By W. E. Sewel
|Naval Hospital from Port Royal|
The title that I have given to this chapter of woe is a metaphorical one. I was not, like Columbus, exactly wrecked upon the coast of Jamaica. I was simply banished there by an Esculapian ukase, and forbidden, under penalty of death, to leave the island for six months. In this light, then, I was cast away, and—may Heaven be thanked for all its mercies I—I live to record the fact.
We are told of a snake that fascinates the bird it is making preparations to devour. I can imagine the feelings of a bird in this dilemma, for I experienced similar sensations when I first saw Jamaica. The passage from New York in a ninety-ton schooner had not been a pleasant one. It was the stormiest season of the year, and, for a fortnight, I had not been able to use my legs; not from sea-sickness, for I'm never sea-sick, but I found it impossible to stand, like a fly, on the side of a wall. The four square feet of deck, to which my movements were limited, never lost their perpendicular during the voyage except when the larboard was changed for the starboard tack, or vice versa, and the base suddenly became the summit of the wall. Our cabin, about the size of a church pew, was frequently half full of water, and our fare of salt pork, varied by salt codfish, was eaten thrice a day on the floor. Night brought me no relief. My bunk was too wide—I believe the captain and his mate slept in it when there were no passengers —and I floundered from side to side like a live trout in a pannier. My bones ached and my hips were black and blue. On one occasion I dragged my trunks into bed, and wedged myself into a small coffin-like space. I'll never try that dodge again. I slept for five minutes—enduring in my dreams many, many centuries of torture—and awoke with six cubic feet of luggage on my stomach. To these grievances I may add another. The skipper had on board two ferocious British bulldogs, whose partiality for human calves made me exceedingly timid and nervous. I tried, unsuccessfully, to poison them. They watched me so intently in the morning, as I slowly performed the very difficult acrobatic feat of emerging from the schooner's bunk, that I sometimes lay in agonizing doubt for an hour before I dared get up. When we took our black pilot off Morant Point, the female animal, who was called "Elizabeth," advanced as quietly as though she were going to a legitimate meal, and, without a growl or note of warning, carved a large slice from the poor man's leg. It was the first time, the skipper apologetically observed, that "Elizabeth" ever tasted African flesh.
Under these circumstances the sight of any land would have filled my soul with joy. But Jamaica land! Except in Switzerland, I never saw such hills before; never, out of the tropics, such verdure. The rising sun rained upon the island a flood of glory, and the clouds that crept up the sides of the lordly summit of the Blue Mountain ridge, or rested lazily upon a thousand lesser peaks, were tinted with a wondrous touch. I was fascinated and ensnared. No temptation could have drawn me from Jamaica now. I hastily dispatched my forty-fifth meal of salt pork, when again summoned to partake of that inevitable dish, and returned forthwith to the deck. We were now becalmed; we had sailed away from the breeze.
|King Street, Kingston|
It is not given to us to know whence any wind cometh or whither it goeth; but Jamaica winds, of all others, are the most incomprehensible. They blow steadily to a certain point, but further they are not to be coaxed. We came up to Port Morant at what the skipper called a "howling pace." After we passed that Aeolian limit we could not compass half a knot an hour. Not a hundred yards astern I could see white crests upon the waves: the schooner, for the first time in my experience, was rolling on an unrippled sea. Our pilot—from his station on the housetop, which he had mounted to escape the tender mercies of " Elizabeth"—nursed his wound in sulky silence, and declared, after repeated questionings, that the breeze we had just left behind us would not reach Kingston for two months. It was a sea-breeze: our hopes lay in a land-breeze.
Puff! puff! puff! There she comes. (Hooray!) No, she doesn't. (Hang it!) Irritating us again with a make-believe. The man at the wheel whistled more vehemently than ever, but to no purpose; the sails swung heavily as before; and a mid-day sun made the tar fizzle in the rigging. Having swallowed my forty-sixth square lump of salt pork, I emerged from a stifling cabin to a more broiling atmosphere on deck. But a single spot of shade to be seen—and there, one had the certain prospect of being dashed to pieces by a restless mainsail boom. The coveted land-breeze flirted round us, filled our topsails for a moment, and then vanished as mysteriously as it came. The schooner turned her nose to every point in the compass, but could not sniff a breath of air. To scud for a thousand miles before a West Indian hurricane would, I thought, be preferable to a frightful stagnation like this. My head reeled with the heat, and by the time the sun was ready to set I felt that I was done to a turn for a cannibal. "Elizabeth," having shown unmistakable symptoms of hydrophobia, had to be chained up.
It is a consolation to know that suspense, however painful, has its limits. The breeze crept stealthily upon us in the darkness, and about midnight we anchored on the top of Port Royal's old cathedral spire. I speak of that Port Royal which, two centuries ago, was destroyed by one of the most terrible earthquakes on record, whose horses and churches still lie buried in the waters that swept over them. The sunken houses of Port Royal, on a fine clear day, can be distinguished beneath the surface of the ocean, and a buoy has been attached to one of the church spires. Thus it happened that our schooner, like many another vessel before, came to anchor on the very pinnacle of a steeple.
|Spruce beer sellers|
American divers are, or were when this was written, seeking for Port Royal's buried treasures. Hitherto they have recovered nothing but bricks, and these mementos of a fearful event in their island's history the Jamaica people are eager to purchase for six cents each. Bricks, it must be confessed, are not very suggestive; and these bricks so closely resemble ordinary bricks that I do not give a photographic facsimile. But opposite the harbor of modern Port Royal there is a stone which revives, more vividly than bricks can, the Tragedy of the Ancient City. "Here lieth"—says an inscription on an unpretending monument—"the body of Louis Caldy, Esquire, a native of Montpelier, in France, which country he left on account of the Revocation. He was swallowed up by an earthquake which occurred at this place in 1692; but, by the great providence of God, was, by a second shock, flung into the sea, where he continued swimming until rescued by a boat, and lived 40 years afterward."
Port Royal was once the commercial emporium of the West Indies; it is now a naval and hospital station. It was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1692; but, having been destroyed again by a fire in 1702, devastated by a hurricane in 1722, and depopulated by an epidemic that immediately followed, the seat of commerce was removed to Kingston; and if Jamaican commerce, sick and prostrate, can be said to have any seat at all, in Kingston it still is.
Port Royal is situated at the extremity of a tongue of land, and is about six miles distant from Kingston. There is a ferry between the two towns. No, my New York friend, not such ferry-boats as ply between the metropolis and its suburbs; but a ferry-boat propelled by a couple of negroes, and carrying two, or, in cases of emergency, three passengers. I availed myself of this mode of conveyance; for the breeze was not expected to arrive this day before half past eleven o'clock, and our schooner had to wait for it on top of the old church steeple. Long before she left her anchorage I was standing on a very dilapidated wharf in the city of Kingston. It was not a pleasant locality. The surrounding beach lots were filthy the miasma was offensive, and the sun raging. I began to think of schooner-life with something like regret. I looked wildly about for relief, and moved toward the awning of an American brig, lying providentially at an adjoining dock.
|Square of Spanish Town|
The first creole of Kingston whom I saw, and whom at this time I can distinctly remember, was a woman. I would speak of her with chivalrous gallantry, and as one of the loveliest of her sex, if my description were not accompanied by a faithful likeness. Of her dress and appearance I leave the reader to form his own opinions; I will only say, in a parenthesis, that the red kerchief with which her lovely head is adorned is part of the West Indian national costume. It is also proper to add that the personage in white is a policeman, and not the writer of this sketch.
"Mr. Gentleman, my lab," exclaimed a voice in drawling but still most seductive accents. I turned and beheld the lady balancing a bottle on her head with the skill of a necromancer.
"Come here, my darlin'."
I approached cautiously, prepared, if necessary, to defend myself.
"Would 'ens like a glass o' spruce?"
This was the explanation of the terms of endearment. They are part of the stock in trade of street peddlers. I was thirsty, but dared not try the spruce, and so I stated. She was eloquent in persuasion; but I had the fear of cholera morbus before my eyes, and my powers of resistance were adamantine.
"Well, my lub, hab you shirts for de wash?"
No; I had no shirts; and as I moved off, I could hear the lady telling herself, after the fashion of the country, that "anoder wortless feller had come to Jamaica."
I reached the brig without a coup de soleil, and was followed by a crowd of ragged ebony youths offering their services. I came to a parley under the friendly awning, and asked for a guide to take me to some respectable lodging-house. It was a difficult business to negotiate; for I knew that if I favored one the others would follow me through the town, hurling after me the while whole dictionaries of negro slang. I objected to a moral pillory like this; and by great good luck succeeded in escaping a penalty that most strangers are compelled to bear. I held up a sixpence to the covetous gaze of the Arabs, and then flung it into the sea. Out went the coin full twenty yards, and—splash! splash! splash!—over the quarter-deck of the brig some twenty or thirty dusky forms, rags and all, plunged headlong into the water. I could see them below the surface swimming about like sharks—rising every now and then with a handful of mud which they eagerly scrutinized. At last the victor appeared with the sixpence in his mouth. Now the fight commenced in earnest. I watched the combatants until, entangled in one dark mass, they sunk like a rock: then I beat a hasty retreat.
"Will any of them be drowned?" said I, to the youth who had cunningly remained to accompany me.
"He, he! massa! 'Em niggers can't drown." And this is really the truth. They are amphibious animals.
|The Government Mail|
My sable cicerone, known as Lightfoot, was an excellent specimen of the Kingston Arab—respectful to those who gave him a good job and good pay, but insolent to all others. He brought up a gentleman's trunk one day from the steamer, and was offered a sixpence for his trouble. Lightfoot made no violent demonstration of disgust or disappointment. His feelings were under perfect control. He assumed a theatrical air, and, by various maneuvers, attracted the notice of by-standers.
"What does dat mean?" he exclaimed, with an air, of ineffable contempt, holding out the image and superscription of Her Britannic Majesty in the palm of his right hand.
"That is to pay you," answered the traveler, timidly.
"Oh, tank you," returned Lightfoot, with dignity; and turning round, he handed the coin to a scrubby urchin at his heels. The traveler was crushed. I believe he afterward tried to appease the rascal's wrath by giving him a dollar.
But Lightfoot, as I said, is no bad representative of his class—a class of good-for-nothing idlers that loiter in the streets of Kingston and other Jamaica towns. Their ages are between fifteen and twenty-five; they detest regular employment, and hang about strangers for accidental jobs. None of them, probably, ever wore coat or boots in their lives. They are smart in a certain sense, and quick to perform a service. Though they are incorrigible thieves and liars, they can be trusted with a bank bill or a valuable parcel. But they will steal a shilling from loose coin in your drawer, help themselves to your cigars, and abstract a shirt which, in negro logic, is "too old for buckra to wear." Lying is a habit that they never put off unless it be by accident. They attach themselves particularly to American strangers, for they have visions of rich harvests reaped from California passengers when steamers, running between Aspinwall and New York, stopped at Kingston to coal. They sometimes pretend to be Americans, and are cunningly familiar with the town in which, to excite an interest in their favor, they swear they were born. They are terrible and most persevering bores—watching a stranger by day and night, and pouncing upon him directly he emerges from his hotel. A dozen of these Arabs will scramble to hold your horse's head, or rim your errand, and all will demand payment for the service and will abuse you scurvily if you don't grant it. Occasionally they give proof of their remarkable physical capacity. Lightfoot carried my two trunks to the lodging-house in King Street, a friend having first piled the enormous load upon his head. The walk, without any encumbrance, was enough for me, for at every step we sank ankle-deep in sand. I should have died of heat if I had not stopped and purchased an umbrella. The proprietor of the store, who was ready to sell a bottle of rum, a hat, or an almanac, as well as an umbrella, eyed me askance, and added three shillings to the price of the article. To take strangers in is a time-honored Jamaican custom.
Novelty of any kind can be endured, and the novelty of Kingston may, by ingenious management, be made to last three days. After that period has elapsed the stranger is reduced to despair. He will then meditate escape, and if he cannot accomplish this the chances are that he will end his days in a lunatic asylum.
|West Indian soldiers|
Kingston contains 40,000 inhabitants. Long, long ago, as everyone knows, it was the first city in the West Indies; it was the great depot of trade between Europe and the Spanish Main; its merchants were princes, and its aristocracy rivaled, in their magnificence and munificence, the nobility of the mother land. Now Kingston is a shattered hulk lying high and dry upon the rocks of misfortune. Its splendor and comeliness have disappeared. Commercial capital and agricultural capital have been withdrawn. Credit was lost overboard before the ship stranded. Sensible men, who were able to escape, abandoned the wreck in season, and those who, willingly or unwillingly, remained, seem to be very very hard up. I saw the whole of Kingston one morning before breakfast, and I did not meet a white man in my perambulations. The city is the filthiest that I ever dwelt in. Its Board of Health is composed of turkey buzzards; all the garbage that they fail to carry off is left to rot beneath a blazing sun. Carrion crows are the only scavengers I ever saw at work in the streets of Kingston. Situated on an inclined plane, and with every facility for drainage, the city has no drains, and water stagnates everywhere. Naturally one of the healthiest places in the West Indies, it is never free from epidemic fevers. Its hospitals, badly built and badly managed, are a lamentable indication of the prostration of public spirit, enterprise, and philanthropy.
Kingston is not lighted even with oil lamps. The streets, as I have already stated, are covered with the sand that is washed down from the mountains in rainy weather. At that period of the year the thoroughfares can be crossed in boats. At other times they are obstructed by stones and bricks that the floods left there ages ago. There are no trottoirs, but before each door a dilapidated stone platform, ragged and uneven, prevents one walking in the shade of the houses. A pedestrian is in danger of breaking his legs if he attempt to navigate among these excrescences. It would be safer to walk in a quarry of broken rocks. There is but one word to be said in Kingston's favor: it is well laid out. But one would willingly dispense with rectangular streets for a little more cleanliness, for a pavement to walk upon, for a tree to ward off the rays of a terrible sun. Even the square, in the center of the city, is innocent of a speck of green. It is a Zahara, on a small scale, of mountains and valleys of sand. The dust in dry weather is alarming. It penetrates your skin, fills your ears, eyes, and boots, and makes mush of your coffee. I have known a dinner service, plates and dishes, to be completely entombed while the meal was being cooked. But to be out of doors and encounter one of those rolling clouds of sand! Allah it Allah! Imitate the Arab of the desert, and put your head between your knees: otherwise you must perish.
|Entering the horse races|
Then the houses. One gets into bed in this land of earthquakes with solemn convictions of the uncertainty of life. A huge crack that traversed the ceiling of my room lent an unction to my nocturnal devotions. It would take such a very little shock, I thought, to widen that crack for bricks, stones, and what not to fall through; and one brick, nay, half a brick, is enough to mash the human cranium. But I mean to speak now more particularly of the outside appearance of the houses. Antiquaries and other curious folk, in search of the last stage of dilapidation, should go by all means to Kingston. They will find its edifices of a composite order of architecture—roofed in mosaic and walled up with strange (pardon me, Madam, for the expression!) make-shifts. In the upper part of the town there are domiciles that may have been pretentious a hundred years ago. But they are strangely at variance with modern notions of comfort and propriety. Most of them are surrounded by a decayed brick wall, ornamented at the apex with broken bottles, wine glasses, and decanters. These fragments are possibly meant to commemorate the good old times when Champagne and Burgundy occupied the place of rum and water. A door in this wall creaks on rusty hinges as it is opened; steam-power alone could turn the key in the lock. It is, consequently, never turned. Before you now is the residence of one of the old aristocracy. You hardly fancy that it is put to present use; you examine it as you would an antique relic. The very stone loop worn away by ocean tides of misfortune. Nothing that time has destroyed within forty years has been replaced. That brick, half buried in the ground, fell years and years ago from the angle beneath the roof. You have no doubt of the fact. There is the hole filled with moss; and immediately below is the brick of the same size and shape. There are fifty such apertures, tenanted by lizards and scorpions. The roof is like a patched quilt, and is mended by the square inch where the rain enters. There is not a speck of paint to be seen on the wood-work, not a vestige of ornament anywhere. If the building were not so ugly and uncouth, you might contemplate it as you would some medieval habitation. But there is no interest about it, except such bare and unsatisfactory interest as ruin and decay can give. These are the houses in which the better class of Kingstonians live. They are the "feature" of the city. After this description of two and three story edifices, the one-story ston6 houses and wooden huts of the lower classes may be imagined. Those who have ever noticed the sentry-box, erected opposite the Astor House, New York, for the accommodation of the overseer of the Fourth Avenue Railroad in wintry weather, will have some idea of the majority of negro dwellings in Kingston. They may be a little larger than the box to which I have likened them, but they do not seem to be better built. The public buildings and churches, though not actual ruins like so many of the houses, have, with a few exceptions, an old and weather-beaten appearance. Only the stores, on, I think, two streets, appear to be kept in moderate repair, and they are not to be compared with the stores of a third-rate European or American town. A general coup d'oeil of-Kingston, if such could be obtained, would create the impression that the city had been steadily bombarded for a month. It would be the most rational and natural explanation of its condition. All its ruins may be visited, and all its "sights" seen, in an hour's walk before breakfast. There is nothing then left to examine or study but the manners and customs of the inhabitants; and queer enough they seem till their novelty wears off.
|Band of the India Regiment playing on the Park|
A punctual creature, like myself, soon becomes exasperated in Kingston. A breakfast ordered at nine is sometimes ready at eight, but oftener at ten. So with all the duties of life in the exercise of which your comfort depends on any other human being than yourself. Punctuality in business or pleasure is unknown. I advise the unfortunate wretch doomed to live in Kingston to fling this virtue to the winds, for, sooner or later, in very despair he will be compelled to cast himself upon the current of events and accept with gratitude whatever turns up. I did this at last. If mosquitoes discovered the holes in my bed-curtains, as they were certain to do, I endured their attacks with Christian fortitude, though they left me in the morning covered with bleeding wounds. I found it wasting words to ask that the holes in my curtains might be mended. It my boots were not cleaned or my bath was not ready, I waited patiently until the gentleman engaged for these services was at liberty to perform them. If I desired to ride, and had ordered dinner early for that purpose, I did not murmur when the meal appeared two hours after time. I bore the loss of my ride with a calm philosophy that, before this Jamaica experience, I should have deemed unattainable. Complaint was useless; violence was worse than useless. It would have been very possible to smash chairs, tables, and glass-ware; but for such an act of retributive vengeance one would have been mulcted in heavy damages by a black judge. A plea of compensation would not be allowed.
No creole of Kingston or Jamaica has any conception of the value of time. A stranger must persuade himself that his time is of no account whatever either to himself or to anyone else. He must acquire the habit of indulging this conviction; it must, in fact, be a practical conviction, or his mind will never be at ease. I asked permission one day to look at a volume of public documents, and the official in charge told me to call again, as the book was not in his possession. I called again every day for a week, and, was on each occasion assured that "the next day" I could see it. I went into the country for a month, and when I returned I called again. I called every day for another week, and I received every day the same answer. I wanted to see if it were possible to wear out the Jamaica stone by continual droppings. It was utterly impossible. I then asked timidly- where the book was? It was in the room occupied by the official. Somebody who lived in the next street had the key of the case. Being informed of this, I found it easy enough to get the key; and in five minutes the volume was looked over and returned.
The habits of the Kingstonian differ from those of the European or American. White creoles, or foreigners who are old residents of Jamaica, look delicate and attenuated. They seem to lack physical strength as well as life and vigor. Even in speaking they drawl out their words as though it was too violent an effort to utter sound. A gentleman is seldom seen walking; if he is, he is pointed out contemptuously by the negroes as "a walking buckra." Horse exercise is a la mode, and a clerk on two hundred a year will ride home to his lodgings, in the upper part of the town. No one rich enough to wear a coat would be seen carrying a parcel in the street. The handsomest white women in Kingston are Jewesses. Nearly the entire trade of the town is monopolized by Jews; and I have seen them, though not frequently, of all shades —quinteron, quarteron, mulatto, and even black. The creole white ladies are pretty; their features are regular; their eyes are splendid. But their figures want the inviting charm of robustness and roundness. They are very indolent, and show few signs of life, except when a dance is on the tapis; then they go mad. I have seen the most languid Letitia Dieaway dance for six mortal hours, with the thermometer at ninety degrees Fahrenheit. People of every class, sex, and age in Jamaica are insane upon the subject of dancing. Quadrilles are spoken of contemptuously; but waltzes, schottisches, and polkas are pronounced glorious. If a few people meet by chance at a friend's house, a fiddler—and such a fiddler!—is immediately called in. He will then be heard scraping away all night. A husband and wife will sometimes amuse themselves by dancing together alone. I have seen men of seventy whirling round at a 2.40 pace, and a gentleman with a cork leg performing the same feat. In their physique the light-colored creole women of Jamaica are superior to their fairer countrywomen. Their animal spirits are more buoyant; their figures are more robust. In many all traces of African descent have disappeared, and those who are acquainted with their family history alone know that Anglo-Saxon blood, unmixed, does not course in their veins.
|Harbor of Kingston from Bar's Town|
It is the habit in Jamaica, as in all tropical countries, to rise early in the morning. Most people get up before sunrise. After the inevitable cup of coffee, the husband goes to his office, and the wife attends to her household duties. Breakfast, served at ten o'clock, is a serious meal, at which beer is the beverage of males, and tea that of the weaker sex. Between breakfast and dinner the ladies are invisible. They are seldom seen in the streets; and a brute who would intrude upon their solitude, or rudely interrupt their siestas, would merit incarceration for life. During these hours—that is, from 11 A.M. till 5 p.m.—the heat of Kingston is intolerable. The dinner-hour varies from five to seven, according to fashion and taste; and at nine the inhabitants generally retire. This last rule is not observed when it interferes with the three popular amusements of Kingston—dancing, flirting, or whist. Now I am partial to a rubber, and can enjoy myself thoroughly when my partner is of the male gender, and does not revoke. I can also spend a pleasant evening with a pretty girl on a moonlit balcony—especially if she does not object (as what Jamaica girl will?) to the position, when she cannot have the motion of the waltz. But I write down dancing in tropical heat as a cut beyond Eli. I once essayed it, and disgraced myself. I was moved to make the experiment by the demon Jealousy, who persuaded me that, peradventure, I might be able to dance, as no man knew what he could do till he tried. So I tried. The lovely Dulcinea had been in the arms of a British officer-for two terrible hours. They both were quite dank from the exercise and clung to each other —involuntarily, as I do believe. The face of the military hero was redder than his coat, while rivers of perspiration ran from his brow, and untwisted the points of his mustache. Duleinea's hoops saved her from looking like a lady after a bath. I solicited and obtained her hand; but whether it was the clamminess of that member the heat of the atmosphere, or the motion of the dance that overpowered me, I know not. At the third turn I felt the peculiar sensation that precedes insensibility. Then a blank. When I awoke the British officer was giving me rum and water—a drink that I detest. Apropos of rum: a person going to Jamaica must acquire the habit of liking it. There is nothing else to imbibe—nothing else, certainly that is good. Long drinks, short drinks, punch, bitters, cocktails, and stone-fences are made of rum. Everyone offers a visitor rum and water, and a visitor cannot refuse to drink without insulting his host. Iced rum and water, or, when the Boston vessel is not up to time, lukewarm rum and water—that is the idea.
It afforded me some amusement, while the novelty lasted, to sit on the balcony of my hotel and watch the passers-by. That hotel itself is a curiosity in its way. It is one hundred and fifty years old, and looks as dilapidated as other buildings in Kingston. Its interior arrangements, however, are more creditable to the proprietress than its outward appearance. The floors, for instance, are black as ebony, and shine with polish; the plates are clean; and the beds are free from scorpions and chigoes. In the parlor, a large, airy room, there are several pieces of antique furniture—hair sofas, as hard as rocks; a lounge that I never saw on its legs; and chairs that nearly broke my back when I tried to sit upon them. Several books, printed in the last century, were probably meant to be ornamental. The side-board was covered, and no doubt is still covered, with the glass of the establishment. I had tender feelings for a splendid punch-bowl, of antique manufacture; for though plain rum and water is nauseous to the uninitiated, rum-punch, well concocted, is one of the elixirs of life. From this parlor and its mosquito tenants I was glad to escape as soon as sunset and an evening breeze made the balcony endurable; and I will add that, in these far niente moments, the punch-bowl and a cigar made me more charitably disposed toward my Jamaica fellow-mortals than I would have been without such agreeable companions. Practical charity, I begin to think, depends very largely on eating and drinking After a good dinner, nine men out of ten will put a benignant hand in the pocket and pull out half a dollar for the beggar; after a bad dinner, if the hand travel pocketward at all, it is to button it up.
|Harbor Street, Kingston|
I have a vivid recollection of the bewildering spectacle that King Street presented when I first saw that leading thoroughfare from the point of observation just mentioned. It was Christmas season, and peoples' minds were running riot on balls and festivities, dancing and merry - making. Crowds of the poorer class were passing to and fro—some in rags and tatters, others decked out in fantastic attire. A negro woman has not a particle of mauvaise honte; she spends all the money she gets in gaudy ribbons and kerchiefs; and the more color she has about her head the higher she holds it. She never imagines for a moment that she is the subject of ridicule. As the people pass they talk and jabber incessantly, and in a dialect that I find it impossible to comprehend. It is a pure Jamaica patois—that is, if purity and corruption can coexist. A negro invariably converses with himself, if he has no one else to address; and he speaks all the louder if he fancies that his observations attract notice. He then makes violent efforts to crack jokes, and raise a laugh at his own expense, or that of any of his friends. In many respects he is irresistibly droll, and appears the more so to one unaccustomed to his ways. Some of the more aristocratic of their class take the omnibus —a species of covered van, that wanders about Kingston without any fixed principles—starting at no given point, and arriving at no certain end. The fare in these vehicles is sixpence, but where from or where to I was never able to learn, though I repeatedly inquired. The sound of a horn and a cry of "The mail! the mail!" directed my attention to a ragged, barefooted negro, mounted on one mule, and dragging another behind him. This was the royal mail. The cortege came up the street at an express, pace, tilted against the omnibus, and experienced a momentary discomfiture. A dark lady in the bus, whose bonnet was flattened by the collision, called the mail-rider a "dirty nigger," and that public functionary returned the compliment with interest from under the mule's belly. For a moment there was some prospect of a row; but the mail-rider, accustomed doubtless to such contretemps, speedily remounted, blew his horn ferociously, and galloped with desperation through the crowd.
Night falls quickly in the tropics, and after six o'clock there is no light to lighten the multitude that still passes up and down King Street. The noise of their talking is occasionally varied by snatches of "Lucy Neal," or "Ole Virginny," or notes from an accordion or jews-harp. The howling of a child and the crack of a whip prove that some "stern parient" does not spare the rod even in the street. Above all this tumult, the shrill screech of girls vending sundry articles of food can be distinctly heard. One keeps up, without intermission, the cry of "Ba-pea-nut-ire!" which, being interpreted, means, "I am here selling peanuts." Another screams, "Pep'mint, sug'r-candee, goin' fast!" A man with a lantern on his head shouts, in stentorian bass, "Cre-e-e-e-me!" and sells, for ice-cream, an infernal decoction that would inevitably give any white man instantaneous colic.
Many of the people were wending their way to the market, and I went too. It was with some difficulty, and not without frequent admonitions of "Don't fall, my love!" that I waded through the sand and avoided the rocks that lay in the street. While crossing the square I fell into a pit, and was picked up by three pea-nut girls, each of whom wanted sixpence for her trouble. I escaped from their embraces, and ran into the arms of a white man, who was sauntering leisurely along. He addressed me in French, then in Spanish; and condescending at last to talk in English, recounted some passages in his adventurous life. I felt interested.
"By-the-way," said he, suddenly turning the conversation, "have you a three pence about you?"
"Sorry to say I haven't."
"Perhaps, then, you have a spare cigar?" "Regret that I left my case at home."
"Ah! very unfortunate. Good-night."
The market-place is a feature of Kingston—let no visitor fail to see it. If anything can give us an idea of the confusion of tongues at Babel, it is this. Some fifty or sixty women squat upon the ground, with piles of fruit and vegetables before them. They do not wait patiently for purchasers, but address themselves vehemently to the throng, and extol the superior quality of their merchandise. Yet, with all its savage peculiarities, the scene is picturesque and attractive. A ruddy glare from a score of torches checkers the crowd with patches of fitful light—illuminating, here and there, a group of dusky creoles, and leaving the rest in a blacker shade than night itself. The Jamaica negroes, of both sexes, are not generally ill-featured. I do not know whether their ancestors were Eboes, Mandingoes, or Koromantynese; but it is certain that the creole is very unlike the newly-imported African. Occasionally you will meet with a flat-nosed, thick-lipped negro in Jamaica, but not frequently. Their eyes are brilliant, and their teeth are white as pearls. An American negro can be detected at once by his looks. He is not so well-favored as the West Indian. The lithe, active, upright figure of the female is perfected by the habit of carrying head-loads. Any one of the groups in this market crowd, seen by torchlight, is quite an artistic study. The easy attitude of all: the men in their white shirts and trousers; the women dressed also in white, and with the inevitable kerchief twisted, not ungracefully, round their heads. I have seen tamer pictures. Then the marvelous piles of fruit! How they are all sold is a mystery that I could not fathom. Such quantities of cocoas, pines, oranges, mangoes, grenadillas, sapodilloes, and vegetables of all descriptions—comparatively valueless in Kingston, but worth a mint if they could be taken to a Northern market.—Fruit, indeed, is about the only thing that one can buy cheap in Jamaica. All other necessaries and luxuries are enormously high. New York prices prevail, though New York comforts are, of course, out of the question.
I had the honor, while in Kingston, of living next door to his late Majesty the Ex-Emperor of Hayti, now plain Monsieur Soulouque. The view from my bedroom window was limited, in fact, to the imperial yard, and I was forced to become rather unpleasantly familiar with the little domestic economies of the exiled family. If I except the unmerciful castigation of a child twice a-day, I must confess that I saw nothing about the monarch, his wife, his children, or his suite to indicate the cruelty that has made the name of Soulouque so prominent in Haytien history. The Emperor himself is a portly gentleman, with a coal-black complexion, and a rather stupid expression of countenance. His age may be sixty-five; and from the fact that he moved with difficulty, I judged that he either had the gout or was threatened with that aristocratic affliction. His principal occupation was, and probably still is, card-playing; and people say that his old soul is greatly rejoiced whenever he wins a shilling. Undoubtedly he is not the rich man that some suppose him to be—nor the shrewd man either. There is the leer of small cunning only in his eye. He may have had the wit to fill his pockets before he left his country for his country's good; but I doubt whether, in the days of his prosperity, he had the sagacity to invest half a million in the English funds, as people say he did. He is a silly, vain, ignorant fellow; and, as Emperor of Hayti, was nothing more than the tool of designing men, who made him do what they liked, by telling him that he was one of the most enlightened sovereigns of the age, and that his dynasty would surely last forever. He soon disgusted the people of Jamaica with his mean ways, uncouth pretensions, and pitiable vanity. I saw his Majesty one day backing out of the purchase of a horse, which the owner had brought fifty miles for his accommodation. He tried various dodges to get rid of the bargain, and found fault with the head, tail, and feet of the animal. At last he disputed about its age; and, to settle the point, brought out a foot-rule, to prove, as he said, from the length of its leg, the year in which it was born. The horse-dealer vanished in a cloy of indignation and disgust.
|Head-Quarters House, Kingston|
When Soulouque arrived in Kingston he was terribly scared by the crowds of people who dogged his footsteps. They, poor creatures, were only excited at the idea of having a black king among them. He saw in every one who noticed him an instrument of Haytien vengeance. On these occasions he would hurry home, or rush for protection into some friendly dwelling. With that drollery which is a striking feature of the negro character, and with unerring instinct, the idle scamps of Kingston seized the ludicrous points of Soulouque's position. To them, a king of their own color seemed the absurdest possible creation, and they chased him about the streets as boys chase a dog with a watering-pot tied to his tail. The old gentleman had no peace until the novelty of his position wore off. He changed his lodging from a two-story to a one-story ruin; and though, in public, he still appears in superfine cloth and unexceptionable boots and gloves, I fancy that this fashionable attire is specially reserved for state occasions.
The Ex-Empress washes her lord's linen; and as washing is an expensive luxury in Jamaica, Madame has the reputation of being an economical housewife. I pitied the Princesses when I saw them sweeping out their stone-paved yard, or preparing yams for their parents' meal; but I felt no ambition to re-enact the fairy legend and be its hero. The Princesses were very black and—very untidy. They sometimes omitted to wear boots, and the backs of their dresses—ladies, don't blush!—were seldom laced. It is greatly to be feared that the Royal family will never regain their lost honors. Monsieur Geffrard feels secure in his Presidency. He lately gave permission to some of Soulouque's banished officers to return home; and I enjoyed the felicity of being fellow-passenger to Jacmel with the wife and family of General D—. The lady's baggage alone included 33 trunks, 12 bandboxes, 8 carpet-bags, a parrot, a puppy-dog, and a monkey. These people measure their importance and social dignity by the extent of their baggage, and, according to this rule, Mrs. General D— had not lost caste in exile. She had not lost flesh either, I should say, for she weighed, at the very least, 400 pounds avoirdupois when she appeared on deck, in all the colors of the rainbow, after a prolonged fit of sea-sickness. I muttered a prayer for the safety of the men who conveyed her and her baggage ashore in a boat that seemed altogether too contemptible for such a cargo.
I said, if I remember right, that there were only three amusements in Kingston—dancing, flirting, and whist. I wish now to correct or modify the statement. There are two perennial enjoyments of an exciting character—the elections and the races. The former is monopolized by those who have votes to sell, and those who are looking for votes to buy. As property in one case and money in the other are indispensable requisites, this amusement is limited to a favored few. For several weeks before election the negro freeholder is in a state of mental distraction. Both Smith and Jones, the rival candidates, have sworn to him, on their sacred honors, that his welfare and interests alone have tempted them to forsake the pleasures of private life for the toil and trouble of a public career. Mr. Quashee scratches his head and does not quite believe the argument; but his doubts are dispelled when the agent of Smith exhibits superior energy, and visiting his constituent in his own home, gives unequivocal proof of friendship.
"Hi!" says Quashee to, his friend Julius the same evening, "me vote for Smitte; Massa Brown say so; him fus-rate buckra—treat 'em like a king!"
And this is the way the elections go in Kingston. The planters are too proud to canvass after the popular fashion, and the Legislature is filled with men who make legislation the sole business of their lives.
|House in Jamaica|
The races, or "The Kingston Meeting," as it is called, is the crowning event of the year, and takes place in December. Men, women, and children, who can walk or drive to the course, are sure to be present. Nothing else is talked of for a fortnight previous. "Just in time for the races," is the remark of every one to the newly-arrived stranger: "how lucky!" "Very," answers the stranger, politely. As the time approaches the excitement of the negro population exceeds all bounds. Every woman purchases some piece of finery, and every man a new hat, to wear on the occasion. They all have stakes on their favorite horses, varying from a cent to a shilling. They know the name of every animal going to run—their pedigree, their capacity, their owners, their riders. When the long-expected morning at last appears, shops are closed and business is suspended. No one would dream of demanding payment for a note that came due on Race-day. About noon streams of people may be seen traveling to the course, half a mile out of town. A stand has been erected for those who can afford and are willing to pay for indiscriminate shelter. First-class nabobs keep their carriages, and the oi polloi keep their feet.
The latter, some ten or twenty thousand in number, are certainly a strange and motley crowd. As in dense bodies they rush to and fro to catch the various points of the race, their black faces, white dresses, and lively decorations form curious contrasts. The animals competing for the "Queen's plate," the "Garrison cup," or the "Jamaica spoon" are not likely to call forth the admiration of foreigners. The horses may have an unexceptionable pedigree, but they do not look in very high condition. Their negro riders flaunt the faded colors of their masters, and use the spur (bound to their naked feet) with great liberality. Three races per diem will keep this large assemblage of persons exposed to a blazing sun during three entire afternoons. Miserabile dictu! They do not know the meaning of the word time. For many succeeding days the inhabitants talk of nothing but the winning nags, which, more frequently than not, are the property of the same individual, for race-horse breeding is a luxury in Jamaica that few can afford to enjoy. In the "good old days" it was different. The Jamaica aristocracy could then afford to breed fast horses, and many of them did so. A planter of the olden type once declared, before a committee of the House of Commons, that he could not reckon his income; but being pressed by earnest gentlemen to name a figure, he said that his profits might be about three hundred thousand pounds sterling a year! "That was a comfortable income," says the modern Jamaica, planter, as he helps his friends to salt fish and rum-and-water. It is all he can do. The spirit of hospitality is still there; but, Ichabod! the glory thereof has departed.
Oh, the heat, discomfort, and weariness of Kingston after a week's residence! They accumulate hourly at compound interest. I stood them for eight days and was utterly prostrated. An awful thunder-storm and two earthquake shocks were insufficient to rouse me. I cannot imagine, to this day, how I regained enough energy to move, for moving implied packing up. A traveler who has never packed up with the thermometer at 90°, has never had his temper really tried. Now I am utterly unable to pack up systematically. After I have labored for an hour, and locked my trunk with a groan of relief, I invariably discover that some indispensable article of dress has to be fished up again. In Jamaica, moreover, you are sure to miss shirts, socks, and handkerchiefs when the time of departure comes. That is the moment of tribulation selected by hardened wretches to rob you. I do not know how it is with other people, but the loss of my linen worries me for a whole day, and destroys my appetite. It puts me in a fever now to think of the excruciatingly hot morning on which I started for Spanish Town, the seat of the Jamaican Government. The distance, some eight or ten miles, is accomplished by railway—the only little bit of creole enterprise that Jamaica can show. The train left half an hour after time, as a matter of course. Idiot that I was, I nearly brought on a rush of blood to the head by dreaming I was too late—as though any man can be too late for anything in Jamaica! I paid my fare at the box-office, forgot in my haste to take a ticket, and was fined four shillings for the omission. Well, off we went; but ten minutes after we started we were obliged to halt for fuel. The wood was not split, and that job had to be performed before we could budge. I was surprised that the passengers were not invited to lend a hand, as I have frequently seen them helping to roll the cars on the track. The confusion of tongues, the delay, and the heat combined to make me delirious; but Heaven is merciful, and I ultimately reached my destination in safety.
Fifty years ago the population of Spanish Town was estimated at 5000 souls, and it still stands at the same figure. It is composed of long, narrow streets, and ragged houses. Facing each other on a small square, in a central location, are two large buildings, in good repair it is true, but of a sickly yellow color, and without any architectural ornamentation. One is the Governor's residence; the other is the House of Assembly. Here, too, is a statue in honor of Admiral Rodney, who, on the 12th of April, 1782, destroyed the French fleet off Dominica. The enemy was on its way to form a junction with the Spanish fleet. United, they would have mustered sixty sail of the line, and their operations would, in the first instance, have been directed against Jamaica. The inhabitants, therefore, had good cause to honor their deliverer, and raise a costly monument to his memory.
|Group in Market Place|
When the Legislature is in session Spanish Town is by no means lively, but when members have gone home it is an utterly dead city. It might be mistaken for an ancient Roman cemetery. Its population is composed of Government hangers-on, or of those who supply board and lodging, food and raiment, to Government hangers on, with a fair sprinkling of beggars and gentlemen who live by their wits. It was the point whence I started on an extended tour through the interior of the island. On the subject of that tour I have little to say. It was, my pocket tells me, a very expensive tour; but, on the other hand, my common sense persuades me that the escape from Kingston life was cheaply purchased at any price. Traveling in the country parts of Jamaica, including horse and carriage hire, servants, and hotel bills, costs about fifteen dollars a day. It might be done for twelve; but the roads being abominable, the chances are that cheap horses or a cheap buggy would break down and leave one to perish in the mountains. A stranger must make up his mind to be cheated at every inn. Remonstrance is worse than useless; it merely breeds disputation, which, in a tropical country, will be avoided by sensible men. It is cheaper to wear a smiling face, and pay the bill like a man, without examining the items.
I am not going to describe Jamaica: it is too much of a subject for me; and then, descriptions are always stupid. Everyone knows that the scenery like that of most Caribbean Islands, is mountainous, grand, and picturesque. The Blue Mountain Peak—the loftiest in Jamaica—is 8000 feet above the level of the sea, and travelers are sometimes insane enough to ascend it. They find up there nothing but mist, though they always expect to see the coast of Cuba, eighty miles distant, on the strength of a legend that an indistinct haze, pronounced to be the Queen of the Antilles, was once detected from the Peak on a very clear day. A very unusual day it must have been, for when on the Jamaica Mountains I never could see the sun, much less the island of Cuba. It is quite cold on the tops of these hills, and a fire, even at Newcastle, where the troops are stationed, is a luxury during the months of January and December. Every one, I believe, further knows that Jamaica is naturally very rich and fertile. Its original name of Xamayca, the land of wood and water, is eminently appropriate. The island is intersected by over two hundred streams and rivers; its forests are celebrated throughout the world for their dyes and cabinet woods; its soil yields every variety of tropical fruit and vegetable. Perhaps a tenth part of the island is in cultivation, and that, I need hardly say, is a rude and imperfect cultivation. Coffee, ginger, and pimento—the last in very large quantities—are raised on the mountains ; cane pieces, embracing altogether some 20,000 acres, are to be found in the valleys and on the level lands. It is estimated that, in Jamaica, there are four million of acres capable of being planted in cane and coffee. Every one, I take it for granted, has read accounts of the island's agricultural and commercial depression ; and these accounts can scarcely be exaggerated when it appears as a fact, about which there is no dispute, that two-thirds of the coffee properties and one-half of the sugar estates have been abandoned by their owners within half a century. The soil of Jamaica is so rich, that two years after an estate is thrown out of cultivation it is covered with bush, and scarcely to be distinguished from wild land. A deserted plantation house, choked up with rank weeds and vegetation, is too common a sight to attract much attention.
The island now contains some eight or ten minor towns, with populations varying from ten to one thousand; but the description given of Kingston may be taken as a description of each and all. Some of them—as, for example, Port Maria, where Columbus first essayed to land in 1494; St. Anne's Bay, or Don Christopher's Cove, where the illustrious discoverer was wrecked in 1502; and the site of Sevilla d'Oro, the ancient Spanish capital, and once the center of Castilian splendor—are historic spots, and as such are visited by travelers. But I confess that I am a Galileo about these matters. I do not feel the slightest interest in the stone on which some great filibuster lunched, nor in the spot where self-satisfied hidalgos and dark-eyed senoritas loved and languished, three hundred years ago. I have never coveted the nose of a heathen deity, however celebrated, nor bullets from a battlefield, however well contested, as mementos of my travels. I would rather visit towns, whose hotels are famous for their beef-steaks and XXX, than the most interesting spot in the world, and be dieted on the Romance of a Past Age. A live dog is any day better than a dead lion; and Jamaica has many of the characteristics of a dead lion. One cannot enjoy scenery, be it ever so beautiful, or trace the footsteps even of a Columbus, upon such feed as salt fish and yams. On the whole, I think I can recommend Jamaica to those who are ambitious of ending their days in a lunatic asylum. One may get accustomed to the melancholy stupor of its town existence, or to the despairing solitude of its rural vegetation, but the chance of surviving the acclimating process is slender. It will be found too terrible an ordeal for any one accustomed to think and to act. I escaped; but I certainly should not like to run the risk again.
From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, May 1861.