Chapter 16

October 15th 1833

What a blessed day this is!

It began ordinarily enough. Mother and I were in town this morning attending to some errands. She had gone into the haberdashers to inspect the latest delivery of materials as she has promised to make my father a new waistcoat.  I was idly casting my eye over the wares in the window of Mr. Clarke’s bookshop, my eye being drawn to a new title that sounded most interesting. I was about to go in and seek it out when I became aware of a great commotion coming up from the waterfront. Several men were waving copies of a newspaper aloft, making a great deal of noise and before long a crowd had gathered around them. One of the men stood upon an upturned crate and began to read aloud to anyone who could hear. I hurried over and stood on the tips of my toes at the back, craning my neck to see and straining to hear what was being said over the animated reactions of my fellow listeners. Additional copies of the papers made their way back through waiting hands until one made it to me and I saw for myself the extraordinary news. On August 28th the King gave royal assent to the Slavery Abolition Act and it shall be enacted next year. Freedom is coming to Jamaica!

I thought of Jacob and my heart ached. I longed to be the one to deliver this piece of news to him but knew that it was not possible – and even if it were I was unsure of what reaction I would receive. I thought also of Papa, who would surely respond in the same fashion as many of those around me, with great cursing and dramatic depictions of ruin and downfall. The agitation of the crowd began to build so I clutched the paper to me and hurried to find Mama. I saw her pacing the boardwalk looking out to the crowd obviously concerned for my safety. As I approached she looked ready to give me a scolding but observing the expression on my face her demeanour changed.

“What is it Molly, what has happened?”

As I showed her the front page of the newspaper her hand flew to her mouth.

“God be praised,” she exclaimed, before glancing around and ushering us both to where Samuel was waiting with the carriage. Away from the noise and clamour we read the full details of what had been decided and what will come to pass.

“Samuel, come and gather round with us and let me read to you what has been decided about your future.”

Mama laid the paper out in front of her and began to read the details aloud. The Slavery Abolition Act would become reality in August next year. We both glanced at Samuel whose face was a picture of wonder.

“Di King? Him mek us free?”

Neither of us could hide our delight.

“Yes Samuel, yes he did. You shall be a free man.”

Samuel could say no more, but kept scanning his eyes across the paper even though he could not read one word of what was written there.

“Let me see what else it says,” continued Mama scanning through the script in front of her while continuing to steal glances at Samuel’s beautiful smiling face.

“Now, there are some details here which change things a little…” she began.

“We still free?”

“Yes,” she continued more slowly, “but there will be a period of apprenticeship where you will stay working for the master for three quarters of your time and receive your board and lodgings and then you shall be able to work elsewhere for the rest of your time, so that you might earn some money for yourselves. It says here that this process will be part of helping the slave population learn how to be free.”

A hint of a cloud passed across mother’s face but she looked up to see if Samuel had understood all she had said.

“So you won’t be able to leave straight away Samuel, you understand?”

“Yes mistress. But di King did mek us free. So we shall be free.”

In that moment he stood a little taller and straighter than ever before, pulling back his broad shoulders and lifting his chin.

“You shall indeed.”

Mama spoke with a softer voice and a more subdued smile as she folded the paper away and stepped up into the carriage. This precious moment we had all shared together was over. Now there was a bigger picture to which this news must be applied, starting with Papa.

“Let us head for home Samuel,” she requested, clasping my hand into hers. The initial excitement was beginning to dispel as we made our way out of the town. I turned to ask the question which made me fret.

“What will Papa say? What will happen to him?”

Mama shook her head and sighed.

“Oh there’ll be a storm, of that I have no doubt, and it may last for some time. But when the quiet comes again your father shall be fine. They have some notion that this will ruin them all, but the government will not have passed a law to bring us to our knees, of that you can be sure.”

We sat back then, letting the carriage take us home while silent thoughts weighed on both our minds. I imagined Jacob as a free man at last, no longer shackled or beaten into subservience. I saw him dressed as a gentleman and coming to Papa for my hand. As the rhythmic sound of the carriage wheels hypnotised me into a trance I dreamed of my father placing his arm around Jacob’s shoulder to welcome him into our family as an equal, raising a glass to our future happiness and beaming with pride at his daughter’s choice of husband. Children, picnics and laughter blurred together in one happy tangle of possibilities. I was whipped back to reality in an instant at the sound of breaking glass. We had arrived in our courtyard where there was a great deal of shouting and what sounded like items being smashed inside the house. Looking over at Mama her face wore a grave expression.

“It would appear that news has already reached your father. Molly why don’t you take a walk in the garden for a time and let me speak with him. I’ll fetch you in later when all is calm.”

I needed no further invitation and slipped down from my seat and round to the front of the house. If word of abolition had reached my father already then perhaps some of the slaves had heard too, and Jacob would know that what he has longed for all these years is now within sight. We have never gone to our meeting place in daylight but it is where my feet took me. They had faith where my heart did not, walking to the spot that had been the scene of my happiest times but also my undoing. Would this news be momentous enough to smooth over all that had gone before? My pace quickened as I picked my way among the trees and my foolish heart began to hope in all the nonsense that had filled my mind on the way home.

He was not there, of course. I waited the whole afternoon tracing my finger over our names carved in the wood again and again, willing him to appear. I returned again this evening but stood alone, watching my childish dreams fall to the ground, as dry and dead leaves fall from a tree when they no longer have enough life left to hold on.

October 25th 1833

The dust has somewhat settled on the news of the King’s decree. A great deal of rum has been consumed to dull the pain of the planters, along with the realisation that they shall be compensated by the government for their financial losses. They say that the compensation is not anything like enough for everyone to receive what they ought and so there are those who are feeling further aggrieved. Whilst this news of emancipation is ultimately good for the slave population in the short term they are feeling the effects most severely as the frustration of their masters is forcefully felt upon their backs.

And so life goes on as before, at least for the time being. I have idled away my days, feeling little joy or purpose. The cause to which I was beginning to align myself has achieved its aims and for that I am truly glad. However I have even less idea of where to direct my energies now. My schooling is finished, I have no interest in frivolous society and I have lost my love. These past two days have largely been spent sitting on the veranda staring at a book without managing to read a single word. However this afternoon the stillness was interrupted with a most disturbing development.

I was lost in thought, enjoying a gentle breeze sweeping up the hill and providing refreshment for which I was most grateful, when I became aware of the clatter of horses from the far side of the house. This was not the sound of a single beast but several, followed but noisy male voices laughing and boots stamping their way into the house. I detected that one of the men was Papa but the others were, at first hearing, not so familiar to my ears. Being in no mood for company, least of all that of any friends of my father, I began to creep my way along to the door at the farthest end of the veranda so as to exit there and make my way up the stairs to hide in my chamber. However after just a couple of steps the exchange I overheard stopped me in my tracks. The assembled party had just entered the drawing room behind me when Papa exclaimed, “Now young Robert, I believe you have an interest in my daughter?” Father’s voice was jovial and not in the least bit challenging. Pinning myself to the wall I strained to hear what followed. There seemed to be much laughter and back slapping for several moments before another deep voice proclaimed “You won’t find a better young man in all of Jamaica I’d venture to say. Oh I know I’m biased because he is my firstborn but I believe it is the truth.”

If there is a man on this island more pompous and proud than Robert Mackay then it is surely his father, Sir George. Portly, red-faced and always sweating profusely, he has a view of himself and his family which appears to me to have only a slender resemblance to reality. He is indeed a most wealthy and powerful individual but seems to have equated money and influence to good character, handsome looks and a fine sense of humour yet I would say that all of these are missing entirely from every member of the Mackay family I have ever encountered. I have never been able to establish if Papa has any genuine regard for the Mackays or if his associations with them are purely for the purpose of business and social climbing. Whatever the reason, this latest interaction with them was leaving me cold, and things were only to get worse.

“Well now, let us see how well he drinks and then we can establish if he is made of the right stuff! I shan’t give her away to just anyone you know.”

I could not believe my ears! Papa was actually entertaining the notion of me marrying this pathetic excuse of a man? Was this real, or was he just using me as some kind of bargaining tool to further his prospects?

“Why don’t you call her in? I haven’t set eyes on the girl for the longest while and I should like to see this wild beauty my son has spoken of.”

I did not need to see him to know the leering expression on Sir George’s face. Taking my cue I quietly make my escape to the garden and far away from the group of men who seemed to hold my fate. I know that a woman’s lot is not one of considerable choice in this world, but I will fight with every ounce of my being against being married to a man who I could never consider worthy no matter how rich or influential he is. Surely father would not force me to such an unhappy state? He had assured me of such, but hearing him speak today he sounded so different. This was not the Papa who came home to us and with whom there was still some warmth and tenderness. No, this sounded more like William McKenzie the man of business, assessing the purchase of a new horse or piece of land, making jovial exchanges with the seller in hopes of striking a better deal. Am I simply an animal reared for breeding, who is fed well and cared for until the moment when that nurturing could be cashed in for profit?

I made my way to the reading tree, no longer with any hope of finding Jacob there waiting for me, but simply because it was my place of refuge and comfort. Tucking myself into the branches as I had a thousand times before, I picked up an old familiar story to while away the time until it was safe to return to the house. I needed the narrator to tell me of worthy adventures and lucky escapes, of gallant heroes and noble causes. Most of all I yearned to read of true love and happy endings.

December 12th 1833

I have been truly ambushed in the most distressing way. After no word of the McKay family for a couple of months, my father announced over breakfast that they were all coming to dine this evening! Despite my mother’s protestations that this was very late notice for such an affair, her complaints were waved away by Papa who simply called for all of the house slaves to assemble in the dining room and ordered them to do exactly as Mama instructed, before calling over his shoulder that he would see us this evening and we should both be sure to look our very best.

Mama began at once, directing operations of menu setting, provision purchasing, cleaning and decorating our home and all the while I have felt sick to my very stomach at the notion of once more entertaining the company of Robert McKay. I do hope this is not some kind of forerunner to a proposal endorsed by my father, and yet I cannot shake that sense of dread as we have never before received the entire family around our table. Had I more warning I should have taken several days to gradually develop a truly terrifying sickness which would surely have kept me in my bed for a week or two, and from which I would need much rest and solitude to recover, thereby keeping all unexpected visitors at bay for a lengthy period of time – but alas, all have seen me fit and well this morning and so I fear that there is no escape for me today. I have been dispatched to inspect my wardrobe, ensure that my finest dress is clean and ready, and I am to be primped and brushed to my most respectable and ladylike self in preparation of receiving our visitors. I shall endeavour to paint on enough of a smile so as not to appear rude or disgrace the family name, but my heart and spirit shall remain as far out of their reach as I can keep them.

After midnight

What an intolerable evening! The three McKays sat around our dining table and were as full of their own self-importance as any people I have ever encountered in my life. They gushed with praise for one another but none more so than Robert who, if his mother is to be believed, is a prince among men, the finest catch in all of Christendom and oh how proud she will be on the day he marries but oh how desolate at having him leave her company! I am sure that I spent the entire duration of the meal counselling my face not to give away the thoughts of snorting derision that filled my mind.

Once dinner was finished, my mother and Mrs McKay made their way through to the parlour, after the men had gone for rum and snuff. I was about to follow Mama when Robert reappeared in the door blocking my way and requesting to speak with me on the veranda. I told him that my father would not approve of such liberties and he informed that that he had already sought and gained Papa’s permission. In the moment I could think of no way to extract myself from the situation and so gave the most curt response I could muster before turning on my heel and walking in a most business-like manner to the veranda. I stood facing out to the garden so as not to have to look at him and displayed every ounce of indifference within me. He could not surely now be encouraged to pursue whatever intention he had? But oh how I had underestimated his arrogance!

“Very well,” he chuckled to himself, “I see you’re going to make me work for this.”

He stood alongside me, adopting my same position of looking outward before leaning over to me and whispering, “I always get what I want. I shall win you over, and even if I don’t, we shall be married Molly. Your father needs my father’s favour in these changing times. The compensation being offered for the negroes is not enough for everyone to get what they should. It will turn into a mighty scrap before long. But of course those of us who know the right people, are the right people, will be at the front of the queue and will get all of what is owed to us. Your father needs to get every pound and shilling that is due to him.”

There must have been a look of confusion on my face and Robert took my lack of understanding and used it to press home his advantage.

“Ah you don’t know? Of course, why would you. Yes you see your father is in debt, considerably so. We can help. We will get him what he wants, but only if we also get what we want.”

Reaching across he stroked the back of my hand as it rested on the balustrade. I snatched it away and took a step back from him but he came towards me and I found myself pinned in a corner. Standing above me he leant in to my ear.

“What a fine pair we shall make Molly, gadding about this place like we own it. Think on that.”

As he stepped away he winked at me and headed back into the house where, before long, I could hear the raucous laughter of men from within. I spoke to no one, no longer caring for politeness or decorum, and ran to garden and amongst the trees to hide, tears coming hot and fast. Is this really my future? Am I part of a deal which sees my father ruined if I do not comply?

I stayed hidden even when I heard my name being called from the house as the dining party were making their way to leave. Only once the carriages were away and the lanterns dimmed downstairs did I dare to venture back, creeping into the darkness. 

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