A ROADSIDE MARKET

I have given at length a political conversation I had with an
intelligent and well-informed negro. May I add the record of the talk I
had with an important servant of the Government. Though he was not
concerned with the actual work of governing, he was a man who had a
voice in the affairs of the State, a friend and servant of the
Government, a man who could well remember the Jamaica of twenty years
ago.

I dined with him in a bungalow pleasantly situated in a Kingston suburb.
And I retailed to him the opinions of my friend the coloured reformer.

“Bosh,” he said; “stuff and nonsense. Your glib acquaintance was engaged
in the delicate art of pulling your leg.”

Remembering the earnestness of my companion of Spanish Town country
road–remembering his deep seriousness–I disagreed.

“But, my dear fellow, if they tried on that sort of business we should
go for them. Eyre strung up Gordon for that sort of thing, and the black
fellows have not forgotten the lesson they were taught then. The black
Tommies–who are not all Jamaicans–in Up-Park Camp, and the white
troops at Newcastle and Port Royal, would have something to say in the
matter of Jamaican freedom.”

“How about the intervention of America?”

“So much rubbish. The Yankees have pretty well cornered the trade of the
island; the natives count their money in dollars and American notes
instead of English sovereigns, and that is about all America wants.”

“But what’s the good of Jamaica to England if America controls the
trade?”

“Give it up my boy. England’s got Jamaica and she will have to keep it.
Even dear old arrogant Britain cannot do what she likes with her
Colonies. There would be a terrible kick-up if we started turning our
possessions adrift because they had ceased to be remunerative. Besides,
there is still a good trade done with England, and lately fresh British
enterprise has done something in the way of increasing the Briton’s
share.”

“But suppose the coloured people were to properly organise, and, under
the leadership of a strong man, demand absolute home rule?”

“Then we should have to tell them to go to the devil.”

“And if they refused?”

“Well, then, I suppose, there would be a bit of shooting.”

“With a Liberal Government in power at home?”

“Give it up again, my boy. You know as much about home politics and the
colonial policy of the Liberal party as I do.”

“Perhaps the Americans would openly side with the blacks?”

“Then not all the Liberal Governments in the world could prevent the
shooting.”

“You think there is no possibility then of the introduction of home rule
for Jamaica?”

“I am sure that if the black people were the absolute governors of the
country, not one white man would remain in the country. It would be
impossible; look at Hayti! The blacks are utterly incapable of
self-government; ten years of independence would reduce a black Jamaica
to the level of an inland Gold Coast village. With Jamaica a lawless
republic, as well as Hayti, the West Indies would be impossible. America
knows that; the Yankees would be the first to cry out against it. No,
Jamaica is bound fast to England, and neither England nor Jamaica can
undo the binding.”

“You think that Jamaica will again become as rich and prosperous as she
was in the early days?”

“Why not? The place is rich enough, the climate is good enough. Do you
realise what a tremendous upheaval the emancipation of the slaves meant
to this little island? The whole economic system was put out of joint.
That was only seventy years ago. The old planters who had made great
fortunes by means of slave labour were heavily compensated. They saw
labour difficulties ahead and sold up their plantations and cleared out
of the island. The consequence was that the country found itself in a
pretty mess. Can you wonder that its finances got a bit deranged, and
that the Jamaican problem loomed large in the London parliament? The
island was in a pretty bad way. The negroes felt the pinch as well, but
not so much as the white people. Consequently the negroes began to have
grievances, and one or two of them started in business as political
agitators. It was about the best-paying business in the island in those
days. But as things began to brighten up a bit the negro grievance
became less acute, and though the agitators did their best to earn a
decent living, they began to become less popular. That is about the size
of the affair. Of course the negroes are not all content. As your friend
said, they have ambition–at least some of them have. But you can be
sure that three quarters of a million black men are not going to
seriously upset the British constitution. Yes, I am certain that Jamaica
has a most prosperous future. We lack capital and we lack good men.
There is room in Jamaica for thousands of good, educated Britons with a
bit of capital. And these will turn up some day. Fortunes are being made
in Jamaica to-day. And as soon as Englishmen get wind of that sort of
thing they will find their way to Kingston quickly enough. We have not
done with the sugar trade yet, and there is plenty of money in fruit,
timber and coffee. We can grow anything, and land is cheap enough. The
railway is going to help the country along, and so is the Panama Canal.
But most of all we

[Illustration: AN EVENING PARTY, ST. THOMAS]

are going to be assisted by new British immigrants. I wish you would
tell your people that it would pay them a good deal better to come to
the West Indies than to go chasing gold mines and diamonds in South
Africa and the Transvaal.”

“How much capital would a settler want?”

“The more the better of course, but a thousand pounds at least. A good
man with a thousand pounds would suit us better than a waster with ten
thousand. We don’t want any remittance men. Good, solid, hard-working,
level-headed business men are the sort for us. People who will send for
their wives and settle on their plantations, without wanting to race
over to England every year.”

“My coloured friend suggested that the tendency on part of the planters
to go to England every year was a bad thing for the island.”

“And there he was right, of course. We want absolute settlers–men who
will adopt the country and call it their home, and count it as their
children’s homeland too. We want a solid population of solid white
men–not a migratory people who look for fortunes in ten years and then
a suburban home near London. I guarantee that any man of the right sort
who comes here in the right spirit will never regret his coming.”

“And when he comes, what must he do first of all?”

“Hire himself out as a book-keeper or overseer on some plantation for a
year or so, until he has got the hang of the country. After that he can
decide matters for himself. There are plenty of openings and plenty of
land. With the new settlers we can work out our own commercial
salvation. Without them we shall find it difficult. Labour difficulties
will disappear as soon as we find more good masters. Even to-day
efficient and sensible planters have very little bother with their
workmen. A black man is very much what his white employer makes him. The
servant of a discontented, slovenly master is discontented and slovenly
also. A good master makes a good servant. Yes, put all that nonsense
about a free Jamaica, and the Government of Jamaica by Jamaicans, out of
your head. It won’t come off. We are going to grow; we are going to be
prosperous. And we have no time to discuss absurd impossibilities, or to
have sympathy with the impossible ambitions of scheming gentlemen of the
coloured class. The black men have, and always will have, their proper
place in the island, and they will have a proper part to play in the
commerce and government of the island. And that is all. Jamaica is a
British Colony governed by white men, and so it will remain for ever.”

In Jamaica there is a railway which carries passengers of the first and
second class in carriages that would not necessarily disgrace even the
London, Chatham, and Dover line in England. The upholstery of the
carriages is of heavy stuffed leather; the fitments are of polished
yellow wood; and the result infinitely more suitable for an Arctic clime
than for merry sweltering Jamaica. There are, as I have stated, two
classes; to these I must add the soda-water compartment, which is a sort
of betwixt and between of both classes. A place where the men (sometimes
the ladies also) foregather to sit on empty soda water boxes and consume
mineral waters and eat fruit. This is the saloon of the railway–the
drawing-room of travelling Jamaica. Here the guard sits always, and with
him the coloured lady who sells the mineral water at a truly reasonable
rate. The carriages are reserved for the uninitiated, or the
respectable, of both classes. The soda-water room is always full of
scandal talk; a half hour’s ride in this compartment of any train will
teach any tourist the inner history of Jamaican society in a manner
quite incapable of repetition or reproduction. The lady who sells the
ginger beer is conversant with the character, the salary, the
peculiarities and home life, of every person living in the island. She
is the natural historian of the country. In three sentences she can
destroy the reputation of a mansion; half an hour suffices for the moral
destruction of a town. One day, even half a day, among the empty
ginger-beer boxes kills every desire, no matter how ambitious one may
have been, to enter the ranks of the upper ten of the society in the
Queen of the Antilles. The reason for all this is the heat and
discomfort of railway travelling in the tropics. The dust and sweat of
travel jaundice a man’s outlook on life; and in the railway train a
white face looks dull yellow. So it is with the cleanest reputation. And
fortunately the soda-water gossip is forgotten even before one’s hair
has ceased to smell of cinders.

The journey inland over the steel rails should only be undertaken at
great provocation. It is not a desirable thing to do, although it is the
quickest, the cheapest, and the most usual way of covering long
distances. For perhaps eight hours you sit _vis-à-vis_ with a person
whom you have not met before, and whom you wish never to meet
again,–for eight hours or twenty minutes, just according to the
distance you desire to travel. You pass the time of day with the
stranger, read all the printed matter available, and then solemnly gaze
through the grimy window, and heavy cloud of dust, at the fields and
rivers and fair plantations

[Illustration: THE ARRIVAL OF THE ROYAL MAIL STEAMER, DOMINICA]

rushing towards the place you have just left behind.

Jamaica is proud of its railway. The people of the country, remembering
the difficulties of its building, and the frequent weaknesses of its
finances, are glad the line is complete, and that it is possible to
travel at good speed from one end of the island to another. In truth the
history of the line from its beginning in 1845 to the present day is not
lacking in interest. Parts of the track have been built by official and
parts by private enterprise. The Government, I believe, started the
building, and an American syndicate carried it forward. The American
syndicate failed, and so the railway fell into the hands of the
Government again, and there it has remained ever since. The carriages
are miniature editions of the American saloons, and, in my opinion, are
capable of vast improvement. Otherwise the stock is excellent, and the
lines and curves and bridges everything that could be desired.

Starting from Kingston, you can travel over a hundred miles of looped,
single-track line to Montego Bay, or over thirty miles to Ewarton or
seventy miles to Port Antonio. These are the three routes; the track to
either of the places named is, of course, strewed with wayside stations.
No matter which way you travel you will pass through most marvellous
country. You will rattle across iron bridges, spanning rushing streams
or wide romantic rivers. You will skirt great lagoons, half overgrown
with mangrove and other swamp-land trees. You will steam across great
yellow-green guinea-grass pastures, and then, by way of wonderful
gradients, you will climb mountain chains and, from the dizzy height of
your carriage window, look down at distant valleys half-screened by the
green foliage of impenetrable forests. You will pass smoothly through
delightfully cool forests, and wonder at the prodigality of nature when
you cut through prairie land ablaze with the blooms of rare plants. You
will in addition smell all the smells of the Indies, and you will be
half-choked by the smoke and dust of the engine.

Natives will grin at you from the hedgerows, and labourers will cease
work in the plantations to stare open-mouthed at the incomprehensible
railway train. You will pass homesteads and sugar mills, fruit farms and
stockyards. Large-hatted planters will ride along roads skirting the
railway track, and they will play with their ponies and give exhibitions
of their horsemanship for the sake of any lady passenger who may or may
not be your companion. The black guard, or conductor, will come and
examine your ticket at every other station; and at most stopping places
a little crowd of negroes will stare at you through the carriage window.

The railway journey will enable you to see agricultural Jamaica. The
plantations, great and small, skirt the railway track, and the traveller
can note the varied beauties and interests of the fruits of the Indies.
He will see full-grown banana clumps, heavy with fruit; and he will also
see newly-planted banana striplings. The fields of pine-apples, which
resemble fields of English bulrushes tinted dull red and gold, will
charm him, and the pimento groves will remind him of English orchards.
When the bamboo forests and the straggling palms come in view, he will
remember with great contentment that he is in the tropics indeed. The
birds and the butterflies are shy of the noise and mess of the
locomotive, but still the traveller may see enough of the beauty of the
fluttering insects to teach him something of the loveliness which is
born beneath the shelter of tropical foliage. If he is fortunate enough
to see a tiny humming bird sipping from the cup of a scented blossom, he
will have seen that which will persuade him to sit in a flower-spangled
hedgerow for hours in order that he may witness the picture again.

It is said, and I have put it on record, that Columbus crumpled a piece
of paper in order to give his patron a correct impression of the
appearance of the island. It is the crumpled, irregular, casual Jamaica
that the railroad traveller sees. The valleys, the plateaus, the hills,
the mountains, rivers and ravines, pass along the carriage window in
bewildering succession; the views one sees are beautiful and mystical
beyond comprehension–like the tints in a stormy sunset.

One thing at least the intelligent traveller will learn on his railway
journey; he will realise that the beauty of the tropics can never be
comprehended by the finite mind of man. He will thank God for the beauty
he has seen, and if he is a wise man, there he will allow the matter to
rest. To attempt to catalogue the beauties of Jamaica is a task too
infinitely foolish: as well essay an analysis of a moonbeam.

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