Although this site exists to cover years of letters, I am going to start with stories that fill in the background, by posting documents that were written by my mother, Cynthia, about the early life of her mother, Carol. These were written in her 70s when she took a writing class, and are fictionalized versions of the family stories that she had been told, and that she passed on to us- the fact that my grandmother had survived a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, and an earthquake seemed impossibly exotic to me, a Canadian child. Some of these are finished products, some have marks indicating editing is intended, but they all are typed and, I hope, legible, and I think she’s a good storyteller!
LONG, LONG AGO
by Cynthia Costain
Over a hundred years ago, at the end of the nineteenth century, a little girl called Carol was born on a small island, St. Vincent, in the West Indies. It was part of the British Empire, proud to be a colony under the rule of Queen Victoria. St. Vincent is one of a chain of beautiful, tropical, volcanic islands arcing through the Caribbean from North to South America. The island had one main town, Kingstown, enclosed in a great harbour. Above the town arose the mountains, dotted here and there with large sprawling houses, the red roofs showing through the palms and flowering trees. One of these houses was called `Windsor’ and was the home of the Hazell family, which had originated with two brothers who left England in 1748. They were ship-builders by trade and, having built their own ship, embarked with their wives, families, and all their goods and sailed west and south to begin a new life.
There is no record of their voyage, though it must have felt perilous to two men whose past experience had probably been confined to coastal waters, but eventually they landed in Saba in the Virgin Islands. This was not the lush tropical land they had hoped for, as it was bare and infertile, with rocky shores and little shelter, but they anchored and there they remained until a baby boy named Hercules was born in 1749. Soon afterwards they sailed south and finally settled in the island of Bequia in the Windward Islands. There they found a friendly climate and friendly people where they made their homes and founded a ship building business.
Eventually Hercules grew up and married, moving with his family after some time to the bigger island of St. Vincent where he began a trading company. Within his lifetime his grandson, John Gregg Windsor Hazell, had become one of the leading businessmen of the island. This grandson John was the father of the tiny baby at the beginning of this story.
There was not much excitement when the twelfth baby, Carol, arrived in the family and the busy but leisured life of most of the members hardly suffered a hiccup. The older daughters helped the nurse look after Mother and their new little sister, took over the housekeeping and saw that things in the house continued smoothly; the older brothers took little interest in babies. The only members of the family who were excited about Carol were `the little ones’. With Mother’s permission the nurses brought them to see the baby the next day and as they stood around the cradle looking down at the baby with the big brown eyes, Doris said, “She’s very small.” “She’s no use to play with,” said two year old Fred, who was disappointed, but Willie, aged six, looked at the baby seriously and announced, “She looks just like a monkey!” and from that time on, Carol was known as `Monks’ in the family.
The young children all had nurses and Carol called her nurse `Dada’. Dada bathed, dressed, and fed the baby; washed and ironed her clothes, and, most important, kept her quiet and amused. At teatime the children were washed and dressed in clean clothes (if company was expected the boys wore sailor suits and the girls white starched dresses) and brought to the verandah to be petted and join in the conversation with Mother, sisters and friends. At the sign of tears, spills, or noise, a nurse would appear and hastily remove the offender.
Carol grew up in a busy household. Mother was the firm disciplinarian, ruling her family and the household, while Father was the good-natured benevolent Papa. With numerous servants, nurses, cooks, grooms, and gardeners working in a slow noisy West Indian way there was plenty for Mother to do: she was a severe woman, feared by some, but there was much love and affection and the family was a closely knit, safe world. Much of the time older members of the family would be at school in Barbados, England, or Canada, or working in the U.S.A. but the young ladies and gentlemen at home all had their ‘work’ each day. The men went to the family business on the harbour with Father, or rode out to one of the estates. If it was time for the sugar crop all the estates would be busy with the cutting of the cane and the sugar mill would work day and night crushing, processing, and finally bagging the sugar to send to England. Later the molasses would go to the rum factory to be distilled into raw alcohol and then aged in barrels before it too was sent overseas.
The young ladies of the family had various jobs: they cut and arranged the flowers, such as hibiscus, lilies, ixora, and bougainvillea; shopped in town for small items not trusted to the maid who went every morning to the market; and sometimes visited the dressmaker. This was very important as the only chance of a `ready-made’ dress was to ask a friend who was visiting some larger place to bring one back for you. The girls also did a little cooking- cakes for tea or a special dessert if guests were expected for dinner. They used the woodstove and oven, but the cook preferred the charcoal `coal pot’ outside.
The whole family were expected back at noon for the main meal of the day. Having risen at six or earlier and begun work while it was still cool, everyone was hungry and sat down to what was considered in Victorian households to be a simple family meal (albeit with a West Indian twist): roast pork with crackling, or a large dish of chicken pilau, or sometimes a whole baked redfish. With this would be served rice, sweet potatoes, fried plantain, tania cakes crisp and brown, or perhaps breadfruit or pigeon peas. Beforehand would be hot pumpkin or callalou soup, and the main course would be followed by a sweet coconut pudding with stewed guavas. Business did not resume much before three o’clock.
Until they became teenagers, the children went to school in the town. The boys’ schools were run by clergy or teachers from England, while the girls attended schools run by maiden ladies in their own homes. The older daughters helped the young children but actually their social lives were fully occupied. Making calls took up many afternoons and the horse and a carriage would take two or three of the ladies to sign the Book at Government House or make other calls. They were all devoted churchwomen and much time was spent at the Cathedral doing the flowers, seeing to the vestments, or attending meetings. In the evening between five and seven when the air became cool and the sun set, friends and relatives would drop in for a cool drink and a chat. Riding parties and picnics were planned, or arrangements made to play tennis or watch a cricket match.
The arrival of one of H. M. Ships of War was a great occasion, and any ship from England or America or even the small vessels from other islands brought visitors or old friends as well as business and everything from buttons to furniture, horses, carriages and machinery. The ship’s officers were always entertained at the big houses as well as visitors, and return invitations, particularly on board ship, were looked forward to eagerly.
Carol’s childhood was a happy one. The white people were the wealthy people on the island and she accepted all the St. Vincentians of every colour and any other heritage as being `natives’. Some she loved like her old nurse Dada, and she realized that any who worked for the family had to be `looked after’ when they were ill or became old, but it was a paternalistic society that she did not question.
When Carol was very young she remembered that one of her older sisters taught her to count on her fingers. She was told, “Look, you have ten fingers and you have ten brothers and sisters.”
This seemed to her to be the most astonishing piece of news she had ever heard! She began counting: “Georgina, Arthur, Blanche, Ethel, John Louis, Muriel, Beatrice, Willie, Doris, Fred makes ten. Oh, and there was baby Cyprian, but he’s dead. And Me.”