Jamaican childhood

 

“I was born in Kingston, Jamaica on the 11th August 1926.  At the age of five I attended the Chinese School in Kingston, where I stayed for three years, from 1932 to 1935.  From 1935 to 1942 I attended St. Ann’s Elementary School, Kingston and from 1942 to 1944 I was at the Kingston Technical School, where I was taking a course in Electrical Engineering until I volunteered to join the RAF in 1944.”  George’s CV.

 

Chinese heritage

 

Pow Un Chun / Richard Pow

 

Richard Pow, George’s father, was Cantonese.  He migrated to Jamaica with two brothers.  Nobody in the family now knows when they arrived there.  I asked the daughter of his brother Roy, Elaine McMasters, living in Jamaica, to send me information about the family.  She talked with George’s sister, Bibby, the last person who knew Richard.  Unfortunately her memory was somewhat blurred, as she was, at the time, approaching her ninety-sixth birthday.

 

Peaches (pet name of Elaine) sent me this extremely old and faded photograph featuring Richard Pow and one of his Chinese brothers.  She named the man on the left as Pow Un Chun.  This information struck a chord with me, as George told me years ago that when he was young he had a Chinese name, which I remembered as being something like 'Pow Chun Hun'.  It seems reasonable to conclude that his Chinese name was actually Pow Un Chun and that he was named after his father.

 

Pow Un Chun (left) and one of his brothers

 

Richard Pow (his English name) was described on George’s birth certificate as a grocer, and on our marriage certificate in 1982 as a 'proprietor, (grocery store)', born in Hong Kong.  Because he could speak, read and write in both English and Cantonese, in the early days he took responsibility for recording the stock for other shopkeepers.  Family members in Jamaica also remember Richard as a conjuror, although it is unclear as to whether he ever earned income from this.  It is thought that some of his 'magical paraphernalia' may be hidden in a cupboard somewhere on the island.  Richard died in 1931, as stated on George’s British citizenship certificate.

 

George had told me about the Chinese indentured labourers who were sent to Jamaica, but explained that his father had migrated there by choice, together with two of his brothers.

 

An article from an old edition from the Jamaican Gleaner yields a few clues about when they might have arrived in Jamaica.

 

Out Of Many Cultures The People Who Came

The Arrival Of The Chinese

 

In the 1860s, a close-knit Jamaican-Chinese community began to emerge with many living above, behind or somewhere near to their shops.  Downtown, a retail area became known as Chinatown. Two decades later, in the 1880s, another group of 680 immigrants arrived this time directly from China.  They had been recruited as farm labourers.  There were 501 men, 105 women, 54 boys and 17 girls who docked in Kingston Harbour in 1884 after having survived a typhoon aboard the 67 day voyage.  Upon arrival, they were claimed by the plantation owners who held their contracts and scattered across the island.  Among this group was Chin Tung-Kao, who in 1891 would found the Chinese Benevolent Society to offer humanitarian and social aid as well as protect Chinese customs and preserve their ethnic identity, at 131 Barry Street in downtown Kingston.

 

Following 1885 large-scale immigration of Chinese labourers occurred in an attempt to satisfy the demand for field labour created by the departure of African-Jamaican and East Indian labourers from the plantations.  This fourth wave of immigrants totalled close to 700.  Some came without contracts and were thus able to choose their occupation, which was generally divided between farming and the retail grocery trade.  (link)

 

This implies that people arriving between the 1860s and 1884 were indentured labourers who worked for plantation owners.  The final sentence refers to 700 people who arrived after 1885.  Pow Un Chun, could have been one of those who arrived without a contract and could choose his occupation, the “retail grocery trade”.  We can find no information about his age on arrival in Jamaica, marriage, or the birth date of his first child Madeline.  His second child, Veronica (Bibby), was born in 1923 and he died in 1931.  All this suggests that he arrived some time after 1885.

 

Richard Pow (his English name) was described on George’s birth certificate as a grocer, and on our marriage certificate in 1982 as a 'proprietor, (grocery store)', born in Hong Kong.  Because he could speak, read and write in both English and Cantonese, in the early days he took responsibility for recording the stock for other shopkeepers.  Family members in Jamaica also remember Richard as a conjuror, although it is unclear as to whether he ever earned income from this.  It is thought that some of his 'magical paraphernalia' may be hidden in a cupboard somewhere on the island.  Richard died in 1931, as stated on George’s British citizenship certificate.

 

The Family

 

 

An interesting issue raised by this birth certificate is that he is named as 'George Pow'.  Every other document throughout his life names him as 'Oswald George Powe'.  He gave an explanation of this in a note written in 1982, two days before we moved into our house in Nottingham.

 

 

This explains the omission on the birth certificate of 'Oswald', but it is somewhat unusual to include a baptismal name on personal and official documents. As the first appearance of 'Powe' is on his RAF records, I think it is more likely that the incorrect spelling was introduced by an RAF officer, during recruitment, assuming anglicisation was necessary, and that this convention was carried on in later life. 

 

His birth certificate shows that his father married Leonora Sinclair.  She was of African heritage, and grew up in Portland, a parish at the east end of Jamaica.  Leonora died in October 1968, when George was living in England.  Because of his political activity, including membership of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, he was unable to travel to Jamaica for her funeral.  This was the case until some years later.  I cannot remember if he was banned by the Jamaican or British government.

 

Richard and Leonora’s children were Madeleine, Veronica (always known as Bibby), born on February 26 1923, George and Daphne, twins, born on August 11 1926, and Roy, born in 1929.  Madeleine went to live in Panama as an adult. Bibby became a teacher, and eventually a head teacher at a school in Port Henderson.  She married Leonard Johnstone (Lenny), who was a highly-skilled carpenter.  Daphne died young, following surgery for appendicitis.  Roy was eventually responsible for catering in the  island’s prison service. 


It was not easy to find information about George’s childhood, as the last relatives of his generation were no longer alive.  Very little is known about his father, who died when George was five or six years old, but Chinese uncles and other relatives in the extended family were apparently supportive.  The few memories about which he told me were sparse, and referred mainly to happy times.  He spoke of trips on the railway, which might well have included journeys to Portland on the east of the island, where his mother was born, and made mention of Chinese festivals and events.  He also spoke about a young woman who was employed by his mother, effectively as a servant (who in modern times in Jamaica would be called a “helper”), who told him how difficult it was to feed her children.  George responded to this by clandestinely scrounging small amounts of food from the kitchen for her to take home. 

 

He told me that his father took the family to Chinese festivals, and that he particularly remembered one which almost coincided with Christmas.  This must have been the Dongzhi festival, which occurs in December.  Another aspect of Chinese culture which Richard instilled in his children was the concept of ancestor worship.

 

It was at that time common practice for the oldest male child of Chinese parentage born in Jamaica to be sent to China for the main period of their education, and this was the intention for George.  This did not happen, probably because his father died shortly before George went to the Chinese School, and the Roman Catholic ethos of his mother’s side of the family prevailed from then on.  Sometime in the 1960s I met, on a visit to Manchester (England), a childhood friend of George’s, Vincent Chin, who had been sent to China for his education.

 

Of all five children of Richard and Leonora, George and Bibby lived longest.  Daphne died in childhood, and Madeleine and Roy in the 1990s. George was 87 when he died in September 2013, and Bibby died at the age of 97 in May 2020.

 

Education

 

The Chinese School

 

There was also […] a Chinese Jamaican community school, the Chinese Public School.  It was set up first by the Chinese Freemasons in 1920 (under the Chinese name 華僑公立學校), and operated until 1922; a Chinese drama club revived the school in 1924 (and gave it a new Chinese name 新民學校, literally "New People's School", charging tuition fees of £6. The drama club continued to operate the school until 1928, when the CBA purchased it for £2,300 and gave it its present name, and moved it into a larger building. (link)

 

In an article written by James Robertson, entitled Chinese traders and Chinese trade in Jamaica, for the University of the West Indies he refers to the Benevolent Association raising funds to purchase a three acre site at 3 North Street as it had outgrown its original building.


George was a pupil there from 1932 to 1935 

 

 

St. Annes Elementary School


The address of this school on a very old website showed that was sited at 48 North Street, Kingston G.P.O, Kingston WI, only a few buildings away from George’s home.


He attended this school from 1935 to 1942.


It is clear that for ten years his journeys to school were confined to the street in which he lived.

 

Kingston Technical High School

 

Kingston Technical High School (KHTS), at 82 Hanover Street, Kingston, was Jamaica’s oldest vocational and technical high school, founded in 1896.  In the 1920s the statutory leaving age was 14.  The majority of Jamaican children at that time were unable to access any further education as is evidenced in a 2020 article in 'The Gleaner' featuring Dr. Ena Campbell, a retired educator.  The education system at that time is described as “brutal”, and she is quoted as saying “When I arrived in Jamaica from Cuba in the 1940s as a young girl, high school education in Jamaica was designed for the white and brown planter class ... There were very few premium high schools back then, the schools were kept deliberately small to retain their elite status and only families who were well off could afford to send their children to the better schools.”

 

Clearly George and some of his friends were able to avail themselves of opportunities at KTHS to improve their technical education.

 


Life in Kingston in the 1930s

 

In the absence of any further details of George’s childhood I have sought details of social, economic and political life in Kingston in the 1930s.  A very useful source for this is IMPERIAL INTIMACIES:  A Tale of Two Islands, a book written in 2019, published by Verso (ISBN 1788735099).  The author, Hazel Carby, delves into the life and ancestry of her parents, her Jamaican father, Carl Carby, and her Welsh mother, Iris, as well as producing a wide-ranging critique of the social, economic and political history of the Jamaica and Britain.

 

Carl Carby, born in 1921, was five years older than George.  There are a number of coincidences to be found in their childhood experiences, culminating in them volunteering to join the RAF.

 

Carl Carby and George were both born in Downtown Kingston; Carl at 9 Potters Row, Rae Town, near the General Penitentiary, in 1921, and George at 36 North Street, Downtown Kingston, near the Maternity Hospital, in 1926.  These addresses are within walking distance.

 

In 1936, at the age of fifteen, Carl attended Kingston Technical High School to study bookkeeping in evening classes, after he finished a day’s work at a hardware store.  George attended the same Technical High School from 1942, also at the age of fifteen, as a daytime student, majoring in a course on electrical engineering.  They would both have been able to walk from home to the Technical High School in less than 15 minutes.

 

 

 

Modern-day Downtown Kingston.  1 Carl Carby’s home, 9 Potter’s Row; 2 George Powe’s home, 36 North Street; 3 The Chinese School, 3 North Street; 4 St Annes Elementary School, 48 North Street; 5 Kingston Technical High School, 82 Hanover Street

 

 

They both volunteered to join the RAF as soon as this was possible, though under different rules, Carl in 1942 and George in 1944.



Difficult times

 

Hazel Carby was born in London in 1948.  She often asked her father about what his life in Jamaica was like.  His response was simply that they were “difficult times”, with no further context or detail.  It was only decades later, in 2013, when he was in a residential care home in London, that he grasped her hands tightly and said “I must tell you how terrible, how very very terrible it was.”  

 

This reminded me of a “difficult time” in George’s life, which occurred when he came to settle in this country in the late 1940s, about which he never spoke. 

 

His National Identity Card shows that his first address in England as a civilian in 1948 was “Causeway Green Hostel”.  Further research showed that this was a hostel for ex-servicemen of several nationalities with quite sparse living conditions and restrictions.  There were frequent hostile racist incidents, culminating in what were described as riots in August 1949, involving the Polish and Jamaican residents.  These occurred while George was there, and it is almost certain that he would have been involved as a participant and a victim.

 

It is hardly surprising that these two men kept their “difficult times” hidden. Such behaviour is/was also typical of people, whose traumatic and “difficult times” occurred during service in the World War One, World War Two or the Holocaust.

 

When Carl Carby spoke with his daughter about his “difficult times”, he went into great detail.  They included protests in the 1930s in Kingston and elsewhere following the burning of cane fields, and strikes which started on Tate and Lyle’s sugar estate and factories in Westmoreland.  These protests were set in a context of starvation wages.  The unrest also reached the banana and coal wharves in Kingston.  He referred to police and military brutality meted out to protesters.  People in the public and private sector in Kingston were making their own protests, though shop assistants and clerks were generally not involved.  There were regular well-attended public meetings on Sundays, citing the need for better wages and conditions of work, and property rights.

 

His daughter says, about these revelations, “A hundred years after the supposed emancipation, men, women and children still lived and worked under the regimes of power, poverty and punishment associated with enslavement.”

 

She also observes that “Those born in Jamaica in the 1920s were at the tail-end of the second generation of freemen.”  This suggests that the grandparents and/or great grandparents of George and Carl and their contemporaries were either slaves or children of slaves.  I wonder if those ancestors were also reticent about their privations, confining any comments to the equivalent of “difficult times”.

 

More detail of these events can be seen in the extract below from an online essay published by Internet Public Library.

 

Great Depression In Jamaica


It was strongly stated that “The sun never set on the British Empire”.  This statement was undoubtedly true for decades.  In the Caribbean, the time period between between the Great Depression (1929-1939) and the onset of World War II marked the high age of decolonization.  Poverty in Jamaica, which was at the time a colony of Great Britain, was a widespread epidemic.  During the 1930s the majority of the Jamaican population was either unemployed or underemployed.  Housing standards and living standards were extremely primitive and wages of workers were extremely low.

 

Strikes and rebellions started to emerge all over the island.  Each strike and rebellion sparked an inspirational feeling to other workers who wanted and were demanding more rights  Strikes by fellow workers inspired other workers to strike also.  On 27 December 1937 workers on Serge Island sugar estate in St Thomas in eastern Jamaica, dissatisfied with prevailing rates of pay, indicated their unwillingness to start reaping the crop.  The labour strikes continued through 1938 with its most detrimental effects in Jamaica’s capital Kingston.”  (link)

 

By 1938 George, at twelve years old, must have been aware of some of this turmoil and unrest, and then came World War II. 


Life in Jamaica in World War II

 

Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean were directly involved in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

 

"The Battle of the Caribbean refers to a naval campaign waged during World War II that was part of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1941 to 1945. German U-boats and Italian submarines attempted to disrupt the Allied supply of oil and other material.  They sank shipping in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and attacked coastal targets in the Antilles.  Improved Allied anti-submarine warfare eventually drove the Axis submarines out of the Caribbean region." (link)

 

Jamaica gave considerable support to war effort, not only by those who volunteered to fight, but also by the exports of food and materials.  This effort included an increase in the export of bauxite, mined in Jamaica, which is used to make aluminium.

 

"The Second World War had an enormous social impact across the Caribbean, in a similar way to other parts of the world.  This increased the need to produce additional food and materials for export to support the Allied Forces, while maintaining domestic consumption." (link)

 

News about the war spread quickly, and even school children were made aware of its implications.  Nottingham Black Archive’s 2014 project called No tears for me, my mother brought together memories of wartime in Jamaica of several people resident in Nottingham, using oral history techniques.  It culminated in a book of the same name (ISBN 978-0-9576974-1-6). Some of their testimonies give an insight into the impact of the 1939-1945 war.

 

Burnett Anderson, born in 1930, was one of those people, and was at school in Jamaica during the war.  He spoke of the teachers’ exhortations about the need for money and products to be contributed to the war effort, and the subsequent shortages this created.  He mentions that kerosene and matches, essentials for light and cooking for many people, were in short supply, as was flour.

 

Stanley Arbouin (Junior), born in 1930, came to England in 1956 , and became an RAF serviceman in 1958.  His father was an RAF serviceman during the war.  As a child in Jamaica experienced rationing, when rice and flour were difficult to find, and he mentioned that they used to collect vegetables such as sweet potatoes from a local farm.  At the time he saw all this as fun.
  
Tryphena Anderson, born 1933, (no relation to Burnett) came to England in 1952.  She lived in Nottingham for the rest of her life, and worked in the NHS.  She was a few years younger than George, and started school in Jamaica in 1939. Her headteacher would read out some of the reports of what was going on in the war at the beginning and end of the school day.  She told them about a campaign to collect anything which was made of metal, to be melted down and used for military purposes, (as there was in Britain).  Examples of suitable items included broken cooking pots and irons.  Examples of suitable items included broken cooking pots and irons.  She was one of those who took an iron in perfect working order to school, which had to be returned to its rightful home.  (Nottingham Black Archive:  No tears for me my mother

 

Hylton James, born in 1937, had a different story, which featured in a subsequent Nottingham Black Archives project in 2018.  He tells how it was dangerous to go out at night during the war, and that Jamaica was, like Britain, subject to blackouts, covering their windows in the hours of darkness.  Their houses were lit by kerosene lamps.  Food was rationed and his family had land on which they grew mangoes, grapefruit, oranges and bananas.  They kept cows, goats, pigs and chickens and so were able to avoid some of the implications of food rationing.  But even they found it difficult to get flour, rice, cornmeal or saltfish.  (Nottingham Black Archive:  Journeys to Nottingham)

 

Joining the RAF

 

It is clear that thousands of Commonwealth subjects had volunteered to fight in World War I, including the then emergent RAF.


In 1939 the British Army, Air Force, and Navy argued as to whether or not a colour bar (which referred to acceptable volunteers to the forces being “British subjects of pure European descent”) was to be enforced.  The Air Ministry alone decided that any such ruling should not be adopted by them.  This racist description would have allowed white Jamaicans to join up, probably together with other black Jamaicans with fairly light skin (all of whom were, of course, British subjects).  There is evidence to suggest that some recruiting stations were ignoring it.  It was a few years before those who joined the RAF could become officers, and the first these were Groundcrew.


But there were still some difficulties put in the way of would-be Jamaican volunteers.

 

Carl Carby told his daughter that he had wanted to volunteer at the beginning of the war, at the age of eighteen years. From 1940 black people from the British Commonwealth were able to join up only if they were in a position to volunteer from the UK. This meant that only Jamaicans from families who were wealthy enough, or who might be sponsored by business people in Jamaica to fund their passage to the UK, or, could become RAF servicemen.  As restrictions were eased, in 1942, aged twenty, Carl joined up as aircrew after taking, and passing, medical and educational tests.


In 1944, Britain needed yet more new recruits, and George, together with some of his friends, joined up as groundcrew. He was not the first, and certainly not the last, to be recruited before the official minimal age of eighteen.