Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010
Every path leads to a road and every road leads to a village. (Africa)
I expect that, like me, you will wonder one day ask about the origin of the McCalla surname. The family tree on this side goes as far as my grandfather Joseph Mc
Calla, and then you will find a blank wall. Mystery.
“Who was Joseph McCalla?” I once asked his daughter, Aunt Ettie. “Who was his father? What did he do before he married my grandmother Miss Clemmy?”
“I don’t know,” Aunt Ettie said.
“But you were his favorite.”
“Yes, I was,” Aunt Ettie said. “But in my day children didn’t ask their parents those kinds of questions.”
So, even though I asked "those kinds of questions", I didn't get many answers. I pass on to you the bits and pieces I have, and perhaps one day this will lead you further up the family tree.
I know for a fact that Joseph had a brother who fought in the Boer Wars in South Africa more than a hundred years ago. My dad Allan loved this uncle who was Robert Johnson McCalla, and so he asked for your dad to be named "Robert". When I was a little girl, I met my granduncle Robert. He was then 99 years old and bedridden.
My grandfather Joseph McCalla was born in 1859, just about two decades after slavery ended. So were his parents slaves? Did they leave the sugar estates and go to the hills? Even today, Bellas Gate feels very far away from life on the plains. I was an adult before Bellas Gate had light and running water, and people had to walk nine miles down steep hills to the nearest doctor. But no matter how hot the plains are, Bellas Gate is always cool and sometimes cold (for us in Jamaica!). If I stand at one of the high points on my grandparents' property, I can look down on the plains and coastline in three parishes – Kingston, St Catherine, and Clarendon. I think we have a legacy of independence from those early McCallas, Our people preferred to struggle in the hills rather than continue to work for backra on the plantation.
Some stories say the name McCalla is Irish, and that McCalla brothers settled in Bellas Gate because of a gold mine nearby. What I am certain of is that all McCallas in Jamaica originate in Bellas Gate. I can’t tell you for sure if we are all related by blood; but I accept all McCallas who ask me to be their Facebook friends. I never know which ones might be connected to us through Joseph McCalla and his unknown past.
Joseph owned land and had cash to spare, so he was the banker for the community. People who couldn’t get loans from formal banks (and that was just about every one in those days) could borrow money from Joseph. When the Anglicans wanted to build a church in Bellas Gate, Joseph gave them the land. Zayda, when you visit Bellas Gate, look for the graves of two of my father’s sisters. Aunt Syl, and Aunt Mac. Then walk down the hill and you will find the graves of Joseph and his wife Miss Clemmy on what was their property.
I hope you have better luck than I in finding out if Joseph had children before he married Miss Clemmy. Every now and then, I would hear a whisper about a son in Cuba, or a son in Bog Walk (always a son, never a daughter!), just enough information to create new sets of questions. Just a few months ago, I heard that someone found the grave of one of Joseph’s sons on the Bellas Gate family property.
I know for sure that Joseph was strict and perhaps even harsh on my dad Allan. Those were different times from now, when children were expected to be seen and not heard. And I don’t think my dad Allan would have been silent long – he was never afraid to express himself, no matter to whom or where. So he left Bellas Gate, never to return, as soon as he was sufficiently grown to leave home.
I also know for sure that Joseph drank a lot. The bar was often the only entertainment in small villages like Bellas Gate, and Joseph may have had reasons for turning to rum. No doubt in reaction to Joseph’s habit, my dad Allan never touched liquor.
So Zayda, this is Joseph, your great-great-grandfather, man of money and mystery.
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