Saturday, November 14, 2015

Turtle Island, Part 1 - An Unwelcome Memory

It was a beautiful  autumn evening in Charleston.  The new Governor was having a reception and, as one of our towns most prominent citizens, I and my dear wife of 40 years were invited. I’ve never been much of a dancer, nor have I the skill of idle chatter. My wife was on the other side of the room with her friends and I found myself discussing ships with the Governor, a man who had spent considerable time at sea in his youth. When he offered to show me the collection of curiosities he had acquired on his voyages, I accepted with pleasure. The first few items were the usual clutter that the locals in far flung places will sell to gullible white men, but I made a credible show of being interested. He had, he assured me, saved the best for last. He led me to a cabinet about the height of my chest and the width of my outstretched arms. He opened the doors, I saw it and the years fell away. The breath was taken from my body and my heart was frozen with fear. It was a primitive ritual display of bones and feathers of sacrificed small animals interspersed with clay fire pots against a backdrop of magic symbols painted on a tanned human skin. The centerpiece was a human skull also painted with ritual symbols. I had seen one exactly like it during my first voyage as Master, when I landed on Turtle Island in the Caribbean.  When I regained consciousness the guests were gathered around me and my wife was holding my hand.


As our carriage made its way through the empty streets toward home my thoughts drifted back to the  circumstances of my childhood. I was born William Fletcher. My parents were indentured to one of the great plantations upriver of Charleston. My memories of that time are mostly of working alongside of them in the fields. The year that I turned 10 a coughing sickness swept through the area and took both my parents. I stayed long enough to see their Christian burial by the plantation folk and then set off for the city, having no desire to serve out the rest of their contract.


My first impression of Charleston was of a place of unimagined wonder. I was amazed by the size of the place, and so many people, and most of all the ships. I’d never seen a ship and as I wandered along the docks looking at one after another my heart stirred and the sadness I felt for the loss of my parents was in some way lessened. The little food I had brought with me was gone and, as I walked along the docks I tried to think on what I might do to get by. There were men carrying burdens up a gangplank onto one of the great ships and I wondered if I might help out and thereby earn a meal. A young man in a fine brown coat stood to one side eating an apple and watching their progress. He looked like he was in charge so I approached him but was taken by shyness and couldn’t find words. The man looked down at me, smiled and said “Good day to you, shipmate!” His face was so kind and his voice so warm that everything that had happened in the last few days overwhelmed me and I started to cry. He soon had my story out of me and in no time I was eating a fine meal in a window seat of one of the taverns that lined the docks.  In response to his questions I revealed my circumstances. I had no kin, no place to go and I feared that I would be caught and forced to serve out the remainder of my parents’ indenture contract on the plantation. The man, John, was Master of the ship that was loading, and the son of the house that owned several such ships. He was sailing that evening and expected to be gone for about a month. He offered me a berth as cabin boy and I accepted joyfully.


I took to the sea naturally and could never learn enough. My duties were light and the crew thought I was lucky and adopted me as a sort of mascot. I spent the free time working alongside various crewmen  and learning what I could of their duties. By the end of my first voyage I was a proper shipmate indeed. When we returned to Charleston John brought me to the family home and introduced me to his parents. His father was impressed by the overly generous account of my seagoing exploits and his mother embraced me almost as a son from the outset. Over the next ten years I was at sea more than on land. My responsibilities increased with my growing skill and experience, and my adopted family even hired a tutor to teach me reading, writing and mathematics whenever I was home. On my twentieth birthday my father, for so I regarded him, made me Master of a small trading sloop bound for the Dutch colony of Saint Martins in the Caribbean. So began the strange voyage that I will tell you of tomorrow. Such things are better told sitting by the fire with plenty of brandy after a good dinner. For now, I’ll just say that I lived happily with my adopted family. When John was lost at sea the tragedy brought me and my  parents closer in our grief. My mother passed away a few years later and my father did his best to keep me running the business on dry land. It was too much for him then and I think he feared losing me too. When that great and good man went to his reward I was surprised to find that there was no other family and that all had been left to me. From that time to this I have continued his honest business practices and the company has prospered greatly.

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