STORIES OF OUR FAMILIES
To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.
The Gomez Saga
Tom Bannerman is a grandson of Dr. George Gomez. The following account is taken from a letter that Tom wrote to his mother Jessie on 15 March, 2014, describing his trip to the Caribbean, and in particular what he discovered about the lives of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Gomez on the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Tom's mother was not quite three years old at the time of her father's death. Her brother Joseph was four and their older sister Euphemia was barely six.
I had prepared myself with photocopies of every document concerning the West-Indies that I could find at Kincumber. As well, I read as much as I could find of the various documents kept in your boxes pertaining to that episode in Grandma’s life. Additionally, I had used this material to make searches on the internet of many subjects related to this. Also, you may remember, I left with you a memoir of the former Administrator and, later, Governor of the Leeward Islands, Sir Reginald St. Johnston, which included, among its chapters, matters about his commission in St Kitts and Nevis during the period Grandma and your father, Dr George Gomez, were living in those islands.
So prepared, I immediately found several subjects in Basseterre that had come to my earlier attentions. One, the old ‘Treasury’ building – it appears in an interesting snap of a large patriotic group that includes Grandma and various dignitaries – was just across the road from my hotel!
Over my time there I went on to find many more subjects that had been some part in my grand-parents’ lives. I have taken many photographs of them.
‘Stonehaven’, your home in St Kitts, was near the village of Molineux, on the central northern coast - more on this later.
The grave of Dr Gomez and Audrey Gomez, was high on my search-list. It stands close to the center of Springfield Cemetery in Basseterre and was easily spotted from 100 yards, so distinct is the form of its tall, light-grey headstone. On close inspection, I found that a Glasgow firm, Gray & Co., had been responsible for its creation. Obviously, the headstone had been shipped across the Atlantic, suggesting to me that Grandma may never have seen it on site. Her memory of the grave would have been of the carpet of flowers left by a great many mourners. The stone’s lengthy leaden text showed signs of small collisions made, no doubt, by the catapulted debris of over eighty years of tropical tempest. Though the large, capitalized “GOMEZ” at its base was as clear as ever, its lead-infill letters had vanished.
Just up the hill from this large block is Government House, where the doctor played tennis, no doubt, and Grandma attended meetings to do with things like the founding of the Girl Guides for the island. By the way, St. Johnston was a doctor himself, so it is quite likely he often sought the company of your father and his medical colleagues, the population of St Kitts being very small. Numerous newspaper announcements declaring the governor was “At Home” at certain hours suggests there would have been many opportunities for social exchanges with the regal representative. A letter written by Dr Gomez to Grandma when she had returned to Scotland in the autumn of 1927 to show her two children, Effie and Joe, to her parents in Clydebank, though posted from the Nevis address, clearly indicates that the doctor certainly played tennis at such a place.
Also adjacent to the cemetery is the site of the former Cunningham Hospital, where your father was rushed to following the sudden onset of his subsequently fatal condition, dying there on the fourth day. Undoubtedly, he must have worked there as well as in other places, such as Stonehaven, which is the name given to the former estate around ‘Stonehaven’, the former residence of the planter.
This residence is still leased to doctors, by the way. By chance, when I was shown it, the current medical officer emerged, about to leave on some errand. He was quite fascinated by what I had to say and show about the residence, and he encouraged the two of us to wanderer about, taking photographs. The old stone building needed a lot of attention to its outside. The doctor told us that he had had to replace the roof, so at least that was properly covered with a corrugated cover. Timberwork rot here and there, and long vines and other vegetation covered much of the walls.
Zack, my guide for this day, saw it as a sign of poor management. The abundant fruit of various trees had been left unharvested, covering the fertile ground with rotting matter – an inexcusable waste as far as Zack was concerned. He reminded me that many poor people living about would have gladly made good use of it – he picked some oranges himself. Typically, a pair of enormous mango trees formed part of the small orchard next to the building. I recalled Grandma telling me her story about the locals being allowed to shake the tree to collect food. These trees were so big that it could hardly be possible to shake their trunks. Perhaps they included the very tree she spoke of so long ago. The back of the house was particularly decrepit, like a scene from Kipling’s jungle stories of ruined palaces of old. We had been told by the doctor - and surely it was the case - that the interior was in good order; I can’t imagine he wished to live in squalor, but it was impossible to peek through any window such was the confusion outside. A verandah was filled with various boxes, all higgledy-piggledy.
The wall facing the distant Atlantic Ocean was quite high. At its base were cellar doors. This was a typical arrangement in the islands and supported Grandma’s claim that the locals sought protection in her house from tempests. About the place, numerous smaller and much more fragile timber dwellings - called chattel houses, I was told later in my trip - attested to the poverty and needs of the locals. In Grandma’s time, even these humble buildings, the size of an ordinary room in any Australian home, would have had thatched roofs, prone to instantaneous destruction in any hurricane.
Returning to the Cunningham Hospital: this site had been transformed just after Uncle Joe’s visit in 1979, at which time he had seen another sad reminder of island impoverishment. A fire had gutted some of it. This may account for his disappointed judgement that the “front was too dilapidated to take” a photo. Today, it is a very nice-looking collection of institutions: a public library, a high school and a college. Had he seen it as I did, his opinion would have been quite different, I am sure. I used the library myself on two occasions.
In the Government Headquarters building, I was given volumes of newspapers to study in which I found numerous articles that included references to the doctor, and several additional articles mentioning Grandma such as reviews of charity-concerts – with lists of songs - and articles on the newly formed Girl Guides.
The material I found leaves no doubt that the doctor’s death was a huge blow to the island. With his demise, the islands lost their only surgeon. Additionally, it is clear that he was held in considerable esteem by a great many in St Kitts and nearby Nevis. He was considered a generous and excellent physician to all, especially the many poor. His funeral was a very big event indeed for that place. Because of his services as a soldier in the recent Great War, his funeral included some military references. Additionally, masonic elements formed part of the occasion. I didn’t know he was a freemason.
I read many newspapers – editions close to two years in total. In none of these was anyone else allotted anything close to an equivalent column-space, such was the significance of this sad occasion. His illness, death and funeral took place over a week. Each day, some announcement appeared. The fourth day saw his death. This is given a full page. (He was operated-on by the Chief Medical Officer, by the way. This occurred on the second day, during which time Dr. Gomez is reputed to have been sufficiently cognizant to suggest procedures to the other three doctors attending him. I think this might explain the more than likely myth that he had “operated on himself.” Very interestingly, Grandma is included as one of the attending nurses, so she must have been a witness to at least some of the procedures.
While on this self-operating point, I found an article in a newspaper Dr Gomez would have received that attested to a Berlin doctor, Dr. Forssmann, having operated on himself. The article was dated March 6, and placed in the April 18, 1931 edition of ‘The St. Kitts-Nevis Daily Bulletin’, less than half a year before the doctor’s death. It was quite an operation that saw the daring medico insert a two-foot tube from his elbow along an opened vein into his heart! Even more remarkably, with this in place, he walked up a flight of stairs to be x-rayed! “Later he was none the worse.” In this time of such daring experimentation, perhaps there is some truth to the claim that my grandfather had indeed “operated on himself.” He was the only surgeon on the island, after all.
A lengthy obituary and consequent articles on shortcomings in medical staffing of the islands run for another three days.
On other matters, I was shown a “blue book” – so called because of the colour of the paper used in its publication. Blue Books were a compilation of annual medical reports and similar items, all prepared by the islands’ (St. K & N) District Medical Officers. These included articles written by Dr. Gomez.
The doctor’s “old chauffeur”, Edmund Matthew, who must have been sixteen when first employed as his driver, became the subject of some of my investigations while looking for ‘Stonehaven’. It transpired that Edmund had lived only a few houses away (if those others were there at the time) from ‘Stonehaven’. His home, now derelict, like so many buildings about the place – usually the result of hurricanes and absent tenants/owners – was still standing, though roofless and becoming dilapidated. There to see was his garage. In the nearby Holy Family Catholic Church’s lawns, close to the church-door, were the graves of the aged driver and his even older wife, Ellen. The graves were so close together – Edmund’s “above” Ellen’s - that they may have even touched, suggesting both the great strength of a former union and the hope of an eternal one. I had been directed to the churchyard by a neighbor who, as a child, referred to the old taxi driver as ‘El mundo’ – the world. This was his nickname, never said to his face; the polite form of address was “Uncle Edmund.” He drove his taxi for as long as he lived, I was told. The dates on the stones were: (Edmund) 2.2.1911 – 12.5.1989, seventy-eight years, and (Ellen) 8.12.1911 – 30.10.2001, eighty-nine years.
I had been taken to ‘Stonehaven’ and introduced to this source of local knowledge - a successful grocery-store owner who had only recently expanded his business - by a delightfully eccentric historian, Winston (Zack) Nisbett of Basseterre. As our conversation became increasingly animated, it was revealed that a daughter of Edmund, Beulah Nicholls, was the wife of a proprietor who ran a retail business on the ground-floor of the same building as my hotel! Consequently, on my return later that afternoon, I introduced myself to him and arranged for Beulah to meet me later that evening in the hotel’s bar. We would have a marvelous talk. She was thrilled with the very vague and small photocopies of snaps of her late-father, taken by Uncle Joe back in 1979 when he had returned to the islands to seek his own history there. Her son, Randy, soon joined us, and took photos of my vague facsimiles of his grandfather. Evidently, my little stories of Edmund made very exciting news to both of them.
Also at the Government Headquarters Building I was shown by the very efficient and patient Director of Archives there, Victoria O’Flaherty, micro-fiche copies of the registered births of all four children: Euphemia, Joseph, Jessie and Audrey. Curiously, Aunt Effie’s registration is supported by a William Gomez, an engineer of Charlestown, the capital of nearby Nevis. This, presumably, must be the “Uncle Bill” who Grandma identified in a photograph taken in Anguilla (28 June, 1926.) The recorded dates of birth are: 11 Dec, 1925; 14 March, 1927; 8 October, 1928; and 20 February, 1930, respectively. I attempted to obtain copies of birth certificates - and a death certificate of Audrey - from the nearby Health Centre (Connell St, Basseterre), but was fobbed-off by a clearly disinterested young person there claiming records existed only from 1950. Zack was very unimpressed by her attitude and suggested privately to me that it was all too typical of the poor regard so many in the islands have towards history. I should add that some time later in my stay in St Kitts, Zack introduced me to yet another of his countless “friends”, a hopeful candidate seeking office in the island’s next election, whom, when told of the incident, was adamant that this was nonsense. I intend to write to the Health Centre later in the hope something more positive comes of this. It might be helpful if you and Aunt Effie supported the plea. There are likely to be records, but these may well be in a poor state and difficult to source.
Returning to William Gomez, the archivist suggested it was probable that William, if indeed an uncle to the children, had encouraged his brother (or cousin?) George Gomez to seek his medical practice in or near Nevis. Of course, it may be the other way around.
I had expected to visit Nevis after three days on the bigger St Kitts, but such was my success in finding material in the latter island that I found I delayed the ferry-trip across to that pretty island to my last full day. I was up very early so I could take the first ferry, scheduled for 6am. My hotel being only a few hundred yards away from the pier meant I had the shortest of walks. Though the islands are merely a few miles apart, the distance between Basseterre and Charlestown is eleven miles, I think. The trip lasted fifty-five minutes. Along the straight passage, a spectacular sunrise announced Nevis’s tropical glory, silhouetting, by its glorious rays, the great volcanic form that dominates the landscape. Wonderful clouds drifting across the great orb created their own delightful and ever-changing diffusions.
Once ashore, within minutes I found ‘Longstone House’, the temporary residence your parents had taken in Nevis while “waiting for Evelyn Villa”, according to Uncle Joe’s annotation on the back of a snap he had taken of the same building during his visit in October, 1979. I had researched this building some weeks before leaving for overseas, discovering that it was a landmark building in Charlestown. You may be interested to know that it appears to me that its previous residents included the family of Hastings Charles Huggins (1857 – 1923), a colossal figure in fin de siècle Nevis. Huggins was a remarkable fellow – a “mulatto man”, to use the accepted term in the Caribbean to denote mixed race - born into poverty, like so many in the islands, but by his death had accumulated staggering wealth by means of shrewd business-practices. His last residence was this once-fashionable building. Sadly, it has long since lost its glamour. Today, it houses unremarkable commercial businesses. Upstairs, where you would have been housed, is now a dull café. I bought refreshments there then took several photographs, both inside and outside the building, before leaving to look for a Wesleyan Mission church.
The term, “Wesleyan Mission”, had been notated by you on the back of a photograph as the place where Uncle Joe had been christened on “Thursday, 31st March 1927”. This small slightly over-exposed snap features your smiling father holding his baby son sitting on his forearm. The pair is accompanied by Grandma, Reverend Fred and Mrs McKenzie Turner, and Mrs Sylvie Brown - your nurse/nanny – who stands next to Nurse Hendrickson. The group appears to be gathered at the bottom of a step in front an elevated entrance, presumably part of the Wesleyan Mission. The Reverend Fred, by the way, who had entered the mission in 1909, is not long for the world. He dies, in harness, the following year. On the next block west of ‘Longstone House’ was what must have been the church. I managed to get some interior shots taken through glass panes. It appeared to me that it may well have changed little in appearance since it was built. Being so close to your parents’ residence must surely have seen it as their church. I wandered about it for some time. As I often observed during my trip, next to this place of worship was what was believed to be the mustering place for the island’s slaves. The singers of hymns suffered the wails of its neighbours. A small, easy-to-miss sign announced this sad history.
I had immersed myself in reading-material on the subject of slaves after purchasing several famous books on it while visiting San Francisco’s Museum of African Diaspora, earlier in the trip. One of the points continually made in these studies was the hypocritical actions of the good Christians, whose solemnity papered over their hideous odium.
I stopped for breakfast in a modest café just a little along the road, closer to the pier. Attracted to it because inside I had spied an old lady serving behind a small counter, I hoped that someone of her age might have knowledge of the whereabouts of ‘Evelyn Villa’. Recognizing my Western appearance, she suggested I could get bacon and eggs a little up the road, but I replied that I’d prefer what she had on offer as I’d come to sample the local product, a spicy chicken leg and some rice or bread, I forget which. Later, paying my bill, I made my enquiry. She considered the question then suggested I cross the street to a pharmacy where I could find a Mr Evelyn, apparently an old man whose business it was.
Sure enough, Mr Evelyn, the pharmacist, was quite old. He was born the same year as the snap, 1927, or perhaps it was a year or two later. He soon became absorbed by my story. ‘Evelyn Villa’ had been his own residence while his wife lived. Following her death, about twenty or so years previously, he had moved out. The building had then been leased to an American artist, but a few years later, with a hurricane ruining his business, the man left, leaving the home empty to this day. The merciless tropical climate took its usual toll, so the once grand mansion lost much of its earlier charm. However, I was welcome to inspect it. It was just up the road, in the direction of the cricket ground, which I had found myself in my earliest meandering. Before leaving, he suggested I visit various museums about the place. It was clear that he had considerable interest in the history of Nevis. I took his advice, spending the day walking all over the place, becoming a little affected by the sun despite wearing my +30 sunscreen and my wide-brimmed cricket hat.
Reaching the old home in minutes, I found several workmen outside its big yard. Introducing myself, I discovered I was addressing Mr Evelyn’s brother. Among other things, he told me the old house once claimed an uninterrupted view of the nearby cricket ground – presently, a more contemporary dwelling sat between it and the ground. The name ‘Evelyn’ comes up in historical notes as the name of a planter. It is likely that the villa was once an estate home.
As my trip progressed, a pattern formed: my grand-parents’ residences were comfortable homes likely built many years earlier as estate homes. Four days earlier, in St Kitts, I had been taken to dinner by an Australian man and his English wife. Having just stored their yacht in preparation for a return home to Brisbane the next day, they had decided to end their Caribbean sojourn at a very expensive restaurant in the former Ottley Plantation.
I had been taxied near there that morning in my first attempt to find ‘Stonehaven’, but declined the driver’s suggestion that I see the old estate - time was getting on and I was already two hours beyond my schedule. Looking through the window as we passed it there, high up in the hills, I wondered if I had made a mistake as parts of its architecture reminded me of what I could barely discern from Uncle Joe’s snaps of ‘Stonehaven’, though, obviously, it was without the latter’s more modest scale. So, given this second opportunity, I heartily accepted the invitation from the couple when it was offered over drinks on the balcony back at ‘Seaview Inn’.
Its beautifully gardened grounds were stunning. The three of us were rendered speechless as we slowly walked across wide, manicured lawns edged with spectacularly arranged tropical plants. Dusk’s pink heaven appeared through screens of huge trees usually found in aged botanical gardens. The air was perfumed. An avenue of tall coconut palms of great age took our gaze deep into the hills beyond. Re-modeled and renovated buildings also re-announced, for those who could hear, the glory of the former plantocracy, but behind their elegance and splendor crept the shameful shadow of slavery.
Returning to the subject of Nevis, my pedestrian journey took me to several other places certainly part of my grandparents’ world. These included Government House, the nearby hot bath house and Alexandra Hospital.
The governor’s residence was high up on a hill. It was here that the doctor definitely played tennis and, I assume, did a lot more. Nevis’s population during the mid to late ‘20s was a lot less than that of its neighbour so social life must have been particularly predictable and limited, I should think. I took the customary snaps. The nearby Nelson Museum was a little disappointing, but the small display must have been the best that could be cobbled together within the meager budget allotted by the Tourism Ministry. Also a short walk away was the famous hot spring and its remarkable bath-house. Apparently, this had been developed as part of the Caribbean’s first hotel, which is saying something given the age of the former colonies. The old bath-house, which must have been used by your family – it was not far away from ‘Longstone House’ and even closer to ‘Evelyn Villa’ – must have been quite an experience when it was maintained, but now it had become poor relic, a curious ruin of former grand times. Fortunately, a nearby modern pool is available for use. The water was quite hot indeed. I can’t imagine I could have stayed in it for very long at all. If I understood the geography and history of the place, the spring released as a narrow stream into the sea not far away, providing water for Drake, Raleigh, Nelson and so on. I followed it to its very small mouth, which opened at the head of a post-card beach. Not a soul was there. I found myself romanticizing about those Tudor explorers and other pirates, and Horatio, R.N., all of whom must have stood on the very spot.
The climb to Alexandra Hospital, which I made when the sun was at its zenith, was rewarded with the knowledge that my grandfather had once been the District Medical Officer in charge of this important institution. It has changed, of course, but the old Georgian architectural forms still revealed themselves. I had hoped to get information about his residency there, but had to do with being given a name and an e-mail address. Something may yet come of this.
I returned on that day’s penultimate ferry-ride to St Kitts, satisfied that I had covered even more than I could have hoped for.
Tom Bannerman at Springfield Cemetery
next to the Cunningham Hospital, Basseterre, St Kitts- 2014