THE LAST KINGS OF BIM

A frequent complaint of new arrivals to the rock is that the local newspapers are not substantive. If you are looking for the latest news and analysis I am inclined to agree. But The Nation, The Advocate and Heat do so much more. The classifieds are a must read. One woman wanted a job “babysitting, selling bread from a van and looking after the elderly”. Your call, but given her skill set, odds are if you entrusted her with little Johnny, or elderly aunt Mavis, they will end up spending a lot of time inside a bread van. My personal favorite remains a daily advert for Keisha’s Jewelry accompanied by a photo of a man Interpol might advise the public to report if seen, but under no circumstances approach. Keisha, is that you?

Several of the columnists are great fun and it is my addiction to reading them that has led me astray this week. Now, I am a simple woman. When I read in a popular newspaper column that the best pudding and souse (pickled pork and sweet potato), a Bajan Saturday lunch ritual, is to be found in Lemon Arbour, St. John, I believed. Last Saturday, while The Husband played cricket with four little boys, I headed out with faith and a map. We are still licking our lips from the best pudding and souse as well as barbeque chicken, macaroni pie and vegetables.

So when the same columnist wrote that the best freshly salted fish is to be found in Martin’s Bay on a Tuesday, “just ask for Mr. King”, I want to do just that. Trinis make a wonderful snack called bulgol with salt fish tossed in olive oil, onions, garlic and sweet peppers accompanied by locally produced crackers called crik. No other cracker is deemed appropriate. The kids love it and mama enjoys indulging them just a little. So the search for Mr. King begins.

The phone book has 53 listings that include King. I eliminate the obvious unsuitable candidates, including Dr. King the family GP, Dr. King the dentist, Mr. King the physiotherapist, Mr. King the lawyer, Mr. King the auto repairman, Discount King, Door King, Security King and Chicken King. But none of the remaining Kings yielded a salt fish supplier. As happens often on this tiny rock I only mention my quest in passing to a fellow artist and she thinks she knows who it might be. Leigh shares a long-term cottage rental overlooking the sea at Martin’s Bay and knows of a King family in the village. Since we are making work together we decided to combine this with the salt fish quest by having our weekly working session at the cottage in Martin’s Bay.

From our worktable we gazed out towards Africa, wind in our hair and pounding waves in our ears. Inspiration flowed and grand ideas emerged for changing the artistic landscape of Bim by creating spaces where ideas on contemporary art are exchanged and challenged through collaborations, exhibitions and happenings. But the devil is always in the detail and by lunchtime reality has set in. Given the miniscule percentage of the total population engaged in contemporary art, we are lucky just to have found each other. The rock is too small to contain and sustain activity of this sort without engagement from at least neighbouring Jamaica and Trinidad. There is nothing like an epiphany to bring on hunger and so the quest for the salt fish King resumed.

As we drove to where the King family may be living, Leigh said I needed a little warning about the group known locally by the derogatory terms, Redlegs or Ecky-Beckys, which Mr. King belongs to. They are descendents of Scottish immigrants who came to Barbados particularly between 1627 and 1629. Of course there were the usual planters and settlers but there were also indentured labourers, political dissidents, prisoners – basically anyone the Scots wanted out of Scotland. The descendents of these lower classes have formed a small but distinct, traditionally isolated enclave, of poor Caucasian families living in the north east of the island. The younger generation is more integrated into mainstream society but Martin’s Bay is a hamlet that would prefer the outside to stay outside.

The significance of this small community of poor whites on the rock might seem absurd until you remember that this is a society largely made up of the descendents of white masters and black slaves. The stereotype each must bear is the equation that white equals wealth and privilege and black the opposite. Frantz Fanon in his book, The Wretched of the Earth puts it this way, “…the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” Mr. King’s family turns this on its head churning up both fear and fascination in equal measure.

We found Mr. King conveniently taking the sea air on his porch in the company of a gentleman who looks a lot like him, and a woman who turns out to be his wife, and who also looks a lot like him. The gene pool is shrinking. It is clear their peaceful afternoons are not usually shattered by strangers. I do my best not to fixate on the almost translucent paleness of their skins, their ruddy checks and the slightly wild eyed look common to all three. Leigh did the talking.
“Morning. We looking for Mr. King who sells salt fish pon ah Tuesday down here.”
“I is Mr. King. But I eh have no fish. Yuh sure is King yuh want?” he asks.
“It was in de papers dat is de best salt fish. Better than de grocery ting from Canada. Fresh, fresh, salt fish from right here in Martin’s Bay. De papers say just ask for Mr. King.”
“It have more King dem round St. John by de hill but I doh know no body who does sell fish.”
“Yuh sure?”
“I ain’t have no fish. Yuh want eggs?”

It is clear there will be no more conversation so she politely declined the eggs and we drove out of the village. As the car bumped along on what passes for a road, we saw a man cleaning fish. Leigh put down her window (with the “married man tint”) and yelled to him,
“Yuh selling salt fish?”
Without missing a beat he replied,
“Well, de sea have salt, and de fish come from de sea, so dis Dolphin here is salt fish. How much yuh want?”

It was wonderful to end the day shattering so many racial stereotypes. Whites are not all privileged and a black fisherman is the best entrepreneur I have ever met. The quest for Mr. King continues. But I remain optimistic that when the sun shines Mr. King will come out of hiding and we can shine together, making the best bulgol ever. And if, in his world, it’s raining more than ever, he can have my umbrella. Meanwhile Queen Rihana is arriving today to a red carpet, double celebration, of her first Grammy and 20th birthday.

Long live the Queen. Ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.

5 comments:

Dennis Jones said...

Hope you were not disappointed at Lemon Arbour.

Nice post to put the nail in the coffin of another stereotype.

Gio said...

love the post, another great piece.

Anonymous said...

I found out about these poor whites several years back while walking through the library at Brooklyn College, NY. I was surprised as I passed a shelf to see The Red Legs of Barbados, a slim book on a shelf high enough for me to take notice. More recently, I discovered the Bajan Press and ran into some more of this history of poor whites. Fascinating for me especially when I thought all white people lived on the plantation and had money. Not so for my mother in her early seventies. She knew of them and the places where they could be found. Maybe her great grandmother who came by her childhood home on a donkey cart, and didn't speak a word to her was one of them.

Dennis Jones said...

I also "fell" into St. Martin's Bay and its ecky beckys for the first time some months ago while trying to find my way to Bathsheba. Stopped there with my daughter (who would not look out of place there and was visiting) and had lunch that we had bought up near St. John's church. It is a very quiet and pleasant spot on the east coast. Why leave?

Jamaica has a similar group of white Germans in a place called Seaford Town. They have had a lot of inbreeding and a visit to find them is reminiscent of "Deliverance".

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