St. Augustine

May, 2016

It took a mere 36 hours to make the strange transition from the Bahamas to the United States, from quiet, starry nights and deprivation to noisy traffic and modern conveniences.  We sailed from Great Sale Cay to St. Augustine overnight, and have stayed put ever since.  Why? Because St. Augustine is wonderful.

St. Augustine reminds me of home, of Santa Barbara, another city mindful of its complicated history in racial politics. It has a Spanish feel.  It advertises itself as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States.  Unlike most of the other cities we visited on our journey up the coast, St. Augustine remembers that the first foreign settlers of this country were not White and did not speak English. They were Spanish and African.

The city of St. Augustine allegedly recorded the first birth of a slave in North America. It has an ugly history as an early and long-standing hub of the slave trade.  But it also served as a sanctuary of sorts, for slaves both freed and escaped before the Emancipation Act of 1863.  Of course to be protected the slave had to convert to Catholicism, perhaps a different kind of servitude, but that’s a different matter.

Unlike any other city I have visited in the United States, St. Augustine prominently memorializes the ordinary people who fought for universal civil rights. 

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Monument to civil rights activists in St. Augustine.  It sits in the center of the tourist district, near a structure that allegedly once served as a slave market.

Did you know that America’s first Black town, headed by the first African-American military commander, Francisco Menendez,  was just north of St. Augustine? According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Sometime between March and November of 1738, Spanish settlers in Florida formed a town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles to the north of St. Augustine. Initially, it consisted of 38 men, all fugitive slaves, “most of them married,” who had fled to Florida for sanctuary and freedom from enslavement in the Carolinas and Georgia. It came to be known as Fort Mose.

The enclave was the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers in Florida and their enemies, the English colonists to the north in Carolina (which did not officially split into North and South Carolina until 1729, and then the Southern part of South Carolina split in 1732 to form Georgia). Fort Mose was manned entirely by armed black men, under the leadership of Francisco Menendez, who became the leader of the black militia there in 1726. It deserves to be remembered as the site of the first all-black town in what is now the United States, and as the headquarters of the first black armed soldiers commanded by a black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia.

Menendez, the first African-American military commander, … was born a Mandinga in West Africa at the end of the 17th century. He was captured and served as a slave in South Carolina until the Yamasee Native Americans fought the British settlers in 1715, during which Menendez managed to escape to St. Augustine, Fla. In 1738, he became the leader of the free black town, and was formally commissioned as captain of the free black militia of St. Augustine

Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of the key role that African-American and Hispanic immigrants played in the early days of our nation.  They do not know that the first Africans came to these shores in 1526 as members of a large Spanish expidition from the West Indies.  They do not know–or pretend they do not know–that it was Africans who knew how to survive in the heat, how to plant rice, how to cure disease, how to work with animals, and how to build houses.

The European immigrants who settled the Southern states would have died of starvation and sickness had the African people forcibly brought to this country and their descendants had not been present. For an account of these truths, please read Peter H. Wood‘s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (NY: Norton, 1974).  This book, along with Islanders in the Stream, A History of the Bahamian PeopleMichael Craton and Gail Saunders, were indispensable guides to my travels this year.

It appalls me that we are still living in a deeply racist culture, that we have so far to go in our struggle for civil rights for all human beings in our country.  Anyone with half a brain in her head and a rudimentary understanding of American history knows that Black Lives Matter.

   

The Brutal Business of Butchering, aka Whaling: Reading Melville at Sea: Chapter 24 – 27

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My anchorage in Georgetown.  Early morning.  No whales here.

Written over three days with nasty winds whipping the waves into froth and rocking the boat uncomfortably.  It is not too bad as long as you don’t try to do anything, like move.  I have been sitting in the cockpit reading books that keep my mind off my troubles.  I finished Julie Czerneda’s Beholder’s Eye, about a feminine being who can transform herself into any life-form in the galaxy.  It was mildly entertaining.  Much better, totally compelling, in fact, was Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies.  Beautifully written, thoughtful, literary science fiction.   A meditation on what it means to be human, individual.  “The job of words,” he writes, “is to construct the fiction of our separate identity.” 

I really am finding Melville tedious these days.  Here we go:

Chapter 24 The Advocate

Ishmael—or is this a different narrator?  advocates for “the business of whaling” as a poetical and reputable pursuit, not the “butchering” that the world perceives. 

Butchers we are, that is true.  But butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor.…what disordered slippery decks of a whaleship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies’ plaudits?

I found this rant a bit tedious and difficult to take seriously.   Whaling is butchery and the 19th century whaling adventurers, the White financiers who slaughtered these highly intelligent ocean mammals nearly into extinction, are indefensible.  Melville’s advocate fails to persuade. Or perhaps he does succeed.  Whaling is butchery, like warfare, he says, and Yale and Harvard are involved in this butchering business. 

“A whaling ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Perhaps that is the point, and the elevated tone of this and the next few chapters is meant the paean to sound like the farce it is. 

Chapter 25: Postscript

Ishmael is still ranting in defense of the dignity of whaling, unfortunately..

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

Our narrator introduces us to the commanders on the ship, the higher-ranking “Knights” and then invokes the “just spirit of Equality, at the end of the chapter.  He begs this spirit to lift him up, as the “great democratic God” lifted John Bunyan, and fill him with the power to continue to celebrate the allegedly noble men who make a living slaughtering majestic mammals. 

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires, Round 2

For all his cant about the “just spirit of Equality,” Ishmael reminds us that there is a hierarchy aboard the ship.  It is racial and repugnant, even though the ridiculous rhapsodic tones suggest that Ishmael—our naive narrator—finds it all too wonderful to bear.  He tells us that White “native American” men command while “the rest of the world” do the hard labor.  Bizarrely, the indigenous peoples of North America somehow count as foreigners.  Tashtego’s eyes are

“Oriental in their largeness, but Antarctic in their glittering expression.” 

Indeed, he hardly seems human:

To look at the tawney brown of his lithe snaky limbs, you would have almost have credited the superstitions of some of the earlier Puritans and half-believed this wild Indian to be a son of the Prince of the Powers of the Air.

Daggoo, a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” who “retained all his barbaric virtues” is one revolting racial stereotype.  

Reading Melville at Sea: Chapters 14-19

queequegChapter 14

“Nantucket is no Illinois.”

Ishmael spins a tale about the Nantucketers, who learned to sail from the natives, and then overran the watery world “like so many Alexanders.”

Chapter 15.

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Queequeg and Ishmael eat fabulous chowder at the Try Pots, where the cook is a Mrs. Hussey, not the nicest name.  There are very few female characters in this novel, but does this detract from its greatness?  Perhaps it does.  As a commentary on 19th-century racist, classist society, it has little insight into the role that women played in the emergence of White Supremacist ideology and class oppression.   Indeed Melville demonstrates little insight into women all together.

Chapter 16:

Yojo

yojoQueequeg and Ishmael agree, upon the advice of Yojo, Queequeg’s god, that Ishmael will chose the ship that they will take a-whaling.  Ishmael describes the Pequod as “apparalled like any barbaric Ethoipian emporer; “ a “thing of trophies, a cannibal of a craft” and meets Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, one hot, the other cold.  The latter is the more blood-thirsty, parsimonious, and cruel of the two.  He is also a staunch Quaker who quotes Bible verses to justify his selfishness.  Ishmael learns about Captain Ahab, and finds out he has a wife and a child. 

Chapter 17

Ramadan

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Ishmael argues for tolerance for Queegueg’s “absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan,” and then concludes that “Presbyterians and Pagans alike—we are all dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”  Ishmael tries to persuade Queequeg that his Ramadan fast is bad for him but admits, finally, that he has had little influence over him. 

Chapter 18

Son of Darkness

queequetCapatin Peleg suspects Queequeg on account he is a pagan and Captain Bildad addresses him as a “Son of darkness.”  Ishmael insists that his friend is a member of the church to which they all  belong, “the great everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world,” and Peleg commends him as a missionary. 

Chapter 19:

This ragged Elijah

homeless man“A Soul’s a Sort of fifth wheel to a wagon,” mutters a strange old sailor, called Elijah.  He is talking to our hero and our hero’s favorite “savage,” Queequeg.  What could he mean?  Do you believe you have a soul, dear reader?  Why do you think so?  Who told you to think this way?  Why should you believe the people or the institutions who want you to believe that you are so burdened?  How do you imagine it?  What makes your soul so special, anyways?  What good is it?

I just sent an email to my son’s father.  I wrote, “I don’t know what to do, to say.  I am trying.”  I want to help B but do not know how.  He seems determined to be homeless. I don’t understand why.

Reading Melville at Sea: On women and chapter six

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The women of New Bedford, Ishmael informs us, bloom only in summer and their bloom is unmatched everywhere except in Salem, where

The young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

Is this some elaborate, juvenile joke whereby Ishmael means to say that women smell like fish ?  Or that for all they look to be of an entirely different species—the pale, blue-eyed Puritan species, they smell just the same as the darker girls in the Spice islands?  He is speaking of ambergris, which was obtained from Sperm whales and used by perfumers after it had aged.  When it first comes out of the whale’s gastrointestinal tract, it smells like faeces. 

Like the women of New Bedford, the  women of Spanish Wells also seem to bloom only in summer, and when they are young, they appear to do very little other than strike fetching poses while seated next to young men driving boats.  For example, as we exited Channel Cut—which is nerve-wracking because the current rushing through it is so strong, and the channel between the coral on both sides so narrow, that it is only safe to go through it at slack tide— we saw a small fishing boat come roaring out behind us.  The young man standing on the bow, with one hand locked into the painter as though he were riding a bronco, the other ready with a spear, could have been one of the Pequod’s crew.  The other young man at the helm steered the tiny craft straight into the waves with what seemed an insane speed.  And the girl?  She just sat there, utterly passive, indifferent to the brave action around her, completely useless!  She might as well have been a statue.  And so common!  I found it very strange that I did not see a single woman driving a boat, not even a dinghy.

Ishmael takes a stroll around New Bedford and admires the strangers from distant shores he sees there: “actual cannibals chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom carry on their bones unholy flesh.” I wonder if vegans look at those of us who rejoice as we sink our teeth into bloody, red flesh, find it amazing that we, too, walk around in public, unhindered?  Do they regard us as savages? But that is the point Melville is making, isn’t it?  That the very people who think of themselves as refined and civilized are, in fact, quite brutal and bloodthirsty? 

Consider Ishmael’s observation that all the lovely, tidy mansions in the town have been “harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”  He reminds us that the tidy, civilized life on shore comes not just from the unruly, savage life on the sea, but also from the labors of the dark “savages” who toil on the ships owned by the White men on land. 

Ocracoke

Well, my dears,

Now that I have taken the time to set up the blog (www.sophiasailing.com), which took a surprisingly long time, I have a moment to write about where we have been for the last few days and what it’s like here.  I know some of you, at least are curious.  “She just quit her job and went down to North Carolina with her boyfriend to go sailing!”  Yes I did.  And very happy to have done so, in spite of the hundred bug bites and lack of laundry facilities and numerous bruises and scrapes all over my body.

Traveling aboard a sailboat is like a dance. The first, essential steps that come only with pain, allow you to move about without banging into lines, cleats, hardware, booms, and other dangerous metal objects.  With time, these steps become routine, but for now, well, just look at my legs.  Or don’t, as they’re not pretty.

North Carolina is lovely.  The dialect is lovely and lilting and slow.  But on Okracoke Island, its unique.  You’ve heard of the place where the locals have been so isolated that the locals speak an English closer to Shakespeare’s than anywhere in England?  We are there.  It’s not quite right to say that the dialect is closer to the original late 16th century speech, since all dialects change over time and this one has, too.  Still, it is true that many of the words used here, such as “mommuck,” which means to harrass or bother, and “quamish,” queasy, are found in the bard’s plays. Commonly referred to as the “high-tide” dialect, locals pronounce “high” as “hoi” and “tide” and “toi.”

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The first English explorers of the New World arrived on Okracoke in the late 15th century. They couldn’t have navigated the treacherously shallow waters of what is now called the Pamlico sound without guidance from the natives, who, it seems, never settled on the island they called Wokokon and used as a hunting and fishing ground. While searching for Roanoke Island in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh’s navigators ran aground on a sand bar and stopped to make repairs. The first mention of the island in Sir Richard Greenville’s report to Sir Walter indicated that white settlers had shipwrecked there and were saved by locals:

And after ten dayes remaining in an out Island vnhabited, called Wocokon, they with the help of some of the dwellers of Sequotan, fastened two boates of the countrey together & made mastes vnto them, and sailes of their shirtes, and hauing taken into them such victuals as the countrey yeelded, they departed after they had remained in this out Island 3 weekes: but shortly after it see∣med they were cast away, for the boates were found vpon the coast, cast a land in another Island ad∣ioyning: other then these, there was neuer any people apparelled, or white of colour, either seene,…

From The principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation. made by sea or ouer-land, to the remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth, at any time within the compasse of these 1600. yeres:  By Richard Hakluyt preacher, and sometime student of Christ-Church in Oxford.

Wococcon was once an island that served as hunting, fishing, and herbal grounds for the Native Americans.  White people never stepped on its sandy shores until the late 16th century.  White people have taken it over now.   White people flood the island.   Indeed, one of the strangest things about being on Okracoke is the absence of people of color.  I’ve seen one Black family vacationing and one Black man taking care of the trash, one Latin man serving in a restaurant and another working as a dockhand.  Everyone else is white-white and most everyone here speaks with a Southern drawl.  It’s not unpleasant but eerie.  What is unpleasant are the confederate flags that seem to be so common, still, around here.  They’re ugly.