To The Spanish Main
( Originally Published 1913 )
What could be more delightful, upon a cold February morning, than the prospect of a voyage to southern seas—with pleasant assurance that in a day or two you will exchange the wintry blasts of the city streets for the soft trade-winds of the tropics, fanning your cheek and inviting you to languor and repose?
The winter had been a particularly severe one. Ice-packs floated along beside us all the way down the bay, and even after we had left the harbour and dropped our pilot beyond the Hook, long floes stretched dazzling white along the horizon like beaches of glittering sand.
As I looked about the deck I could scarcely realise that we were really headed for the Caribbean. These big Royal Mail packets, with their English officers and their English stewards counting in shillings and pence, seemed more like transatlantic liners (which in reality they are, sailing for Southampton via the British possessions in the West Indies) than like the usual Panama steamers.
We left upon a Saturday. All day Sunday we pounded the seas off Hatteras in a stiff sou'easter, but Monday morning dawned bright and clear, with a blue sea, diapered with those large saffron-coloured spots which come up the coast with the Gulf Stream.
Already on Tuesday the breeze blew warmer and the first signs of tropical weather appeared among passengers and crew. Sailors and deck-boys shed shoes and stockings, the ladies donned lighter frocks, and the men were shod in white. Flying-fish skipped from wave to wave, glistening like dragon-flies in the sunlight.
That afternoon we made our first land—a long island lying low upon the horizon, with a lighthouse at its highest point, Watling's Island, known to the Indians as Guanahuani. It was the landfall of Columbus upon his first blind voyage, the first bit of earth in the New World pressed by European feet, and was named by its discoverer San Salvador. Our tall, column-like boles of a cluster of royal palms shone brilliantly against the distant mountains that, clear-cut and blue, wreathed their summits in thick clouds like the fumes of volcanoes, so heavy and motionless they lay. Even at this early hour a drowsy softness pervaded the air—a stillness that could be felt. Was it possible that we were but four days from the snow and sleet, the icy streets. and blustering winds of New York City?
Of course we landed here at Antilla, though there was nothing much to see. The usual mixture of the types and races of the torrid zone stood crowded upon the dock: a negress dressed in old-rose calico; a mestiza with tattooed arms and bony hands that clasped a manta round her yellow neck; black faces peering from the shade of purple and magenta hats, soldiers in khaki, custom-house officials in sky blue, and in the background a lumbering ox-cart discharging its load upon a waiting scow.
We weighed anchor after luncheon, and all the afternoon skirted the north shore of Cuba. Ever since we left San Salvador we had followed in the wake of Columbus groping from coast to coast upon his first voyage. After landing at Guanahuani, captain described it as about twelve miles long and from five to seven wide, and one of the richest of the Bahama group. Its five hundred inhabitants keep in contact with the rest of the world only by means of a few coasters that now and then put into the little reef harbour at its northern end. In a few hours we sank it in the northwest and sighted no more land that day.
When I looked out of my port-hole at dawn next morning, I could make out, between the pale-pink sky and the sea that lay calm and opalescent as a great pearl shell, a long grey streak that each moment grew more distinct, gathering intensity and form, until presently a vivid shore of green, the freshest and brightest hue imaginable, gleamed along the horizon, and I realised that we were rapidly nearing the coast of Cuba.
The sun was just rising. I scurried into cool white linens and scrambled on deck just as we were threading the narrow entrance into Nipe Bay.
Upon the one hand stood a plantation set in gardens and fields of sugar-cane, and among thick clumps of palmettoes nestled a group of native huts thatched and wattled with grass. On the opposite shore the he set sail southward to this north coast of Cuba, which he named Isabella, in honour of his queen, and then, as we were now doing, he skirted its shore until he doubled Cape Maysi and saw Hayti, or Espanola, as he called it, rise from the sea to the eastward.
This Cuban coast is a long succession of beautiful blue mountains, finely drawn as the pencillings of an old Italian master, and as delicate in outline as the purple djebels of northern Africa. On the deck, every one was enjoying the balmy air and the prospect of the bright blue sea flecked with whitecaps. How different our passengers from the usual transatlantic crowd, bundled in shawls and veils and heavy ulsters! Wraps had been discarded, and the ladies sat about in fresh white gowns and leghorn hats, just as they would on summer verandas.
If the promenade-deck still looked Anglo-Saxon, not so the after-deck. Already it had caught the tropic atmosphere, for at Antilla we had taken aboard a crowd of Jamaican negroes as black as coal —the women lolling on the benches, the men half asleep in lavender shirts with their heads tied up in bandanas to ward off sea-sickness. In a corner a family had ensconced itself, rigging up a sort of tent made of counterpanes, one sky blue, one brick red, and the third an old-rose "spread" gaily figured with white. These were all tied together and their ends anchored to various articles of luggage, to the stanchions of the deck above, or to the ship's benches. In the shade of these bellying draperies, yet fanned by the breeze, lay these West Indian darkies, a man and three women, their heads pillowed on bundles, he half covered with a table-cloth, his head near that of one of the women whose scarlet skirt was short enough to disclose the flounces of a well-starched petticoat and a pair of black slippers slashed over white stockings. From time to time another woman's hand would appear to smooth her wind-blown draperies or quiet the half-naked pickaninnies that wriggled and kicked about upon the deck beside her—an exotic picture, certainly, one to be painted by an impressionist with a broad brush and crude, primary colour.
By evening we rounded Cape Maysi and steered southward through the Windward Passage. As our prow pointed toward the Caribbean, the romance of the Spanish Main seemed to fall about us with the deepening twilight. The furrows ploughed by the Spanish caravels have closed, to be sure, and no sign marks the pathway of their keels. Ashore, some old buildings on a battlefield, a bit of ruin or an abandoned road, mark the progress of history and supply the stepping-stones that link the past with the present; but at sea the waves fill in the furrows as quickly as they are ploughed. Yet the ghosts of the "high-charged" galleons seem to linger in the Caribbean, lurking behind the reefs of its islands, taking refuge in its harbours, or cresting the dancing whitecaps. In its ports the English and the French lay in wait for the Spanish argosies and Drake laid the foundation of England's supremacy on the sea, while over yonder in the lee of Cape Tiburon Morgan fitted out his expedition of free-booters and buccaneers—the most lawless lot of rapscallions that ever assembled in all these pirate waters—for the sack of Panama. The flavour of their deeds still lingers in these archipelagoes—on these shores shaded by cocoa-nut palms, in their bamboo-built hamlets, and in the little harbours reefed about with coral.
Toward noon next day, Jamaica's lovely coast rose over the starboard bow. As we drew nearer we could make out the gleaming fringes of breakers along the reefs and the low shores vivid with mangoes and palmettoes. Big, vaporous mountains, purple and crowned with cumuli, rose behind, full of mystery and charm. For hours we skirted this enchanting island. Then a lighthouse appeared with, near it, the wreck of a German liner breaking to pieces upon the treacherous sand—an accident that happened just after the last earthquake when the lighthouse was put out of commission.
As we stood watching it we made out, in the surf near shore, a long-boat breasting the waves, now raised high in air upon their crests, now completely engulfed in the deeps between them. Its flags, fore and aft, stood taut in the clipping breeze, and as it approached we could see its oarsmen bending sturdily over their sweeps. What a picture it made as it drew under the lee of our great bulk, the green boat in the lapis sea with its brawny negro rowers, whose bare legs and chests, wet with spray, gleamed like polished bronze! Bright bandanas were knotted about their heads, and their scant clothing, old and tattered, scarcely concealed their nakedness. In the stern-sheets sat a man who steered with one hand, while with the other he baled out the boat with a cocoanut shell. Now from such a boat would you not expect some John Hawkins or Captain Kidd to step forth? But the man in the stern proved only the Kingston pilot as he clambered up the rope ladder to our deck.
The boat remained bobbing in the sea as our engines started again, and supplied just the proper foreground note to this picture of old Port Royal that now began to unfold itself. On the shore side of the long sand-spit that shields the harbour from the in-roads of the sea, under the protection of the British flag, where the prim barracks are now lined Cup, the pirates of France and England used to careen and clean their ships and prepare themselves for their next bloody foray upon the Spanish settlements and the caravels taking the "King's Fifth" to Spain.
As we rounded the end of the spit and Kingston's harbour opened before us, we could see the beaches where these pirates landed, laden with loot from the Isthmus, and swaggered up to the taverns to squander their doubloons and pieces-of-eight in riotous living. Here Mansvelt and Morgan replenished their crews and refitted their ships; here they joined forces with a fleet of fifteen vessels manned by five hundred men, and here to Port Royal Sir Henry Morgan returned after Mansvelt's death, for it was his ambition to consecrate this harbour as a "refuge and sanctuary for pirates" and a store-house for their spoils. Here, too, in this town of buccaneers, he planned his raids on Cuba and the Gulf of Maracaibo, and hence he set sail to join the fleet that he had assembled off Hayti for his attack on Panama.
All these memories crowded my thoughts as we slowly steamed up to the Royal Mail dock, catching glimpses as we passed of the straight streets swarming with people that lead up toward the vega, extending soft, green, and tropical toward the mountains. The flimsy houses with low-pitched roofs, the cocoa-nut palms waving their long arms in the easterly trade-winds, the pelicans fishing in the bay, the Jamaican negroes that swarmed about the dock, the English-looking shops of the main street,—excellent emporia, by the way, for outfitting in the tropics,—these compose Kingston of to-day, just as they composed Kingston of yesterday.
There is an excellent hotel, set in its own gardens, but unfortunately—or fortunately, I believe—there were no rooms to be had in it, so we tried a place in the town where we dined in a picturesque court with a fountain plashing beside us, a gaudy parrot in a silver cage moping among pale moon-flowers, a pair of doves cooing in a corner—a little place, in fact, whose romantic charm had caught even an old Civil War veteran, who somehow had been side-tracked here, and who after dinner tuned up his violin, or fiddle, as he called it, and played in the moonlight.
Later we drove about in the darkness of the tropic night, catching glimpses of dimly lighted Rembrandtesque figures seated in open doorways or working in shops lit by flickering lamps.
There were the Hope Gardens and the markets to be visited next morning, and at two o'clock we left for the south. The governor had come aboard to see off some distinguished friends, and the English element became even more pronounced among the passengers. Army officers in khaki greeted each other as Sir John and Sir William, and dinner-coats became the rule after sundown.
Saturday we spent on the high seas, lashed by the "doctor," as the Jamaicans call this brisk trade-wind that kicks up such a swell in the Caribbean—a wind, as the captain expressed it, that "sometimes blows the bananas off the trees"; and he was authority, too, for the following verse, showing that in February we were only seeing the "doctor" at his feeblest:
"June too soon;
Before dawn on Sunday morning I saw a light-house blinking on a headland, and the dark mountains behind Porto Bello loomed faint and grey against the sky. Then all sign of land disappeared for a while, until a tropical shore, flooded in the rosy sunrise, suffused in humid atmosphere, appeared resting on a turquoise sea. A long break-water lay to the right, a number of docks to the left. We were passed by the business-like Canal Zone doctor and soon were setting foot upon the Isthmus.