The Hanging In The District : A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood


“Mass Butty. Mass Butty. Yu awright sah?   LAWD JESUS CHRIST! Mass Butty. MASS BUTTY!  A wha dat yu do, Lawd Jesus Christ, Lawd Jesus Christ.  Mass Butty  heng  ‘imself  Mass Butty  DEAD!

I was in my grandmother’s room reading and enjoying my solitude, when Naomi’s screams cut through the still hot summer afternoon. As I rushed  to the back of the house from where the screams came, an awful dread  clutched my heart.

I caught up with Naomi as she reached the steps to the backdoor, still screaming. Tears and white flecks of her spittle vied for dominance on   her terrified face. As she reached for me, her motor limbs seemed to give way and she crumpled in a quivering heap in the doorway.

Her terrified screams turned into incoherent muttering as she pointed a shaking finger at the dark undergrowth  from the thick stand of trees on the periphery of the backyard. I followed the general thrust of her finger.  I saw  my uncle in his usual characteristic pose, leaning against his favorite grapefruit tree, knees bent.

As I cautiously crept closer, I fully expected to hear him say “Fool yu again!” and grab for me with his  strong right hand.  Instead, I saw something I hoped and prayed I would never see again in my young life.  My uncle’s toes were barely touching the earth. He had become a grossly oversized, misshapen and elongated human appendage to the grapefruit tree.

A thick new rope had cut into the cords of his neck, the veins  stiff and bulging. His face was convulsed in a paroxysm of death. His tongue horribly swollen and protruded from a mouth that was draining with what seemed like red saliva, yet fixed in a rictus of death. His eyes were open in an expression of surprise.  I stood frozen and looked at my beloved uncle Wilbert, as tears coursed down my cheeks. Not again Jesus, please not again I whimpered.   

Once again they  came.  Frozen, I stood by the window and looked at the teeming, gawking crowd as it streamed past the living room window, headed for the back of the house, in anticipation of a ghoulish excitement at this unspeakable tragedy.   Who would have thought that the ugliness of death, the finality of death, the privacy of death could evoke in strangers such curiosity, such hunger for excitement,  such depravity, such insensitivity to the pain of the family.

And as a final metaphor to the lives of Pardie and his brother Wilbert, strangers in life but partners in death, they had hanged themselves under grapefruit trees, less than 50 yards from each other,  in a straight line, as the crow flies.

I come from solid  farming stock. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a sugar cane farmer from Westmoreland. According to my mother, Edward Brown or Tata, was the ‘fair-complexioned’ offspring of a Jewish father and a Maroon mother, a tall, statuesque, beautiful black woman who was descended from the Coromantee people of Ghana. My great grandfather was born in 1867, two years after the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion led by Paul Bogle.  I can see the Jewish connection  in the noses of my mother and even more pronounced in my Aunt Celeste. To a small child, these noses looked incongruous on them both.

The date of their marriage cannot be ascertained. However, Tata was seven years older that Grannie, which means she was born in 1874. She died at age 68  in December 1942, one month after I was born.  Tata died three years before her in 1939 at age 72.  My grandmother, the oldest child of the union was born on August 01, 1892 and died on November 06, 1960 at age 68 and one day before my eighteenth birthday. This means she was born when Tata was 25 and was Grannie 18, a teenage bride and mother.  They had four children – three girls – Amy my grandmother, Stella and Hess, and one boy, Lance.

Grannie was the fraternal twin sister of Augustus  or ‘Brother Gus’ which to my young ears sounded like ‘Bawdagus’ whom I knew as an irascible blind old man, when as a child spending time with Aunt Hess,

I visited his home at Success, nestled on a verdant plateau of cane fields and   permeated by the sweet smell of sugarcane juice from Uncle Lance’s cane mill, combined with the aroma of  grater cake, gizzada and pink top  from Aunt Lett’s kitchen. Later in life I learnt that everyone in Success was related.  In search of a better life, young Augustus migrated to the USA via Cuba – the easiest route for Jamaicans wishing to migrate to the USA  without the benefit of a legal visa – and to Howard University. Although a Moravian, he was sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He lived and worked in Harlem for many years, developed diabetes, and later glaucoma and blindness. He returned home and was cared for by Aunt Lett (Letitia) his daughter.   

Tata was a conceited, arrogant man who thought himself a cut above everyone else. He was paternalistic and condescending to  his children, his family, his neighbors The only person he treated with courtesy and respect was his wife,  Alberta Jones-Brown a very short, fat woman, also  of Maroon descent, who had a pronounced, high and ample, typically African derriere. According to my mother, as a small child, she was certain she could have sat on Grannie’s bottom without losing her balance. Three of her children whom I knew had amply proportioned buttocks also – my grandmother, Aunt Hess and Uncle Lance, who inherited the physique of his mother and the personality of his father.  Grannie, it is said was the only person who could control Tata.  I remember Aunt Hess as a tall, rangy, untidy woman with a slight overbite, and a loud, masculine-sounding laugh  and a soft, kind heart. I loved  Aunt Hess. She embraced me into her family when, as a small child, I spent long summer holidays at her home in Hopeton.

Uncle Lance was initially regarded as the family’s success story. He went to the USA and to college, met and married an American woman.

The marriage fell apart and so did Uncle Lance when he caught his wife with a lover.  Because he had entered the country illegally, again through Cuba, he had no residency papers.  Grannie sent for him and he came home penniless, bitter and psychologically scarred. He resettled on family land at Success, married his first cousin Melissa, his Uncle Augustus’ daughter and Letitia’s sister, and started another family – two children Winston and Shella.

Stella was the beauty in the family – tall, slim, mahogany-hued. The story goes that she came up to Hillside in the parish of Manchester , two and a half miles Mandeville the parish capital  to visit Ernest Jones, Grannie’s brother and an Army Sergeant who was living and farming at Jones, which later became Hall property. While there she was introduced to the tall, strapping, dark and handsome Samuel Hall of nearby Cedar Grove, who fell madly in love with her.

Samuel was the third of five children; Sarah, Caroline, Samuel and Edward. The fifth child died at a very young age . Samuel never knew his parents. His father died when he was a child and his mother took to her bed and died shortly afterward. The oldest child Sarah was left to manage the household, but she could not cope, so she ran away to Kingston. He was raised by his older sister Caroline, my special ‘Auntie.’

So, when she returned to Westmoreland, he simply saddled up his horse  and followed  to ask  Grannie and Tata for her hand in marriage.  But things were not quite that simple.   According to family tradition, Amy  – or West as she was popularly known – as the  oldest daughter should marry first.     Moreover, West had done the unpardonable. She had had an illegitimate child – a son – and so the urgency to marry her off was even greater. Additionally she was a strong woman, more capable of undertaking hard farm work than her more delicate sister Stella.   

The man from far away Mandeville seemed to be the perfect solution – marriage and removal from the close-knit district where her transgression had been a source of extreme embarrassment for the family.  Samuel agreed. After all, West was also an attractive woman. As a wedding present, Amy was given the family ‘Grandfather clock’ and  organ so she could continue with her music. Amy played for the Mt. Carmel Moravian Church on the border between St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland. Missionaries of the  Moravians in England arrived in Jamaica in the late C18th. They settled in Jamaica’s interior, starting with Bogue in St. James, followed by Carmel.    

Stella was furious and never forgave her sister for stealing her man, even when she later made a  highly successful marriage with a farmer who lived in the district of Bigwoods nearby, moved to Kingston and later migrated to the USA.  They were considered affluent, with nursemaids for their three children and the proud owners of a model T Ford motorcar.  It is said that Aunt Stella even tried to hit back at her sister through her children. As a show of good faith and in the spirit of reconciliation, she invited  Dorrette and then later Icy to spend time with her and promptly used them as maids to her children. Icy the feisty one would have none of it and after a particularly bad confrontation with her aunt who threatened to tie her up and beat her.  Icy’s response was to stone her and run away. She was rescued by a neighbor who had been witnessing the abuse over the days. Icy was taken to her grandmother by night, at which time Stella and her husband were already there in a panic at Icy’s disappearance. This episode,  coupled with another involving Aunt Celeste  when she attended school in Kingston    further eroded   what was at best a tenuous relationship between the sisters.      

My only recollection of Aunt Stella was of a woman and her family visiting late one night when I was already in bed, and of hearing my mother and aunts mentioning her name in disapproving whispers over the years. The relationship between the sisters ended when Aunt Stella and her family  migrated to the USA.  Another irony, the meaning of which escapes me. The three sisters  each named a daughter Joyce. Amy’s Joyce was the eldest.

And so it was that Westmoreland and  Manchester came together.  The time was the dawn  of the twentieth century. Samuel and West produced nine children – six girls and three boys, all born two years apart at a time when there were no birth control measures on the market. There were also twins after my Aunt Celeste, the fourth child, but they died at birth.

 West’s first child, a boy, Ferrrel or Pardie, remained with his grandmother in Westmoreland – alienated from his siblings,  At age fourteen he ran away to Portland. Nothing was heard of him until he ‘appeared’ at the family home – Ivy Cottage at Hillside – many years later. A grown man. An outcast  – lonely, resentful, distrustful and angry – a  dormant volcano waiting to erupt.

Gloria Royale Davis is a mother, grandmother, academic and story-teller who has worked in the fields of librarianship, public relations and communications.