Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Diving Boys of the Caribbees

The Diving Boys of the Caribbees
A. Hyatt Verrill
From Everyland magazine, Feb. 1916 (V7#3). Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Mar. 2012.

HOW would the boy readers of Everyland like to spend all their days diving into the sea? It would be lots of fun in summer, but how about winter? you say.
Winter doesn't trouble the boys about whom I'm going to tell you, however, as their winters are just as warm as their summers, for these boys live in the West Indies where it's always warm.
Whenever a steamer arrives in a West Indian port the diving boys swarm about the ship, begging the passengers to toss over pennies or small coins. No sooner does a coin touch the water than splash! splash! splash! the brown bodies flash into the blue sea, and the water is so clear and transparent that one can watch the boys as they swim down. It's very funny to see their brown legs kicking like so many big frogs, and the white soles of their feet twinkling like queer fish, as their owners scramble for the coins at the bottom of the sea.
Seldom indeed does a coin touch bottom before a boy grasps it, and, tucking it into his mouth, the lucky rascal bobs up, shaking the water from his woolly head and grinning from ear to ear. Black, brown, and yellow, the diving boys are the happiest chaps in the world, and between dives they amuse the laughing passengers on the ships by cracking jokes, cutting funny capers, and singing the latest ragtime and popular songs in the quaintest, queerest of Creole dialects.
In every port one sees the diving boys, and whether Danish, English, French, or Dutch subjects, they are one and all care-free, happy-go-lucky, grinning youngsters who find diving for coins the easiest way of earning the few pennies necessary to provide for all their wants.
Clothing troubles them not at all, for a few rags are all they need where it's always summer; food costs almost nothing, and enough mangos, bananas, and sugar-cane to fill their stomachs can be purchased for half a cent, and for a penny or two they can buy enough fish, beans, and yams to furnish full meals for a day. Even houses are unnecessary luxuries for these boys, for shelter is only needed to keep off the rain, and the diving boys are just as comfortable and sleep just as soundly when curled up on bales or barrels under the waterside sheds as if sleeping in the daintiest of beds.
Their sole possessions are their boats, and these are as interesting and amusing as the boys themselves. In some of the islands the boats are quite excellent craft, and two or three hoys own one boat in common and work together, but in other islands the boats are the funniest, quaintest looking home-made affairs you could imagine.
Sometimes they are three-cornered things made by nailing three boards together with other boards nailed across for a bottom, while in other places the boats look more like coffins than anything else. These are built by the boys themselves and are made from old boxes and packing-cases begged from the merchants. Of course they leak like sieves, but the boys manage to keep them from sinking by bailing every few moments with a calabash or coconut-shell, and as the owners are in the water quite as much as they're out of it they don't mind if their craft are wet.
But rude as the boats are they are often brightly painted and are sometimes elaborately fitted up, and the boys frequently show wonderful skill and ingenuity in doing this work. In St. Lucia one often sees the tiny craft equipped to imitate men-o'-war or battleships. Dried palm buds serve as life-boats, pieces of bamboo do duty as funnels and masts, guns are whittled from sticks of wood, and tin cans serve as turrets. Even anchors, windlasses, semaphores, davits, and all the other fittings of a real battleship are counterfeited by means of odds and ends picked up along the water-front or docks, and the miniature war-ships have quite a realistic appearance. They are all named after famous British or American men-o'-war.
As one watches the boys paddling about in their queer craft it seems marvelous that they don't upset, but the boys are as good sailors as swimmers and row or even sail their boats about without the least trouble and never tip over. Of course it wouldn't hurt them if they did capsize, for they are just as much at home in the water as on the land. All the West Indian colored folks are fond of the water and swim splendidly, but the diving boys are the most expert of all. It doesn't trouble them in the least to swim down and walk about on the bottom, or to tie a rope around an anchor or some other object far beneath the waves; and it's a common feat for them to dive down on one side of a ship, swim under the keel, and catch a coin thrown from the opposite side before it touches bottom. Before the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902 the diving boys of Martinique were famous throughout the West Indies, but the same awful blast that destroyed St. Pierre killed all the diving boys who had gathered about the ships in the harbor of the doomed town.
To-day there are few diving boys at Martinique, but there are plenty of them at all the other islands, and as long as passengers and tourists visit the West Indies and there are pennies to be thrown over, the diving boys will be on hand to ply their queer trade in their funny boats.

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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.