When Hurricane Maria battered the lush, beautiful Caribbean island of Dominica on September 19th, 2017, everyone listening on the news to the strained voice of Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica’s Prime Minister as he explained that his nation had been quite devastated, could only sympathise deeply, pray for the protection of the island’s people and hope for the best. In the end, Skerrit himself had to be rescued as the hurricane tore off the roof of his official residence, along with the roofs of many of Dominica’s homes.
Only two months earlier on July 5th on the neighbouring island of Barbados, a woman by the name of Constance Perryman Younglao recounted her memories of the Dominica of her childhood: a lush, beautiful, mountainous “Garden of Eden”. Yet, these memories seemed as far from Skerrit’s devastated isle as Heaven from Hell. In the life span of this centenarian, enough change has taken place in the political, social and cultural landscape of the island, to make it almost unrecognizable.
Constance: “Our family owned horses – there were few cars in that era – and there was a driver who would take us out in a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, a “buggy”. Only two passengers could fit in the cab of the buggy, so our family would go to Catholic mass on Sundays in two buggies.”
Constance was born on July 5th, 1917 in Roseau, Dominica, one of twin girls of Cecil Athelstan Perryman (“Perry”) and Maud Alice Riviere (“Maudie”). Her mother would later have two sons, Daniel (“Chong”) and Cecil Owen Perryman. Constance is the longest surviving member of her generation of the descendants of Denis Oliphe Riviere, known as “D.O”. She celebrated her 100th birthday on July 5th, 2017 surrounded by family and friends in Bridgetown, Barbados.
The island of Dominica had been ceded to Great Britain by France through the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Constance’s grandmother was said to have been an African Princess, known as Celestia, who arrived at 6 years of age on one of the British navy vessels which had patrolled Caribbean waters since the end of the British Slave Trade in 1807. Their purpose was to catch slavers on the “Middle Passage” from Africa, that part of the – now illegal – triangular trade which brought Africans across the Atlantic to sell as slaves in the New World.¹
Celestia, who arrived in Dominica around 1834 was never enslaved. It is said that she was first a ward of the British Lieutenant Governor and later lived and worked on the estate of a Frenchman called Davis Riviere for whom she would later have several children. Riviere would die young and Celestia took control of his properties and managed them competently and the properties flourished. Celestia’s children were swiftly accepted as “Privileged Browns”, Dominica being one of the few islands that in 1831, had enacted the Brown Privilege Bill conferring political and social rights on free blacks and free people of colour and mixed race. Combined with the 1834 Act of Emancipation which apprenticed all slaves for 4 years and freed all children of slaves 6 years and under, this little island was the perfect location in which blacks and creoles alike could enjoy the early years of their liberation. Many black and mixed race “creole” Dominicans gained political and economic power and used the opportunity to their advantage. They became prosperous and flourished.
That Constance lived in privileged circumstances for that era, is without question. At La Haut, a large estate which Constance’s father had leased for cultivation, the family had as staff a cook, two maids, and a male servant who would also serve as groom for the horses. These staff did not include the estate workers on the property itself:
Constance: “The property had a large house with a veranda and a lawn surrounded by samaan trees. The dining room was downstairs and the maid would ring the bell when dinner was ready. There was a hurricane shelter which had been dug into a hill on one side of the lawn. It was a dugout which looked like a passage way that was curved and concreted.”
Still a British colony in Constance’s early life – not gaining its associated statehood until March 1st, 1967 and independence in November 1978 – Dominica had attracted the title of “Fruit basket of the Caribbean” since the 1800s. Its mountainous terrain had never permitted extensive sugar plantations such as those in Jamaica and Barbados, to be replicated. Dominica made up for its lack of sugar by cultivating bananas, oranges, limes and every other kind of fruit and vegetable that would grow in a tropical climate. Produce from Dominica was sought after and prized as the island was considered to have the ideal, fertile soil for such cultivation.
This produce was sent by boat to other islands where they fetched a fair price. The island’s highly-valued lime oil and other citrus produce was exported to North America on the Lady Boats.²
Birth of her brother, Chong:
Constance: Babies were delivered at home in those days, so being twins, when our brother Daniel (“Chong”) arrived, Marjorie and I were eventually allowed into our parents’ bedroom to see the new arrival. I recall that when we saw our baby brother we immediately asked: “So, where is the other one?” Being twins we were expecting that if mother was having babies, she would produce twins each time!
Education and Schooling:
Constance: “When my family left La Haut and moved to live in the capital, Roseau, Marjorie and I had our own special maids. They would dress us and take us to walk in the public (botanical) gardens each afternoon. The maids did not live on the property but arrived in the afternoon to bathe, dress and walk us. They would then give us supper, put us to bed, then leave until the next day.”
At La Haut, Constance’s mother had taken over their schooling and had a school room downstairs where she taught them to read.
Constance: “I remember that when we were around 9 years of age, our mother’s eldest sister Aunt Mae, visited La Haut and raised the question of schooling for us in the future, as the only high school was the convent, all the way in Roseau.”
Their father was not happy to send his girls to school in the capital, but Aunt Mae prevailed and both girls returned to Roseau to live with her during the week and to attend school. At weekends, their father would take them home to La Haut. In due course, the Perrymans moved to another property, Charlotte Valley, which belonged to the Riviere family. Constance’s father would oversee this estate on behalf of the Riviere family.
Constance: “There was a small school in Charlotte Valley which we attended. Imagine, there were no school lunches provided in those days and our lunch would be made at home and delivered in pans by the groom who came on horseback to the Charlotte Valley school!”
Further Education and Marriage
Constance and her sister Marjorie both sat the English Senior Cambridge examinations in 5th form but did not obtain good results. At the age of 17, it was decided that they should leave Dominica and pursue commercial studies. They spent two years in Barbados at Queens College where they studied subjects, such as shorthand, typing and basic accounting, while living with a family friend, the Gales.
During that time, Marjorie met her future husband who later followed her back to Dominica to ask for her hand as she was not yet 21 years of age. Marjorie returned to Barbados and continued living with the Gales until she married Athol Edwin Seymour Lewis (“T.T.”), in a simple wedding. “T.T” would later become a well-known name on the political scene in Barbados.
Constance: “It is said that I missed Marjorie so much and was so lonely without her that I became ill. A certain Dr. Leonard Younglao, a Trinidadian of Chinese, Venezuelan and French descent who had been assigned to Dominica by the British Colonial Medical Service, was asked to pay a house call on me, the invalid. Well it seems that he was the perfect antidote. We were married in Dominica one month after Marjorie married “T.T”!
Constance and Leonard would live for 12 years in Dominica after they were married. They had four children, each being given English and Chinese names: Amoy, Aying, Deborah and son, Ian (“Akam”).
Constance: “At meals in the Chinese tradition, finger bowls with rose petals were put at table for washing fingers. Leonard had his private practice office at the house, besides his Government posting as a District Medical Officer in Roseau. As a colonial public servant, he enjoyed home leave privileges and our family travelled to the United Kingdom every four or so years.”
In later years, Constance would leave the children with her relatives in Dominica, and go with Leonard to John Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, for him to specialise in Epidemiology. On his return to Dominica, Leonard was assigned to Belize, then the colony of British Honduras. They took all the children with them on this assignment.
British Christmas traditions and practices were evident in Dominican festivities of yesteryear:
Constance: “Lunch on Christmas day was a big family event with aunts, uncles and cousins. A large dining table would be beautifully set and everyone seated. Paper crackers were there for us all. We ate turkey and imported ham. I remember we would have figs and nuts in their shells and the “piece de resistance” would be the Christmas pudding made with a lot of liquor! After lunch, we would retire to the drawing room and Uncle Jim would wind up an old gramophone. I remember sitting with Marjorie on my father’s lap and trying to play on a pianola. Opera arias would be played and even if the children did not enjoy the classical music, they had to put up with it.”
The 1957 Fire in Roseau, Dominica:
Despite the seemingly idyllic life of Constance’s early years in this island paradise, in 1957 after her own family had settled in Leonard’s island Trinidad, a tragedy would occur which would remain the talk of Roseau for many years to come. A fire broke out in the old wooden three-storey house where her elderly aunts Mae and Louisa lived. The ground floor of the building housed the Cooperative Bank, locally known as the “Penny Bank”. The fire seems to have started in a small pantry at the bottom of the narrow stairs which led up to the third floor. There was no veranda to the house and despite their screams and cries for help through the windows, her aunts perished. Constance would later learn that the fire station in Roseau responded but did not have a ladder high enough to reach the windows through which Mae and Louisa could have been saved.
Sixty years after one tragedy for Constance’s family, Hurricane Maria creates havoc and devastation; a further tragedy for one of the most unspoiled, pristine, naturally beautiful islands of the Caribbean.
¹ As one example, the rescued people who had been caught or sold into slavery by slave runners and offered them sanctuary in British colonies such as Dominica.
² The “Lady Boats” (e.g. Ladies Nelson, Rodney, Drake, Somers and Hawkins) were a group of Canadian sea transport vessels which moved between the Caribbean islands and Canada. They had a good standard of passenger accommodation and large refrigerators. Large quantities of citrus were shipped to Canada from Dominica on these boats.