Saturday, 10 March 2007

Chapter 20B Dominica

Chapter 20 B 1888 My First Trip to the Caribbean

At time of Henry's disappearance, I was a student in the Yale School of Fine Arts. My father, who held the dual professorships of Zoology and Geology in the Yale Sheffield Scientific School, had hoped that I would follow in his footsteps. But keen as I was on Natural History I could not see myself tied down to a teacher's life. He insisted, however, that I must study the two sciences and finally it was arranged that I should enter Art School and, at the same time take a special course in Zoology and Geology. In later life I found that the thorough training I received in these subjects proved most valuable and I felt deeply grateful to my father for having insisted upon taking the full "Sheff" course.

I doubt if the years I spent in the Art School were of any real benefit other than for knowledge I gained of composition, technique and classic art. I was born with an artistic talent; long before I before I could write down the alphabet I could make recognizable sketches of various beasts, even if the drawings occasionally had five or six legs instead, of four. But I always had a ready explanation when my father called attention to this. "Oh, they're fossils" I would tell him. When seven or eight years old I learned a great deal from Dr. Emerton who was a famous scientific artist, and by the time I was nine I could turn out excellent work. I still have a collection of colored sketches of caterpillars and other insects drawn from life at that time and they are fully as lifelike and accurate as the illustrations in any scientific work.

The art school however, proved to be the real means of shaping my future career. Among my classmates was Frederick Remington who became famous for his western pictures, and another student was a youth from Barbados. I was fascinated by his descriptions of the West Indies and became obsessed with the idea of exploring the islands' jungles and making collections of their fauna. How it was to be managed I could not imagine but Fate played into my hands and almost before I realized it I found my dreams were about to come true. I was to go to the islands to make collections of their fauna for the Yale Museum. Although strictly speaking no longer a boy I was probably the youngest collector to make a one-man expedition into tropical jungles, for I was barely seventeen. I had read every available book on the West Indies and had questioned and cross-questioned my friend Bassett regarding his Caribbean home, for I was anxious to learn everything I could in regard to the Lesser Antilles. Of all the few books on the islands that had been published at that time I found Ober's CAMPS IN THE CARIBBEES the most complete and interesting. His descriptions of Dominica, and the fact that its fauna was almost unknown appealed to me and I decided to make that little known island my objective.

Although sixty years have passed since I set out on my first trip to the tropics I can recall every detail, every event, even the most trivial incidents as vividly as though it were but yesterday. In those days tourists and fugitives from northern winters did not flock to the tropics. The West Indies were regarded as remote, wild, uncivilized, pestilential; the homes of poisonous reptiles, noxious insects and savages. The ports were pictured as pest holes of yellow fever and small pox and other diseases and it was considered almost suicidal for a white man to visit them.. So it was not surprising that I felt as though I were setting out on a real adventure when I boarded the "BERMUDA” on a raw cold day in February the 22nd, Washington's birthday.

Sailing ships were still the chief cargo carriers in those days, there were few passengers traveling between the islands and the States and the few steamships that sailed to and from the Caribbean seldom could accommodate a dozen passengers and, even then, were rarely filled up. Today those little ships would appear almost overgrown launches. The BERMUDA, one of the largest of the fleet, being barely over 1000 tons burden. But she was the largest vessel I had ever been on and to my still boyish eyes she seemed a really big ship. As I have never known the sensation of sea sickness I thoroughly enjoyed the voyage. Moreover, I learned a vast amount in regard to the islands for my fellow passengers were West Indians returning home. A Spanish lady and her young son from Trinidad, a young married couple from Grenada who had gone to New York on their honeymoon, a pompous elderly military man from Barbados, a planter and his wife from St. Croix and a girl of about my own age whose home was St. Kitts. Like all West Indians they were most courteous, friendly, informal and only too glad to answer my innumerable questions, and to impart all possible information on the islands. But none had much knowledge of Dominica. It seemed to be a sort of out-of-the-world spot, known mainly for its lime juice; an island of vast mountains and endless forests and more French than British. Even my girl friend, Mabel, knew very little about Dominica and I felt that I was bound for an almost unknown land.

Never shall I forget the wonder and delight with which I gazed shoreward at St. Thomas our first port of call. Although I knew the size of the islands in miles, as recorded in books, nothing had prepared me for the lofty hills, the far-flung shore line, the seeming immensity of the land which on the maps was a mere speck and St. Thomas is one of the smallest of the Antilles.

In those days St. Thomas belonged to the Danes. Everywhere the red and white flag of Denmark flew above homes and public buildings, and the harbor was crowded with ships of every rig and flying the flags of every nation.

But St. Thomas lost all interest when I saw St. Kitts. Here were real mountains, dense forests and the lush vegetation of the tropics and here I saw my first royal palm. Never will I forget my amazement as I gazed at the great crown over 100 feet above my head and examined the mighty gray trunk that might as well have been a column turned from solid granite. I often think how much boys of today must miss without knowing it. Motion pictures, travel guides, color photographs have made far distant lands and strange scenes so familiar that there is no “kick”, no surprise or thrill at seeing the real thing, while airplane travel has destroyed all the sensation of adventure and exploration that pertains to a long ocean voyage. To be sure many miles of sea lie between our shores and the Antilles but there is a vast difference between traveling ten days by ship and as many hours by plane. Moreover, in my youth not one boy in a million had ever visited the West Indies and few indeed were the grown-ups who had ever been ''down the islands". So, feeling almost as if I were on another planet, exited, thrilled and delighted, I gazed at the lofty forest-covered mountains, their summits hidden in the clouds, as the Bermuda steamed slowly along the coast of Dominica and dropped anchor off the picturesque little town of Roseau.

There is no need to describe the loveliest of the Antilles or to recall my impressions during the few days that I remained in Roseau. To me it was all one great and glorious adventure and then and there I fell madly in love with the island and its delightful people - a youthful love that none the less has endured and is as strong and constant today as sixty years ago.

The resident physician, Dr. Alford Nicholls, who was deeply interested in the avifauna of the island, advised me to make my headquarters at Laudat - a tiny hamlet on the slopes of Morne Macaque nearly 3000 feet above the sea and about eight miles over the mountains from Roseau. So, the friendly doctor having sent a message to Laudat to let the people arrange my accommodations, I started out the next morning at daybreak with a husky black porter named Charles Rose carrying my heavy chest of clothes, ammunition and supplies atop his wooly head.

Never will memory of that first tramp become dim. Following the lovely Roseau Valley with the broad silver ribbon of the river far below us, the trail led ever upward and soon, leaving the lime orchards and cultivated lands behind us, we entered a forest of giant bamboos. Never had I imagined anything like these great, polished, jointed reeds eight inches or more in diameter soaring upward for nearly one hundred feet, their leaves like delicate green lace forming a roof impenetrable to the sun while the mighty stems, swaying gently in the breeze, emitted low bell-like musical sounds. But greater wonders were just ahead when we reached the beginning of the jungle forest or "high bush" as the natives call it. I had read many descriptions of tropical forests yet nothing had prepared me for the reality. The incredibly enormous trees with their far-flung, hip-like roots with the lowest branches eighty feet or more above the earth; the lianas draping the branches and hanging downward like the tangled rigging of a ship, the great masses of air plants, orchids and begonias clinging to trunks and branches, the huge tree ferns with fifty foot fronds, the flaming crimson and yellow spokes of the "wild plantains” all held me spellbound. Here and there gorgeous emerald and ruby throated humming birds fluttered and chirped and then, suddenly from the dark depths of the forest came a clear, flute-like, silvery song - the sweetest most appealing bird note in the world. Rose, who was a talkative chap and had entertained me by weird tales of jumbies, goblins and obeah and had told me the native "Patois" names of the birds we had seen, grinned as he saw my rapt expression.

"He sing too pretty, mon," he observed, "he Siffleur montagne (Mountain Whistler) Oui, M'sieu he spirit bird for true. No mon see he but hear he sing plenty."

I did not blame Rose for attributing the wonderful melody to a spirit, but later on I collected many specimens of the shy dove-gray bird although I always felt like a criminal when I shot one, even if it was in the cause of Science.

So fascinated did I become in my surroundings and the vast forest through which the trail was a dusky damp cool tunnel that the steady upward climb and the miles we traveled passed unnoticed. But at last Rose reminded me that it was ''brekfus" time and calling a halt asked me to "ease me down" with his heavy burden. How he could carry a hundred and fifty pounds for hour after hour with apparently little effort or inconvenience was a mystery, but in Dominica everything is "headed". A cake of soap, a bottle of rum, sticks of sugar cane or the heaviest burdens all are transported on the men's and women's heads. Even at the hotel in Roseau the maids carried the water jars and lamps to and from the bedrooms on their heads while the waitresses "headed" their trays of dishes and food which left their hands free to serve.

It is a common thing to see mountain women hurrying along the road with two huge bunches of plantains or bananas on their heads and so heavily laden that they cannot walk slowly but must keep up a steady trot and can only rest when they meet some one who will "ease them down". Their load being far too heavy-for them to lower it with their own hands.

As Rose and I seated ourselves beside a crystal clear spring gushing from the rocky cliff and proceeded to eat our "brekfus mange" two of these heavily-laden mountain girls arrived and in the odd native Creole or patois asked us to "ease me down". They were pretty girls, golden-skinned with high cheek bones and fawn-like black eyes. On their heads they wore the bright colored "Madras" or turban coquettishly tied with the ends like a cockade. Neither spoke English but they chattered away with Rose, laughing and exclaiming "Eh! Eh!" and staring at me.

Evidently I was as strange to them as they were to me for aside from the few white men or women were seldom seen in those days and a white boy or rather I might say a "youth" was a real novelty. "He from win'ard side the islan’” Rose explained. "He" indicating the younger of the girls "pure Ca’ib an’ nex’ one he part Ca’ib an' part capresse." I had read of the few remaining Caribs still living on Dominica and here, laughing and chatting and still studying me as if I were a new species of bird or insect, was a member of the once-warlike tribe whose name gave the word "Cannibal" to our language. Later on, when 1 had learned to converse in Patois, I visited the Carib settlement at La Souir on the windward side of the island and made, life-long friends of some of the tribe.

Having finished our lunch and having lifted their loads to the girls’ heads I helped Rose "head" my dunnage and we continued on our way.

A few hours later we left the main road and following a narrow trail through the jungle, reached the cleared fields and clustered houses of Laudat. Had I been the Governor of the island I could not have received a warmer or more hospitable welcome. Men, women, boys and girls came hurrying from their homes as Rose stopped at the largest house and was eased of his load. Nearly all spoke English quite well and all but a few elderly people could converse after a manner in my language. Old Andre at whose house we had stopped, told me that everything had been arranged and the largest room had been made ready for my use. It was spotlessly clean, furnished with a chair, a table, a stool and a bed, all hand made of native wood, and on the table was an earthenware "monkey jar" holding a bouquet of fragrant frangipani and jasmine.

Although Andre, himself was almost pure African his gray-haired wife, was unmistakably Carib. His buxom daughter, LeBrun, was more Carib than Negro and his two sons- Leon and Jean - had kinky wool of the African but features of the Caribs. Wherever I looked I found the same mixture - and later learned that all in the village were related, that all belonged to either the Laudat or the Rolles family and that all had more or less Carib blood. It was a patriarchal village - almost a little country by itself, of which Andre was the ruler.

Everyone had to be officially introduced by Andre who did the honors in a strange mixture of English and Patois. But it made little difference, for the names were all French and, subsequently, I found that everyone had at least two names - one that with which they had been christened, the other, the name by which they were commonly known, a custom derived directly from the Caribs.

I was amazed at the friendliness and the hospitality of these mountain people. Gifts of flowers, fruit, poultry, eggs, fresh vegetables, jars of fresh milk; a freshly killed agouti and several wild pigeons or "ramier” were pressed upon me. Obviously it was impossible for one youthful American to consume the wealth of edibles for there was more than enough to feed Andre's family and Rose as well. And as my arrival seemed to call for a celebration I suggested a feast to which all were invited. We had a really wonderful time even if I was handicapped by my ignorance of Patois, for Rose or someone was always ready to act as my interpreter. I soon found that they were a most superstitious lot - thoroughly believing in Qbeah, jumbies , all sorts of spirits and supernatural beings, and practically all conversation consisted of hair-raising or shivery tales of spectres, vampires, obeah spells and they worked themselves up to such a state that the slightest unexpected sound or movement would send them into a panic.

Not yet having outgrown my boyish love of pranks I took advantage of their highly nervous state a few weeks later. One of the boys had brought me some live Hercules beetles - giant insects six inches or more in length. Not having had time to kill and prepare them I had temporarily tethered them to my stool by means of strings fastened about the thorax. In the midst of a most breath-taking tale being related by Jules I stepped into my darkened room, carefully unfastened the string to one of my giant beetles and released him. The instant the huge insect saw the lighted candles in the next room he spread his wings and headed for the candles. At the sudden loud whirr of the beetle's wings the already nervous people screamed and screeched in fright and little wonder for the immense beetle passing over their heads cast a gigantic shadow on the walls - a black demoniacal form that might well have been a jumbie. Then, before anyone had time to gather his or her wits, the candle was snuffed out by the beetle’s onrush.

Huddled together, moaning and whimpering in abject terror the people waited for what might happen next. I realized I had overdone my joke. Shouting that it was only one of my beetles that had escaped I managed to reach and relight the candles and capturing the dazed insect showed it to them. I admit I was terribly afraid that I had offended my friends and committed an unpardonable offense but to my relief and surprise they seemed to consider it a great joke, laughing merrily over their terror. But to tell the truth I do not think it ever occurred to them that I was responsible.

Pages upon pages might be filled with narratives of incidents, experiences, yes, even adventures that were my lot while on the island. And there were many firm friends that I made and interesting experiences with the loveable people. There was Beche, the Carib boy - an orphan adopted by old Andre. He was a natural born artist - like so many of the Indians - and while his "art" was primitive it was highly effective and his men and animals conveyed real “action" even though he was limited to a charred stick and hand-split shingles. Never have I seen a youngster more delighted than when I presented him with a couple colored pencils- red and blue, and a blank book. I still have some of the pictures that he drew for me and they remind me strongly of some of my own masterpieces that I turned out when Beche's age. Then there was Jimmy - stocky, copper-skinned, kinky-haired with his inquisitive eyes almost Simian in their questing expression. Although six years old Jimmy knew his alphabet, but could neither read nor write and he was utterly fascinated whenever I opened a book, especially if it contained pictures. "Moi des'e M'sieu" he would whisper. And how delighted he was when I allowed him to look at a book by himself. But he was anxious to learn English, still more anxious to learn to read and write so, having bought an English primer I took on the job of teaching Jimmy to read.

It was not as simple as I had hoped. Jimmy’s mind was all Patois. Even when he had learned the English names of the letters of the alphabet he would point at a picture of a cat and proudly exclaim “C-A-T-Chat" or indicating a dog "D-O-G-Chien". Even after he had mastered our language after a fashion and could talk, write and read English quite fluently, for that matter even today - Jimmy always has a tendency to call all living creatures by their Patois names. And when, as I often times do, I revisit Dominica and meet gray-headed, bent-shouldered old Jimmy he always recalls the days when D-O-G- spelled Chien and M-A-N was M'sieur.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.