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View from Mount Diablo

Written by Ralph Thompson for The Sunday Observer (Jamaica) on no date provided

The generational patterns imposed by fate on certain families usually only reveal themselves in retrospect and can come as a surprise to the participants themselves. Although I never knew him, my grandfather Ralph Isaacs - for whom I am named - had a remarkable career as Managing Commissioner of the Kingston General Commissioners in the early 1900s. From the tightly drawn, thin lips in family portraits and photographs, he must have been a stern disciplinarian, and when it came to education he brooked no nonsense. Three of his four sons were university graduates, and both my mother and my aunt were sent off to finishing school in posh Tuxedo Park, New York.
Vincent, Anthony and Michael, each in his turn, attended Fordham University, the leading Jesuit university in America. They won every major academic prize. All graduated Magna Cum Laude, and Vincent, the eldest, went on to Oxford and a career as a brilliant barrister.

With the outbreak of World War I, Vincent applied for a commission in the British army, but this was refused on the grounds that Jews were not eligible to serve as officers in the armed forces of Great Britain. In vain he pointed out that he was not Jewish, that the family had been staunch Roman Catholics for many generations. In fact, the earliest Isaacs were Sephardic Jews who had converted to Catholicism and migrated to Jamaica to avoid persecution. Grandfather Ralph had married Hannah Fielding, daughter of an Irish military gentleman serving with the English army then stationed in Jamaica. Hannah was more Catholic than the church, and a great supporter of the early Jesuits who had come to Jamaica in 1837.

As military casualties in the war continued their bloody spiral, the powers that be contacted Vincent and advised him that an all-Jewish regiment had been formed in which they would be pleased to offer him a commission. Bemused at this typical English compromise, he nevertheless accepted. Four days before the armistice he was gunned down leading his troops at Ypres. He is buried in France. The War Office sent back to Jamaica his binoculars and rosary in a wooden box shaped like a coffin.
Following in the footsteps of his father before him, my grandfather, after graduation from St George’s college, had joined the Kingston General Commissioners as a humble accounting clerk at six shillings a week, but his rise to the top was meteoric. In addition to his other intellectual endowments, he was gifted with a prodigious memory, and when all the records of the Commissioners were destroyed in the earthquake of 1907 he was able to reconstruct the accounts receivable ledger, debtor by debtor, and to collect all amounts owing. Grandfather was not highly paid, but as the equivalent of a senior civil servant he was the beneficiary of a generous range of perquisites which allowed the family to live in relative comfort. Their home was Cavaliers Great House, part of the Water Commission complex on Marescaux Road, where, attended by a retinue of servants, Ralph and Hannah held court and grew in the respect and admiration of their peers.

Then grandfather suddenly died of a heart attack in 1927 at 54 and, all income and allowances cut off, the family was plunged into abject poverty, the two sons studying abroad, one to be a lawyer, the other a doctor, unable to pay for their post-graduate education, forced to return to Jamaica.
But grandfather’s funeral was a spectacular affair, a tribute to his life and work, attended by all the leading citizens of the day, and encomiums paid to him were reported at length in the Gleaner. In an editorial, the paper highlighted his appointment as Managing Commissioner by the Governor, Sir Sydney Olivier, and praised his negotiation in 1914 for ‘the purchase of Mona... securing advantageous terms to the Commissioners in extending the period of payment for 40 years and limiting the interest to three and a half per cent’.

It was Ralph Isaacs who ‘evolved the brilliant scheme for providing an impounding dam at Hermitage which will greatly augment the water supply of both Kingston and St Andrew.’ The editorial continued: ‘Then again he submitted an important plan for paving the streets of Kingston and, had the Government agreed, he would have been able to get a firm of American capitalists who would sewer and pave the streets, providing the necessary capital of five hundred thousand pounds, which sum the citizens of Kingston would have had forty years to pay.’

The Isaacs funeral procession comprised 100 motorcars, and 1,500 persons packed into Holy Trinity Cathedral to pay their last respects.

So dedicated had grandfather been to public service that the only personal asset of his estate was the Wherry Wharf property on Water Lane, which he had purchased as a rental investment. The name ‘Wherry’ comes from a type of open boat similar to a ferry, which in Shakespeare’s day transported theatre patrons across the Thames to the South bank where the Globe and other theatres were located. I have seen a map, dating from before the great earthquake which destroyed Port Royal, which shows a corresponding Wherry Wharf on that side of the harbour, so there must have been a service connecting the cosmopolitan city of vice to the sleepy outskirts of countrified Kingston.

Shortly after her father’s sudden death, and perhaps not fully recovered from it, my mother, still at school in America, married Lieutenant Thompson, who had been a member of the Eleventh Engineers, the first American unit in World War I to fight in France. He had fought bravely, been mustard gassed, and returned to New York to face an uncertain future. After my birth and that of my sister, the cultural differences between our parents proved to be too great and they agreed to separate. Neither was to remarry. At ages two and three respectively, my sister and I were brought back to Jamaica by our mother, who joined her brothers in trying to make a go of Wherry Wharf as a commercial entity. They tried everything, from ship chandlering to paint, sand, hardware, imported china, awnings and tarpaulins. Noel Coward was wont to refer to it as ‘The old curiosity shop’. The family barely eked out a living. Our abode when I was growing up was a rented house on South Camp Road, now the Gun Court.

But the pattern continued. I attended St George’s College and, as World War II was coming to a close, packed my bags for New York to enroll at Fordham University. On one of the pillars of the imposing front gate to the campus was inscribed the name ‘Isaacs’ in honour of my uncle, a welcome at once intimidating and a source of pride.

As a lark I had signed up for ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Course) as part of the Fordham curriculum, and when the Korean conflict erupted just as I had completed my Doctor Juris degree, Uncle Sam activated my commission and I was sent to Japan as a JAG officer. My poor mother, remembering the fate of her brother Vincent, was greatly upset, and when we parted, despite my assurances that I would not see front line duty, she tearfully prophesied that she would never she me again. And she never did. She died of a heart attack at 54, the same age as her father, while I was still overseas.

Upon my return to Jamaica, another act in the saga was played out when, after a business career as a professional manager, I purchased Wherry Wharf from my surviving uncle and continued the family efforts to make it a commercial success. This was achieved, largely due to a contract I negotiated with Seprod to land at Wherry Wharf bulk corn for its cornmeal factory.

Given the pattern that fate has determined for my family, would it come as a surprise that, years later, having sold Wherry Wharf, I was hired as Managing Director of Seprod - from which I retired in 1999?

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