Thursday, February 6, 2014


My grandmother's British Guiana
passport: married, 29 years old
and about to embark with her only
child (my mother) to New York.

The South American country of Guiana
  (or Guyana) was a British Colony
from 1831 until 1966.

Elaine Bradford

My grandmother on my mother's side, Elaine Eversley (nee Bradford), was born in 1912 and spent more than fifty years living in New York before she died in her adopted city at age 95. But she was born in British Guiana and was an unapologetic anglophile. She was a British trained midwife and her brother Chummy worked for the British government (we were told he became a British Diplomat to Nigeria). She had a combination of a Guyanese and British accent that became decidedly more British when she pointedly reminded us that she wasn't from Guyana, she was from British Guiana.

A colorized postcard view of Georgetown, 1890. A street railway began carrying passengers in Georgetown in 1877. The line was acquired by Georgetown Tramways Company in 1880 and used vehicles built by John Stephenson Company in New York. 

Dr. Joseph Alexander Bradford

My great grandfather, the well known dentist, Dr. Joseph Alexander Bradford, lived in Guyana in a two story mahogany home in the capital city of Georgetown at 21 Camp Street. It had a large staircase, a parlour and piano.  The dentist office itself was in a room within the house. There were servants who grandma remembered polishing the silver and taking care of linens. Dr. Bradford wore spectacles and carried a silver tipped cane. He held Chess Club and Cricket Club meetings at his home, and gave regularly to local charities.  A businessman, he had holdings in gold, diamonds and bauxite. The house and property was eventually taken over by the Guyanese government in the 1970s and used as a foreign consulate.

My great grandfather, Dr. Bradford

Georgetown, with its series of canals, was once considered the "Riviera of the West Indies."

While my great grandfather clearly had African and perhaps even some Arawak Indian roots (grandma remembered two old African aunts who sat in the backyard and spoke in a language she did not understand), my grandmother was definitely mixed race. She had a head full of long black hair down to her waist that was usually capped with a big white bow.  My great grandfather did not marry my grandmother's mother,  Marie DeRocha. She was from Portugal and evidently returned there several years after my grandmother was born.

Sunday School Teachers in British Guyana, 19th century

My Portuguese Roots

Research can take you to some wonderfully interesting places. Britain abolished slavery in 1807, but continued to run plantations of sugar fields in Guyana that needed workers after the African slaves were freed. In trying to figure out how my Portuguese great grandmother ended up in Guyana, I learned some facts about the Portuguese and how they, Scottish, Chinese and Germans were used as farm laborers in sugar cane fields in Guyana by the British to replace the African slaves who were no longer at their disposal. During the Portuguese migration from 1834 to 1882, 30,645 indentured labourers arrived mainly from Madeira to the British Colony of Guyana. I'd known about the migration to Brazil, but not to my grandmother's country.

Class and the British Empire

I was told that my great grandmother was from a middle or upper class family, so her family must have arrived directly from Portugal or merged after the end of migration, as described by Sister Mary Noel Menezes, a Sister of Mercy and an emeritus professor at the University of Guyana. (My grandmother, by the way, was a devoted Catholic and went to Catholic school in Guyana with some terribly mean, strict nuns who hit her and made her remove every stitch of the embroidery her mother had painstakingly added to her school smock and sent from Portugal. But I digress.) Sister Mary Noel chronicles the rise of the Portuguese in British Guyana:

"The end of the 1860s and the 1870s saw the Portuguese well entrenched in business. The roster of Portuguese entrepreneurs was extensive. Apart from being property owners, they were provision and commission merchants, spirit shop owners, importers, iron mongers, ship chandlers, leather merchants, boot and shoe makers, saddlers, coachbuilders, woodcutters, timber merchants, brick makers, cattle owners, pork-knockers, charcoal dealers, bakers and photographers.

This commercial success of the Portuguese received high praise in the Royal Gazette.

19th century Portuguese immigrants

The rise of the Portuguese in this colony from a state of most abject poverty to one of comparative affluence, and to the possession, in many instances, of thousands of dollars within the space of a few years, is one of the most remarkable occurrences in modern Colonial History.

This unprecedented success of the Portuguese in business aroused the jealousy and animosity of the Blacks to such an extent that riots resulted, one especially violent one, the 1856 “Angel Gabriel” Riots during which Portuguese shops were extensively damaged.

By the turn of the century the Portuguese had created their own middle and upper class. They were never accepted into the echelons of white European society though they themselves were Europeans. Much less did they “bolster white supremacy”. The rapid economic progress of the Portuguese, their strong adherence to the Catholic faith and their clannishness bred respect but never whole-hearted acceptance among the population either in the nineteenth or twentieth century."

The layers upon layers that one discovers when you delve into historical facts surrounding black life, and in particular one's own family,  never cease to amaze me. And in this case, it brings to light so much about the roots and causes of classism, self hatred, and the need to belong that so often fuels Colonial anglophilia.

NEXT: New York vs. London - a Victorian Timeline from a Black Perspective

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