Grand Bahama in 1917

(Chapter 7) THE CARVED BEDSTEAD (pp. 91-99)


"......the Lord preserveth the simple."
                                                      PSALM 116. 5.

It would be a desert island but for a few hundred coloured people, who are descended from slaves of the olden times. Sweet and gentle people, most of whom can neither read nor write, but to whom much is known that is hidden from us.
For instance, they accept every word in the Bible (part of which they seem to know by heart) and they accept it as literally true.
They will sail in tiny vessels on the ocean in the Hurricane Season, or dive among the sharks with perfect faith, saying (and believing), "My safety cometh from the Lord." And if you try to reason it out with them they will tell you that you are perfectly safe until your time is up, and "When dat day come you'll die, sure, even if in your bed."
So they have no fear.

On this island, in mid-ocean, time doesn't count, nor the day of the year. Only the morning and the evening, and the month, are counted.
Day begins with sunrise and ends with sunset.
Poverty reigns supreme, but there are no nervous breakdowns and no diseases other than malaria occasionally, though in one village there is some consumption due to intermarriage and sleeping with the doors and windows of the palm-thatched cabins shut, "to keep out de evil spirits," which often take the forms of mosquitoes and sandflies! /

The forest of the interior is owned by an American company and no one goes there who can help it, on account of the flies and mosquitoes.
The people live along the reef-edge and the one road runs like a girdle around the island, which is bordered with the ledges built by the coral polyp, in which are pools filled with strange crabs, cast-up sponges (often of the most curious shapes), and shells of wondrous hue.
All around in the sea are the miraculous sea-gardens and the marvel of these waters are to be found around almost all the other islands.

Two spongers took me out in a blue cockleshell boat one day and through their glass-bottomed bucket I saw the life of the sea where the brilliant coloured fish swim among purple and yellow sea-fans, and brown feathers wave above their heads; from a deep grotto in the white sand a huge crawfish emerged, slowly and with great dignity; like a grand dutchess of the Austrian Court—with due form and ceremony and much waving of whiskers she went on call on Madame Crawfish in an opposite grotto—and the rhythm of these two as they swayed down the path together (all the little fish scurried out of the way) was like some mazurka of ancient date! Looking down in another spot I saw the most lovely purple sea-fan I had ever noticed. I exclaimed at the size and brilliance, and as I did so I heard a soft movement behind my back.
Looking around I saw only a coat on the seat where a man had sat a few seconds before!
Presently ... a puffing sound on the other side of the boat, and a muscular young negro was swimming towards me with the free movements of a man/ used from childhood to the water. He was laughing and in his hand was the purple fan I had seen growing on the sea-bottom.
"Dis de one you'se admiring, ma'am?" he asked gently as he climbed, dripping, into the place he had so recently vacated, laying the fan in the boat at my feet. It seems he had slipped overboard and without a splash had dived to the bottom, open-eyed, fully dressed in blue shirt and woolen check trousers.

Before we reached shore he slid over and glided through the amazing water to the bottom again, this time to get a conch for his dinner. His manner of going into the water seemed exactly like that of a fish which we caught and allowed to slip back!
An abler pen than mine has described the fishing in these parts. It is curious to lean over and watch the silly, greedy creatures going so lightly to certain death—when all around them is perfectly good food of the kind they are accustomed to eat.
But I suppose, like ourselves, they say: "Anything for a change"—and rush to any bait.

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Not far from the water, boarding the only road, is an intermittent hedge of sea-grape and an occasional coconut tree rears its delicate, aristocratic head against the everchanging sky, in which the clouds are so distinct in shape that an artist might spend a long time studying cloud-forms and not waster one moment in so doing.
Each family owns its cabin and a good deal of land, but nothing marketable is grown on this island, except onions and some guavas./
The poverty brings the popular saying:
"A shilling in Grand Bahama's worth a pound o' money."
A few banana trees bear their useful fruit in season and when that food gives out, as it did at the beginning of the war, when the sponge market was chaotic, the people "go into de Bush"—for you cannot starve there.

The children in school chant their multiplication tables as if they were beating out the rhythm of a dance, but when they grow older this means little to them. They remember the rhythm but forget how to multiply!
All the mammies and grannies can rear healthy, strong children, all the boys and men can dive and some of the girls and wives are expert divers too, while any male among them can handle a two-masted vessel in mid-ocean in any weather and can read the signs of the elements without barometer.
These people are not ignorant, but only illiterate. In reality, like backwoods people of the Canadian and American forests, they are wise with knowledge which we of the cities have forgotten.

At some time they must have had an Art of their own—for Mr. Steiglitz, of 292 Fifth Avenue, New York, has made us familiar with the carving of the Africans in their native land, and in Brussels I have seen remarkable work done by the natives of the Congo. But civilization seems to have stamped it out here and nothing remains of their natural good taste except the colour sense which makes a girl wear blue stockings with a white dress that has a scarlet sash ... or yellow ones when she puts sapphire bows in her hair./

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