Saturday, 10 March 2012
Beche, The Carib Boy
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Mr. Verrill has lived for several years in the West India Islands and through his books has introduced hosts of boys and girls to the friendly people living there. As this magazine goes to press Mr. Verrill is leaving for another trip to the Islands and will secure new stories and pictures of Beche, who is a real Carib boy.
BECHE was an Indian, although at first sight you would have thought him a Mongolian,—a Chinese, Korean, or Japanese boy,—for his face was round and chubby, his short black hair was coarse and straight, and his soft brown eyes were almond-shaped and quite oblique. He lived on the little West Indian island of Dominica in a little hut built entirely of palms: timbers of palm-wood, walls of dried palm-buds, and roof of palm-leaves.
Beche's father was a chief, and the handful of Caribs whom he ruled were the last of their race in the islands which they had once owned and where they had once numbered hundreds of thousands. In the olden times they had been fierce, brave, warlike people, and in their great dugout canoes had swooped down upon the natives of the other islands, returning with many captives whom they killed and ate, for the Caribs were cannibals and loved human flesh. Indeed the natives who alarmed old Robinson Crusoe and brought his Man Friday to his island were Caribs, and the scene of Crusoe's story was the island of Tobago.
With the coming of the white men to the Caribs' lands the Indians were driven back from the coasts and took refuge in the mountains and forests; and while they fought desperately, and often successfully against the white strangers, yet in the end they were overcome and all were killed or captured save a few on St. Vincent and Dominica. Here they dwelt quietly and in peace until the great eruption in St. Vincent destroyed the few on that island, and only the little settlement on Dominica remained of all the great race that once fished, hunted, and fought among the beautiful islands.
Little Beche knew of all the past greatness of his tribe, but history or the sad fate of his people troubled him very little, for he was well fed, happy, and good-natured, and found the warm tropical sunshine, the deep cool forest, and the bright torquoise sea furnished his every need and gave him plenty of amusement.
He did not even speak the language of his people, and while he knew there was a Carib tongue and often heard his father and the old men speak it, yet he found the soft Creole French of the colored natives far easier and much more useful. He sat upon a smooth rock beneath the nodding, rustling palm-trees close to the breaking surf, looking idly out to sea where the white-sailed fishing canoes bobbed up and down upon the waves; and as he gazed seaward it occurred to him that it would be fun to sail a toy canoe of his own. Of course Beche could not ask his father for money to buy a toy boat, and even if he had the money he could not buy one, for there was no toy store for miles and miles across the island. But Beche knew that close at hand were countless toy canoes to be had with little trouble, for above his head the coco-palms spread their graceful fronds, and on every tree grew canoes by the dozen.
This may sound very funny to you and you may think I am joking when I speak of toy canoes growing on trees, but little Beche the Carib boy knew it was so, and once his mind was made up he lost little time in climbing a tree to secure the toys he wished.
If you had watched him climb the trees you certainly would have been surprised and amused, for Beche did not "shinny up" like an American boy, but, grasping the smooth, round trunk of a tree in his hands, placed his feet against the bark and easily walked up the tree in the oddest way you could imagine. When he reached the great plume-like leaves, he sat down among the leaves and fruit and drew his sharp machete and with a few quick strokes cut off a bunch of the big green nuts which fell crashing to the sand. Then he pushed aside a bunch of the queer sweet flowers and, reaching underneath, cut off the polished wood-like sheaths of the bud, and having done this he quickly slid back to the ground. The exertion of climbing had made him thirsty, and, cutting off the end of a nut, Beche took a long, deep drink of the creamy cold milk, and then gathered up the buds scattered on the sand. Each of these bud-covers was fifteen or eighteen inches in length, pointed at one end and tapered at the other and with the two edges curling up until they almost met. With a sharp thorn from a near-by bush Beche made small holes through the two sides of a bud-cover at one end, and with fine roots of the trees he stitched them together. Then cutting some little twigs from a bush he forced them between the sides of the bud, and behold, he had a beautifully modeled little canoe all complete save for sail and rudder.
Half a dozen of the buds were thus treated and then little sticks were set in them for masts, broad leaves were attached to the sticks, tiny pieces of bark were affixed for rudders, and with his little fleet in his arms Beche ran to the edge of the sea. His only clothing was a ragged shirt, so it didn't make any difference if he did get wet, and without hesitation he waded into the white surf until he reached the quiet water beyond the breakers. Then he placed one of the palm-bud canoes upon the water, and, as the brisk trade-wind caught the leaf sail, the little craft keeled over and sailed rapidly off to the west. Up and down on the little waves it danced, gracefully it rode the long rollers, and Beche jumped about in the water and cried out in glee as he watched it sail bravely out of sight. One after another the boats were launched until all had disappeared, and Beche returned to the sandy shore to think of other ways of amusing himself until the fishing fleet came in with its load of fish. He was tired of making boats to sail away and decided that to fly a kite would be much better fun. He had no paper nor cloth nor twine with which to make one, but that didn't trouble him in the least, for he knew that in his country kites as well as boats grew on trees. As soon as he had fully made up his mind to have a kite, he picked up his machete and started on a run for the forest. It was not far, and in a few minutes he was among the gigantic trees and looked about for the tree from which to gather his kites. Very soon he espied one, and hurrying toward it searched upon the ground beneath and picked up several great smooth oval leaves a foot or more in length and six inches wide. In shape the leaves were very much like some American boys' kites, and all that Beche now required was the string with which to fly them.
String grew on every hand, for nearly every tree was hung and festooned with trailing vines, and Beche knew that these vines or "lianas" were as tough and strong as rope. Some were as big as ships' cables and the Carib boy hunted for some time before he found a tree with vines light and fine enough to serve as kite-string. Climbing nimbly up on a large vine to the tree-tops Beche cut a number of the fine lianas, and then slid back to earth, and, gathering the vines in his hands and picking up his tree-grown kites, returned to the beach.
In a few minutes he had attached a line to a large leaf, and, running along the sand, soon had the strange kite flying gaily into the air. Higher and higher it soared, and Beche tied length after length of the vine together until at last the leaf was far up in the sky and all his line was exhausted. Beche wondered if the kite would sail out of sight completely if he had a longer string, and was just thinking of going to the forest for more when he heard a shout behind him, and turning saw the first fishing-boat being drawn far up the beach by its crew. Instantly the kite lost its attractions, and, dropping the lianas, the little Carib scampered off to help land the catch of fish, while the little leaf-kite fluttered for a moment high in air and then fell swiftly into the sea.
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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.