Paths across the waters
By Vanessa Mongey, teaching fellow in History at Newcastle University
In this post, Vanessa Mongey explains about how a love of ferns tied the imperial, natural and human histories of the Caribbean to the North-East of England. It is this connection which is at the heart of her Being Human event ‘Paths across the waters‘.
In 1884, a mysterious woman called “Lallie” painstakingly cut and pasted dozens of ferns on the verso pages of three books titled Ferns of Jamaica. The tradition of plant collecting, drying and pressing them into manuscripts went back to the 17th century but this was no regular herbarium. On the recto pages, Lallie pasted photographs she took while stationed in the military station of Newcastle, Jamaica. She documented various aspects of West Indian daily life, from multiracial encounters in the barracks to the aftermath of the devastating 1880 earthquake and the river baptisms of the “natives” as she called them.
A love of ferns connected Newcastle, Jamaica, to Newcastle, Tyne & Wear. Lallie gave the books to her mother, which were later gifted to a botanist at Newcastle University, Dr. Trevor Walker, who studied the ferns of Trinidad and Jamaica. His widow donated them in 2006 to the Natural History Society of Northumbria. And this love of ferns fed into often forgotten histories that circulated fauna, military personnel, and viruses and medication throughout the British Empire, including this unexpected connections between the Caribbean and the North-East.
Lallie’s books were made in the Blue Mountains, near Kingston. They were the perfect location for the first permanent hill military station in the British West Indies to escape the ravaging yellow fever of hot swampy plains below and for the second botanical garden created in Jamaica to experiment with the cultivation of the tree bark, cinchona, which gave the garden its name. These military and botanical experiments were part of a larger imperial project that shrunk distances via steamship and trains. As the forces of industrialization waged around her, Lallie fell in love with the wildflowers, orchids, ginger lilies, and ferns that grew in the Blue Mountains. Partly to transport the international workforce brought to Jamaica’s banana fields, significant investment was made to the train system in the 1880s. Thirty years earlier, the North-Eastern Railway joined to London and Edinburgh, bringing new workers to the North-East’s booming industrial economy.
Lallie’s books reveal the natural, human and military journeys between the Caribbean and the North-East of England. The recovery of these stories is the focus of ‘Path Across Waters’ at Old Low Light, North Shields. The ‘lost’ stories of Lallie’s books and how Newcastle was briefly considered as the headquarters for West Indian sailors brought over to the UK during World War II will be the topic of ‘Caribbean-Geordies journeys‘ a collaborative and interactive workshop to explore Tyneside’s international history. The exhibit includes a story-telling booth that records people’s stories and creates a live soundscape ‘Passages’ specifically designed for this exhibition by John Bowers. A film piece by James Davoll and Paul Gibson highlights the region’s maritime heritage and changes according to the speed of the wind. Another delicious workshop ‘Caribbean food journeys’ will engage visitors with Caribbean cuisines. The exhibit will close boisterously with ‘Caribbean sound journeys’: a Garifuna musical performance. The exhibit is open and free during the Being Human festival. Places for the events are free but please contact Vanessa Mongey for reservations.