From Lluidas Vale to Guava Ground
The car swung through citrus groves into Lluidas Vale, a vast green plain where steep islands of rock and forest leapt from a sea of cane. At the heart of it, in the centre of the flatness, stood the zinc-roofed sugar factory, flanked by silver-painted vats, towers of sweetness shining in the sun. A huge magnet swung over a moving river of cut cane, plucking out stray metal objects—axes and cutlasses—before the cane entered the crusher. The reek of molasses hung in the air.
Jamaica exists because of sugar. And its sweetness pervades the land. Rum, the national drink, is made of it. Jamaican beer is as sweet as lemonade. Molasses and sugar syrup are mixed in with the spices that give Jamaican food its pungency —nutmeg, pimento, chili and cilantro (known as coriander in Jamaica, as in Britain). Sugar is rolled into the dough that makes the bright yellow flaky pastry that enfolds sweetmeats and vegetable patties. In egg nog, the sweetest concoction of all, sugar is added to rum and raw-egg mixture to make an ice-cold, alcoholic custard.
Today in Jamaica tourism has eclipsed the sugar industry in economic terms, but for four hundred years plantation slavery determined the course of the island’s history. George and Wesley’s ancestors had been shipped from Africa to labour in these fields. From their labour came the sugar my ancestors in Britain had stirred into their tea. And now we were here as tourists at the sugar factory. Tourism and sugar. Sugar and tourism. In such islands of the Caribbean they are the alpha and omega of colonialism.
Up in the hills beyond was Guava Ground, George and Wesley’s ancestral village. Freed from slavery—but not freed from want—their forebears had moved to the hills in search of land. They found it on a steep knoll with a view down to citrus groves and a little river valley which ran back to Lluidas Vale. We drove from the vale, up a winding, ill-maintained road. The place was beautiful, with a magnificent view over the Vale. But for people living in Guava Ground there was a long way to go for water. I stood near the cement graves of Wesley and George’s grandparents, under a cashew tree, gazing down at the valley, while the brothers greeted their Uncle Tatar and the cousins who had begun to arrive.
Kinship is a complex thing in Jamaica—as everywhere but perhaps more so. A lure for anthropologists, but a headache for Jamaicans coming back from a sojourn abroad. In Jamaican law, all offspring are legitimate, whether or not they are born in wedlock. Even the church recognises this reality. Mothering Sunday fell during my visit. But the institution of marriage hardly figured in the service. And outside the Anglican cathedral in Kingston signs proclaimed it to be Miss Jamaican Mother’s Day.
“It is not uncommon,” one book on Jamaica advises its readers, “to encounter a third cousin on one’s step-father’s half-brother’s sister’s side.” In Guava Ground many relatives arrived to greet us; neither George nor Wesley knew who half of them were.
“Venise?” I heard George say.
“Yes, Uncle George?” said a plump girl with straightened hair and a sequinned blouse.
“Mi jus’ want to make sure that yuh name,” said George, his speech more rural now, and sprinkled with patois. “Seriously now, yuh aright, Venise? Goin’ a school? Yuh should be sure to learn something, child.”
“Yuh should learn to sew,” said Uncle George. “Then yuh be able to be yuh own woman. An’ when yuh boyfren’ say some bad thing you can say somethin’ to him.”
“Say what?” said Venise.
“Try this,” George suggested. “Like—Yuh know who yuh talkin’ to?”
Venise giggled and looked at her hands. George turned to her father, Uncle Tatar, to ask about another relative.
“Now wha’ ’appen with that cousin Hughie, the dark one, the black one?” he asked.
“They is all black,” said Uncle Tatar, with a chuckle.
Rice, red peas; a family tree
Uncle Tatar cooked rice and red peas for us, and a chicken he strangled in the yard.
“Now don’t laugh at mi cooking,” he said. “And don’t cry fe the sauce be too hot.”
George was looking round the yard. “Your family eat a lot of banana?” he asked.
“Dem eat whatsoever dem get,” said Uncle Tatar.
The house and his garden both had a run-down air, and I wondered where Uncle Tatar’s wife was, or if he had one. There was no roof on the outhouse.
“We still recoverin’ from Gilbert,” he said.
So which of the cousins was Gilbert, I wondered idly.
Everyone laughed at my question. Uncle Tatar was talking about Hurricane Gilbert, the last big hurricane to strike Jamaica, which devastated the island in September 1988.
“They were no birds for months back then,” he murmured, with a wistful note in his voice. “No humming birds at all.”
(Ah, I found myself thinking, the birds had all left for Cuba, along with Natty Morgan. But I thought better of putting forward this idea.)
“An’ we got no shop now in Guava Ground because of Gilbert,” said Uncle Tatar.
“And so,” he added, looking at Wesley, “I be startin’ a shop soon.”
“How are you going to stock it?” asked Wesley.
Uncle Tatar came back quick as a flash.
“Yuh goin’ fe give me loan,” he said.
“Oh, I see,” said Wesley.
Turning to me, he added, sotto voce, “I walked right into that one.”
I had my notebook on the table and was roughing out Wesley’s family tree, trying to follow the increasingly rapid flow of arriving and departing cousins. I’d got as far as the line of kinship that linked his Aunt Merlinne, daughter of his grandfather Uriah, to her sister-in-law’s brother Perceval, also known as John.
So, I enquired, was Perceval here too—or John?
Once more my question was the cause of merriment. Perceval John and Uncle Tatar, it turned out, were alternative names for the same person. And Uncle Tatar was also Aunt Merlinne’s father’s cousin.
“Aren’t you supposed to be an anthropologist?” said Wesley. “How come you missed that?
Aunt Merlinne was one of Wesley’s favourite relatives. We went on to see her in her house a way down the road. She served us tea from a china teapot, and biscuits from an enamelled tin. She told me she had retired to Jamaica after thirty-seven years as a cleaner in South London. Her children were all raised and married away now.
“An’ now I am restin’,” she said. “It’s good to be here at home. Yuh cyaan’ rest in Englan’.”
All she wanted from Britain, she said, was her subscription to the News of The World.
In the family tree that I was drawing in my notebook there was some confusion about George’s parentage. After we bid his Aunt Merlinne goodbye I asked him and Wesley about this.
“The thing is,” said Wesley. “I used to call George my half-brother. Same mother, different father. But when my father came out to Jamaica last Christmas he started referring to him as his son. This was after George got his job in the canine division. He was promoted to corporal. And it seems my father has promoted him in the family too. From now on George is officially his son. So he’s my full brother now.”
“Our father’s story changes all the time.” said Wesley, exchanging a look with George. “He has a lot of outside children. He’s what you might call—” he paused to find the right word, “a dynast.”
“What you mean,” said George, “is ’im want to be the biggest cocksman in the valley.”