Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands


Courtesy of OSPA


by Winifred F. O'Mahony
Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
The Oratory Church, Edgbaston
"You will be posted as Supernumery Medical Officer in the Leeward Islands - based in the first instance in Antigua". So ran the directive from the Colonial Office to Dr. O'Mahony, then my fiance. That meant a somewhat hurried wedding, and since the ceremony was to be performed by Dr. Leighton Williams, Archbishop of Birmingham, no time could be lost. Our wedding took place in the beautiful Oratory Church in Edgbaston and a few days later we left on a small cargo-cum-mail steamer bound for the far away Leeward Islands. Little was known of Antigua in 1931, even the postal authorities in our General Post Office could give us only the vaguest information about mail. However, we were young, full of good endeavour, and the whole project seemed a tremendous challenge. Money presented a problem, most of our available cash had been expended on medical instruments, tropical kit and so on. The Leeward Islands Government were to pay us a meagre salary of 400 pounds per annum, and anything above this would have to come from problematical private practice.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Government House, Antigua
Two weeks later we were anchored off Antigua and welcomed by the Chief Medical Officer and a tall white uniformed Irish Chief of Police. Once ashore we were taken to what was euphemistically called an Hotel. It turned out to be nothing more than a boarding-house situated over a dock-side warehouse. Here we were quickly informed that water was in very short supply, and that it was an ever-present problem of that particular island. Thus we discovered that no baths were available, and no sewerage system existed, tho' septic tanks were installed in many buildings, most of them were constantly out of use. A pretty problem indeed. Our luggage came ashore, and gradually we settled in. My husband was inducted into the medical organisation and colleagues took him on tours of the various institutions.

A couple of days later we were invited to a formal dinner at Government House, and here came our first social problem. In a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. how on earth could my husband keep a dress collar stiff for more than 15 minutes, and how on earth could I peel on long white kid gloves over my constantly perspiring skin. Collar studs were lost, buttons came off, we swore and we prayed. But we coped, and with our first milestone passed, we survived crumpled but triumphant.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
The Long Dining Room
Antigua is a pretty island measuring some 8 miles by 10, with a few hills none of which exceed 1,300 feet. Its greatest assets are the beautiful white coral beaches with relatively safe bathing. St. John's, the Capital, has wide streets lined with two storey shops, warehouses etc painted a glaring white. The Cathedral, an interesting structure, is a double building, the inside being built of wood, whilst the outer shell is of stone, thus it was hoped to make it earthquake-proof. North of the town lies a big open Savannah around which are built some fine residences. Government House, and the Prison buildings. The General Hospital lies some two miles further north composed mostly of wooden hutments in a large area of grass and rough gardens.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
St John's, Antigua
We had little opportunity of exploring the Island as within a week or so we were told to pack our kit and go on to the neighbouring island of St. Christopher, locally known as St. Kitts. One of their two medical officers had died from septicaemia and we were urgently required. We travelled on one of the excellent Canadian 'Lady' boats which called at most of the West Indian islands regularly.

St. Kitts is quite lovely. A central range of mountains with Mount Misery, an extinct volcano, dominating the island. Lush tropical vegetation grows well into the mountains whilst cane-fields spread like huge green carpets in the lowlands. Small grey monkeys abound and it is a common sight to see lorries returning from the mountains after week-end 'shoots' with a cross-bar over the back holding a dozen or so of these pathetic little carcases, their heads threaded thro' slits in their long prehensile tails. Monkey meat is much sought after by the natives and said to be delicious. We did not, repeat NOT sample it.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
A 'Lady' Boat
But of comfort there was none. Once again we stayed in the only available boarding house, its bedrooms separated by 8 ft. partitions. More water was available here, tho' primitive plumbing, intolerably hard beds, atrocious food, and swarms of mosquitos and sandflies made for immense discomfort. Cockroaches, some 2 inches long, adorned the walls and floors by night, and when rain came they started flying around and joined up with the other winged horrors.

After a few days in St. Kitts we were hurriedly summoned to nearby Nevis. Another Medical Officer had died. By now I was getting distinctly uneasy, wondering what on earth was happening to the doctors in this area. Gradually I gleaned the truth. These were the days before sulphonomides, penicillin, and other modern antibiotics. In consequence, cross infections were frequent hazards. In a hot humid climate there was nothing to fight infection, and after operations, for instance, it was only a patient's natural immunity that safeguarded him from sepsis of one kind or another.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
St. Kitt's - Nevis Launch
A small steam launch plies between St. Kitts and its sister island of Nevis, the distance being approximately 11 miles. About a dozen or so passengers are carried on this tiny craft together with produce of every kind. Live chickens, pigs, and even the odd goat or two. Seats at the prow are available to the earliest arrivals, the rest have to scramble on to the hatch of the little engine room or any other available space. Into this medley we climbed and praised Heaven that we were both 'good sailors'.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
The Narrows, Nevis
Hazardous tho' the journey appeared, we were to find a comparatively comfortable old Hotel, a relic of a more prosperous era. A hundred or so years ago Nevis had been the social mecca of the nearby islands with a large white population. Now, however, much poverty was apparent and only a handful of white folk remained. Sugar cane and cotton had originally brought great wealth to the island and slaves in their hundreds had worked on the estates. Fame had come through the hot sulphur streams which gushed from open soufrieres on Mount Nevis. These had been channelled down the mountain side and into bath houses in the grounds of the Bath Hotel. Their chemical content was said to be a panacea for many ailments, and thus from many miles distant visitors had come to Nevis for their curative value. We ourselves were later to find them of immense benefit after the exertion of climbing in the nearby mountains.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Bath Hotel, Nevis
Weird and wild stories were told of this neglected old Hotel with its long lamp-lit passages and dimly illuminated rooms. It was said to be haunted, though we saw nothing of this during our sojourn there. During the '39-45 War however, whilst British Officers were stationed there, we were told of some very odd experiences which they had. Indeed. I did so myself during a much later visit, and I firmly decided never to return there.

The island boasted two lighting plants, small 'Delco' sets. One was installed at Government House where the Warden resided, the other was in the little Hospital. It was not long before my husband had the first of many wretched experiences when the lights failed whilst he was operating for a strangulated hernia. He finished under the doubtful rays of torchlights and hurricane lanterns held by assistant nurses. Small wonder that he stayed at the hospital all night awaiting the outcome of such perilous surgery... However, the patient survived and the operation a complete success.

It was in Nevis that I was first introduced to the practice of Obeah. Awaiting my husband at the end of the Magistrate's Court one day, I listened whilst Dr. O'Mahony gave medical evidence for the prosecution in a vicious stabbing case. I was intrigued to hear the Superintendant of Police ask an already sentenced man to remove his shoes. He had been observed shuffling his feet whilst in the witness box and this was sufficient evidence for the observant police. Inside his shoes was found a filthy piece of paper on which had been written the names of Dr. O'Mahony and the other witness for the prosecution. His odd antics had been a warning of dire retribution against anyone who dared to testify against him. The result was a further sentence added to the one already given for the main offence. I soon learned what a hold these practices had on all the locals. They were particularly superstitious about corn-meal, fish bones, blue coloured bottles etc. Any of these found on a doorstep or near the entrance to a home would put the owner in a perfect frenzy of fear. Dust from grave-yards and any small bones that were available were considered particularly strong 'ju-ju'. Some months later than this I was invited to sit on the Bench with a visiting Puisne Judge during an Obeah trial, and he had before him a vast array of 'Instruments of Obeah' which had been seized by police during a raid. Hatred and fear achieve incredible results in those quiet and primitive islands. Servants would put Obeah on their masters or mistresses in the hope of inflicting some injury upon them. Years later I was to find a hard substance in one of my own pillows, which, when investigated, turned out to be a tiny muslin cushion filled with small black crystals and an unknown white powder. Obviously this too was the handiwork of a disgruntled house-servant who wished me ill fortune.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Abandoned Sugar Mill
Time passed and we gradually got used to the intense heat and many privations. Calls on the doctor were not very onerous and we had time to explore this beautiful island. Many fine old plantation houses remained, though all were in a shocking state of repair. Ruins of the sugar mills with their great sails crumbling away were a sombre echo of the past. Sections of the chains which were used to restrain the more recalcitrant slaves were still to be found in the big archways under the mill structures, but the walls are now encrusted with wild flowers and maiden-hair ferns.

The tiny Capital, Charlestown, with its stone-built church and municipal buildings were clustered around a grass-laden square giving a delightful English appearance. Unhappily most of these were subsequently destroyed or badly damaged in severe earth tremors of the 1940's. Though there was no eruption from Mount Nevis itself, great columns of steam erupted in the sea offshore. History relates that the original capital - Jamestown - now lies beneath the sea following a severe earthquake very many years previously when that section of the island subsided into the sea.

A few months passed and we were again transferred, this time to Montserrat, another land in the Leeward group. We now realised from these constant moves exactly what being a Supernumerary Medical Officer meant.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Government House, Montserrat
Again we were in a beautiful island, lush, green, volcanic and exciting. The 'Hotel' was similar to those of Antigua and St. Kitts, with bedrooms rather resembling horse-boxes. Our sojourn in this hostelry was short however, since they charged us to within 10/- per week of our entire salary. Appeals were made to a kindly planter and he put at our disposal a small house up in the hills, partly furnished and long since unoccupied. Oh yes, there WAS a bathroom but we were warned not to make use of it since snakes constantly crawled through the jalousies. This proved to be somewhat of an exaggeration. However, we coped and we managed and invested in our first car, an old Chevrolet for which we paid 25 pounds. By now we felt reasonably independent and secure. For my own recreation I was occasionally able to borrow a police horse and enjoy some hacking on the lower mountain paths. There was no bathing, the beaches were covered in black volcanic sand and quite unsuitable for such a pastime. The soil was rich, and abundant flowers and vegetables were available. 'Sea island' cotton was one of the principal crops and together with sugar cane formed the island's main exports. Tomatoes, citrus fruits, and pineapples were prolific, whilst fields of aubergines - known as 'egg-plants' grew to the size of small footballs.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Police Station, Montserrat
Time passed slowly and then near disaster came. On a quiet Saturday night a telephone call from the Police Station summoned my husband into Town to look after a woman who had been injured. Just that - no details were given, and I decided to accompany Dr. O'Mahony for a cool evening's drive. Once in the little town of Plymouth we realised that the street petrol-lamps were out and indeed smashed, whilst the broken glass started puncturing our tyres. We pressed on at speed to the Police Station and found a screaming mob outside, whilst a Superintendant of Police quickly ushered us within. My husband went straight to the care of his patient and I was sent into the Charge Room where to my surprise I found the Magistrate, his wife, and their small child. It appeared that they had come to the Police Station for sanctuary as the mob had already smashed in the windows of their nearby home. All the trouble had started when a drunken man had resisted arrest. The rum shops were just closing and quickly a crowd had gathered and endeavoured to release the man from police custody. Tempers quickly flared and in no time there was a near riot. The magistrate's house had been the first to be attacked and then the crowd moved on to the Police Station. Huge stones and pieces of rock were showered on the small wooden building, and soon we heard the smashing of the upper windows which were police dormitories, and as such were unprotected except by jalousies. Fortunately the lower windows at street level were steel barred and so afforded us some protection. Presently several policemen were brought in with severe injuries as the crowd were resorting to broken bottles as weapons. I ventured to offer help to my husband who was overwhelmed with casualties. Within seconds a huge stone came hurtling through the window missing Dr. O'Mahony's head by inches and smashing down on his patient's hand. I was summarily dismissed... By dawn tempers had cooled and we prepared to make our way home. Our car. which had been parked outside, was literally smashed to pieces. Tyres, seats and radiator had been liberally slashed and it appeared a complete wreck. The other medical officer in the island, a coloured man and a delightful person, came to our aid and offered to drive us home, but not before the police had issued us with my husband's revolver, previously deposited with them for safe keeping.

In 48 hours or so the whole trouble had died down, and after a handful of arrests the island once more resumed its peaceful existence.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
English Harbour
We were not sorry when in December of that year the Governor, Sir Reginald St. Johnson, gave permission for us to return to Antigua for the birth of my child, and two weeks after this event we were sent across the island to English Harbour. This was to be my Waterloo.

The Dockyard, made famous by Nelson, was in almost complete ruin, though the old Shipwright's House on the water's edge still stood comparatively intact. Here we took up residence. No white people had lived there for many years, but Government hoped that by establishing an English doctor in that locality gradually interest in the area would be revitalised. We were on the far side of the island from St. John's and the connecting road, much of it a dirt track, was in an appalling condition. We bought ourselves a second-hand De Soto car but even in this it took nearly an hour to reach the Capital and its few available shops.

English Harbour is surrounded by beautiful hills, whilst the old buildings of the Dockyard, though crumbling away, were full of near forgotten history. Nelson's House, where the great man himself had resided, still had a modicum of furniture but damage by rats and bats was taking a great toll. An old caretaker lived in a cottage at the outer gates, but with a weekly salary of five shillings there was little he could do to curb the depredations of time.

Fish became our staple diet and this we obtained from a small boat which went out each day to serve the needs of a handful of nearby natives. No meat, other than occasional goat or kid, and since refrigerators were then unknown it was useless to obtain meat from St. John's which would not have kept more than a few hours. Vegetables and fruit were scarce and of poor quality. Under these conditions I wondered how on earth an English baby could survive. She hardly did so, and within a month or two we nearly lost her.

A primitive telephone kept us in touch with the rest of the island, but otherwise we had nothing to help us in our solitude. No radios were then in the island, and we had no newspapers or books. Only small oil lamps kept out the darkness of the long tropical nights.

Into this wilderness we were to welcome Professor F. W. O'Connor of Columbia University, U.S.A., whose project was a survey of filariasis. A small field laboratory was established and for many weeks we assisted him in this most absorbing research. Malaria and filaria was rampant, I vividly recall watching the many patients crawling down our swamp-lined road, often collapsing on the verges, too weak to reach the haven of the doctor's surgery.

Reminiscences of the Leeward Islands
Jolie Brise
It was a heyday when the occasional yacht came into this long disused harbour, and we were particularly thrilled when the famous ocean cutter 'Jolie Brise' arrived after taking part in the Bermuda Race. She was captained by Captain 'Bob' Somerset, heir to the Duke of Beaufort, whilst Francis Festing, later to be C.I.G.S., and two other friends made up the 'crew'. These were to be amongst our happiest days, and friendships of long standing developed.

My health gave way soon afterwards, as also that of my small daughter, and I was compelled to return with her to England for a spell. During this period my husband implored Government to allow us to live nearer St. John's and in a more populated area. They eventually acquiesced, and this also enabled Dr. O'Mahony to obtain more private practice. His positive lust for work was at last satisfied.

Soon we heard of the arrival of the first shipment of oil-fired refrigerators, and became the proud owners of one of these doubtful new inventions. At least we could keep meat and other foods free from contamination and deterioration - bliss indeed! Then short-wave radios were imported and happiness and contentment seemed to envelop us.

About a year later, after strenuous saving and economy, we had saved sufficient money for our fares home to England, and approval for my husband to attend London University for a post-graduate course in tropical Medicine. This degree he obtained with full honours in 1934. We returned to the Leeward Islands feeling that our major troubles were now behind us and only happiness and lots of rewarding work lay ahead.

British Colony Map
1971 Map of Leeward Islands
Colony Profiles
Leeward Islands
Antigua
St Christopher
Montserrat
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 50: November 1985


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