In 1889, Bahamian born Edgar Mayhew Bacon, then an acclaimed American author with many published books to his credit, returned to the Bahamas, to write on life in the islands. “Notes of a Sub-Tropic Study” mainly focused on the everyday goings on of the African negro, in his post emancipation state, in the Bahamas. Mayhew makes an interesting reference to a “great hulking negro” who dressed and spoke like a woman. He was called Miss Brown. Today that man would be considered transgendered. In 1889, Miss Brown, was considered crazy.
We would not know of Miss Brown or the man who slapped his daughter in the street just to show her who was the boss, or the negro who walked 36 miles for dollar, if we didn’t read Mayhew. In order to read Mayhew, we have to first know who he was.
The point is, so much of Bahamian history has been locked away in the divisive past, behind doors, we would rather not open.
“Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on. The past depends less on “what happened then” than on the desires and discontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has as much to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn”
—Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey among the Atlantic Slave Route
CONFRONTING AN UNCOMFORTABLE PAST
The further back one goes in Bahamian history, the more divisive it becomes. All of it, from the sea to the sky, somehow came down to race and class. Settlement, slavery, survival and social separation marks this. It is partly for this very reason why, under British colonial rule, and for decades after, the stories of Europe and elsewhere became the focus of every history, geography, English literature and religion class in Bahamian schools.
Moving forward, our historical ignorance presents a real problem to the goal of understanding the ethnology of ourselves in this small island nation. Bahamians have missed out on learning about generations of people, who affected and changed the course of Bahamian history, and equally, those who became great contributors to world history.
One such Bahamian born contributor to American classical literature, of the late 1880s, was Edgar Mayhew Bacon. Bacon’s maternal family were Lockharts. He was born in Ragged Island, in 1855. Edgar Mayhew Bacon was a third generation Bahamian. Both his mother and maternal grandfather were born in the Bahamas between Ragged Island and Nassau.
FAMILY ANCESTRY OF EDGAR MAYHEW BACON
Edgar Mayhew Bacon was family to the Lockhart’s from Ragged Island. The Lockharts were settled Loyalists or possibly just plantation owners who came by way of Scotland. From slave owners the Lockharts probably moved into the salt business.
(The Hartford Courant, 14 August 1826)
James McKay Lockhart born possibly in Aberdeen Scotland. DIED in 1798 in Nassau or Ragged Island.
John Monroe Lockhart who was born in 1798 in Nassau or Ragged Island and died on 21 October 1832 on Ragged Island, was in all likelihood the SON of James McKay Lockhart originally of Aberdeen Scotland.
Jane “Jennie” Mary Lockhart was born in Nassau, New Providence on 15 November 1826 was the DAUGHTER of John Monroe Lockhart who lived on Ragged Island. Jane died in Tarrytown, Westchester, NY 12 October 1916.
Jane Lockhart married American John Reuben Bacon in the Bahamas on 7 April 1851. John Reuben Bacon was born in Albany New York and died in Tarrytown, Westchester, NY
Their son, one of eight children, Edgar Mayhew Bacon was born 05 June 1855 in Nassau.
John Bacon took his wife Jane and their first three children, (Harriet born 1852), (John born 1853), and (Edgar Mayhew born 1855), all born in the Bahamas, to America sometime in 1858.
Edgar Mayhew Bacon went on to become a celebrated writer, contributing to the historical literature of America.
Edgar Mayhew Bacon died in 1935.
Excerpt from Notes from a Sub-Tropic Study
(The Leicester Chronicle, Saturday 14 December 1889)
FULL STORY BELOW
NOTES OF A SUBTROPIC STUDY
By Edgar Mayhew Bacon 1889
So you have been enjoying the Bermudas this winter? “
“Not the Bermudas the Bahamas.”
“Ah, yes the Bahamas. By the way, the people “there speak Spanish, do they not? “
“No. It is an English colony.”
If I had been properly paid for each time that I took part in the foregoing dialogue, after my return from a six months participation in Bahama life, I should now be in a position to purchase the entire group from Great Britain.
Certainly the reader of these notes needs not to be reminded that those isles of perpetual summer are strewn in a strange, irregular fashion between a point somewhat southeast of Florida and the island of Hayti ; that they lie in a setting of golden sand-bars and silver reefs that make navigation among them a matter of skill and sometimes of peril, and that the southernmost member of the colony is about twenty degrees south of the city of New York.
It is to the out-islands, with their primitive fashions still fresh upon them, and something of border romance clinging to them, that I ask you to accompany me; not tooften-described Nassau. With the exception of one or two more favored ones, they are out of the usual course of navigation so completely that many of the people have seldom or never seen a steamer, rarely get a newspaper, and dream for years of accomplishing a pilgrimage to the Bahama “Mecca” Nassau.
On first visiting Watlings Island (or San Salvador) in a steamer, we approached the land at the same point as did Columbus. The excitement that our arrival caused was very marked. The fleet of small boats that swarmed out to meet us; the crowds of eager people almost the whole population that congregated at the edge of the white, clear water ; even the palm-fringed land sloping down to a scattered settlement of thatched dwellings that bordered the brilliant beach, all reminded one forcibly of an old picture of the landing of the Genoese navigator. It is doubtful if that worthy created any more excitement than did we. To the question when the last steamer stopped there, the magistrate, a pleasant old gentleman, responded: “Steamer? Lord bless you, boy, we haven t had a steamer here before for two years.”
Yet half a dozen regular steamship lines pass near Watlings light monthly, or even oftener; and, with anything in the way of production to form a basis for export, it would be easy to open regular and frequent communication with the outside world. As it is, the people are waiting and hoping that somebody or something will somehow at some time move their way. There is a general apathy and supineness that is incomprehensible to the average American.
This is a geographical condition which is either an advantage or a disadvantage as one inclines to view it. If it is good to keep old manners and customs hermetically sealed, so that the nineteenth century, can hold near its heart a bit of the eighteenth, just as a modern girl may wear on her bosom an old miniature, then it is an advantage to be always on the inner line of one of the ocean eddies. It is simply a question whether superstition will balance romance and picturesqueness of thought; whether naivete will outweigh ignorance; or the old-fashioned virtues of hospitality, politeness, moderation in speech, and simplicity in manners are to be desired when coupled with such old-fashioned vices as shiftlessness and lax morals. There is still a suspicious flavor of earlier piratical occupancy in the zest with which a Bahaman hails a wreck or engages in a smuggling operation.
NEGROES AND WHITES
It is many years since the institution of slavery was abolished there, but still the colored inhabitants, who are greatly in the majority, are subservient to their white neighbors; the misfortune being that the latter are not always wise. The mingling of the two races has not been generally attended with the best results, for between them has sprung up an intermediate class which presents some of the worst characteristics of both. The white people are often amusingly proud of their English kinship, holding that nothing good can come from any other than the Albion spring. Opposed to these are very few who are American in their leanings, and as absurdly confident that all goodness and worth, enterprise and might, centre in the ” States.”
The isolated Caucasian is much the same here as elsewhere, except that his constant intercourse with a people always ready to do him reverence has made him indolent and vain. If it were not for a few wide-awake men who, with their families, are scattered like leaven through the provincial lump, there would be little hope for the future of the white inhabitant. His days are days of ants will present names not upon the idleness, his aspirations are hardly worth pay-roll. After a while you discover that the name, while his life and his children’s lives are vitiated and demoralized by constant contact and companionship with the irresponsible negro.
In the negro there seems to be a larger promise. He is the true Bahaman. When he gets where he can look the white man level in the eyes and forget his race-stigma he will grow. He belongs to the climate and to the soil. Even where he is now his vices do not seem repulsive, his immoralities are hardly shocking (except when shared by his dominant brother), and his kind dis position, sunny temper, and hap-hazard methods of working and living render him generally attractive and always interesting. Perhaps his most prominent failing is his want of proper pride. He is eager to agree with your opinions even to the extent of frequently contradicting himself. A lack of strong personality is strikingly shown by his readiness to change his name. If you have occasion to pay off a gang of men, half the claim that George Ambrister is converted into Henry Cartwright, and so on through the list. A man s nominal identity does not seem to be a matter of the least importance to him. Besides this, there is a general readiness to accept charity, even when remunerative work may be staring the mendicant in the face.
The better educated negro may not ask for a shilling, but he will not hesitate to let you know how you may serve or benefit him. There was a white-haired old fellow, with a skin so fair that in another climate no one would suspect his lineage
to be of the house of Ham, who began his attacks upon my sympathies before I had fairly got the northern chill out of my blood, and continued his interested attack long after I was brown as a native and as well known as the oldest inhabitant. He brought shells which he was willing to part with for twenty times their value in silver ; he hinted, yes, more than hinted, that he had a warm admiration for certain articles of personal apparel which I possessed. He even sank so low as to laugh convulsively at the derision which I heaped upon him. In the end he succeeded in securing a shilling, and straightway “began to lie awake nights to contrive a plan by which to get another.”
ARE THE COLORED NATIVES IMMORAL OR ONLY UNMORAL?
A very pertinent question was recently asked by a thoughtful man, anent the
moral status of the colored natives: ” Are they immoral or only unmoral?”
This is a question which seems to answer itself. They are only unmoral.
Many fine points and nice distinctions in ethics, which usually engage the attention of civilized people, they never trouble themselves to consider. There is no logic in their morality. One may love his neighbor, and then extend the affection to his neigbor’s family. If a man appropriates somebody else’s wife, for example, he does it in a manner so kind and gentle that the offence is robbed of half its unpleasantness.
There is another common trait, whether mental or moral it is hard to determine, which may best be described by an illustrative story. An old man whose daughter, lately grown to womanhood, was among the best -dressed and best-behaved damsels of her native town met her one day upon the street, and, stepping up to her, without a word struck her two or three sharp blows. When interrogated as to his motive for such an act, he replied : “ Dat my own chile. She ain do nuttin , on y she get too fine. /mus* hit her jus to show tority” The deed was a typical one.
There are many absurd, irrational things done by this race “just to show authority.”
The Haunted Jail, Inagua.
Larceny is rare in the islands. The inhabitants are seldom thieves, and the jails are usually empty. There is rather a good story, by the way, which is told of the Inagua jail, which, common report claims, is haunted. The ground upon which the building stands used to be subject to voudoos or obeah, or witch craft in some other African form, so that no one liked to stray there after sunset. After the prison was erected it stood for some time empty, till at last the authorities secured a culprit in the person of a sailor who had committed some criminal offence. We may imagine that the rejoicing of the state’s officers at thus proving their right to have a jail must have been great when the culprit was safely incarcerated; but such feelings, if they indulged them, did not last long. Shortly after midnight there was a terrible outcry heard in the building, and those who at length summoned courage to investigate found the sailor almost dead with terror. The old spell was evidently still operative; he had seen the ghosts. At his urgent entreaty the officers, being sensible men and persuaded of the justice of his reasoning, set the unfortunate man at liberty.
In their dealings with each other the people are so sharp that business transactions are frequently followed by an envoy in a police court. In fact, the Magistrate s Office is a favorite resort for the black folks of both sexes, their charges often being of the most trivial character, and seldom permanently interrupting the good feeling which usually exists between the litigants.
One magistrate complained to me that he hated to fine the delinquents who were brought daily before him, because they generally ended by borrowing of him the money with which to pay their fines.
Rudimentary education is general
Every settlement except the very smallest has its public school, where the stranger in passing will be amused to hear the shrill chant of young voices repeating the alphabet or the multiplication-table. There is something very strangely discordant in the sound, as though it issued from an organ composed of defective treble pipes. Enter the school-room and you will find that, whatever deficiency there may be in other studies, there is a general proficiency in mental arithmetic. Almost every Bahaman reads; the percentage of those who are unable to do so being very small. Along a graded color-line the student follows with interest the growth of intellectual grasp, through the various shades of chocolate and yellow humanity, from the perusal of the Nassau Guardian or the Turks Island Gazette to the study of some late ethical discussion in an American magazine or review. But it will be apparent, even to the most optimistic observer, that reading is not the chief occupation of the islanders leisure. Even were inclination and habit more exacting, the poverty of the average native would stand in the way of his possessing many books or periodicals. Of public libraries I know at least one fairly good one, composed mostly of standard English works; but the method, or rather want of method, with which it is catalogued and conducted largely de feats its usefulness.
MENTAL HEALTH AND A TRANSGENDER NEGRO, WHO CALLED HIMSELF MISS BROWN CLASSIFIED AS CRAZY
Occasionally an example of erratic mental activity is presented, as in the case of a colored man who is periodically hunted by a swarming legion of imaginary “voudoos,” who make his house untenable. At such times his neighborhood is neither pleasant nor safe, but between these attacks the poor victim shows a marked degree of intelligence, conducting his business with considerable skill, and often inventing little contrivances to lessen his labor.
A more amusing case of mania is that of a great hulking negro who, years ago,
adopted the dress, habits, and mincing manners of a woman; and he has for so
long a time been known as Miss Brown the name he chose for himself that people are apt to forget that his pretensions are spurious.
Violent insanity is rare. Yet I shall never forget, as one of the saddest and most striking spectacles that I ever witnessed, the removal of a maniac girl from her home to that only place of confinement, the jail. It was along a sandy path shadowed by tropical foliage, bordered by a broken wall over which the passion-flowers ran riot, that the cortege of natives came. In advance fled a herd of frightened children, going a few steps in dismay, and then, as curiosity got the better of fear, stopping to gaze back at the terrifying object. There she walked, between two strong black women, others behind impelling her for
ward ; a girl as beautiful and shapely as some bronze bacchante, with wild eyes, clothes torn and dishevelled, and arms flung out in supplication. It was a sad, strange, pitiful sight.
To the question where they were taking her, one of the women answered :
“ Jes to de jail yonner. We is totin her dere cause she done gone mad, an dey ain no yuther place to put her at.”
“How long has she been mad?”
“How long she is been so? Oh, I dunno, sir. She ain ben righ dis long time. Dey lock her in de jail now and den efshe ain dead, dey sen her to Nassau nex mail.”
This treatment of the insane matches very well the usual course pursued in cases of sickness. The poor patient is over-visited from the first. He is sung
to, talked to, and prayed over, till, being medicined after the most approved Indian methods, he finally dies in sheer self-defence. A black man was recently
employed to take care of a sick neighbor, and one morning soon after reported on his charge as follows:
” He wuss ebery day. He pear like he ain goiri get well. I done jam de word o Gawd into him all de time sense I been dere.”
He was admonished that he was not employed to “jam” the word of God into his suffering brother, but to jam nourishment into his system. The sick man failed to recover.
SUPERSTITUTION SEEN AS REMNANTS OF OLD CONGO RELIGION
It seems hardly necessary to record of members of the African family that they are superstitious. The vagaries of belief are preserved fragments of archaic Congo religion. The old bottle or charmed bag hung up in a field is still often sufficiently potent to scare away the more ignorant, and no watch or ward would protect treasure from molestation half as well as a good ghost story. No one cares to pass a graveyard after nightfall. I have known a boat’s crew disturbed because a bag of sand ballast thrown overboard looked like a sheet or a shroud beneath the surface of the deep, and the smell of watermelon which once greeted us out at sea was immediately attributed to spirits.
DIAECT AND POLITICS
Of dialect there is every shade, between the consonantless grumble of the old African and the modified English of his descendant in the fourth or fifth generation. There is a splendid field for the enthusiastic student of lingual peculiarities. A babel of tongues is loosed whenever a political question is started. For, be it known, all Bahamans are, to a certain extent, politicians; that is, to the extent of being more or less intelligently interested in the action of their representatives in the Colonial House, and in the attitude of the Governor. The reason is not far to seek. Every question which comes up touches the whole colony, if it has any importance at all. There is no vast territory with various business interests to be considered. The laws passed at Nassau must interest Watlings, or Rum Cay, or Inagua, or Fortune Island almost equally, since all are engaged in about the same pursuits and living under the same conditions. The government is both representative and paternal. The members of the Colonial Legislature are elected by popular vote and serve without salary. Many of them are colored men.
These representatives are not always resident on the islands for which they sit. Thus the member for Inagua lives in Nassau, and the member for the western district of Nassau is also resident magistrate at Inagua. The laws passed by the legislature are locally administered by magistrates, assisted by justices of the peace, or by visiting or circuit judges, of whom there are two in the colony. The Governor is appointed by the Crown, andexercises a fatherly supervision over the affairs of his subjects, after the usual fashion of benign colonial governors. Occasionally he makes tours of inspection among the out -islands, gladdening the hearts of his people, inquiring into their wants, noting the conditions of advantage and disadvantage under which they labor, and receiving their account of grievances, of which there is usually a full budget.
GOVERNOR, SIR AMBROSE SHEA AND THE FULLY REGALED AFRICAN SOCIETIES COME TO HEAR HIS SPEECH
Having the good fortune to be present at one of the islands when His Excellency
Sir Ambrose Shea paid a visit, I was interested to observe the good feeling that
was reciprocally shown. After a morning spent with some of the more prominent inhabitants of the little town,
Sir Ambrose signified his intention of addressing the people in some public place. The library was selected as being the largest and most pleasant room in the village, and messengers were sent to inform the colored people of the event, and to gather in an audience ; but for a time it seemed as though they would be unsuccessful, as only half a dozen men and women had arrived at the hour appointed.
While we waited, an old man embraced the opportunity to present a
lonesome little petition of his own. It was all about some cattle that insisted upon straying into his field and eating up his corn and plantains. The Governor sat in an arm-chair by one of the cool windows, a look of puzzlement on his kindly face ; turning first to one and then to another of those who were around him, asking : ” What does he say?” or, “Can you understand him now ? ” as the ancient African proceeded to unburden his vexed soul.
” Um, um Yo Ex luncy. I is obligated to um a present to yo kineness de queshon, yo Exluncy, how we is goin keed cattle f um dewowin our fiel . I wex wid dis queshon dis long time. Da s a queshon, yo Ex luncy, da go way back f o de time dey buil de salt- pon , I ole man, mo oler danyuther in-habtan . I ben heah mo longer, yo Ex luncy, an I knows how de queshon riginally ben grow. De hole maatarigh heah; how I is goin he p ese f w en dey ain no way kee d cattle out. Now, yo Ex luncy, I um ain da larned, but I gatter say disher: “How ?”
The address was interrupted. A sound a remarkable sound of drum and fife, with a suggestion to the uninitiated that perhaps the sackbut and the psaltery were adding their obsolete strains to the minstrelsy. Out of the windows we saw a procession filing down the sandy street black men with black coats, over which were worn red and white sashes; a few banners, a scarlet-coated band of musicians, and several score women in white, pink, and blue dresses.
The societies were coming in a body to hear the Governor s address. In a few moments afterward the library room was filled with a respectful, attentive crowd, to whom his Excellency spoke upon the subject he had come to interest them in,
the production of the ” pita ” plant, or hemp-fibre, in the colony.
After the conclusion of his speech, in which many advantages and concessions
were promised to those who would take land and go to work on it, Sandy Ambrister, the President of the Union Society, rose to respond. He was comically enveloped in his scarf, and the sleeves of his black coat somewhat interfered with the free play of his fingers, but his tongue was loosed. He told his fellow-citizens how good the Governor was to them:
” E talkee lak a fader to um. E say go wuk. Das righ .Wukke like a me. I done tole um so ; tak e cutlass, bus in head fus . Take shut off. De Gov ner good maan ; talkeelak a fader.”
The conclusion of President Sandy’s address, though good from a Bahaman standpoint, might not commend itself to the better cultured underwriter. It was this : ” An now, my bred rin, pray de Lawd he sen us a good wrack, so st we kin get a few shillin to buy de Ian .”
Sandy was by no means as well educated as most of his hearers, but he had
the great advantage of knowing experimentally how to ” bus in head fus.”
When I last saw him he had taken his own advice and, cutlass in hand, his old arm was clearing land to some advantage.
After the meeting in the library, as we descended the steps, the band struck up a lugubrious tune, whereat the Governor uncovered his head and stood with a respectful air of attention. As it finished I asked in a whisper, ” What was that?” and he smilingly replied, ” I think it was God save the Queen. “
The effort I have alluded to i.e., to introduce hemp cultivation in the colony is already an assured success, and it is safe to say that in the ” pita ” aloe lies the future wealth of the Bahama Islands. It needs only a glance at the present condition of Yucatan and other Mexican States, and a comparison of their present great prosperity with their poverty before ” sisal ” became the staple cultivation, to convince one that with a plant which grows larger, takes less time to mature, and yields more and better fibre than that of Yucatan, the prospect for these islands is very brilliant. Heretofore, ere the value of the Bahama hemp-plant was known to the inhabitants, salt, sponges, turtle-shells, fruit, and cocoa-nuts formed the exports. But sea-salt had other enemies besides the heavy duty which America imposed upon its import, pineapple lands played out in time, and the cocoa-nuts were far from being always a success. There is still something done with each of these products, and probably always will be ; but their importance in the eyes of the people is a thing of the past. Those whose inexperience leads them to burn their fingers with salt are yearly growing fewer.
I omitted to mention wrecking among the Bahama industries, yet it has its place, which is far from being an unimportant one. Men, women, and children will abandon any pursuit to throng to the scene of a wreck. An entire congregation will swarm out of church at such a summons, the men divesting themselves of superfluous clothing as they run, pitching garments over walls or into the bushes for the women to pick up. They are as active and prompt in their work, and as skilful, as the members of the New York Fire Department are in theirs. Nor does the labor require less nerve and skill, To take a boat out through a beating surf, in water which is not by any means free from sharks, and successfully save the cargo, rigging, and even the furniture, of a wrecked vessel, to say nothing of the human lives, is not work for a coward or an unskilled boatman. The pay for salvage is high, so that a “fat” wreck is a thing to be prayed for and long remembered.
Numberless stories are told of the facility with which the insular conscience reconciles itself to the idea of assisting to wreck a vessel. Kather a knotty case was that of one of the older pilots, who was suspected and tried several years ago for complicity in a crime of this nature. At the trial two points are said to have been proven by witnesses : First, that the pilot was in the cabin of the vessel one afternoon for some time, and that when he came out he was heard to say, piously, ” Well, cap’n, if it mus be so, de Lawds will be done ; ” and, second, that the next morning the vessel was hard and fast ashore.
NEGRO LABOURERS AND THE MAN WHO WALKED THIRTY-SIX MILES FOR A DOLLAR
The laborers appear to work with more intelligence and energy when on or in the sea. Salt water seems to be vivifying in its effect. Perhaps it is the unending, unyielding demand for activity in action and thought which the ocean always makes upon those who wrestle with it, that accounts for this difference in character. But it certainly is the case that the colored laborer of the Bahamas does not seem fonder of continued exertion when in his field or engaged in shore work than does his race-brother elsewhere. Yet he is not lazy either, for often he proves a capacity for spurts of exertion that are remarkable when one takes the climate into consideration. Calling a negro one day, I gave him a note to be delivered to a gentleman who was at a point eighteen miles distant, the path between being a mere trail through sand-waste, water-pools, and brush. He was to bring an answer back by sunset. Starting cheerfully, though the day was a hot one, he actually made the thirty- six miles within fifteen minutes of the time appointed, and showed not the slightest trace of fatigue. Asking him what the service was to cost, he rather bashfully asked if I thought fo shillin ” (a dollar) would be too much. I do not mention this walk as an uncommon feat. I have known it excelled by women.
The daily routine of labor for a working man is very unlike that of his northern prototype. “Early to rise,” whether it results in health, wealth, and wisdom or not, is the rule. Coffee is the first thing on the daily programme, and then work till about ten o clock, when breakfast is in order. By four o clock the day’s task is performed, and the laborer goes home to his dinner and rest.
INFAMOUS TRUCK SYSTEM – NEGROES NOT PAID IN MONEY BUT FORCED INTO DEBT AT EMPLOYER SHOP
His pay is not always in money. An employer will often have a store where his employees are paid in provisions or merchandise, in most cases rarely seeing money from one month to the next. It will be readily seen that this “truck system,” as it is called, is liable to great abuse. It becomes often a species of slavery, the consumer being allowed sufficient credit to effectually enchain him; and generally paying his master two profits for everything he uses. The bare necessaries of a savage life are produced on the islands ; all else is imported, so that when the importers have got the people tied hand and foot, as is the case on one or two of the islands, the poor wretches must either submit to the tyranny, having no money, or credit elsewhere, or they must go naked and subsist on what they can raise on the soil or get out of the sea.
The individual islands, it must be confessed, differ greatly in this respect. Upon one of the most important of the smaller ones a certain man, who has carried the trucking system to its limit, glories in the title of “King.”
There is only one road leading to and from the homes of these islanders. It is the great, blue highway of the sea. Toward it hope looks, night and morning, and its chances are the special providences that brighten the provincial life. Remember that all things for food or other use, except the very simplest ; all ideas, all news, all knowledge, all things that interest, amuse, instruct, must come by vessel, and then you will understand how the sight of a sail or a steamer s smoke is greeted with eager interest. A stranger presents all the chances of a lottery till he has fairly cast anchor and his business is fully known. The sailors, who come not only from neighboring ports, but from the utter most parts of the earth, bring with them a flavor of many lands. To-day it may be a yacht, fitted with all the luxury demanded by modern taste; to-morrow a smuggler on his way to some Haytian or Cuban port, and the next day a whaler turning homeward after a year or two of work. There may be a month of loneliness, when a sail on the horizon is a godsend to minds weary with the reiteration of small local affairs; then all at once the harbor or roadstead will be full of craft a strangely assorted fleet ; and the mariner from Maine, or the fisherman from Nova Scotia, hails his neighbor from Norway or Austria, England or Spain, and together they proceed to enliven the settlement where chance has drawn them. The boy who has gone away to seek his fortunes and to see the world, comes back some day on one of these unheralded vessels, and is full of wonderful tales of the cities he has seen and the adventures he has taken part in. Cold, snow, and ice are among the marvellous things he tells about, always finding an interested audience.
Nothing more primitive can be imagined than the mode of travelling from island to island. The wonder, to one who has tried the provincial way, is not that so few people leave home, but that anyone can be induced to do so except in case of dire necessity. Even a man is reduced to sore straits, and to a woman the discomforts and inconveniences are simply horrible. Even upon the mail-boat (until very lately) there was no accommodation for more than eight passengers, and these were of the crudest type. A stuffy cabin with eight berths, four upper and four lower ones, that were more like potato-bins than anything else, often had to serve for double that number of people. Besides these were perhaps a score of ” second class ” passengers, who were crowded in the hold or on the deck anywhere, in fact, that they could find room to spread themselves. Bedding, store-chest, every thing that one needed or was likely to require for a long voyage, had to be provided by the passenger. Yet, why do I write in the past tense? The experiment of using some better means of conveyance is only now being tried, and does not extend to nor is it intended to include all the islands of the group. If the discomfort of travel by the mail- boat is great, what must be said of the chance craft, the sponge-fishers, turtlers, traders, and even dirty Haytian sloops, in which the majority must go if they would ever widen their horizon? Among the lower people I have even known two women make a voyage of forty-eight hours in a little deckless sloop, in company with three men, and the feat was not uncommon enough to excite remark.
The better class of people charter little schooners to take them where they want to go, if the expense is not greater than they can stand; for this is apt to be a costly undertaking. If one chances to be becalmed, as often happens, or is forced by stress of weather to take refuge in some harbor or bight, the voyage is indefinitely prolonged. Ten days is not an uncommonly long time to consume in travelling from one end of the group to the other.
Yet the life of the Bahaman, especially the lower-class native, is a life full of romance. A primitive existence, a superstitious, imaginative mind, and the great ocean with all its might and mystery encircling him, compensate for much of life s discomfort. From generation to generation the old tales of marooners and buccaneers are handed down.
ABORIGINAL TREASURE AND ARTEFACTS FOUND IN BAHAMAS CAVES
Enough treasure has been found at various points to form a basis for marvellous tales, and also for some hair-brained expeditions. Caves have produced images carved by forgotten hands, and bones (presumably) of aboriginal origin. A well in one place, and a circle of stones somewhere else, are witched.
Every island has its traditions, and every tradition is more or less believed. Wrecks, smuggling, feats of prowess in storm, and of endurance in stress, all become the components of a not unattractive border life, and would doubtless, in any other age than ours, crystallize into an interesting chapter of folklore. The time of all others to hear a provincial raconteur is on a moonlight night, when a number of men congregate about the fishing-boats, or upon some spar that lies at the end of a rocky point whence an approaching sail may be first sighted. The narrator becomes interested, gesticulates freely, even acts the more exciting parts of his story, while the little audience good-humored-ly applaud with laughter that is seldom boisterous or prolonged, and occasionally add such remarks as: “Dat ain t so coarse,” “Da s righ ,” or “Hi! e tellin urn now, for true.”
NEGRO HOME LIFE
In his home-life the negro is, strangely enough, usually contented and kind. I say strangely, because the tie that binds these black bodies to each other is not
of the strongest. It is formed and broken frequently without legal or churchly aid or intervention. But the children, I am convinced, would compare favorably in their manners and appearance with young people of similar grade in any part of the world.
Many of the inhabitants are banded together in societies, whose object is to care for the sick and dying, and provide for the families of disabled or deceased members. Upon high days and holidays these societies love to parade with all the pomp and circumstance of wide scarfs, flaunting banners, and gorgeous bands. A band may be composed of one or two wind instruments (difficult to identify), a drum, triangle, concertina, and tambourine, and afford more solid satisfaction to its patrons than the performance would seem to warrant.
The societies divide with the churches the duty of satisfying the organizing instinct. Three denominations, Episcopal, Baptist, and Methodist, share a somewhat imperfect sway over the consciences and lives of the people. The race-love for show leads many of the stranger within their gates. Their costumes are wildly grotesque, home-made affairs, that enhance the drollery of the dances, grimaces, and antics of the performers.
REFERENCE TO JOHNNY CANOE AT CHRISTMAS AND FUNERAL TRADITIONS
Before and behind these masquers, who are generically known as “Johnny Canoe,” come troops of children, half afraid and wholly delighted with the performance. Fire-crackers play an important part in the Christmas observance, just as on the Fourth of July with us. Indeed, ” any noise, good or bad,” is acceptable.
As in all small communities, weddings and their festal opposite, funerals, make large demands upon popular interest. A wedding affords opportunities that the more sombre funeral does colored people into the fold of the Established Church, where they are satisfied with ritualistic observance, while others find in the freer chapels of Methodist and Baptist persuasion that peculiar bliss that emotional natures enjoy when exchanging the experiences of a common faith.
A chapel is a sort of safety-valve for the pent–up emotions of men who elsewhere appear singularly quiet and repressed.
However, on one day in the year at least, an exception is made to the general rule of orderliness and decorum. After the church services Christmas Day, the towns are given over to the merrymakers, who go in companies through the streets, masked and hideously apparelled. They play every conceivable prank upon their brethren and incessantly demand money from their more exalted townsmen or from the not; yet I think that the general enjoyment of the latter is more keen. To meet solemnly at some neighbor’s house in the unaccustomed garb of holy days; to talk in whispers of the departed brother or sister, with sundry digressions on every known topic under the tropic sun ; to wait through the hour during which the people are assembling and the mournful preliminaries arranged, while the hush grows more profound, afford a melancholy satisfaction. The mocking-bird that sings lustily from his perch in yonder cotton-tree, or the wood-dove that calls from the tamarind in the next yard, are the only living creatures that do not seem to feel the presence of the mysterious visitor. The guests at length take their places in the procession that forms at the gate and walks to the quiet graveyard, preceded by the bearers and the dead.
It is a rite to satisfy the negro’s easily moved soul. How slow and eminently decorous is that assemblage. The afternoon sun makes long shadows for each mourner, for five o clock is the usual time for funerals. The white sand of the streets, walled by the white calcareous rock fences, crowned with palm and cork, anaconda bush and jessamine, glitters beneath the hundred dusky feet that impress it. Yonder, after you have passed those few houses, innocent of windows, and roofed with thatch-palm, you are suddenly face to face with a high wall, behind which a few trees look over in a melancholy fashion. The gates are open, and the funeral procession follows that way after the bearers, who have already entered. A few mounds, fewer still having head-stones, lie in the shade of the cedars, or are sprinkled with the white falling oleander blossoms.
And here, after a life scarcely less unobtrusive and quiet, we leave the islander to continue his repose.