a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
(This novel, edited by Mrs. Straughan’s, nephew, Evan X Hyde, will be published in serial form in Amandala.)
Matron, as most of us called her, was my mother’s best friend. She was not the first native to be appointed to that post at the local public hospital, but she was the first who was dark-skinned and, therefore, unmistakably one of us.
In colonial societies the ruling class is usually comprised of citizens of the colonizing country (in this case British and white) and over time, what has been described as an hierarchy of colour had developed when this group reproduced by mating with the black population of various shades. The elite in this hierarchy denied that racial discrimination existed, but the saying: “If you’re white, you’re right; if you’re brown, stick around; and if you’re black, get to the back,” pretty much explained the imposed order of things in the perception of the ordinary man. And although not British-born, light or white-skinned natives appointed to office preferred to identify with the ruling elite, regarding Britain as the “mother country” to which they aspired to return.
Although so busy that she didn’t call often, her visits with Mama were always memorable. Their friendship began in their late teens when she came from the capital of the southernmost district of our country to board with my grandmother whilst she trained to be a nurse at the Government hospital.
My grandmother took in boarders to support herself and her children after my great-grandfather died when her younger child was about four years old. She had only two children: my Uncle Lito (so-called because he was round and chubby as a baby, resembling a little barrel, hence “barrelito,” in keeping with the Spanish practice of sometimes forming the diminutive with the addition of “ito” to the noun) and my mother who was seven years old when he was born. As an aside, I might comment that our country, the last British colony in Central America at the time, being surrounded by Spanish-speaking republics had absorbed into our everyday speech many words, idioms, and conventions of the Spanish language.
My grandfather had “gone his merry way” between the two births and fathered some “outside children,” as the local saying goes. My great-grandfather had supported his daughter and her children, my grandfather dropping in with some “maintenance” now and again, and had left the house to her when he passed on.
Mama did most of the housework involved with looking after the boarders, and when Matron came to live with them when she was about eighteen, they formed a very close friendship, finding they had a lot in common. They were the same age, belonged to the Anglican denomination, both of a serious disposition, church-going, socially aware and very civic-minded. Together they had been the first to show and inspire all those whose lives they touched with the idea of taking responsibility for our independence both as individuals and collectively as a country.
Matron was the elder of the two daughters of “Teacher Bertram,” well-known in Anglican circles as a ‘nother-country man, having come from one of the British Caribbean islands in the latter part of the nineteenth century. He was also known in the community as “brilliant,” “sharp,” “smart,” but a very cruel man.
The story was told that in the island from which he migrated he had excelled academically, becoming a Licentiate of the College of Preceptors through studying by correspondence and tutoring courses provided from time to time by visiting educators and had risen through the school system to the position of Assistant Principal of the Secondary School of the capital town.
He spent several years in that post with no sign of further advancement, since the post of Principal was traditionally awarded to someone with at least a Bachelor’s degree. The local clergyman usually qualified for, and filled it. Usually also, he was expatriate and white. At the time there was no tertiary level institution in his island, or the region for that matter, where a native without financial backing might acquire a higher qualification to enable him to compete with degreed, white expatriates. The opportunity for academic advancement being closed to him, after some years as Assistant Principal he began making inquiries in Diocesan circles about the possibility of obtaining employment elsewhere in the Caribbean offering greater challenge to his abilities. He was eventually offered and accepted a principalship in this country, but in a Primary not a Secondary school, in the southernmost district town, far from the Capital.
Of a “strong” colour, a synonym for dark in this part of the world, he had married a light-skinned lady, a “poor relation” of a local white family, who had borne him a son. When taking up the post here, he had come ahead and she was to follow with the son once he had become settled. The Diocese, however, had provided him with single-man quarters until his family showed up, but, there he had remained indefinitely. Meanwhile, monthly deductions had been made from his pay and transmitted for the maintenance of his family back home.
“Creole mouth” maliciously speculated out loud that the fact of his not being provided with family housing indicated that the administration knew something he didn’t. The reference to “Creole mouth” was another way of saying that the local population, which at that time was predominantly Creole, was of the opinion that those in charge had anticipated that this would happen. Our country was often characterized as backward, swampy, and mosquito-infested, and outsiders avoided it if they could.
Creoles, as I mentioned before, were the largest segment of the population at the time, and this description applied to any non-white person with African ancestry in his background. Thus, it applied to persons of a range of shades from dark brown to even white skin colour. I suspect it was the light-skinned coloureds who first adopted that description, perhaps preferring to identify with the reportedly elite group of similar physical appearance in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States.
When outsiders ask what the word implies in terms of everyday living, I always think of the lyrics of the Mighty Sparrow’s inspired Calypso entitled: “Love One Another,” which takes issue with the absence of loyalty or camaraderie among our people, and in which he cites “a coloured man prejudiced against another coloured man,” as causing worldwide confusion, asking “when will we learn that we all are one – pink, brown, blue, or any complexion?” His condemnation of discrimination in shades of the colour of the skin as being “damn disgusting” gives the example of the narrator whose family threw him out because: “I am black and they were brown!” He opines that “the black race is faced with a colour scheme problem, very pretty to look at but so difficult at solving.” Finally, he recommends that we “learn to respect and love another,” predicting that “until we do accomplish this, the world will be separated through prejudice.” Of course, people everywhere can agree that this is undoubtedly a fool-proof prescription for solving many, if not all, of the world’s problems.
Embarrassed at first, then humiliated by their delayed arrival, Teacher Bertram allegedly made representation to the Diocesan authorities for dissolution of the marriage if after seven years his wife and child did not make an appearance. Of course, people in our kind of society, who are often kept in the dark about the workings of ecclesiastical or government institutions, concocted their own explanations for happenings around them. This is probably what gave rise to the local saying: “When Creole people se da so, if da no so da naily so,” a rough translation of which is that, “When Creole people say it’s so, if it’s not so it is nearly so.”
Naturally, nobody could either verify or deny that story, but when, some two years after that time limit, he travelled to a coastal Garifuna village and returned with a wife, and still continued as Principal of the school, people accepted that as proof of its veracity.
When the truth came out along afterwards, nothing so dramatic had been the case. The lady, not hearing directly from her husband for many years, had struggled to keep up appearances, but when her only child left home for foreign parts at the age of fourteen (as a stowaway on a ship, it was rumoured), and her affluent relatives “needed” the room she had been occupying, she had been left to fend for herself with only the maintenance from her husband. She had hung on as helper in the household of darker-skinned relatives, taking less and less interest in herself and growing thinner and thinner.
Callous people observed that she looked as if a feather would knock her over. Their prediction came true when “feather,” in the form of a cough which developed into bronchitis, knocked her over after several weeks. When no contact could be made with her son, (there was no clue among her papers as to where he might be,) the relatives paid for and arranged her funeral with the help of the Mother’s Union of the church she had attended all her life.
I should mention that the Garifuna, originally called “Black Caribs,” was one of the ethnic groups of our country. Historical accounts describe them as the result of a mixing of Africans brought to this area of the world during the slave trade with an indigenous tribe called Caribs, who had settled in some of the islands and territories of the Caribbean. They fiercely resisted enslavement and, because of this, some had originally been deported from the island of St. Vincent by the British to the Bay Islands of Honduras. From there some of them braved the seas of the Bay of Honduras in flimsy, home-made crafts, finally reaching safety on our shores, where they settled in the southern districts.
From the new union, two daughters appeared in due course; first Octavia, and two years later, Millicent. From his first appearance on the local scene, Teacher Bertram was known as gifted, brilliant, and dedicated. “If you can’t learn from him, you can’t learn from anybody!” people said. Parents praised him for being resourceful, enthusiastic, persistent, and thorough, and never giving up on any student. He ruled his classroom with a two-strand sash cord about eighteen inches long. Our foreparents seemed to regard cruelty as a necessary and even admirable quality of a good teacher, and in this he certainly excelled. So much so, that the Diocesan manager of schools soon began to receive complaints from the mothers of the female students about the severity of the lashings he administered. In response to these complaints, which increased over time, the administration finally requested in writing that he cease the practice of inflicting corporal punishment on female students and, instead, refer them to the more senior of his two assistant teachers in future.
Naturally, such restrictions did not apply where his own daughters were concerned. Matron told Mama of his practice of accumulating punishment for at school and at home misbehavior into a grand total for “when he was ready,” an ominous and frightening phrase.
“I remember his lashings from the time I know myself,” she confided. “When I was very small he would use his leather-soled slippers and lash me across the back of my legs and calves, leaving wales that lasted until the next time,” she reported; and that her mother, while never taking part actively, always stood by in encouragement and support of him, without ever once consoling, showing sympathy, or appealing for clemency on behalf of her daughters.
She related how on one occasion when she and her sister were spending holiday in her grandparents’ village, the wales on her skin were noticed by her grandmother when she was changing into her nightdress and she had asked who was responsible. When she had learnt who it was, her grandmother had exploded in loud protests in the Garifuna language, railing up that her daughter should not allow such happenings and declaring she would ask her husband to speak to their son-in-law to put a stop to it.
“My grandmother was the sweetest person you could ever find,” Matron said, “and Grandpa loved her so much that he tried to please her in every way, except that. This is something I found out about Mother’s people. Garifuna men are slow to censure adult males. Besides this, he thought so highly of my father that he refused to interfere in what he saw as his personal and private business. This is easy to understand when you realize how much my mother’s people prize education. Most of the villagers were in awe of my father.”
She explained that she could only understand the exchange between her grandparents through relatives who were present, as she and Millicent had not been allowed to learn the language, her father having arbitrarily decided that this was a waste of time, as “no textbooks were written in Garifuna.” Her relatives, however, who sided with her grandmother, were happy to regale her with the details and to express support for her, as, although they respected Teacher Bertram, they disliked his domineering ways and his disregard for their culture.
Most of the background to her story I learnt from my mother over the years, but also from people in and around the Medical Department where I spent all my working life, having followed Matron’s footsteps into the nursing profession. From overbearing conversations between Mama and Matron, however, I gathered that her rebellion dated from early childhood, and only intensified as the years passed. She admitted having bided her time until opportunity came for her to leave home, letting her father believe that she was preparing herself to take care of him and her mother in their old age when in fact that had been only an excuse for escaping that life.
Matron, of course, was legendary in Medical circles and people were proud of and delighted in relating stories about her, quoting dialogue as if they had been present when events had taken place. They enlarged on the details and ascribed to her some words totally out of character for the person I know, but she was a heroine to us all and I didn’t have the heart to discredit the familiarity they claimed. Most people respected and admired her, but were usually kept at a distance by her reserved demeanour and serious disposition, compensating by inventing and exaggerating stories about her.
n the early years she did not have much in the way of worldly goods, only the in-training stipend she received from the government, but this she willingly shared with anyone in need. Her father paid for her boarding and lodging and provided her with pocket money, through an agent; but she refused to accept money for anything but the barest necessities, so he had opened an account in her name in the Government Savings Bank, accumulating any amounts in excess of her living expenses.
All who knew her said she was very bright, like her father, but there was a practical side to her nature that was not satisfied with book learning but wanted to explore and experiment with knowledge gained and to apply it to everyday living. When, as a child, she spent holidays in her grandparents’ village, she involved herself fully in the life of the community: cultivation of ground foods and vegetables, the preparation of ethnic dishes, handicrafts, participating in religious and other ceremonies and dances, immersing herself in the culture of her mother’s people, all this without the knowledge of either of her parents. My mother told us that once she confided that the only true happiness she ever knew was while spending time with her maternal grandparents, and that she dreaded the end of the holiday season and having to return home.
Mr. Bertram kept rigid control over his household and everyone had to follow a strict timetable of his devising. This covered all their waking hours and included time set aside for everything – for reading the Bible to even private conversation among themselves, idle talk being strongly discouraged. Time was allocated for walking to and from school, doing homework, studying and, surprisingly, Matron said, a little recreation! Mama said Matron told her that once she escaped from that prison she vowed two things: one, that she would never strike another human being as long as she lived, and two, she would never live under the rule of any man.
Over the years, Matron related to my mother many stories of her life at home with her parents; and I take off my hat to her for having survived that regime. Mama liked to say how children nowadays didn’t know how lucky they were and I must say that although the older heads in general were brought up far more strictly then, Matron’s upbringing was in a special category.
(NOTE: Chapter 2 in the Friday issue of Amandala.)