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.

   

Rocky Dundas

March 19, 2015

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Fowl Cay to the left and Rocky Dundas to the right, seen from Compass Cay

We are still in the beautiful anchorage at Fowl Cay.  The horseshoe opens up to the north, where  two enormous rocks called Rocky Dundas hide deep caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.  Cathedrals to nature’s splendor.  Fabulous elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)  at the mouth of one cave.  

The water is clear and aquamarine…you must get tired of hearing about it.  I wonder at it and think how to describe it to convey the extreme pleasure of looking at it, of being in Yesterday was sweaty hot, even while sailing, the kind of heat that robs you of all energy and leaves you languid and parched.  So just after we anchored here, I jumped into the water.  The shock of the salt surprised me, as it does every time.  Extreme salt that stings your eyeballs and clears out your sinuses and wrings through you like a healing tonic. 

One of the reasons the water is so clear is that the salt kills most of the bacteria.  There is very little algae, no bloom of brown gray green organisms, only sharks and sting rays.  Coral seems to start out as small clumps of anemones and branches out into red candelabras and mustard-colored clumps that you dare not touch.  The sand waves in little hillocks, blown by the currant.  The needle sharp rocks are gray on the top, ochre underneath, where the waves runs in waterfalls back down into the sea.  There is a narrow pale beach here and a small airplane that crashed in the sand a few feet from the waterline.  Beside it is a grave marked with conch shells and a stone that reads, “Dilo, the island dog.” 

I am in heaven because I am here and I am reading Little Women, which I have read many times but not for many years.  What a warm and joyous imagination Louisa May Alcott had.  I love living again among Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Marmee.  And Hannah.  No one ever talks about Hannah, the servant who lives with them and who is not described except through her speech.  Is she African-American?  And their father is away serving as chaplain in a war which is never indicated but which must be the Civil War.  It is an interesting counterpoint to Moby Dick, which I am still dutifully recounting. 

It is interesting to think about race, especially here in this nation in populated and governed primarily by the descendants of slaves. 

I would love to have a conversation with two people: a Black Bahamian who has lived in the United States, and a Black American who has lived in the Bahamas.  I would actually not have any pre-considered questions other than, “what is is like to live there as opposed to where you grew up?”  “What are the pros and cons of each society?”  This interests me because the ancestors of both groups came unwillingly from Africa, and also because my own ancestors held slaves in North Carolina, from whence many of the Bahamian slaveowners and their slaves came.  In fact, it would be fun to study the traffic between the two places.  No doubt someone has already done this. I can’t really speculate about how Black Bahamians or Black Americans think about their history, but I can ask. 

What I can talk about is how I, a White descendant of slaveowners in North Carolina during the 18th century, respond to Bahamian society.  What I notice, briefly, is a great friendliness and confidence among the people here, but not a great deal of intermingling between Blacks and Whites.  There is commerce, yes, and great warmth.  But I can’t help but wonder how the Bahamians respond to the subtle racism of the all-White cruising crowd, who must seem incredibly affluent to the locals, who are poor in materials as well as education.

Reading Moby Dick, Chapter Three: Ishmael Goes to a Bar

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  It’s very nice, very safe, and very…as a new friend observed, “it’s the way small-town American used to be 40 years ago,”…  Norman Rockwellian.  Think, for example, about race relations, attitudes towards homosexual and transgender people and atheists and people with mental illness and women in the United States 40 years ago. Not pretty.

I suppose my friend was right to observe that homogeneity and the illusion of social equality is a pleasant experience.  It’s pleasant to be White and relatively well-off in a society where White people control most of the property and businesses as long as you don’t think too much about the Black people who live here, too, and who have lived here just as long.  My friend is not a bigot but, like most of us White people, he may not always think about the White privilege implications of things that he says.

What I enjoyed most about the Christian winter holidays here in the Abacos was getting to know many interesting new people, most of whom come from Canada and the UK and the Northeastern US.  I have so far met only two women who sail solo, one a psychotherapist from Chicago and the other a salty beauty born who just brought her schooner up from the Grenadines. 

When you go to a bar here, you will find yourself among a lot of people very much like yourself, White, well-off, and heterosexual (which I am, for the most part).  As long as you avoid politics and religion, you will probably have a very nice time.  If you are lucky enough to meet with someone who shares your political point of view, then you will probably have a better time.   There are Black people here, of course, but you will usually encounter them behind the bar or on a fishing boat or behind the register at the Post Office or raking the grounds of second home on a lovely beach.  Race relations do not feel very different to me here than they do in the US.  They trouble me. They troubled Melville, too. 

Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn because it looks like a place he can afford, and there he finds that the only bed he will get that night is one with a “harpooneer.”  Here Melville has a bit of fun with his readers, I suppose, by cracking a sexual joke in which Ishamel declares that if he must sleep with another man in a bed,

it would depend upon who the harpooner might be.”  That this particular harpooner happens to be a dark-skinned man does not worry our hero so much as the  thought that he he “should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?  Landlord!  I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.

But Ishmael soon agrees to share the bed after all, since he can’t sleep on the hard chairs in the  bar, and admits that he might after all “be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown “harpooneer.”  After a number of furious questions to the landlord, Ishamel finds out that this harpooner is not only dark-skinned, but not Christian, and business of selling shrunken human head..  Still he agrees to share his bed.  After the landlord shows him to the room and shuts the door, Ishamel tries on an article of his clothing, views himself in the mirror, and throws it off. 

The Harpooner himself, when he finally appears, frightens his future bedmate with his all-over body tatoo, yellowish-purple skin, bald head and long, black pigtail, and his oblations before a “black mannikin,” which he also calls a “Congo idol,” and “little negro.”  Not only this, but the “savage,” and “wild cannibal,” as Ishmael calls him, also possess a “tomohawk” pipe.  Queequeg displays characteristics of various diverse peoples oppressed in Melville’s time: Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

Ishamels’ attitude towards him seems refreshingly tolerant:

For all his tatooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.  What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thougth I to myself—the man’s a human being jsut as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.  Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. 

Perhaps its not very nice of Ishamel to assume that Queegeg is a cannibal—he has learned that he only eats red meat, but has not yet found definitive proof that the man eats human flesh. Does his assumption proceed from his White perspective?  I wonder how the White folks of Abaco would have read this scene, where Ishmael, the protagonist and hero of this strange epic, finds being groped by dark-skinned, tatooed, tomahawk-wielding, yellow-skinned, pigtailed man.  It’s so juicy!  So exciting, so funny, so delightful.

I wonder if my son got this joke right away?  He probably did.  His generation is so much more forward thinking than our own, as evidenced by the LGBT group he joined in junior high in mainstream, Arlington, Virginia.  The members came together not necessarily because they had identified as one type of sexuality or another, but for quite the opposite reasons—-because they understood that sexuality is something that culture imposes on us, and that it takes time and open-mindeded and listening to the body and spirit to understand how one really feels, sexually, which is also to say spiritually. 

Normative sexuality is not all that different from normative religiosity.  It is a way of being that parents, schools, communities, courts, and governments impose on us—by making it easier to for those who agree to behave in a certain way, and harder for those who don’t fit in to the normative, heterosexual, “faith” adhering mold.  There is no evidence that our universe was created by a god.     And why should have have to identify as one way or another any way, if not to conform to an institution—the family, the educational system, the juridical system—that insists on this particular ordering of society? 

Society is not simple, not orderly, not easy, as Melville knew. Through Ishmael the outsider he seems to be exploring the viewpoint of the insider, the White, heterosexual, Christian man, sympathizing and communing with the people that his society had defined as “outside,” outside the same system of justice, denied the same rights and freedoms that Ishmael, and Melville himself, enjoyed. 

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Christmas in a strange world

December 26, 2015. 

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  Here the locals and the cruisers build a “Christmas village” at the center of town, complete with an “ice” skating rink made of slippery plastic and plastic skates and lots of evergreen Casurina (sp?) trees stuck into the sand, tents, a manger with a white plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby, which also served as the backdrop for the stage where kids read religiously themed storeis to the crowd, gift shops that supported local charities (the school, the community center, the animal rescue leagues) and an outdoor bar where you got rosemary margeritas and a gin or vodka based Bahamian “switcha” made with sweetened sour orange juice.   Everyone is very nice and very clean and very friendly.  Ryan and I joined the carolers and enjoyed the lights and small-town cheer at the Christmas village, but frankly its a depressing holiday for me, always the seaon when I regret how far away I am from my family, not only physically but also emotionally.  It’s a very lonely time of year for many people.

We celebrated with our friends aboard “Seahorse,” Travis and Mary Fowler and four of Travis’s five daughters, Lauren, 23, Mary Kate, 16, Mary Helen, 15, and Lily, 9.  They flew down for a few weeks with their kids. 

We also met a number of other truly great and fascinating people from Canada and the UK and the US

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Interesting art on Man-O-War Cay, Bahamas.

.  The cool thing about cruising is you go around meeting people with whom you already have a lot in common, even though you may have grown up on different continents.  Most people are gregarious, open-minded, and helpful to others. Every now and then you meet folks with whom you feel a very strong connection.

While I’ve really enjoyed Hopetown and, as I’ve said in previous blog posts, can see why people sail into the harbor and stay for a lifetime, I’m happy to be moving south.  The mooring field was starting to feel very crowded, and dinghies and fishing boats and ferries and freight carriers constantly weave through the boats until well after sundown.  For the past two nights loud music from somewhere on shore or a boat somewhere in the harbor blared late into the early morning.  Many people who come and go from Hopetown are one-week vacationers chartering a boat, and they can be inconsiderate, loud, and even dangerous, when inexperienced. I’m looking forward to getting away from crowds.

Last night I met only the second solo woman cruiser since I got onto this road.  She, like eveyrone else I have encountered so far on this journey, is White, heterosexual, and Christian. Where is everybody else? There are Black people in boats but I have yet to see who cruise.  Black and White Bahamians are civil to one another but seem to live separate lives.  Nearly everyone here appears to be Christian, and most of them are Protestant.  Like the American South, from which many of the original settlers, Black and White, came in the late 18th century, this is a very stratified, homogeneous society.   

My tone may sound particularly cranky because I have been sick for the past couple of weeks, and am actually getting worse.  I think I’m anemic and have started to take iron pills.  I’m not sleeping well, am really fatigued, and get stomach cramps every time I eat.  I’ve been drinking a lot of water, and did get a nap today while Ryan went snorkeling with our friends.  I took a nap on the boat.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to connect to the internet again.  It was hard enough to do in Hopetown.  We still haven’t been able to fix our M2 Bullet and therefore have to go ashore to get a signal in a coffee shop or bar, where the connection is always extremely slow.  Even with a good connection, it takes 1 hour to upload a 15 second video, and photos are only a little bit faster. 

I’ll keep up with the blog, for the sake of discipline, I suppose.  But I’ll have to post everything all at once, and will probalby not even bother with pictures.  When you’re anchored off a gorgeous beach in turquoise water and a soft wind is blowing your hair, you do not want to be tethered to a damn machine drumming your fingers while you wait and curse and wait and curse and wait for photos to upload.  And most of the time you can’t connect at all, and you’d much rather be swimming or snorkeling or walking or paddle-boarding or reading.