I have been tempted to write on the numerous attempts that have been made by female slaves to poison their masters or their masters’ relatives, but the macabre nature of the various details, lest they be emulated, have pre-empted me from touching such a topic.
It must, however, be borne in mind that the ever-present threat of being poisoned in Colonial Antigua had been a very real possibility. Volumes can be written and accompanied by innumerable illustrations. Being in possession of “good looks”, being regarded as being “ bright” and being in possession of the wherewithal to initiate a modicum of social or material advancement, seemed to have caused some women to initiate movements that would have “out the lights” of potential rivals and/or their children.
There was a strict prohibition not to eat from anyone. It was the strict prohibition of the local Decalogue being handed down from the dome of a Sinai created by the wisdom of older, female heads – “Thou shalt not nyam from an unapproved smaddy.” Full stop. If you were given anything by anyone, you owed it to yourself and your parents to take it home, where the final determination would have been made of how it would be disposed. Too many practical examples of the failure to obey that commandment, where death or incapacity had resulted, would have been quoted for the youth to ignore after digesting. The urban rat race had imperceptively begun.
If members of the present generation entertain any doubts about my assertions, they have simply to ask any of the older folks, especially those who claim to have originated in the country villages and they may possibly get an even fuller picture. Women were the repository of all the ambitions and fears and hopes of a family unit that was seeking to carve out a niche for itself in a colonial society where suspicion and mistrust reigned supreme.
The role of women was an assertive one. The British fear of rebellion made sure that family life with the male as the head of the family unit was discouraged. Marriage was discouraged and even if a marriage took place, the rights of “Massa” and/or his minions, fuelled by their whims and sex-driven fancies, always prevailed. Competition never arose, for the offending male could always have been sold conveniently to erase any ambiguity that seemed to have been developing between the object of admiration — a high-bottomed female slave, a seemingly offending male, and Massa. In most cases, a lustful glance that precipitated a train of thought and a subsequent act that eased the pangs of loneliness where it ended in frequent, unrestrained, submissive copulation.
It is to the eternal credit of our women that they bore the children, endured the deliberate, enforced shifts in loyalty to males, worked in the fields and controlled a brood of children that they knew were theirs but were probably of uncertain paternity. Hunger can give rise to most unique twin brothers of assuagement that have been undocumented, therefore unknown.
I would like to refer my readers to a book by Edith Clarke of Jamaica entitled, “My mother who fathered me.” I think it was published in the 1950s and is probably out of print now. Somebody relieved me of my copy and forgot to return it. A detailed list of women who rose to the top would serve only to satisfy the regular run-of-the-mill approach to analysis and discussion.
What of the thousands of women who have been trapped into a continuation of compromising relationships when the meagre but vital shilling of monthly child-support had been dangled like a lodestone before their eyes and which formed unwittingly, the genesis and basis of another, new, unintended child? Women in Antigua have risen to the occasion and shouldered the responsibility of shaping the Antigua that we had, before the massive, unregulated invasion from neighbouring territories that has irrevocably skewed the cultural landscape of today. Theirs is the glory and theirs is the praise.
My mother used to tell us of her experience at Cedar Hall School, when as a child she had to walk to Jennings from Bolans Village every day. I have read it in books but I can verify the real version, for she experienced it and sang it. The children were taught: When you go home, tell mama how-ow-dy, When you go home, tell mama how-dy. When you go home, tell mama how-ow-dy, But bring your penny on Monday! The school teacher tell us, so-oh-oh, The school teacher tell us so-o-oh, When you go home, tell mama how-ow-dy! But (remember), bring your penny on Monday!
Given the cost of living index and the Gross Domestic Product of the day, one penny per week was an expensive fee for education then. Women were regarded as the moulders of the family’s education. The above-mentioned ditty forgot to mention Papa!
Papa Zackie Joseph of Urlings Village who lived to be almost 100 years old told me that in 1894, my grandfather Dr Simon Powell Sebastian who had been transferred from being headmaster at Parham to head the Johnson’s Point Free Government School Experiment, told his aunt who was Papa Zackie’s mother, “send down the boy on Monday morning and I will take care of him.” Papa Zackie had not been old enough to attend the government school, but Powell Sebastian had spoken and when his mother sent him to school, his father was neither drunk nor crazy enough to object.
Women ran the household and that included education. This penchant to control education seemed to have had African roots, but Moravian Bishop Westerby who had been instrumental in the formation of the Spring Gardens Teachers Training College just after the Abolition of Slavery, put women on the education warpath in Antigua and they have been firmly in control until now.
It is amazing how women put aside their pride and jostled to obtain the scarce, limited education that had been available in “good schools” in order to procure the upward social mobility of their children. In order for their offspring to “look deastant and play science”, they became “Bum-boaters”, “took chance”, worked menial jobs, walked the streets of St John’s with trays on their heads hawking goods, while totally ignoring their offspring whom they pretended not to know when they encountered them on the streets.
A prerequisite for acceptance in one of these “good schools” was proof that the candidate lived in a “good, respectable house in a good environment” that had to pass inspection. Scores of women who with their children had been crammed into a six-foot by eight-foot house, simply farmed out their children to live in St John’s in what appeared to be decently large houses.
Pretending not to know their own children when they passed them in the streets of St John’s was but a small price to pay for aping gentility. That other prices had been involved were inevitable. The hunt for a better education was on.
Estate managers and overseers sent their children to Antigua Grammar School and Antigua Girls’ High School. Lesser mortals had to be content to join the “good-school-queue and pretence”, but when Bishop Hand made wedlock a non-prerequisite for entry into these two august bodies, the hymen of nuptial pre-eminence had been breached and poor, ordinary women rushed in to penetrate these bastions where the barriers had become respectability and money — filthy lucre that could have been acquired and conveniently sanitised to remove the filth.