Grand Bahama in 1917

Defries, Amelia Dorothy. In A Forgotten Colony. Nassau: The Guardian Office, 1917. (sections from three chapters)

(Chapter 2) The Sponge Fishers.

The Story of A Two Hundred and Forty-four Mile Voyage on the Ocean in Small Open Boats During the Hurricane Season
(pp. 15-37)

"There's none ashore can teach such things to me."            
"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and His Wonders in the deep." 
- Psalm 107, v. 23,24

When I told the Attorney General that I wanted to go to the sponging grounds with the spongers, he said,
"That's impossible."

And whenever I spoke to others about my desire I was told:
"Impossible! Impossible!"
But I nourish a conviction that it is always possible to do the impossible.

However, I said no more to anyone about it. Many months later, I was sitting one evening on the gallery of an English official's house in Nassau with his wife and two Anglican clergymen. from the outer islands, and the talk fell upon a certain Commissioner who had been sent to act in one island while his English wife (with two babies and no maid) was going in the mail schooner 122 miles to pack up her goods and/ chattels, which were on another island. Everyone was distressed about it, knowing she would be the only white person on the trip and also on the island; and they knew the conditions, too.

"I will go with her," said I, seizing the opportunity.
The clergymen smiled.
"I'm afraid you don't know what you are in for," said one.
"It will be a godsend to her." said the other. And all I said was:
"When does the schooner sail?"
"To-morrow about eleven," was the reply.
"I will be there."
I thought, "If she can go and with two babies, I can go."

By eleven the next morning I had packed up my possessions, and with my garments and pencil and paper in a round wooden hat box and my mattress and pillow tied up with cord, was ready to catch the mail.

I had some trouble finding it, for no one in Nassau cares two straws about Grand Bahama, and even at the Post Office no one knew when the boat would sail — but "Not until after three," they told me, "as the mail has been extended." This is a favorite trick! The mails are always being extended!

I had locked my house and given up the keys to an old man who lives no one seems to know where. With my box, my mattress, rug and pillow I drove down to the dock and looked for the mail-schooner. By the wharf lay a small two-masted vessel, a 28-ton open boat; just 50 feet long and only 18 feet wide; built at Bimini in 1901, and with a hold 6 feet deep./

She was (ironically?) called the "Hazel Dell", and on her deck was strewn everything you can imagine! What looked like a week's washing was hanging from the boom and from the yards; heaps of onions, bananas and cocoanuts were piled up, and a basin full of limes. Many kegs of flour and barrels of hominy weighed the boat down, and dried fish was scattered about, smelling horribly, while a pile of conchs made matters even worse. A negro woman in filthy rags was stirring something in a black pot, from which a smoke extended as from a witch's cauldron. A back kitten sat on a heap of clothes, and coloured men lay huddled up asleep in between the cargo.

After a good deal of trouble my driver managed to get an answer from one, who staggered to his feet and reeled towards me.
"Yes, Marm," he said, "dis here's de mail schooner you'se wantin'".
My heart sank.
Visions of the kind of ship in which I had been accustomed to cross the English Channel rose to my mind — and that is only a matter of twenty miles.
But I was going now to travel six times the distance in hurricane season, on the tropical, shark-infested ocean — in this indescribably disreputable open boat! Still, was not the Commisssioner's wife, also an English lady, going though with it?

So I gave my belongings into the charge of the man who had told me he had no idea when the vessel would sail.
I told him the mail had been extended and he said:
"Mail extended. You're right. Yes, dat's right."/

"After you get the mail on board how long will it be before you start?" I asked.
He replied:
"Maybe to-night, may be to-morrow. You come back sometime and see de Cap'n, Marm."
So I said firmly: "I will be back at four."
"Yes, Marm. Dat's right. Sure. At four."
"And don't go without me."
"No, Marm. Let's hope not, Marm."
And then he went back to sleep and I got a friend to put up with me for the rest of the day.

At four o'cock I went back.
The captain was asleep.
After some waiting he was rused and reeled to his feet. A shave might have altered him! As it was, he looked like the villian in a very low melodrama. His little eyes were red-rimmed and bleary, his mouth like the back of an axe: he was a very thin and tall half-breed and wore a pair of trousers loosely held up by a belt that really asked for a pair of pistols in it. His shirt was torn in places and his check cap on one side of his uncombed head gave a rakish air to his drunken appearance.

He told me he would sail "Sometime to-day or to-morrow," and went back to sleep.
In despair I fled to the Commissioner's wife, whom I found busy bathing babies. She said: " It is always like that," and told me to meet her at the wharf at six or seven.
Which I did.

We would not be able to get any letters for a month and when I could send any was uncertain. To get help or doctor in case of need might take a month or/ .

(continued >)

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