It was only a small number of citizens who had the courage, ability, stamina, concern or civic-mindedness to take on all the problems that plagued our little country during the twentieth century, starting particularly during the Twenties. This was after the end of World War I, when those who returned from the front with a different outlook, resulting from exposure to the prejudices, challenges and experiences of a hostile world from which their distance had sheltered them, created a volatile and uneasy environment; but our older heads, priding themselves on their strong religious and civilized beliefs, persevered in their peaceful, tolerant and law-abiding ways to do whatever was in their power to improve their condition.
People like my parents, Matron and others sharing their outlook, appreciated that change was urgent to address the many wrongs and deficiencies of our society. They recognized that the colonial government, although responsible for development and improvement, had the more pressing demands and priorities of Great Britain, the “mother country,” which left us subject to our own efforts at building our country – not yet a country, even, but still a colony. We were like step-children of a jealous mother whose priorities and concerns were for her own children.
That the older heads shouldered the responsibility of forging a peaceful, law-abiding community, through hard work and dedication to the Bible maxim of being our brothers’ keepers and patterning life on the principle of the Golden Rule, was evident by the way in which our affairs were conducted. We were poor, but not desperate. We aspired for better, but not at the expense of our fellowmen. We were surrounded by republics which had gained independence from their colonizers through bloody conflict, and we, in contrast, took pride in our civilized method of progress, even if slow and painstaking.
The white and light-skinned in our midst took precedence over darker citizens for granted and, satisfied with their place in the scheme of things, made strenuous efforts at maintaining the status quo. They were the owners of businesses, the leaders of the churches and educational institutions, the heads of government departments and at the forefront of all civic activities. There were few entities that did not come under their complete control and/or influence.
One of these was merchant shipping; as, although the owners, captains and officers were mostly white, the native crews whilst at sea were treated with something akin to respect, at least, since they were not as easily replaceable as when on land. The sea itself was a stern enough taskmaster to discourage the timid and self-indulgent; and, as my father, who went to sea in his teens, used to say, it taught you to “be a man or die in the attempt!” It showed no preference for the shade of your skin, who your relatives were, the state of your finances or health, or your likes and dislikes; but made its demands indiscriminately and challenged you either to stand up or fall by the wayside.
Granny “P” (Mama’s maiden name was “Parham”) commented that during the years Daddy spent at sea, he came home just long enough to stay a little time with his wife and give her another baby (or, put another way, to get her pregnant); retiring when my younger sister was only a year old, just in time “to spoil his youngest child rotten,” again according to Granny “P.”
I mention the sea, as it offered the opportunity for many young men to achieve financial independence and improve their lot away from the system of the Civil Service, which was the major employer. Although, following in my father’s footsteps, my three brothers went “on ship,” the eldest, Rodney, Jr., had stayed on at an American port and worked his way westward, ending up in San Diego, California where he had settled down and gotten married. The second, Lionel, learnt navigation and stayed at sea, calling at his home port only once in a while. The youngest, Robbie, became a mechanic/electrician and found employment in the sugar factory up north when that was bought by an overseas company and expanded. The opportunity of learning different skills had equipped many young men for jobs which they could pursue on shore.
To pick up where we left off with Matron’s story, Mr. Reg consulted with my mother and grandmother, who, in turn, invited Matron’s opinion as to what was best for the child, given the particular circumstances; and the result was that Mr. Reg applied to have his son registered, the mother having provided the Christian name of “Justin,” and after he was weaned he went to live with him, the housekeeper (his maternal grandmother) caring for him, and his mother having access only at her discretion.
The rationale behind this decision was that the baby should not be committed to his mother’s care, with money entrusted to her for his maintenance, as she was not deemed dependable. It seems she had been very vocal on the subject of being smart enough to be well provided for by having the baby with a man of means, and thus enabling her to enjoy herself without having to work hard for a living.
Naturally she was not pleased with the arrangement but had no recourse, as her mother supported it enthusiastically, having her most pressing problems solved: Earning a living – looking after her grandson, seeing his future assured, and her daughter’s plans for an idle life frustrated.
The girl had been a very good student at primary school, but Miss Olivia had not been able to send her to secondary school. She had expressed her disappointment at being deprived of a higher education, which might have equipped her for an “office job,” with rebellion. She rejected her mother’s offer to pay for evening school, provided by a Miss Vernon, a retired teacher. Encouraged by “company,” she had hatched the unorthodox plan for securing her future.
At the insistence of her mother, who refused to maintain her any longer, she went job-hunting and, by coincidence, found work at the public hospital, ending up as a laundress at the same workplace as Matron, a few weeks after Justin went home to his father.
Mr. Reg gave close attention and care to Justin, being relieved that he had been able to solve his problem to the approval of Matron, whose opinion he valued highly. Although they only had contact when he called on Granny “P” and she happened to be at home, Mama had become his confidante and from to time quoted to him some comment Matron had made in the course of conversation.
Mr. Reg continued with his old life whenever time permitted and was somewhat surprised at being invited to the same social functions as formerly. No one seemed to revise their opinion of him for having fathered a child out of wedlock and, on the contrary, seemed to regard it as natural that he had “sown his wild oats” in that way. It was ironic that neither his white or light male or female acquaintances showed disapproval of what they believed to be his choice of conduct, yet none ever asked about Justin. On the other hand, Matron, who knew the facts, retreated into formality while in his company but took special interest in the child’s welfare.
‘Round about this time, Daddy, on shore leave prior to transferring to a different shipping line, had started courtship of Mama. They had known each other from schooldays but their relationship now took a romantic turn. On one occasion when he was calling on her, Mr. Reg had dropped in for a visit, they were introduced and a lifelong friendship had begun.
It turned out that Mr. Reg’s great-grandfather, a ship’s captain, had stayed on at his last port of call prior to retirement; and, although neither his grandfather nor his father had pursued a sea career, they were active in the local yacht club in their island and involved in all things nautical. So, Daddy and he had the sea in common and this proved a strong bond, as many of their friends and acquaintances were also involved in some way, either in sports activities like sailboat racing and regattas or transporting passengers and goods to towns along the coast by way of the sea. This was before the country was serviced by roads connecting the districts and all travel was on water either by river or sea.
It seems funny to be speaking of the past with such authority when I wasn’t even born yet, but one thing about a seaman is that he can tell a tale to make you feel you were present. Daddy says that when he went back on ship he and Mama corresponded with each other, during which time they made tentative arrangements to be married the next time he called at home port. It was some months before he returned, so everything was on standby until he showed up, and the wedding took place with Matron as Mama’s Maid-of-Honour and Mr. Reg as Daddy’s Best Man, Uncle Lito (no longer barrel-shaped but in his late teens and “long and lanky”) escorting Mama up the aisle, and various relatives and neighbours in attendance.
Luckily, the ship to which he was assigned needed some repairs, so Daddy’s shore leave lasted longer than expected. Two of the rooms in Granny “P”s Boarding House were rented as their domicile; so, when Daddy shipped out, Mama lived in her old home for the early years of the marriage. Their first child, Rodney, and their second, which was me (a miscarriage separated us), were born in her family home; and it was not until some years later that they moved into what became my family home. Daddy earned good money at sea, so they were able to start building the house I presently occupy with my family on a fairly large property that Daddy had purchased.
During the planning stage of my parents’ wedding, Mr. Reg had confided to Mama that he found himself thinking of Matron more and more; and asked her opinion whether it would be appropriate to approach her about a serious arrangement leading to a permanent relationship, as he was now quite sure he wanted to marry her eventually.
After consulting Matron, Mama had reported back to Mr. Reg that she returned his feelings but could not make a formal commitment until after she had completed her nursing and midwifery training. To Mr. Reg this seemed a long time for his plans to be in abeyance, so Mama suggested that he pay a visit to the home when Matron was off duty when they could discuss their situation face to face. Both parties agreed to this and, with Granny “P”s permission, a meeting was arranged for the following Sunday morning.
At that meeting they had had a long discussion and Mr. Reg was able to persuade Matron to agree to their engagement on her next birthday, some months away, but to delay the marriage until she had completed her training and become an established staff member.
Matron not being twenty-one yet, Mr. Bertram’s permission for the engagement to take place had had to be obtained, so Mr. Reg had taken the Heron H down south, and in due course returned with letters for Granny “P” and Matron from him granting permission and requesting that my grandmother oversee the arrangements on his and his wife’s behalf.
Mr. Bertram had been reluctant to give his consent to the engagement at first. I suspect that he was having difficulty accepting the idea of his daughter being both physically and emotionally out of his reach, but he had finally given in with good grace.
Matron confided to Mama that the period of the engagement had been enjoyable, as Mr. Reg was sympathetic and understanding of her need to pursue her profession and to participate in the various activities involved in community development.
For recreation they sometimes attended cricket and soccer football games and horse-races on the Barracks, a large grassy area that had housed the barracks for the troops preparing for World War I.
They took walks, attended Church services and social evenings together, and he listened to her ideas about how the nursing services could be improved and developed countrywide. He encouraged and supported her in instigating action to carry to her home community, on a very modest scale, some of the facilities that were lacking. He found her conversation intriguing and inspiring and she was grateful for his understanding and encouragement.
When the time finally came for their wedding, Mr. Reg’s parents had already emigrated to Canada; and, being unwilling to wait until both their families could be assembled in the capital, they had gone ahead with the ceremony with only their two witnesses in attendance, Daddy being in port at the time, Matron voicing only one regret, which was that Miss Millicent was absent.
Before shipping out Daddy had left funds with Uncle Lito to arrange and supervise construction of our family home and, after he left, Mama discovered her pregnancy with my younger brother, Lionel. Mr. Reg rented a house in the area of town referred to as the Foreshore, not far from Granny “P”s house near Yarborough and he and Matron started their married life there.
Matron found out that she was pregnant about three months before Mama delivered Lionel, whose birth took place in our new home in the north side of town on North Front Street, and Mr. Reg eventually bought a house on the north side also, so that the two friends could be near each other.
When a son had been born to the happy parents, a stronger bond was forged between the two mothers, and it was also at this time that Mr. Reg and Matron had their first difference of opinion, as he wanted the child to carry his first name, while Matron considered this unfair to Justin, his first-born regardless of the circumstances. She persuaded him to choose another name, but instead he invited her to make the choice, half expecting she would name him after her father, showing how little he understood the relationship between those two.
As the birth had taken place after the incident with the expatriate matron referred to earlier, Matron decided to use the surname of the respected Chief Medical Officer at that time, Jerome, as his first name, with Reginald as his middle name.
Unusual for a woman with a husband of means, Matron had worked nearly up to the time of delivery and agreed to spend the first year of Jerome’s life at home, after which she planned to resume her career. Securing leave for that period of time had been difficult, but she had agreed to do so without pay, but without discussing her intentions with Mr. Reg, taking for granted the support he had always provided.
After completing the year, however, talk of a return to work was met with opposition from Mr. Reg, who had appealed to her to extend it as the year together had been so satisfying. Regretfully, however, she had decided that she could not accede to his request, had hired a mature lady to care for the baby during her absence and quietly returned to work.
Mr. Reg was displeased and unhappy, disliking the idea of a stranger in the house when her helper slept over at times when she was on night-duty. He missed the intimacy of their life together during the time off, when they and their son could enjoy each other’s company undisturbed. Matron had done all the housework except the laundry, which was looked after by Miss Olivia. He missed their regular walks together, when they alternated in pushing his “pram”; discussing the happenings around them: the Customs wharf with the busy activity of passengers and goods, the sailing lighters with sand and building materials, coconuts being discharged and carted to Cap’n Foote’s warehouse, the motor boats ferrying the longshoremen and hauling the large barges to the ships anchored in the harbour for loading and off-loading of goods; in general, the interaction with his wife, who was curious about everything going on around them.
He was aware that she enjoyed those times as much as he did. For her part she had never had the company of a member of the opposite sex who was so easy-going, considerate, interesting and respectful: a delightful contrast to one who had controlled her life, imposed his opinions and sought to stifle her initiative. Yet, pleasant as her life had become, she could not remain self-indulgent while leaving the work to others.
She was troubled at the many things that needed to be done to get the country on its feet; and disappointed that too many people were either complacent, self-satisfied, self-indulgent or helpless.
Nobody wanted to light fires under the powers-that-be to develop the country and train people to manage their own affairs! She totally rejected the idea that it was the purpose in life of subject peoples to produce only for the enrichment of another country, while leaving their own affairs unattended. And, while most light and white-skinned people considered themselves as citizens of the mother country, people of our complexion did not and, more importantly, aspired to be independent.
She, along with others of a similar outlook, questioned that we should be subject to a country which did not concern itself with our welfare. What had brought this condition about? Surely there was a clue in the Biblical world as to how things should be? Didn’t Moses lead his people out of bondage? Weren’t countries, like human beings, supposed to mature and take on their own responsibilities? Were we to remain forever stunted in colonialism? Could we not accomplish our aspirations without conflict? Why should distant powers decide our fate?
Questions such as these occupied her thoughts constantly but did not find expression during conversations with her husband, for fear that someone with his background might not understand or, worse, view them as disloyal to the Crown. He, after all, had come from the ranks of the elite.
He was a wonderful father, but she feared that he did not fully appreciate that fathering “native” sons had changed his status forever. She doubted that he understood the need to build a future for them apart from the rest of his family, which had now migrated to Canada, where his sons would be regarded as alien. She tried to channel his love for them into action to create a future for them and their kind right here. When he married her he had inherited her country, yet unborn. Her firm conviction was that together they should put their shoulder to the wheel and join with others of their countrymen in undertaking the building of such a society. Their times of ease and enjoyment were over, and now they needed to get to work.
On one occasion as she rested on the seawall studying father and son together, he lifted Jerome out of his pram and put him across his shoulder. Jerome twisted around and solemnly studied his father’s face with his eyes and then with his hands, then threw his head back to focus on prying his mouth open with his fingers. Mr. Reg had snapped playfully as if to bite him and they had both laughed out loud.
Matron reflected how moments like these could sometimes weaken one’s resolve to leave them behind and go to work; but, like my mother and others of her generation, she held the idealistic belief that divine providence placed people in circumstances and places where they could most effectively serve their fellowmen and obliged them to embrace such opportunities. Matron seriously took to heart the implications of the parable of the Ten Talents and, in particular, was convinced that in gratitude for what she believed to be her miraculous release from her oppressive family situation, it was incumbent on her to seize the chance of serving others.
At this point in her life she found it unendurable to be a spectator while her colleagues worked long hours with little pay and little chance at advancement. She, personally, had her needs provided for by a husband while most of her colleagues had no one to maintain them and, instead, had to provide for parents and/or siblings and young relatives.
Included with work was training on the job and examinations to be taken. Failure at these not only meant deferment of pay increases but, also, the threat of dismissal. Besides, being understaffed many were called upon to work for longer hours. Dissatisfaction with these conditions was compounded by the fact that no one undertook planning for the future. The increase in patients due to population growth called for more physical space to accommodate them which, in turn, indicated the need for a larger intake of nurse-trainees, the provision of funds for medical and other stores, recruitment of support staff, and so on. The list was endless.
The answer to all needs seemed to be the appointment of staff from abroad either to perform, direct, plan or make recommendations. A favourite solution seemed to be fund-raising for specific purposes, since finance was never available to fill needs as they arose.
The older heads have the saying: “While di grass di grow, di horse di starve,” roughly meaning that the horse would starve while the grass was being grown; which was one way of saying that if timely plans were not made for the provision of future needs, then when needs arose there would not be the wherewithal to supply them. Matron and those with similar foresight chafed under such constraints and did the best they could to agitate for change. They longed at least to see the appointment of a local working committee to operate full-time to stay on top of things.
Through repetition and agitation this idea seemed finally to reach the ears of the Establishment and they agreed as a first step to appoint a committee of three, comprised of the matron and the chief medical officer, both expatriates, and a local finance officer, to act in an advisory capacity to the Colonial Secretary. Fortuitously, the light-skinned finance officer who was appointed came from a family well-known to Mr. Reg. and cordial and friendly towards Matron, with whom he had occasion to discuss some aspects of the situation.
After several months of discussion meetings and consultation with persons in different departments of the service a report was compiled and submitted to the Colonial Secretary, who arranged for the design of Nurses’ Quarters to include live-in dormitories, bathrooms, a dining area, a small classroom and a lounge, and the project got under way with the Public Works Department detailed to draw up plans.
Matron envisioned this as a prelude to structured in-service training, as those entering the programme would now live, study and work on the compound. In this phase only unmarried women would be eligible for the basic three years of in-service nursing training, married women only being allowed to do the one-year Midwifery course.
Two things happened next which afforded Matron the opportunity to have a greater input to the project. The Finance Officer, Vincent McDougall, became a victim of an influenza outbreak in the colony, and was admitted to hospital, where he stayed for several weeks. His head of department, the Financial Secretary, who had been scheduled to go on a six-month furlough, brought forward his leave in order to avoid infection, so that when Mr. McDougall recovered and returned to work he received a temporary appointment to be deputy to his replacement for the period of his absence.
Some five months after Mr. McDougall was released from hospital, building of the Nurses’ Quarters got under way; and, having spent time on the compound, he had developed a close relationship with those involved, including Matron, whose opinion about various features he often invited. She was happy to have some of her recommendations well-received and often included in the work in progress.
It was while building was going on – which had taken about three years to complete due to the Public Works Department’s involvement in construction work all over country – that Pauline Atkins had come to board with Granny “P” and join the staff of the hospital as a trainee, Matron having been instrumental in arranging this. To give you some background information on Pauline, I’ll suspend Matron’s story for a while.
(Chapter 11 in the weekend issue of Amandala.)