4th August 1827
Herein lies the diary of Miss Molly Mackenzie aged ten years old. I live on the Harlaw Vale Estate, in the parish of St.Andrew positioned outside of Kingston, Jamaica, in the shadow of the Blue Mountains. I have been told that I am old for my years. I can only think it is because I have little company with other children and have instead been surrounded most of my days with adults. My mother teaches me most mornings before the sun reaches its full heat, at which point she retires to the shade and breeze of the porch to rest and I am left to amuse myself. I have my own mule, Clarence, with whom I sometimes take a ride to the boundary of our estate. At its highest point there is tree which is easy to climb, from where you have a splendid view of the city in the distance and the ocean beyond. It is hard to decide which is my favourite tree, this one at the top of the estate, or my reading tree nearer the house.
Yesterday was my birthday. Among a good many treats I received for the occasion was this leather bound book with my initials on the front. Mama said I could write my stories in it, but I have decided instead to use it for my own special thoughts. It shall be the place for my secrets, for I have no one to tell them to. Indeed there is one, but he is the biggest secret of them all. I will need to find a place to hide it well. Under the pillow? It will surely be found with little or no effort. Beneath the mattress? Not nearly safe enough. I will tuck it behind my dresser, between the back board and the wall. There it is right beside my bed but there is no reason why anyone would ever look there. It is settled then, that shall be the hiding place.
Last evening we had a supper with all of my favourite foods and I was permitted to stay up longer than usual, on account of now being so old. After retiring to bed I waited beneath the covers fully dressed, to go and see Jacob. We meet on a Tuesday and Friday, after everyone has retired and if it is safe to do so. I suppose it is never really safe, as father would almost certainly explode or expire in a fit of rage if he knew, and wreak who knows what revenge upon Jacob, but we have decided to take the risk. I do not always know if he shall be there as sometimes he is working through the night, but I always hope to see him. Only last week we played our usual game of make believe, where one begins with a line of a tale and the other has to follow with the next line and so on, until we reach the end or one of us gives up at the foolish knot we’ve tied ourselves in. We like to try and out-do one another with strange and preposterous twists and turns in our stories and we make each other laugh every time we play.
I made my way down to the reading tree where he was already waiting. I had brought us some dainties saved from my plate so that we could share a birthday feast. We delighted in oranges and sweetsop and thought ourselves as rich as anyone alive. We took turns to share out the segments of the sweetsop, sucking the creamy juice from the pips and then spitting them as far as we could, aiming for the low-hanging breadfruit. I came close but on the very last pip Jacob hit the round target and was truly delighted with himself. Jacob does not know when his exact birthday is and so we have decided that he shall share mine. As best we can tell he is now twelve, and a full two inches taller than me. Afterwards we sat together in silence enjoying the night air, having no need of conversation for we were together and that was enough. It was the best birthday I can remember.
6th August 1827
A storm threatened for most of this afternoon and the heat was suffocating everything like a blanket. I wondered if a hurricane might come. People say it is terrifying but to me it sounds full of excitement. I love the sound of the wind howling through trees outside. When I am indoors listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and the clinking of china cups I would much rather be outside being shaken alive by the wildness of the weather!
This evening I had been ordered in early because the pastor was coming to dinner. I was not at all pleased at the prospect. Church is extraordinarily dull and tedious and Pastor Knibb’s sermons seem to last forever. I was also requested to wear my best dress which I find hot and most uncomfortable. I suppose Mama simply wanted to make a good impression. Until now I have been deemed too young to dine with guests but as my bedroom is above the dining room I have heard raised voices and heated debates on previous visitations from the Pastor. I think Papa does not like him much.
I could tell Mama was tense as she fussed over the preparations so I tried to sit as still as possible and resolved not to spill anything on my dress. The back door slammed and there was a great deal of cursing in the hallway. A few moments later Papa opened the door and surveyed the room and the extra place settings at the table.
“What’s going on here? Who’s coming for dinner?” His tone suggested he was not in the mood for company.
“We spoke about this earlier my dear,” Mama said. She used her gentle voice, the kind you would use if trying not to spook a horse. “Pastor Knibb is paying a visit.”
I held my breath waiting for the eruption. Instead Papa’s shoulders slouched as if defeated in a fight. He looked at me in all my finery and asked if he should dress accordingly.
“That would be appropriate I think, don’t you?” Mama replied with a smile. “Mrs Knibb is joining us too, so hopefully we can keep the conversation light and cheerful.”
There was a long, silent glance between my parents which filled me with intrigue about what the evening would hold. I was not disappointed.
Papa bid me come and help him pick out a suitable waistcoat for the evening and I leapt from my chair with delight. On the days when he is in a dark mood we do not see him much, and when we do it is best to keep out of his way, but in the moments when he is of good humour there was never a more handsome man and I love no one else’s company more than his. On those days he is playful and pets me with such affection that it gladdens my heart to be near him. On reaching his chamber Papa opened the closet door with a flourish and bowed low.
“Well my good lady, what should a fine gentleman like myself wear for dinner this evening?”
I surveyed the garments with a hand on my chin, pretending to deliberate. “Well now let me see…” I said, as I looked through the choices one by one, declaring one too drab another too fussy and a third to be a terrible colour.
“Madam has all of the opinions, doesn’t she?”
I smiled bashfully at him then, knowing that sometimes my strong personality vexes him. Some days he seems to delight in my spirit and quick wit. Mama says we are like two peas in a pod. There are times when I feel I understand my father better than anyone else on earth, and yet at other times he is almost a stranger.
“This one,” I proclaimed, pulling out the burgundy brocade waistcoat from the rail and holding it up for him to see.
“How did I know it would be this one,” he replied with a wink. “Now go back downstairs and make sure everything is ready. We wouldn’t want Pastor Knibb to find us wanting, would we?” He said all of this with a mock tone of superiority, but I knew there was more to it. I decided to ride my luck and father’s good humour.
“Why don’t you like him Papa?”
He took a deep breath.
“I’m sure he’s a decent man, but he has ideas that I don’t agree with, ideas that would ruin us, ruin everything.”
He walked over to the window looking out over our land.
“This is a system that works,” he said, pointing out to the fields of cane in the distance. “This is how we make our living, and he wants to upend it all. He’s a do-gooder who doesn’t know how the real world works and I don’t like a man coming into my home and telling me how to run my estate or treat my slaves.”
My attention sharpened when he said that and I felt suddenly full of nerves and uncertainty.
“What does he say about them?” I ventured.
He turned back from the window and smiled at me.
“Don’t you worry about that my Molly. Let’s simply have a polite dinner, make pleasant conversation and then when he’s gone we can get on with our lives as before. Run along now and help your mother.”
Despite what father suggested the dinner turned out to be anything but polite, much to the embarrassment of poor Mama. Pastor Knibb was indeed more agreeable face to face than in the pulpit. He took a great deal of interest in me and asked about my schooling. I told him of my favourite books to read and his wife was full of praise for my good manners. She then gestured to the portrait on the wall and inquired of me who it was. I was ready with my answer but Papa spoke first.
“That is my father, Colonel William Mackenzie. I inherited this estate from him. A brilliant soldier, astute businessman and a wonderful man.” There was a great deal of pride in his voice but also a note of challenge to his tone, and he seemed to reply not to Mrs Knibb but to the pastor. There was a heavy and tense pause before Mama ushered us all to sit and asked the pastor to say grace.
The first part of the meal passed without incident. There were comments about the weather and polite inquiries about Mrs Knibb’s family background and the Baptist school the pastor has started in Kingston. I kept looking between my parents seated at either end of the table, as they seemed to be having an entirely different conversation without saying a word. Half way through the main course the pastor cleared his throat several times before making an unwelcome announcement.
“I’ve been thinking of starting churches for the Negro population, travelling among the plantations to hold services for them in their lodgings. How would you feel about that sir? You can have no objection, surely?”
“No objection?” Papa replied slowly. A storm began to gather in his face. The pastor did not seem to notice, or if he did he chose not to care as he continued.
“Everyone needs salvation sir. The slaves have a right to our Lord as much as we do.”
“And where will it end I wonder?” Papa responded. “Will you want to give them schooling? The next thing you’ll be mollycoddling them into believing all kinds of nonsense. They have neither the sense nor the purpose for church nor anything else that you might have in mind.”
I thought back to last night, sitting in the tree with Jacob. I taught him to read soon after we met and he was eager and quick to learn. We take turns to read to one another now, whispering our stories so as not to be heard by anyone else. On the nights when there is no light from the moon we share our own tales. I tell him the old folk stories from Scotland that Mama has passed on to me and Jacob has told me the songs and stories of his ancestors. I know that he cannot be so unusual among the slaves that he is the only one who has an appetite for learning. Pastor Knibb continued his reasoning.
“It is no longer illegal sir. Pastor Phillippo has now been granted permission by the Baptist Mission Society to preach to the slaves and has begun a great work in that regard. Many are responding and he is considering starting a church in Spanish Town. The mood is shifting. I believe that change will come.”
“It will not come where it is not welcome, and I can assure you Pastor Knibb, you and your righteous friends are on a hiding to nothing.”
Papa wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw it down on the table in a defiant gesture, indicating to Beatrice to clear the table. Pastor Knibb decided to try a different approach. As she cleared his plate he asked her name. She whispered her reply before glancing fearfully at Papa and looking back to her task.
“Would you like to attend church Beatrice?”
This was a line well and truly crossed. Papa stood suddenly, his chair crashing to the floor behind him, the approaching storm about to be unleashed.
“How dare you!” he bellowed. His voice seemed to fill every part of the room. I had never heard a rage quite like it, and that is truly saying something.
“This is my land, my house, my property,” he said, pointing towards Beatrice, “and you come here and challenge my authority right before my eyes?”
Beatrice rushed from the room, eager not to become the centrepiece of the argument. Pastor Knibb was not to be stopped.
“This girl’s soul is on your conscience. Does that mean nothing to you?”
“Her soul?” father scoffed. “Her soul? She has as much need of a soul as that chicken you just ate. She is a work horse, they all are. They need no religion, no schooling, no special treatment. They cut cane and keep the wheels of our great nation turning.”
Pastor Knibb drew breath to speak but was silenced by father lifting his hand.
“Enough. Enough of this idiocy and impudence in my house. You may finish your meal without me, after which you will be no longer welcome in this home.”
Papa turned to Mrs Knibb, nodded and said goodnight before leaving the room and a few moments later we heard the front door slam as he headed out into the night. Muted apologies and a near silent dessert followed between those of us who remained before the visitors offered their thanks and took their leave. I hung back from the door and overheard mother offer whispered apologies and a promise to stay in contact. As they finished their goodbyes I wandered back into the dining room to find Beatrice clearing the final items from the table. Assured that the adults were still on the porch, I walked over to stand beside her.
“What would you have answered?” I whispered.
“Miss?” Beatrice looked confused.
“If you’d been able to reply to the pastor. What would you have said? Would you like to go to church?”
She looked at me for a moment as though there was more to say but the sound of the front door closing broke the spell and instead she offered a glimmer of a smile before lifting her tray and hurrying from the room.
“Time for bed I think,” Mama called from the hallway. “That’s quite enough excitement for one night.”
I bade her goodnight and came to my room, slipping under the covers to wait. The wind had subsided but now the rain had begun to fall in large heavy drops. Sometime later I heard father’s footsteps climb the stairs. My door handle turned slowly and I lay perfectly still feigning sleep as Papa tiptoed clumsily into the room. He seemed to pause and steady himself by the closet before coming over to the bedside. As he leant over me I could smell the alcohol from his breath and the mixture of sweat from both Papa and his horse. On nights when he’s been at the tavern it is usually well that everyone is asleep on his return, such is his mood. This night, however, he sat gently on the edge of my bed and was still. When I dared to peak I saw his profile against the faint light from the window, resting his head in his hands. I turned gently towards him and whispered.
It brought him back from his thoughts and he turned to look at me. Reaching over he brushed my cheek and considered me for a moment.
“I’m sorry Molly. Sorry.” He seemed to apologise for waking me, but also for something more.
“Go back to sleep now.”
He rose and retired to his own chambers and not long ago I could hear his deep snores mixing with the distant rumble of thunder outside. I will go to see Jacob tonight, though it is not a usual meeting time for us but perhaps Beatrice would have told the slaves what had happened in the house.
7th August 1827
After I finished writing last night I threw off the bedclothes and slipped back into my shoes making my way downstairs. I paused for a moment in the porch watching the rain fall as lightening began to crack across the sky. I didn’t care about getting wet as my clothes dry easily enough by morning if I hang them against my open window. I have been soaked before on my night escapes and so far have been able to cover my tracks.
I ducked in under the trees as soon as I could to gain some shelter. The noise of the rain on the canopy of leaves above was deafening. As I approached the reading tree Jacob was standing with his back to me looking out into the clearing, watching for me coming. I called his name and he turned towards me. Instead of his usual smile there was a seriousness I hadn’t seen before. He stepped towards me and put his hands on my shoulders. He spoke with a new tone in his voice.
“Is true?” he asked. “Pastor want to preach to us?”
“Yes – but I don’t think Papa’s going to let him.”
“Why? Why not?”
Jacob was angry. I had never seen him so before. Something was suddenly very different between us. I wanted to tell him everything but I couldn’t share what Papa had said about the slaves. I know that what he believes isn’t true as I have seen it for myself in Jacob. I tried to speak but couldn’t find the words. Jacob turned his back on me without a word and ran into the trees. I called after him but my voice was lost in the falling rain.
I walked slowly back to the house, allowing myself to become completely wet through. After wringing out my clothes on the porch I crept upstairs and hung them to dry before lying on my bed with such a sense of trouble in my heart. I did not feel at all tired as there were questions racing through my mind, but I must have slept at some point for I have just woken from a disturbing dream.
I was down by the river playing on the grassy bank. Cut tree trunks were floating on the water, all neatly lying together at the side of the river. I began to climb on them, balancing first on the nearest one and then walking across them until I was seven or eight logs away from the riverbank. Looking up to the other side of the water I saw Jacob smiling and waving to me. As I waved back I heard father’s voice call from behind me, beckoning me to come. I looked down to see that I had a foot on two separate logs which were now beginning to drift apart and the water beneath running fast and deep. Frantically I looked back and forth as Jacob and Papa called and gestured. All the while panic rose deep within me. I had to pick a log to jump to or I would fall between them into the now raging torrent. My legs slid further apart and the noise of the water was deafening as I began to feel myself falling.
I woke with a start and realised my pillow was soaked with tears. The first pale light of morning is creeping across my floor as the birds begin their song. Everything feels new and different, as though I have woken into another world. I remember what Nelly used to say to me as I helped her stir the porridge pot.
“Yuh dream laas night child? Dreams tell di truth, dem tell di future. Tell old Nelly bout yuh dream.”
I would share whatever sights and sounds had filled my sleeping hours and she would tell me what it meant. Mama scolded, claiming it all to be superstition and nonsense, and cautioned Nelly against putting fear into my heart, but on more than one occasion what Nelly told me about my dream came true. I cannot help but wonder what she would make of this one, were she still alive. I feel certain she would warn me of trouble ahead.