Diana McCaulay

Diana_McCaulay

 

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY ANCESTORS 

Translated into modern Standard English by the writer

By Diana McCaulay

The speakers:

Nancy McLean (circa 1760-?) – An enslaved woman, taken as a slave wife by a plantation owner of Portugese extraction, Hananel d’Aguilar. She was freed by her owner and described herself as a “mustee” – so was of mixed race herself.  She never took the name of her last owner and her children were also named McLean.

David McLean (1791-1851) – the son of Hananel d’Aguilar and Nancy McLean. Freed by his father when he was nine months old; went on to own a plantation and slaves.  Received compensation for 45 slaves in 1835.

Mary Ann Kentish (1801-?) David’s wife.  Also the descendant of a plantation owner and an enslaved woman. They had nine children together and only got married after all nine had been born.

Annie Louisa Baggett Gray (1853-1947) – the granddaughter of David McLean and Mary Ann Kentish.  The writer’s great grandmother.

And me, Diana McCaulay, (1953-?)

 

The places: Middleton coffee plantation, St. David, subsequently St. Thomas. Mason Hall, St. Mary. Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city.

 

Nancy in 1796: I want to make it clear I was never a field slave – I never put one foot in a canepiece. I am educated. I am not black, not at all. I am not African. My skin is fair and my hair is good. I am high born, so my mother told me. My father was a white man named McLean and he was descended from royalty. He was royal, so I am royal. My mother died when I was young, I don’t remember exactly when, and I was sold to another plantation. Yes, I was sold, yes, I was a slave, but I was different too. I was sold to Master d’Aguilar, Maas Dag, we called him, because his name was strange. He flogged a slave the first time he heard it; thought the slave called him a dog. That was at Mason Hall in the hills. One day he came to the kitchen to complain about his tea and he saw me. I was maybe fourteen or so. A big woman. He was very white and royal calls to royal. He saw what was in me. Maybe it was rape, I don’t know. My life with him was better than the fields, that is what I know. I did what I had to. I never loved him, though. Well, I did not think about loving. When my children came, I called them McLean. The one and only time Maas Dag beat me it was over that.

You ask me if I think about race. I only know white is at the top and black is at the bottom. I am glad I am fair and I am glad my children came out fair. Maas Dag allowed me to learn to read and write – he had another woman who was much blacker than me and he never let her be educated. We hated each other, her and me. Nobody can tell me I am the same as her.  She had one boy and he came out brown. He drowned in a flood when he was about five. I gave my children the best gift possible – fair skin. I saw them buy land and build houses and they were respected.

Maas Dag freed my children and two years ago, he freed me. He put aside money for me. He did love me in his way. I tell my children about their royal blood all the time.    

David in 1848: I was my mother’s favourite because I was the whitest of their seven children. My mother taught me about the benefits of white skin, white blood. You are asking me a stupid question, if I call myself white. Look at me! Of course I am white. Maybe I am not as white as my father, but I am white. White is what matters. My mother always said she had hopes for me and she made me learn my lessons. When the cook told me that I was too big for my breeches because I was born a slave and I was no better than any black person, my mother told me it was foolishness. Forget about it, she said, you are not a slave now. We are free white people and we are going to live like free white people. It was she who took me to church and encouraged me to make sure the elder churchmen knew me. That is how I became a vestryman. Black people can do nothing for you, she told me, and it was true. I met Mary Ann at church and my mother liked her – I only found out her mother was a slave after we had our first child, Rebecca, and she was too dark. We were going to get married, but when I saw Rebecca I did not want to marry Mary Ann anymore. I was afraid of her blood because I did not want black children. But we stayed together, and while we lived at Middleton, we were happy. Of course we had slaves! You can’t run a plantation without slaves. Everybody found that out at Emancipation. I was 43 when the apprenticeship time started and that was the beginning of the end for us. By then I had nine children, some lighter and some darker, and Mary Ann and me had married. I had a lot of mouths to feed in my family and the freed slaves would not work, no matter how much we paid them. I tell you the truth, I hated them. They belonged in the fields. Only people far away from Jamaica had the luxury to talk about Emancipation.  My mother saw it too although she was old by then. She said freedom was not for everybody. There are black people wanting to be Vestrymen, can you imagine? I am going to do my best to make sure that never happens.

Mary Ann in 1852: I knew my husband would be killed one day. He never saw the danger of the former slaves, never saw that a watershed day was coming, a day when our time would be done. He never saw the freed slaves as people. We used to argue about it. I tried to tell him that a horse works better with good food and rest and kindness, but he would not listen. He said black people were nothing but a threat to us. But we need them, I would say to him. They do everything for us – work the fields, cook our food, clean our house, look after our children – how can they be a threat? He told me I did not understand because I was a woman. He told me never to say those things to anyone outside our house. We grew coffee at Middleton – how I loved that place! Our house looked down the Morant River valley and we had a windmill that brought the water right to the back door. The house slaves brought the water to us in the house and up the stairs to the bedrooms. One day I tried to carry my own water and I was surprised how heavy it was. So a part of me was grateful to the slaves. And it wasn’t all drudgery for them – they were fed and housed and clothed. I agree with my husband that they don’t feel things exactly like us, but they do feel. I have seen how they love their children and I hate to see them beaten. I am a Christian woman and I don’t like violence even though I know it is necessary sometimes. You ask me if I think of myself as white – I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as black, that I can say. I don’t really want to talk about race, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to think about it – can’t you ask me some other questions?

Why did I stay at Middleton after David was murdered? It was my home! My children were born there. Land is what matters, don’t you know that?

Annie Louisa in 1945: Yes, of course I’m glad the war is over – my grandson was killed in the Battle of Britain. He was a pilot and he’s buried over there. Lovely boy. Such a tragedy. I will never see his grave. What’s that? Oh you want to talk about long ago! Don’t you think it’s best not to dig up the past? Well, if you insist. I do remember the talk about Emancipation at my parent’s dinner table when I was a child. I was born in 1853 and we lived in Kingston by then, but my parents used to talk about the plantation our family owned in St. Thomas – it was called Middleton. They said Emancipation killed it. I was not sure what that meant, I thought Emancipation was a kind of animal and I was afraid of it (laughs). It was Sarah, my nanny, who told me about the freeing of the slaves. She said it was a good day for Jamaica, but my father said it was terrible. The plantations failed and people starved, he said. It had not been properly managed, my father said, and we are still feeling the effects today. Often he talked about the Morant Bay rebellion when many white people were chopped up at the courthouse in St Thomas. This gave me nightmares for awhile. When I was a teenager I asked him to take me to Middleton but he said it did not exist anymore, it had been sold off to black people. Peasants, he said, and I could tell he did not think such people were worthy. My mother was determined I should be a lady and I was taught how to speak French and play the piano. I had a governess and she taught me and my brothers and sisters our lessons. She was not married and my mother told me this was very sad – I forget her name now. I am at the end of my life and it is strange what you remember and do not remember. I had a good life and I still miss my husband who has been dead more than 40 years. Am I of mixed blood? Is that what you are asking me? Of course not! What an idea. My family has been in Jamaica for generations and we’re white people with allegiance to King and mother country. My grandson died for King and country. Properly brought up people do not talk about race. You must know that. No, I don’t have any black friends. What an idea. I’m tired now and it’s time for my tea. I must ring for my maid – could you pass that bell over there?                                   

Diana in 2015: Did my family talk about race? Only obliquely. I remember my father had an argument that went like this: If you say black men are good athletes, that’s fine. But if you say black men are lazy, that’s racist – why? I didn’t have the words to argue with him as a teenager but I did think that what my father saw as laziness was just a failure to carry out his own demands. I thought the black people who worked for us both at home and at my father’s business worked much harder than my parents did. I didn’t start to think about race until a boy shouted “pork!” at me in the streets. It was before I went to high school, so I must have been ten or so. I didn’t know what it meant and asked Roslyn, our cook. She told me it meant “white meat” and I still didn’t fully understand.

As Kei Miller has written, I would say my skin colour was chosen for me. As a child, I thought of myself as simply Jamaican; I felt and still feel the strongest of connections to the island itself but as I grew older, more and more people told me I was white and further, not Jamaican. I’d be mistaken for a tourist in the streets and white skin attracted commentary, often unpleasant or threatening. I disliked hearing: But you’re not Jamaican, are you?

The way we were taught about slavery in school was very distancing – it was like any other historical event or battle that we had to memorize. It didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me or my family, but I’m a reader, and as I read more and more about what slavery meant, I grew uncomfortable with the subject. Like many of my background, I felt we should just forget it and move on; it was so many years ago. Like my ancestors, I didn’t really want to think about it or talk about it. I knew my great grandfather had been a Baptist missionary and I told everyone that was my heritage – not plantation ownership.

It was only in the past ten years or so that I started to think more deeply about race and my own Jamaican story. I started doing research and over a long period of time, uncovered (and am still uncovering) my family’s connections to slavery and plantation ownership. I don’t feel guilt or shame, no. This was not something I personally did. But I think it’s important to understand the full dimensions of what our history has created in the present. I’m aware of my privilege, the giant head start my ancestry has given me. It has been alienating and painful to have my Jamaican-ness called into question, but I know it’s not nearly as painful as the racism and inequality that still permeates our society. 

In the last year or so, I’ve learned about some of my ancestors – the actual people. I’m descended from a Portugese Sephardic Jew and an enslaved West African woman. One of their sons was both a slave and an owner of slaves, so in him, there lived all the contradictions and tragedy of Jamaica.

I have imagined that my ancestors would have been uncomfortable talking about race. I think that has not changed much – still, we don’t like to talk about it.  We want to believe it’s over. But it isn’t.

The word I like when thinking about our history is “reconciliation.” We have to reconcile ourselves to what happened, acknowledge it, remember it, feel grief and regret and empathy, create memorials and events at which we come together, try to right the inequalities in the present, reach across all that divides us.

I think it’s difficult to find new ways of thinking about whiteness. I don’t feel I have said anything here that is new. My ancestors were people of their time, wanting better lives for themselves and their children, and they did it on the backs of others. In fact, they created the idea of “others”; something human beings have always done – there is “us” and there is “them”.  But if you delve into the stories of my ancestors you find all the complexities of human relationships – Hananel d’Aguilar’s father had to flee to London from the Inquisition; perhaps that drew his youngest son to the New World. Nancy McLean obviously identified with whiteness but wouldn’t take the name of the man who fathered her children, freed them, freed her and settled money on her. David was born in slavery and went on to own slaves. After his murder, Mary Ann stayed in her parish which must have been becoming unrecognizable to her.  She claimed it. And that is what we have to do, I think, claim our place, claim our history, our home. Jamaica is yaad for all of us. That’s the starting point for me.      

 

 

Bio:

Diana McCaulay is an award winning Jamaican writer and a lifelong resident of its capital city Kingston. She has written two novels, Dog-Heart (March 2010) and Huracan (July 2012), published by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. Dog-Heart won a Gold Medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s National Creative Writing Awards (2008), was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize (2011), the IMPAC Dublin Award (2012) and the Saroyan Prize for International Writing (2012). Huracan was also shortlisted for the 2014 Saroyan Prize. Her third novel, initially titled The Dolphin Catchers, placed second in the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature and recently won the Vic Reid Award for Young Adult Literature at Jamaica’s national Lignum Vitae Awards. Now entitled Gone to Drift, Diana’s first young adult novel will be published in February 2016 by Papillote Press.

 

Diana also won the Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean writing in 2014, for her non fiction work-in-progress Loving Jamaica: a memoir of place and (not) belonging.

 

Diana was a popular newspaper columnist for The Gleaner (1994-2001) and her short fiction has been published by Granta On Line, Eleven Eleven, Fleeting Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, Afro-Beat, Lifestyle Magazine and the Jamaica Observer’s literary supplement, Bookends. She was the Caribbean regional winner for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story prize in 2012 for her story The Dolphin Catcher.

 

Diana founded the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) in 1991 and still serves as its CEO and guiding force. Her writing contains an authenticity and vibrancy derived from her active participation at many levels of Jamaican society

 

 

 

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