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. 

sizedstaugustinefootsoldiers1
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.

   

Advertisements

Chapter 28: Ahab

Once again Ishmael draws a contrast between the dark-skinned harpooners,

a far more barbaric, heathenish, and motley set than any of the tame merchant-ship companies which  my previous experiences had made me acquainted with,

and the three White sea-officers,

every one of them Americans; a Nantucketer, a Vinyarder, a Cape man.

Race is on Melville’s mind.  No doubt about it.  But where he stood on the issue, how he felt about slavery, that’s the question that critics can’t decide on.  Because the novel is not simplistic.  It’s not a pro- or con-anything kind of book.  It’s not a politician, or a manifesto, or a vehicle for any particular ideology, but rather a complex portrait of a complex, violent society of violent injustices.

At last, also, we meet Ahab, who emerges on deck for longer and longer periods the further south the ship sails.  Ishmael compares the Captain’s “whole high, broad form” to a Cellini bronze statue of Perseus.

The myth of Perseus,son of Danaë, whom Zeus impregnated as a shower of gold, is worth considering here, for it is deeply bound up with the sea, with brutality, murder, and money.  Again and again, beginning in his infancy, Perseus is exposed to terrible dangers that should but don’t kill him.   

Here is the story that Robert Graves assembled from various ancient sources, which suspiciously blame women for starting all the trouble:  

Danaë’s father, Acrisius, having heard that his grandson would kill him, locked Danaë and the infant Perseus into a wooden ark, which he cast into the sea.  It washed to Seriphos, where a fisherman, Dictys, nets it and takes it ashore.  The King of that place, Polydectes, adopts Perseus and tries to marry his mother, who resists him.  Polydectes tries to trick Perseus by sending him after the Gorgon Medusa’s head, which he ostensibly wishes to present to another princess as a marriage gift.  

Athene helps Perseus because she hates Medusa, originally a beautiful woman who led the Libyans of Lake Tritonis in battle.  Somehow she offended Athene, who transformed her into a hideous creature with venom-dripping snakes for hair and a face so ugly that she turns all who look upon her to stone.  Hermes also helps Perseus to kill Medusa by teaching him how to obtain winged sandals and a helmut that renders its wearer invisible.

220px-Museo_Nazionale_Napoli_Perseus_And_Andromeda
Pompeiian fresco depicting Andromeda and Persesus.

On his way back to save his mother from Polydectes, Perseus falls in love with Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess chained to a cliff to be devoured by a female sea-monster.  Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, had boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, and Poseidon responded by insisting that she be sacrificed to the beast. Perseus slays the beast and wants to marry Andromeda, but her parents attack him with a force of 200.  Perseus turns them all to stone with the Medusa’s head and returns home with the marriage-gift and discovers his adoptive father threatening his mother, Danaë, and the fisherman Dictys.  He rescues them, turns Polydectes and his aggressors to stone, and then gives the kingdom to Dictys.  Then he sails with his mother and Andromeda to Argos, where he accidentally kills his grandfather with a discus.

Perseus is a tragic hero who, like Ahab, kills female monsters and sails oceans.  He murders the King who wishes to marry his mother, his wife’s parents, and his only grandfather, along with hundreds of others who oppose him.  The gods help him to commit these deeds for arbitrary reasons of their own.

persee-florence1The author of an on-line guide to reading Moby Dick observes that Melville alludes again to Perseus, whom he calls the first whaleman.  He leaves out Medusa’s head altogether and suggests that the monster the demigod slays to save Andromeda is a Leviathan. Ahab’s skin is bronzed from his time at sea and his singular, mad pursuit has made him hard.

What strikes me when I look at Cellini’s statue is the prone, sensuous body of the Medusa under Perseus’s feet and the beautiful visage on the head he holds up.  I’m wondering if Melville, whether consciously or not, imagined Ahab as a dominating man, whose patriarchal power derives from his ability to conquer the dangerously sensuous feminine elements in the world?

Reading Melville at Sea. Chapters 22-23

After a Storm on the Lee Shore.jpgWhat does it mean to be reading at sea?  To be reading while at sea, at loss, in grief, in loss of sense, in madness.

at sea confused, perplexed, puzzled, baffled, mystified, bemused, bewildered, nonplussed, disconcerted, disoriented, dumbfounded, at a loss, at sixes and sevens; informal flummoxed, bamboozled, fazed, discombobulated; archaic mazed. 

For personal reasons which have nothing to do with sailing or cruising, I am very much at sea for the past few months.  Lately things have gotten worse.

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas. 

No tree, no candles, no singing, no feasting, no warmth at all.

Parsimonious Bildad pilots the boat out of the harbor while drunken Peleg kicks sailors to make them “jump.”  Ahab remains below, unseen, unheard, allegedly ill, possibly mad. Ishmael stands on board shivering with “wet feet and a wetter jacket” and describes the ship moving out of the harbor:

…as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor.  The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curiving icicles depended from the bows.

Bildad, at the helm, sings “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood/ Stand dressed in living green,” and shivering Ishmael dreams of “many a pleasant haven in store.”  Bildad and Peleg take their leave of the ship and drop into a boat that will carry them back to shore. 

Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the Atlantic.

Interesting that Melville writes that they plunged “like fate” as thought fate were a thing that could plunge or dive or swim through an ocean.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

The Pequod is like fate.  It “thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”  And as it does so, Ishmael spies Bulkington, the gnarly old sailor previously encountered in the dismal New Bedford pub, a man who had only just returned from one dangerous ocean voyage to head out for another.

  The chapter is called “the lee shore,” which is the line of land downwind from you on a boat.  It is dangerous to sail along a lee shore, because the wind constantly blows you against it, and you have to work hard to stay off the rocks.  Our narrator observes,

deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land…in that gale, the port, the land, is that ships direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.  With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing fights ‘gainst the winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks asll the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlorly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Melville compares the paradox of seeking shelter where none can be had to the search for truth itself:

“all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.”

Reading Melville at Sea: Going Aboard

Chapter 21:

Whaling
Whaling boat, 19th Century

Somehow I have gotten off track.  Or got off track.  Now not sure.  As am off track.   I thought I was writing about chapter 21 but seem to have commented twice on chapter 20.  Not as though I kept track of these things.  Clearly I don’t as a rule.  And therefore am frequently off track.

At any rate have a general thought about Moby Dick as it pertains to our times.  Melville wrote this novel about different cultural actors interacting with one another during a period of intense political poloarization.  We as a nation are horribly fractured, divided, at odds, off track. Radical Right versus Radical Left, and deadly divisions within each party.  As it was so it shall be.  So what can we learn about this world that we live in by meditating upon a mirror nearly 200 years old?

What’s interesting about chapter 21, ‘Going Aboard” ?

Elijah once again accosts Ishmael and Queequeg the night before they sail, with impertinent and nonsensical questions, such as

“See if you can find ‘em now, will ye?”

Perplexed, without maps, Ishmael and Queequeg step aboard the Pequod and go below, where they find a man sleeping across two chests. Queequeg sits on the man’s face.  Ishmael protests that he is grinding the face of the poor and makes him get off.  Then Queequeg tells Ishmael that in his country the wealthy people enslave poor people and make them serve as cushions and couches.  Queequeg flourishes his tommahawk and boasts that it would be very easy to kill the man sleeping before them. That unfortunate awakens.  Queequeg and Ishmael hear a noise upon deck.  It is Starbuck.  The sun comes up and more crew boards.  But Ahab does not appear from his cabin. 

I have gone off track. I have nightly nightmares about being lost.  I want to go home to “rescue” my son who can’t be rescued, who seems determined to drown. I will stay here, grit my teeth, set my sails and keep my own vessel on course.

Thinking about it Queequeg is pretty scary and unpredictable.  So Ishmael is one brave dude.

I have so many regrets but also believe I have had a very happy life.  So many happy experiences, such great passions, such rich encounters.  And also great sorrows and heartbreaks and frustrations and periods of intense pain and yet still perhaps not as much as I could bear.  No, it has been largely good, rich, and beautiful.   But so intensely painful, like a blade sharp and cold, at times.  The immense losses: mother father husband sister son.  Not that last loss, no, no. Please no. 

Reading Melville at Sea: God is a Usurer

god usurerChapter 10: The Puritan God is a Usurer and Queeqeg does not owe him.

Well, it’s obvious that Ishmael, whose name means fugitive, has not been converted by Father Mapple’s sermon.  He finds yet more reasons to admire Queequeg, who worships a different god and who, unlike the melodramatic and miserable Father Mapple, displays no guilt or shame or self-hatred. 

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had a creditor.” 

This is my favorite line in the book. 

You have to know something about Puritans to really get the joke here, and it is a joke. Of course, Melville, like Hawthorne, was a 19th-century American Puritan.  His ancestors were Puritans and his typology, his religious classification of the world and world-view, was Puritan.   

Ishmael, like earlier Christians, frequently compared God to a creditor and themselves to debtors.  They believed they had to repay the loan of life not only in full, but with interest.  It was not enough to live your life; you had to demonstrate through action or outstanding faith that you were really, really grateful for what you had received, but most of all you had to show that you recognized that you yourself were worthless because anything of value that showed itself in you or that you brought about in the world came not from you but rather from God, the Father. 

Right.  I’m talking about the old White man who runs the bank and has a right to everything you ever thought you owned or had a right to.   Queequeg lives outside this viewpoint and therefore does not suffer the constant doubt and worry that he will be unable to pay what he owes.  He is free in a way that Ishmael is not.

Melville takes the joke further, of course, by having Ishmael demonstrate that he is a good Christian by turning “idolator” and worshipping alongside his new friend.  “That done, we undressed and went to bed.”  There Ishmael and Queequeg have a loving chat like “man and wife” and experience a “honeymoon” as a “cosy, loving pair.”  Melville was a rascal, wasn’t he?  Can’t you just imagine how this passage would affect those radical Christians who terrorize people who insist on loving people of the same sex?

Melville is so timely.  The same nasty-minded, racist, xenophobic religious wackos who imposed the Fugitive Slave Act (which, remember, gave every White person the power to clap any suspicious-looking Black person into irons and torment them) in his time are still alive and kicking among us today, nearly 200 years later. 

Reading Melville at Sea: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

Fugitive-Slave-Act-Newspaper-headlineChapter 9: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

The sermon really is very good.  Father Mapple’s marvelous interpretation of the Biblical story about Jonah and the Whale is both an allegory and a confession.  Although I am currently doubting my original suggestion that this book as an epic novel, there are loads of epic elements in this chapter.  There is the lofty language; the Satanic hero, and this wonderful simile.

Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him,

as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him;

as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anquish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steels over him,

as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it;

so, after sore wrestling in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

I broke it apart so that you can identify the parallel elements.  Jonah is intoxicated, supersaturated with a painful, nearly fatal fit of guilt.  But for what?   Doesn’t it bother you that we never find out what crime Jonah committed? 

Father Mapple says he disobeyed God, but how he did it he never tells.  He describes Jonah as a ‘God-fugitive,” theoretically someone who runs from the inevitable wrath of the Deity.  But why is this god mad?   What has Jonah done? Something so terrible that can be forgiven only once he goes to the very bottom of the ocean in the belly of a fearful beast! Here, beyond the jaws of death, in darkness and squalor, he finds peace.  And why does he feel peace?  Because he has been punished!  For what?  For running away?

What a strange religion!  Here is a sadistic god who punishes people who refuse to acknowledge his authority, and who favors those whom he scourges.  And his victims thank him for whipping them.     

But think a little futher about Jonah, the fugitive.  Father Mapple describes him thus:

O! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas.  So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck.  How plainly he’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag, —no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux…in vain essays his wretched smile.  Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent.

As allegory, the story that Mapple delivers corresponds to the story about slavery that Melville is telling in his novel.  Did it not occur to you that Jonah figures as a slave or a freed Black man running not from God, but, rather, his master?  Did it not occur to you to understand the sermon as a kind of allegory that White ministers used to preach to justify the Fugitive Slave Law?  I’m sure I’m not the first to assert this.  Surely whole dissertations have been composed to demonstrate this very point; articles advancing the same claim have made careers. 

Not convinced?  Consider the way Melville describes Jonah’s last desperate moment when he is tossed by the sailors into the sea, and the storm follows him:

“He goes down in the whirling heat of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment…”

(my emphasis).

Jonah’s crime is what, again?  We are not told.  I will tell you.  Jonah’s crime is that he is “masterless.”  He will not obey his master and he has run away. 

This is not to argue that we should read the novel as an allegory.   In Moby Dick Melville creates a “historical allegory.” It makes reference to its time, its political and historical reality, but not through verisimilitude, as in the European novel of the same period, or in a point-to-point fashion, like a roman-a-clef.   A historical allegory, like science fiction, comments on the present in a story that seems to be about something else.  So here, we have a historical allegory with epic elements in which the fictional story comments on the political, social, spiritual, and economic realm in which it was composed: a politically complex, industrial capitalist, Christian society in which dark-skinned men, women and children were bought and sold for profit and light-skinned men and women were generating arguments for White Supremacy.

As Michael Rogin astutely observes, Moby Dick is more than a political allegory, because it remains,

“paradoxically, above politics, neither losing itself in political complexity nor transforming its political present into something new.  Allegories take positions inside a given structure of controversy.  Those who see Moby Dick as a political allegory choose one side or another in the political debates; Moby Dick undercuts it all.  It points to no fixed political truth above and outside its own story.”