Of Islands and Their Sons

(For MAAS BOB, father of the Trade Union.  And for Sam White who singlehandedly impregnated half of the women of Montserrat and so made beautiful cousins for me.  Bless you and may you find peace.)

My time is sunrise, dawns and mornings clean before the wickedness comes in.  When I see the Montserrat sunrise I think of a woman revealing herself — an eye here, a nipple there, then suddenly a mountain.  But then, I’m a son of the island so what else would I see?

The late Montserrat poet, Archie (or E. A. Markham, as he liked to be called when feeling famous), used to say to me after the wine held him and the North London night, and Pauline Melville was there, and Allison: “You know, my friend, you have a very romantic view of the Caribbean.  I hope it doesn’t hurt your writing.”

Now I can understand what he meant.  The eye, that kind organ, has to do with illusion and the entire Caribbean is built on illusion.  The illusion for us began the day we landed as slaves after surviving the Middle Passage.  When we said to ourselves, “Well maybe there is a God after all, like they say, the ones who took us.  Because this land and weather resembles where we just come from, maybe it won’t be so bad after all.  Maybe if we just close our eyes we’ll wake up back home.”  (It turns out that the strange island Olaudah Equiano was talking about in his slave narrative was none other than Montserrat.)

So we kept ourselves in trance with illusion.  The rum helped, and women helped.  All these combinations and mixing of genes.  Like, what happens if you mix African with Chinese.  You get Trinidad and Jamaica and Naomi Campbell maybe.  And the eyes say sunset, but the mind, the mind’s not as kind as the eye.  So the mind asks the question: how did we get here?  The simple answer is that nobody came to the Caribbean for fun.  Only white people come for fun.  Everyone else came for labor.

But now there are the Irish, who somehow were never quite white enough.  The Irish came to Montserrat not in leisure but in flight.  They came fleeing the madness and zeal for murder which was Oliver Cromwell.  Everything which would later be done to slaves was first tried and perfected on the Irish.  Everything from chains to branding.  Shooting from the cannon and being drawn and quartered.  Cromwell spoke to God and God said, “Break the Irish,” and so he did.  And the wonder is that he never drowned in the rivers of blood he caused to happen.  Cromwell, a God-driven man who could only cleanse himself by the blood of others.

Now you would have thought that the Irish, having suffered all of that under the sword of God’s appointed, might be a bit more lenient when their turn came to play slave-owner, but such was not the case.  They became as barbaric as the British, and at times pushed their slaves even harder because, you see, the Irish had no real intention of staying in the Caribbean forever.  They just wanted to return rich enough to be counted among the landed gentry, and, maybe just maybe, be rich enough to be left alone by the British.  And if that meant having to become Protestant, well fair enough.  You can be Protestant by day and Catholic by night.  Or, as Jews did during the Inquisition, try to blend in.  To understand Montserrat history you have to understand Irish history and all the psychic wounds which they passed onto us like a wedding gift at Emancipation.

In Montserrat there are endless Ryans and Weekes and O’Garros, Lynches, and Skerrets, not to mention Dyers, Dalys, and Samuels.  So how can you carry the name and not the madness?

The Irish on the other hand always leave something behind, be it sea island cotton or just a tip for the hangman.  And even more important, they left behind their Irish love of chat and culture fun and music.  What they didn’t realize was that they were taking our Africanness with them, and as a result Ireland would never be quite the same.  Put it this way: they gave us goats but we gave them Goatwater (a delicacy).  And given the amount of children they left behind with our women they found many compensations for their trials in Montserrat.  And when the Irish went home to the Emerald Isle (their glorious bog), they also took with them Black servants.  Nothing was more prestigious to the landed gentry than the presence of a Black servant in the household.  It was what, in effect, allowed you to count your number among the elite.  If you look at newspaper articles in the 1770s, you will find for example in the Dublin Courier the common complaint that Irish servants could no longer get jobs in prestigious houses, lamenting that fact because of the use of Caribbean Black servants.

Also there’s common mention in the Irish newspapers of the time of runaway servant-slaves.  For example, in the Belfast Newsletter of 1776 there is a mention of an escaped slave named John Moore who is described merely as “straight and well-made.”  A reward was offered of three guineas.  You had to be a good strong Montserratian to be worth three guineas.

Montserrat’s volcano is the most watched and most uncertain of the three Soufrières in the Caribbean.  A Catholic priest named all three volcanoes Soufrière, “sulfur mine.”  It takes a certain kind of people to live beneath a volcano, and lunacy helps.  It does however teach you grace, for it is only by grace we live.  And so people from Montserrat always look up because you never really know.

To reach Montserrat you must first endure Antigua the larger island.  Antigua went mad when it became a U.S. Air Force base.  (May the Force never be with you.)  As a result it became all things American, complete with tourism and Kentucky Fried and all the blessings of Disney culture.  The island possesses 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, and a thorough casino culture.  The relationship of Antigua to Montserrat is one of jailor to prisoner or perhaps jailor to child.

Antiguans regard Montserratians as peculiar children who never quite grew up to become hardened criminals like them.  Montserrat for example has no real prison.  The HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) on the island is sort of a joke stockade which releases its prisoners at Christmas time (especially if the prisoner is known to be a good dancer and can do a good Masquerade Jumbie dance).  Antigua therefore is where they send the real outlaws because they have a serious prison and still have fond memories of The Cat of Nine Tails.  Flogging is a British art form which is part of their history.  Montserratians are known as Skerrit and Antiguans as Garrett people, because of the architecture of their houses.  It also has to do with penal institutions (a borstal, or skerrit, is a home for juvenile offenders).  This is how Montserrat is known while Antigua is known as Garrett which is really from the word garrote meaning to choke to death.  One famous Governor General was once garroted by irate slaves there.  (Good to know Antigua is famous for something.)

Actually Antigua produces excellent Cricket players (Sir Vivian Richards and Andy Roberts et al).  Good Cricket and boring people.  The landscape is beautiful, flat, and boring like the people themselves.  Whereas Montserrat is steep with mountains green and endless as life itself.  Like Haiti, of which it is said that behind every mountain is yet another mountain.  Sometimes people from Antigua and people from Montserrat marry and create interesting children, but, mostly, they co-exist.

No, you can never see history.  It’s too broad and doesn’t wear a dress.  At best all you can see is your family and so you use them as history.  First you start with yourself.  As a child I believed I was chosen.  How could I not be when there was always the house I was born in and the garden that was the largest in Montserrat?  My Grandmother’s garden at Corkhill.  And the soft barefoot step of servant girls from country always just two steps behind waiting to pick up after me and gleaners.  Yes there was always someone bending and gleaning.  This was called “privilege.”  And what was it I thought I knew of the world there in Corkhill so close to the town of Plymouth?  I knew the difference between a front door and a back one and who should enter by which.  And I knew what a closed gate was for.  To keep out the people from the North who were poor and suffered from inbreeding which made them mongoloid and not to be dealt with except at Christmas time when everyone was acceptable for Masquerade and fete.

I knew that the house was mine and the garden and the car in the driveway which no one knew how to drive.  All this was mine and young.  Young like the servant girls with names like Annie and Sis.  Which you made so free with.  They too would be mine when I got old enough to maintain an erection.  Until then I would wait and touch and suck on their nipples when they’d let me, and they’d say: “Not big enough yet.  I’ll tell you when It’s big enough to do something with.”  And give it a kindly squeeze of encouragement so as not to shatter my heart forever.  Yes, servant girls who came from country to town on foot as generations of Irish servant girls had done before them.

And so I lived the illusion, and in the dream which was dreaming me, I was lord of the manor.  The young man of great expectations — everything he wore was from America, that strange place across the waters where the letters with stamps came from with money orders and remittances.  And it must have been very far really because I could see from the jetty and the sea where the ships came in carrying people of leather and trunks and cars and an occasional white face.  And I was named Charles because the Prince was and at times I confused myself with him.  And if I was confused, my mother was even more so because she was the generation before.  A different dress for every day of the year and a piano waiting silently in the parlor.  And told who she could speak with and where and what hour was acceptable.  And of course there were people from dark parts of the island who were not to be dealt with at all.  Places like Kinsale, which had a certain reputation for violence and low life.  And so of course who else would she fall in love with but the Kinsale boy who was my father?  Now my father wasn’t any good at Shakespeare or writing much past his name, but he could read cards from another table and women from another street.  And he was real good at slipping past guardians and bribing servant girls for messages.

In Montserrat the art of the passed message is historic and has been responsible for everything from love triangles to betrayed uprisings.  Nothing gives a Montserratian more pleasure than being a courier either of disaster or a tryst.

“She say to tell you she can’t come today.  Tomorrow under the cotton tree.”  
“He say he have a lash waiting for you backside and it soon come.”

And of course in Montserrat all wounds are fresh and time has no meaning and nothing is sweeter than vengeance.  And this too is a gift of the Irish.

One day I saw two men in a nursing home, one on wheels for he had no legs, and the other on foot.  The one on foot stops the other and says:

“Aren’t you Tyler, we went to school together.”
“Yes, I’m Tyler,” says the legless one in the cart.  (Looking up longingly at the cigarette in the other’s mouth.)
“Good me never did like you.”  

With that he turns over the cart and walks joyously away. . . .  Tell me this isn’t pure Samuel Becket.  In Montserrat where all wounds are fresh.

And in Montserrat you never meet all your family.  I never met my father until late.  You always have a special relationship with the person who introduces you to your father.  It’s for that reason that Howard Fergus, the Montserrat poet and educator, holds a special place in my life.  It was he who one day said: “If you walk to that bridge and at exactly one o clock and wait at that spot, a certain man will come and stop there.  And that will be your father.  You’ll know him by his cane.”  And so I watched and waited and he came.

Only in Montserrat can that happen with such casualness.  Be it kindness or cruelty.  And all my life I’ve been looking for my father.  Either beneath the volcano in Montserrat or else finding him and losing him again and again in my uncles in New York, who were tailors who bent like Jews over their sewing machines and could cheat one more year of use from a trouser.  The New York uncles smelled of rum and their wives of Limacol.  The men would live for Friday nights when they could watch boxing on television (never having the money to actually go to Madison Square Garden).

I would seek my father in all the bent-back brooding men in London.  Old Antiguans who worked for London Transport and cooked and sold black pudding and souse and rum on weekends and sometimes sold their fourteen-year-old daughters in upper rooms in Hackney or Stoke Newington.  I would search for him among them.

My mother fled the island early.  She fled from that place where the sole preoccupation was taking other people’s business and making it your own.  She fled and went to that place from where the envelopes came: America.  And the shock she had when she found where the money came from.  The money which brought the house in Montserrat and the car which no one could drive and the servant girls who bent and waited.  All came from being a servant in New York.

And when they at last sent for me to come I too would find out.  And the nice aunts who worked twenty-hour days as domestics with every other Thursday off.  And my first day at school in the South Bronx, to which I’d come with my white starched shirt and my Episcopalian face and my Good Behavior and my expectations from Teacher Biddy’s class.  But this wasn’t Teacher Biddy’s.  Fists greeted me and feet kicked me on my first day.  And when the girls went to recess they took a girl in the bathroom and stuck her head in the toilet and kept flushing until she drowned and then they smoked cigarettes and left.  And when I went home to the nice Tanti and she asked:

“So how you like school?”

“Fine,” I said because nice Tanti lived in kitchens and the lives of white people’s children only, and not in America, not the one I knew anyway.  She wouldn’t want to hear what I had to tell her.

If the Caribbean was built on illusion, what is it that America is built on? America is the dream factory.  Here is where the dreams begin.  And in the Caribbean small islands dream of becoming big ones.  They dream of having huge twelve-storey ships in their harbors like Antigua and St. Martin and tourists who can’t remember if they stopped here before because from a ship all islands look alike.  Small islands small corruption, big ones big corruptions, bigger slave markets.

And what better way to enter the big people world than through drugs?  And indeed ten years ago Montserrat was all set to go court the big time and go corrupt.  She was no longer quite a virgin because she had been fondled before for the Beatles had built their recording studio here and although Kentucky Fried was not quite on the island it was close by in Antigua twenty minutes away.  There were noises being made about maybe off-shore banking.  And where you have banks money is sure to follow.  Why not make use of the quiet runway to land drugs and become somebody?  Then we too could have a Montego Bay like Jamaica, and a Baxter Road like Barbados, where former doctors and lawyers wonder the roads having lost everything to addiction.

Unfortunately just when the operation was about to begin the Soufrière volcano (never quite asleep) decided to erupt and, to quote Archie Markham, “vomit up corruption.”  Of course all the wizards were sure it would soon go back to sleep.  Four years later they were not so certain.  And it was 12:55 when the clock in Plymouth stopped in the square and wept lava.  12:55 beneath the steeple where my father met my mother and her mother had met her father before her.  12:55 when the ash like molten fire took half the island and then paused like the whip hand of an overseer to study its handiwork.  12:55 when all the jumbies of O’Garro and Weekes and Lynch would rise from their graves and relocate to Antigua and St. Kitts and even England.  And so Montserrat lost its big chance at corruption.

Now I wasn’t there when the clocks stopped.  I was in the City of cities which is New York.  I was walking the streets of the South Bronx.  The Bronx is the highest borough in New York and because of its hills it is the borough which is closest to God.  Here is where I saw my first murder and made love for the first time (both on the same day and so forever the two acts would remain entwined in my mind as coming of age).  The Bronx is that borough which because of its many hills is closest to Montserrat.  And there was where I found myself when news of the volcano reached me.  So I immediately came home to die nobly beneath the volcano with the others, but the volcano was not the least bit interested in me or my dying nobly beneath it, and the only time it even paid any attention to me was when I was foolish enough to try and swim in gale force winds in order to challenge God, but He won that contest and when I almost died some mile and a half from shore my only thought was: well at least this is better than watching Oprah on television.  When I was finally slammed into shore, too weary to even walk, I realized that if I didn’t somehow grab hold of the rocks I would be washed out to sea again.  And when I finally fell on my back and looked up at the sky, I saw the volcano was laughing at me and belching ash.  I would never be so foolish and test God quite that way again.

And it eased my pain to know that some of that ash would fall in Antigua and maybe go as far as Puerto Rico more than a hundred and fifty miles away and make them curse us damn Montserratians and our volcano.  The word: Schadenfreude is German for taking delight in other people’s misery.  The word may be German but that delight is very Montserratian.  When you reach a certain age you enjoy your friends and your enemies equally and you take your pleasures where you find them.

Whenever I think of the Caribbean, I think of that painting of the Last Supper by Da Vinci.  You see all the disciples seated at the table with Christ in the center and you know that they are all vying to see who can sit closest to him.  That is the situation with the Caribbean, only now it is of course America which everyone wants to sit next to.  And for the right to sit at that table most islands are willing to sell anything.  Starting with their sovereignty and ending with their water rights and beaches and of course the lives of their children.  For what better dumping ground for waste than the Caribbean?  And when I think of that Last Supper table, I think of Eugenia Charles of St. Lucia, sitting next to President Reagan and selling out Grenada for a chance at a closer seat (and the then General Colin Powell another good son of the island of Jamaica and we grew up in the same neighborhood although Colin never walked the South Bronx streets, he was always too busy studying).  Eugenia Charles thought that by selling herself she would get a larger aid package as she’d been promised.  Instead she got her aid grant cut in half for now with Grenada gone Reagan decided he didn’t really need her anymore.  She therefore lost both her seat as well her mind.  And where do small islands sit at tables?  Of course it’s who gets paid first in times of crisis that determines where you sit.  In any crisis the police always get paid first and then the soldiers, which means that those islands with strong police forces and soldiers sit first.  Then next to be seated are the blessed, i.e. those rich in resources like oil.  And the poorest ones, where do they sit?  The ones without armies or strong police, when do they get seated?

They don’t.  They sit on the ground like Lazarus and wait for the crumbs to fall from the master’s table.

Speaking of Grenada, I had a chance to go there and do a play I had written called: Three Kings Darkly.  It was about their invasion and was directed by a brilliant Barbadian director named Earl Warner (whom God loved and so took early).  I remember the beauty of the island which reminded me of Montserrat although Grenada (the Spice Island of the Caribbean) has a better breeze from all sides of the island.

Then I was reminded of Rome.  Why?  Because like Rome America insisted that all the wreckage from the invasion remain visible.  The downed airplane for example, and so the children on their way to school are forced to walk around this monument to their defeat, just like Rome did with crosses of the crucified left on the hills of every city, as a warning of what happens if you dare to challenge the imperial might of Rome.  If you recall, Rome was supposed to last a thousand years.  America has another six hundred to go.  So where do we sit at the table while we wait?

One thing I know for certain, I don’t want to see my island turned into a theme park or a Disney attraction.  I don’t want them making endless remakes of The Little Mermaid.  I don’t want the sounds of daily gunfire like Jamaica with its almost military police wars.  Anyone in the Caribbean who speaks of genuine change (by which we mean that the same twelve families who have ruled Jamaica for example since Emancipation no longer control the land and the estates) is asking for trouble.  Everything must remain exactly the same.  A mulatto elite controlling everything from sugar and rum to newspapers.

I remember when I was in Jamaica doing a play and researching the life of Don Drummond, Jamaica’s greatest musician who died in the madhouse at Bellevue, after killing his beautiful Syrian girlfriend in a jealous rage and then turning himself in.  (A story of true Caribbean love.)  I was staying at the Pegasus Hotel and living large because the government was putting me up.  There was a man who actually knew and had played with Don Drummond and we would meet every day and drink and talk.  One day I couldn’t find him so I found a friend and asked him to show me where the man stayed.  His friend not thinking (and wanting the tip I promised him) took me around in a circle to the back of the hotel, and there, not twenty feet away from the Pegasus, he had built a shanty out of tin and rocks and lived right there in the shadow of the hotel, his one good pants drying in the sun.  Imagine his embarrassment and anger at my having found him.  Imagine my shame — I hadn’t stopped to think how he might feel to be discovered in his nakedness.  We looked at each other from eyes of illusion.  He jealous of my privilege and I hating it.  I hated being at the Pegasus and all it stood for.

I can’t be comfortable with someone else making my bed.  As a child I thought it big fun to throw my clothes around the room just for the simple pleasure of watching the servant girls with their short dresses bending over to collect them.  I still like girls in short dresses but I don’t like people fetching and carrying for me — it embarrasses me.  Maybe I still carry my mother’s guilt.  I remember the best conversation my mother and I ever had about Montserrat.  She called it living in a bubble, all the things she thought were so important and precious at the time, and only when she came to the reality of America did she see what nonsense the class-conscious world she grew up in really was.  (My mother, Phyllis White, whom I grew increasingly to love, rejoiced and called me in the kitchen one day to show me proudly her first boiling egg, with her dimpled smile and all the enthusiasm of Christmas.  She was then aged thirty-five at the time.  I don’t think I can give a clearer example of the world she came from.)

Artists live in a dream world, romantic and removed from reality (which is why I usually avoid fellow artists like the plague).  Not as removed as, say, preachers and priests, but a good ways away from how people really live and the things that people and islands do for respect and a seat at any table.

As I say the Caribbean is built on illusion and looking good.  Even though the shoes you wear to church are two sizes too small it doesn’t matter a damn just as long as you look presentable when you wear them because they’re good for you and anyway America is where God comes from in the first place so you must wear them.  Especially if they’ve come all the way from America in a barrel.  God Himself comes from America in a barrel.  And if not in a barrel then surely on evangelist radio.  If you doubt me you need only listen to the Voice of America broadcasting one radio evangelist after another on those expensive airwaves.  Certainly Pat Robertson and Billy Graham (father and son) know just how important the Caribbean radio audience market is.

The Caribbean alone, never mind Africa, has been able to keep both James Dobson and Pat Robertson in Arabian racehorses which by the way they both own aplenty.  I sincerely believe that’s why God made us, not only to labor for others endlessly, but then to take our exploited wages and give it away to televangelists from America and keep them in racehorses.  You see how slavery has taken a new form.  Whereas before the masters had to at least feed and provide clothing for his slaves, now the new slaves feed and clothe the master and feed him well.  We keep them in jet planes and racehorses and they give us the world to come.  Some distant paradise to come when we will be rewarded at last and money won’t matter.  And of course they will run that place too.

Yes, Caribbean islands of illusion.  I’ll end with something that one of the most vital women to come out of Montserrat once told me.  It was Mrs. Ellen Peters, one of the pioneers of the labor movement in Montserrat.  It took me some time to see her, because, you see, I had met her grandson one day when he was the owner of a restaurant (The Harbour Court) in what was then Plymouth (the now destroyed main town of Montserrat).  He, Levon, threw me out because I dared enter his premises without a shirt.  I forgot where I was, in Episcopalian Montserrat you do nothing with your shirt off except swim and go to bed and then only if alone.  Maybe if you’re a worker on a road you might get away with it, but mind yourself because someone is looking, someone is always looking in Montserrat.  In polite society, never ever go into town without a shirt, unless you want to be taken for a Rasta.

So now to return to Mrs. Ellen Peters, it was a little difficult to return to the same premises (with a shirt and my mother’s dimpled smile and beg him to let me interview his grandmother).  He looked at me as if I had asked to take her on a first-date.  But someone told him I had written a book someplace, and so since Montserratians have a high regard for books and pens and preachers and lawyers, he allowed me a half hour while he waited just outside the door in case she screamed rape.  Of course when she started speaking with that sharp mind of hers that lasted a century, it ended up being two hours, and the most important thing she told me:

“You have to forgive Montserrat, especially the men, they don’t like change, but they like what change brings.”

In other words the fight to start a union was very hard in Montserrat because we make such good servants.  We grumble when they shortchange us with our wages or take away our provision lands for taxes, but we take it.  When a man has no money, he looks first at his empty hands and then down at his feet, because these are all he owns.  And then he beats his wife because his hands are empty and if he doesn’t beat her he beats himself.

If it were not for the women who kept after their men at home to do something, Montserrat would still not have a union.  It was the women who insisted and the women who built the building societies in America and Canada.  The women and then the men.  Montserrat is still that place where people pass and give you pieces of your history.  Never all of it for that would be too overwhelming.  Even my sister, Rita, will only give me bits of my father at a time.  She knows just how much I need have.

When you think of it, though, for such a tiny island we have sent into every corner of the world a piece of ourselves.  People like Judge Bruce Wright.  Writers and activists like Stokely Carmichael (who came home to Montserrat two months before he died).  Actors and poets, preachers and thieves.  We, like the Irish, not only make good servants.  We also make revolutions.  May Montserrat never become like Antigua or St. Martin.  Our harbors are too small for Leviathan tourist ships.

We have no gambling casinos, no off-shore banking, no bauxite, no oil.  We have nothing to sell but ourselves and the faces of children.  And in these I try always to find my own face and the child I once was before the hands I never knew took me for “upliftment and the land of opportunity” which is America.  That place of Caribbean exiles from every island, New York especially where there are more Caribbean domestics and nannies and hospital workers per square inch than anywhere in the world.  I see sweet Tanti everywhere repeated endlessly.  And think on this:

From birth to death, in America, it is a black face and black hands.  Whether from the South (which is just another Caribbean plantation) or the West Indies.  The first face a baby born in the hospital will see will in all probability be a black one and the first voice heard will have an accent, but the love will get through regardless of the accent and the baby will know it’s safe.  The next phase will either be the nanny or the maid who will also have an accent.  When they become infirm or grow old it will probably be a home attendant with an accent pushing their chairs.  And when death finally comes the hands which shut the eyes and remove them from the hospital will probably also be black and the last voice heard will probably have an accent.  So the entire cycle of the American dream is being circumscribed by Caribbean and Black American labor though no one will mention it.

We and the Irish have so much in common for like them we too have to believe we came from a land of giants (the mighty Finns of countless Celtic legends) so as to make our present captivity less painful.  Our shrinkage and our honor.  Montserrat, where every wound is fresh and every pleasure taken.  Montserrat where even servants have servants.

And always with a style of our own.  Whether from Cork Hill and Glenn Mohr or the infamous Kinsale.  From my mother I got the feel of privilege, from my father the feel of war.

Edgar Nkosi White is a playwright and novelist, and he recently returned home to Montserrat for the Montserrat Festival of the Word, an annual event.  His play, Masada, will be performed at the National Theatre in London, in December. Edgar Nkosi White

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