A SOLDIER OF THE WEST INDIAN REGIMENT

Wild Man Street is the central place of Jamaican gaiety. In the day-time
it seems an ordinary street, white in the roadway and green in its walls
of painted houses. The evening shadows blacken the place into an abode
of infamy.

We drove there through the wild scents of a tropic night. The bejewelled
skies sparkled no brighter than the flashing insects; the fresh sea
breeze struggled in vain to kill the half Eastern scents of the garden
flowers and aromatic woods. The singing of the insects made music which
the soft air translated into a sweet lullaby. As you drive to the town
of Kingston, the noises and the scents become more and more suggestive
of the East. The place might be Ceylon, Yokohama, or Hong Kong. We were
to see a bungalow which might be found with equal ease in the byways of
any of these places; the difference existing only in the skins and
tongues of the women. The place was larger than an ordinary house of the
working people; the gaining of fugitive wealth is the only compensation
looked for by the Jamaican dancing women.

The reception room was fitted with cheap muslins and common bamboo
furniture. The stained wood floor was relieved in patches by tiny
squares of matting or cheap imitations of the carpets of Turkey. Several
of the rickety tables supported brass ash trays in which cheap and
evil-smelling pastils smouldered unhealthily, half drowning the odour of
the scents the women used. With finger rings made of silver, flashing
with lack lustre glass or paste; arms and necks encircled with coral or
cheap pearl bands, the women, gowned in flowing robes of white or
yellow, listlessly sustained a difficult part. It is difficult for a gay
woman to appear gay without the aid of strong liquors. This place is one
of the houses where the women dance only at the bidding of white men,
the black man is not a welcome guest. The women call themselves white;
really they are brown or yellow or nearly black. They use powder freely,
and cheap rouge also. The effect is awful; a black man in war streaks of
white or vermilion is not more hideous; they speak the pigeon English of
an affected Eurasian, with a tincture of the sing-song drawl of an
educated negro. To these women all the other natives of Jamaica are
coloured. They speak of the England they have never seen as home. White
men are “chaps” or “felhers”; whisky is their drink, and they suggest
with proud frankness that they are the daughters of great white men. But
coloured people, especially coloured people of this class, are not
infallible. We gave them money, which they received with the grace of a
dissatisfied four-wheel cab driver,

[Illustration: A COLOURED GIRL]

but they produced liquor and became animated. White teeth flashed and
the accent became more coloured and so more natural. It was not pretty
talk, and it was lacking in the elements of refinement. The gaiety of
the women of this class always seems forced. As they talked and
gesticulated the paint and powder flaked off their cheeks as whitewash
scales off a crumpled ceiling. They lost their reserve and found
abandon. One, of uncertain age but decided embonpoint, took up a
mandoline, which was well varnished and hung with ribbons, but badly
tuned, and sang a song. The words were indistinct; the title of the song
I never knew; the tune I am glad to have forgotten.

The doors were closed and window shutters drawn; the unholy stench of
the pastils filled the room with suffocating smoke; it was as though
these women acted their parts and had obtained cheap properties and
mismanaged scenic effects. The amusement of the place, if it existed at
all, was colourless in the extreme. The dancing we did not see. So we
left the place and found the sweet-smelling night breeze.

If it is possible to find a place in which the stupefying smoke of a
burning pastil is not altogether bad, I would suggest that that place
might be a hall in which black people are dancing the dignity dance. To
the white man the negro is not without a curious odour, which seems to
get more powerful when the black man takes violent exercise. Picture a
room, bare as a barn, painted light blue, and filled to overflowing with
people of all shades of colour, from ebony to dark walnut. Though the
window shutters are half open the light night breeze is too delicate to
cool all the people in a room whose temperature must be above one
hundred degrees. Arranged in couples the dancers are executing most
weird and complicated antics–some with a certain degree of grace and
rhythm–to the noise of a band of three tired musicians. Probably the
dancing would be more regular if the music were abolished. If the three
men were playing the same tune, each had learned the piece in different
time, and was playing his hardest in order to show the others how the
thing should really run. However the dancers did not mind, so the
spectator had no right to grumble. The dancing waxed more furious, and
the lagging music raced to keep pace with the spirit of the dancers. The
more excited of the twirling crowd began to chant a weird chorus; the
words seemed to be entirely impromptu, the melody was monotonous, and
somehow it reminded me of the muffled sound of a band of tom-toms. The
dignity dance itself, if it has any set arrangement at all, is something
like the visiting and the grand chain in our lancers. The dancers,
twirling in couples at most giddy speed, frequently separated, and the
men in a long line approached the women, who in turn retired. When the
wall is reached the men retire, and the women do the advancing. A sudden
bang on the part of the orchestra, and a shout by the eager dancers, is
the signal for the breaking of the lines; and the men snatch their
partners and twirl more giddy circles. Interesting as the dancing was it
could not be called either fascinating or unique. Save for the coloured
skin of the dancers, and the curious odour of the room, a similar scene
can be witnessed in any European ballroom. From the dignity ballroom we
went to a concert hall where all the performers were coloured and all
the audience jet black. The performers seemed to enjoy the entertainment
most of all.

The songs were delivered in European concert fashion, and they were
mostly well known ballads:–“Robin Adair,” “I dreamt that I dwelt in
Marble Halls,” and other old airs of that description. It was not an
interesting performance. But the audience applauded everything, they
encored everyone, and when a reciter appeared and gave a rendering of
Hamlet by “Mr. William Shakespeare” members of the audience could
scarcely contain themselves. It was a bad recitation, but I fancy the
people in the body of the hall had paid their entrance money and were
determined to make the best of the business. Certainly they seemed to
like hearing themselves shout. We asked a supercilious half-breed, who
wore an evening suit and a crimson necktie, where we could hear some
native singing.

“If,” said he, “you refer to the songs of the negroes, I can only
indicate the low rum shops, and even there it is not permitted.”

Evidently his opinion of the musical abilities of the black man was not
a high one. However we accepted his advice and journeyed to the rum
shops.

In the architecture of their drinking saloons, as in nearly everything
else, the Jamaicans have imitated New York rather than London. You enter
a swing door and discover a long room fitted with a serving counter, and
otherwise bare of furniture. A man presides over the rum bottles, and
the drinkers are mostly negroes of the richer class; small shopkeepers,
clerks, buggymen, and adventurers. We put our heads in the doors of many
of the drinking shops but we never heard the native music.

We had to be content with a pilgrimage through the deserted streets of
the capital. Save for a few buggies and now and then a noisy road car,
Kingston was almost deserted. At some of the street corners groups of
men were engaged in violent conversation, and occasionally we saw a
policeman; otherwise the empty pavements echoed only the noise of our
walking. There are no theatres in Jamaica, and all the wealthier people
live in the distant suburbs. The poorer black men who live in the side
streets of the town have to be up betimes, so they do not waste their
strength by keeping up late at night. It is a cold and a deathly place
at night, this little town of Kingston. No shop keeps open after dark;
no lights appear in the windows of the houses; no crowds of people
promenade the High Street, and jostle each other in friendly rivalry.

Occasionally when passing a house we heard the echo of laughter, and
sometimes merry noise of music, but as a rule the homes were dark and
silent. It seemed a decayed, deserted city; a place from which all
people had fled.

In Jamaica the Army is mainly considered as a prop to society. Among the
whites the officers are in great request as dancing men, players at the
game of tennis and possible husbands for fair daughters. Among the
blacks the same applies to the coloured Tommy, except that there is no
tennis. The West Indian regiments have seen service, and have proved
their metal as fighting men in various parts of Africa. The West Indian
Colonels are as proud of their black regiments as any commander of any
white battalion of the line. But the languorous atmosphere of Jamaica
does not suggest strife; so, the tendency among Jamaicans, high and low,
rich and poor, is to regard the military as purely social people. When
the Governor is one guest short at a dinner or luncheon or tennis
function, an officer is requisitioned from the nearest garrison or camp.
When Mama is hard up for men at one of her select dances, the subaltern
receives a dainty invitation.

In the day-time the young West Indian Army officer gets through his
early morning work as quickly as possible, and then scrambles,
schoolboy fashion, into the playing fields. Drill is over by midday, and
then the uniform (khaki and sun helmet) is flung aside for cool flannels
or polo breeches. From midday until four the hours must be spent inside
a house, away from the sun. So after luncheon it is forty winks, or
cards or a game of pool. Then, when the full heat of the sun has
smouldered into the early evening glow, the games begin. Polo, cricket,
tennis, or golf; these are the first favourites. A few will take a spin
on a fast pony; others, it may be, will sail across Kingston Bay and
take a surf bath among the palisadoes. But for the majority it is either
polo, cricket, tennis, or golf. Golf for seniors, polo for the young
subaltern newly joined, tennis for the older captains, and cricket for
full lieutenants. The two hours between four and six mark the playtime
for the Jamaican Army. After six the clubhouses or mess smokerooms
tinkle with the music of many glasses, as the young officers refresh
themselves after two hours’ work in a climate marking well above 100° on
the thermometer. An hour with pipes and comrades over the friendly
glass, and then a bath and dinner. After dinner the officer becomes the
social animal, and the messroom and barrack-yard know him no more till
midnight. That is the life of the Army officer. It is rather dull and a
little monotonous; but the young men make the most of it and meanwhile
pray for leave and England.

With the Colonial Tommy it is different. He works at his drill or
musketry and then, at midday,

[Illustration: A TROPICAL LANDSCAPE NEAR CASTLETON]

dines. If he can he gets off for the afternoon; then he lounges into
Kingston and plumes himself on the side walks to the admiration of the
black and yellow girls. No sun has any terrors for your true West Indian
soldier. His skull is thick enough even without the protection of his
smart undress cap. His amusement is similar to that of an English Tommy
in any garrison town, except that he does not drink so much. He is the
idol of the populace; especially on the afternoon of the Sabbath, when,
after Church is over, he is permitted to parade at large in the
brilliant full-dress uniform of his regiment. Scarlet and yellow or
scarlet and white, zouave jackets, and white or yellow spats, his get up
is that of a French Zouave West Indianised; and he is the King of
feminine Jamaica. He is popular among men and women alike, since the
civilian men are conscious of a reflected grandeur when in company with
a soldier in full dress. A military comrade helps them with the women,
just as one returned yeoman peopled a smokeroom with heroes during our
South African War. The black Tommy is paid his shilling a day, just as
though he were a redcoated white man. He was recruited in some West
Indian island, or in Western Africa in the district Sierra Leone,–he
cares not where, for now his home is the cool barrack-room,–and he is
quite content to stand before a few thousand people as a soldier of the
King. Generally he has at least one silver medal to show that he has
heard the music of the Martini fired in anger. He has fought savage
races in lands where a white man has no right to go, and he knows that
he has his value. He is not jealous of the draft of the white British
regiment which, for some unknown reason, is always to be found in the
hills somewhere about Newcastle; he is not jealous because he is too
conscious of superiority. Could a white regiment have marched in the
full glare of the noon sun through Ashanti and not dropped a man? Could
a white man pierce jungle and fight through malarious tangled
undergrowth, wading slimy swamps, swimming rushing rivers, and live? Can
any company of white soldiers march with the swing of a West Indian
Regiment when the black pipers shriek the quick-step?

When the white men think they can, and say so, then West India rises by
half companies and ties service razors on stout sticks of ebony, and
there is riot in the land of perpetual sunshine. Black men are mauled
with heavy belts in the fashion of the British Infantry, and white men
stagger home gashed with razor cuts and faint for lack of blood. When
the civil war is over, each side, conscious of victory, willingly
forgives and for several months forgets. Then peace is found among the
huts at Newcastle, and sweet peace amidst the tents of the plains.

The black troops insist that it is necessary that their women should be
treated with respect, even deference, by their white brothers in arms.
This the white Tommy has not yet learned to do. Possibly the lesson is
difficult owing to the infinite extent of the acquaintanceship with
feminine Jamaica peculiar to the West Indian regiments. Every lady is a
friend of some soldier’s friend, if she is not his sister, aunt, wife,
or mother. So trouble sometimes springs from this source. Then it is out
belts and razors until the officers intervene. Shots have been fired,
but this is unusual. And the result of the court-martial offers no
encouragement to would-be marksmen. As a rule the Tommies, black and
white, mix and fraternise as well as may be expected. Each has a large
respect, well mixed with a great contempt, for his alien brother. Each
serves the same white King whose dominion over all the earth is
unquestioned. The King is the common sentiment to which hangs the
brotherhood of the British soldiers, white and black.

On the other hand the Jamaican police are not popular with the people of
the island. The uniform they wear is not sufficiently striking; there is
no great blaze of colour–no suggestion of power or rank or beauty. A
plain white tunic and dark blue trousers with a red stripe, a simple
white helmet and plain black leather boots, make up the uniform of the
Constabulary. It is impossible for a negro to respect such a costume, or
to be proud of a police so uniformed. So the people have come to look
upon the policemen as workers; men made for use, and not turned out for
the sake of ornamenting a town already bright and picturesque enough.
And it may be that this is the reason why the Jamaican constable is
regarded as a judicial potentate–a man whose word is law–a person to
be avoided, even feared. The presence of a policeman stops the noisy
jabber or a street crowd of fruit-sellers; his approach melts a group
of excited quarrellers; his uplifted hand stems the tide of rushing
traffic–just as it is in England. The police are efficient and
unpopular. The constable alone among the inhabitants of Kingston does
not lounge and laugh and chatter. If he smiles it is with an air of
conscious superiority. The mouths of the men are curved downwards in the
form of a perpetual sneer. The law cannot be merry; the limbs of the law
may not be humanly happy.

The Jamaican police force is well organised and very efficient. There
are inspectors and sub-inspectors, staff-sergeants and sergeants and
constables, and above all one white Chief. Most of the senior officers
are white men; the rank and file are black and brown, and yellow and
dusky white. It is on the rank and file that the work of Government
falls. A plain constable in Jamaica is a far more powerful man than any
white-gloved, long-sworded police inspector in England. Every regulation
beat in the island of rivers is a courthouse, presided over by an
impartial and all powerful policeman-judge. Fifty times a day he will be
called upon to arbitrate in matters of great delicacy. It may be that
there is a doubt in the minds of two women as to the ownership of a
valuable article of diet or furniture. The policeman weighs the evidence
of witnesses and pronounces judgment. He will, in cases of real
necessity, administer the oath to people whose mere word is open to
doubt, and he makes people swear, Scotch fashion, with uplifted hands.

Round such street-corner courts small crowds are allowed to congregate,
and respectfully listen to the words of one whose knowledge of
police-court ritual stands him in good stead. I have heard a policeman
restore to a woman that good name which the jealousy of a chattering
neighbour had flung to the four winds; the same man afterwards settled a
knotty point in regard to the freshness of a heap of fish which a
despondent purchaser pleaded were bad. This was a serious case; the
constable smelt the fish and handled them with the reverence of an usher
for a barrister’s brief bag. In this instance the judgment of the
constable gave satisfaction to one man and made him unpopular with a
crowd. It was openly suggested that he had received a promise of largess
from the man whose case he upheld. As a body the force has a
Spartan-like love for unpopularity, born of the exhibition of unbending
power in performing their illegal office of judge and jury. I once
toured the side streets of the city with a pompous black sergeant who
obviously knew the town only from the kerbstone to the railing. The
Jamaica police have no eyes that see through brick walls. They have a
love for intrigue, but lack the capacity of meeting cunning with
detective craft. If a thing is to be seen with the naked eye they see it
well enough; but, as a rule, they have no imagination and no power of
working up theories. Sherlock Holmes would have been a chemist only had
he been born a negro.

Every constable seems to imagine that, socially and politically, he is
far above the ordinary inhabitant. He feels towards his coloured
brethren in about the same way as a cavalry colonel feels towards a
newly-joined militia private. Between a member of the constabulary force
and an ordinary person there can be no close friendship. The black
policeman lives in a atmosphere of the police court, and seems always to
regard every member of the public as a possible prisoner and a certain
criminal. Really in his heart I think he feels the bitterness of his
exalted loneliness. He inwardly regrets the necessity of his aloofness
from human pleasures. He would probably prefer to be a soldier. This he
will never admit, even to himself. But, I repeat, probably he would
prefer to be a soldier of the line. The uniform is better; it is far
more picturesque. And the men of the West Indian Regiments combine
dignity and popularity in a manner entirely mystifying to the Jamaican
police. Besides, the brilliant-soldier companies march down the high
road to the music of pipes and drums, and the weary constable has to
stand by and see that the road is clear. The soldier is a picturesque
hero; the police constable is–a constable of justice and nothing
more.

A square room painted white and fitted with dull red benches and a
raised platform; on the platform the magistrate, a weary-looking man
with faded hair and wrinkled face, and eyes screened by gold-rimmed
spectacles. As he sits, listlessly playing with his papers, apparently
indifferent to the pleadings of the prisoners, or the garrulous
stormings of nervous witnesses, he seems to suggest a tired speculator
reading the first official details of his own bankruptcy. Occasionally
he raises his voice and a hushed court hears, “All right, get down now,”
and a witness, only just sufficiently recovered from nervousness to have
reached the period of unintelligible verbosity, gets down with a sulky
jerk and proud bearing. All Jamaican negroes speak a language officially
known as English. From the fact that it is alleged that he can
understand the unbroken flow of their fearful eloquence, the magistrate
must be counted a man of consummate linguistic ability. In front of the
platform is a huge table, at which all the whites and yellow-whites of
the district are foregathered to witness the administration of justice.
At the head of the table, and at the feet of the magistrate, is the
clerk; an ancient man with the remains of a weak voice, and a habit of
looking over his steel eye-glasses in the approved scholastic style. He
is an important, if not a picturesque personage. The decorative touch is
afforded to the court by the appearance of the inspector of police. He
sits at another corner of the large table behind a great white helmet
carefully placed on the summit of a large pile of important blue papers,
in the proper crown and cushion fashion. The helmet is the police
inspector’s shield and guard, and badge of office. It is an inflexible
example of the power and nobility of the law; it is an object on which
the prisoners may fasten their eyes, should they be unable to gaze for
ever into the inscrutable depths of the spectacles of the presiding
magistrate. Compared with the magistrate, the clerk and the inspector of
police, the other whites and yellow-whites are unimportant. Planters and
tradesmen, and commission agents, they lounge gracelessly round the
table, fingering their riding whips or pulling at the ends of their
scrubby beards. The table marks the boundary line of the charmed circle,
into which only the whites, and the not very yellow-whites, may enter
with impunity. Beyond, in the public benches, grouped carelessly in
picturesque disorder, are the natives. A sweltering crowd it is,
throbbing with silence, just as the tropical midday throbs with heat.
The prisoner at the bar, a ragged, unkempt negro, whose cleaner father
must have come from the malarial swamps behind the Gold Coast, is
answering to a charge of stealing, feloniously and with malicious
intent, one and a half pairs of meat known and described (in Jamaica and
elsewhere) as pig’s trotters. As we entered, the prisoner at the bar was
tearing at the mangy patches of his mud-coloured hair, and pleading “I
no took them master, sir, yer honor, I no took them; I ask to be set
free. I no see them, I no eat them, ’fore God in ’eaven.”

It was interesting to watch the varied emotions playing over the
expressive faces of the watching crowd of the man’s enemies and friends.
Enemies first, because the natives seemed as cruelly thoughtless, and
quite as vicious, as the ladies in any balcony at a Spanish bull-ring.
When the monotonous mumble of the magistrate has finished, only the
pleased smile of the prisoner told us the news of his acquittal. To the
unexperienced ear, the magistrate’s mumble was just as incomprehensible
as any of the jargon of the witnesses themselves.

The next two or three cases were concerned with the question of
paternity, and in each instance the plaintive lady received the
consolation of eighteen-pence a week for a period of years. Then
followed a charge of assault. One lady had beaten another with an
implement remotely resembling a carpenter’s stool. On each side there
were many witnesses and, apparently, many liars. One coquette in a West
Indian gown of yellow, green, blue, and pink, ventured to repeat to the
court some of the vulgar abuse which, in her opinion, contributed to,
and completely justified, the assault referred to. Hers was an eloquent
and ingenious pleading. First, she swore before God and Heaven that the
assault was not an assault at all, “Ester did not lay a finger on the
woman”; then she justified the assault in language which stirred even
the lethargic magistrate. “Such language will do your friend no good; it
only serves to show that you are a low abandoned woman”–he ventured to
remark in a low, even monotone.

“So’s she, she is low and abandoned too; she is … and she said”….
The woman was on her metal, and desired above all things to incriminate
the enemy of her friend.

In the end someone was fined eight shillings and costs. Who it was I
never knew; but my impression is that it was either a witness or the
police constable.

Two young and innocent-looking boys were charged by a one-legged baker
with stealing a loaf, value one penny. The baker was evidently a man of
parts, one of which was religion. He kissed the book with a vivacious
reverence and commenced, “Your Honour and gentlemen:–Them two boys
Simon Fogarty and Thomas Smiff was in my bakery on the pretence of
executing a purchase. I ask them to lift a board in order that I may
take up bread enough to supply them. They become impertinent. I rebuke
them. They only laugh and say I too much fool. I again rebuke them, and
then I get over the counter in order to chastise them. They fly; but I
seize one, Simon

[Illustration: A NEGRO NURSE WITH CHINESE CHILDREN, JAMAICA]

Fogarty, and he struggle so hard that I oblige to call in the aid of
Constable Perkin, who shall come before your Honour and say I speak the
truth only. When I go back to my shop I find that one loaf had gone. I
run into the street and see Thomas Smiff with my loaf to his lips. I
call witness to see him also, and they tell you how the wicked boy, who
is the pest of the street, eat my loaf for which I receive no payment.”
The police constable confirmed the baker’s statement, and the magistrate
looked bored to extinction. It is just the police court in which that
ancient suburban drama “Black justice” might be performed with
propriety.

In spite of the eloquence of the baker and the accurate testimony of the
police constable, those boys might have been let off with a caution;
but, just as justice was looking its weakest, the police inspector rose,
and, placing one hand gracefully upon the summit of his helmet,
addressed the court.

“May I venture to say that those boys are the most incorrigible rascals
in the district. They do no work; they are dirty, lazy, and a terror to
the neighbourhood. They give more trouble to the police than any other
man or woman on the island.” The quality of mercy is immediately
strained, and although the pardon flows out (mainly because the baker
requests it) the dregs remain in a sentence to come up for judgment when
called upon to do so.

The boys jointly attempt to hide a wide and intelligent grin behind the
battered remains of what must once have been a felt hat.

And so the court goes on.

The merry hum of the day insects mingles with the shrill tones of
singing birds, and the chatter of anxious litigants in the yard below.
The magistrate continues his anxious calculations, and the clerk is
assiduous in his endeavours to balance a pair of rusty pince-nez on a
nose obviously too slippery with sweat. The police inspector frowns
round the room from behind the majestic screen of his helmet, and the
black usher shouts silence, or swears a witness after the usual caution
of “Take se bible in you righ’ ’and”….

Share