Kingston called Stirling Castle. “They say he was a cruel man,” Kinkead told me. In fact, it was his overseer, an Englishman named Sharkey, who was murderously severe. He lost no opportunity to flog his slaves into their graves if he felt like it. Sharkey is mentioned in the book Jamaica Plantership, published in London in 1839, by Benjamin McMahon. The author, a Scot who worked for eighteen years in Jamaica, wrote with an awareness of the troubling ethical and religious issues involved in the “Africa trade.” “Mr Kinkead…was no lover of the whip,” McMahon comments of the pharmacist’s Scottish forebear. However, he turned a blind eye to the butchery and draconian punishments meted out at Stirling Castle.
Very shortly after I met him, Dick Kinkead died. He was 89. His daughter, the photographer Cookie Kinkead (credited on the first Bob Marley & the Wailers album, Catch a Fire), informed me that the funeral service was to be held at the Scots Kirk of St. Andrew’s in downtown Kingston.
During the service, the organist played a Scottish air. Around me, memorial tablets attested to the dedication of missionaries who had come here from Midlothian and Elgin. Beneath the polished mahogany pews other tablets were inlaid in the floor, commemorating the lives of engineers and “gentle ladies” who had settled in Jamaica after Culloden. Those memorials were the closest Dick Kinkead got to Scotland.