English Literature

At Last: A Christmas in The West Indies by Charles Kingsley

At Last A Christmas in The West Indies by Charles Kingsley.jpg

CHAPTER I: OUTWARD BOUND

At last we, too, were crossing the Atlantic.  At last the dream of forty years, please God, would be fulfilled, and I should see (and happily, not alone) the West Indies and the Spanish Main.  From childhood I had studied their Natural History, their charts, their Romances, and alas! their Tragedies; and now, at last, I was about to compare books with facts, and judge for myself of the reported wonders of the Earthly Paradise.  We could scarce believe the evidence of our own senses when they told us that we were surely on board a West Indian steamer, and could by no possibility get off it again, save into the ocean, or on the farther side of the ocean; and it was not till the morning of the second day, the 3d of December, that we began to be thoroughly aware that we were on the old route of Westward-Ho, and far out in the high seas, while the Old World lay behind us like a dream.

Like dreams seemed now the last farewells over the taffrel, beneath the chill low December sun; and the shining calm of Southampton water, and the pleasant and well-beloved old shores and woods and houses sliding by; and the fisher-boats at anchor off Calshot, their brown and olive sails reflected in the dun water, with dun clouds overhead tipt with dull red from off the setting sun—a study for Vandevelde or Backhuysen in the tenderest moods.  Like a dream seemed the twin lights of Hurst Castle and the Needles, glaring out of the gloom behind us, as if old England were watching us to the last with careful eyes, and bidding us good speed upon our way.  Then had come—still like a dream—a day of pouring rain, of lounging on the main-deck, watching the engines, and watching, too (for it was calm at night), the water from the sponson behind the paddle-boxes; as the live flame-beads leaped and ran amid the swirling snow, while some fifteen feet beyond the untouched oily black of the deep sea spread away into the endless dark.

It took a couple of days to arrange our little cabin Penates; to discover who was on board; and a couple of days, too, to become aware, in spite of sudden starts of anxiety, that there was no post, and could be none; that one could not be wanted, or, if one was wanted, found and caught; and it was not till the fourth morning that the glorious sense of freedom dawned on the mind, as through the cabin port the sunrise shone in, yellow and wild through flying showers, and great north-eastern waves raced past us, their heads torn off in spray, their broad backs laced with ripples, and each, as it passed, gave us a friendly onward lift away into the ‘roaring forties,’ as the sailors call the stormy seas between 50 and 40 degrees of latitude.

These ‘roaring forties’ seem all strangely devoid of animal life—at least in a December north-east gale; not a whale did we see—only a pair of porpoises; not a sea-bird, save a lonely little kittiwake or two, who swung round our stern in quest of food: but the seeming want of life was only owing to our want of eyes; each night the wake teemed more bright with flame-atomies.  One kind were little brilliant sparks, hurled helpless to and fro on the surface, probably Noctilucæ; the others (what they may be we could not guess at first) showed patches of soft diffused light, paler than the sparks, yet of the same yellow-white hue, which floated quietly past, seeming a foot or two below the foam.  And at the bottom, far beneath, deeper under our feet than the summit of the Peak of Teneriffe was above our heads—for we were now in more than two thousand fathoms water—what exquisite forms might there not be? myriads on myriads, generations on generations, people the eternal darkness, seen only by Him to whom the darkness is as light as day: and to be seen hereafter, a few of them—but how few—when future men of science shall do for this mid-Atlantic sea-floor what Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Wyville Thomson have done for the North Atlantic, and open one more page of that book which has, to us creatures of a day, though not to Him who wrote it as the Time-pattern of His timeless mind, neither beginning nor end.

So, for want of animal life to study, we were driven to study the human life around us, pent up there in our little iron world.  But to talk too much of fellow-passengers is (though usual enough just now) neither altogether fair nor kind.  We see in travel but the outside of people, and as we know nothing of their inner history, and little, usually, of their antecedents, the pictures which we might sketch of them would be probably as untruthfully as rashly drawn.  Crushed together, too, perforce, against each other, people are apt on board ship to make little hasty confidences, to show unawares little weaknesses, which should be forgotten all round the moment they step on shore and return to something like a normal state of society.  The wisest and most humane rule for a traveller toward his companion is to

‘Be to their faults a little blind;
Be to their virtues very kind;’

and to consider all that is said and done on board, like what passes among the members of the same club, as on the whole private and confidential.  So let it suffice that there were on board the good steamship Shannon, as was to be expected, plenty of kind, courteous, generous, intelligent people; officials, travellers—one, happy man! away to discover new birds on the yet unexplored Rio Magdalena, in New Grenada; planters, merchants, what not, all ready, when once at St. Thomas’s, to spread themselves over the islands, and the Spanish Main, and the Isthmus of Panama, and after that, some of them, down the Pacific shore to Callao and Valparaiso.  The very names of their different destinations, and the imagination of the wonders they would see (though we were going to a spot as full of wonders as any), raised something like envy in our breasts, all the more because most of them persisted in tantalising us, in the hospitable fashion of all West Indians, by fruitless invitations to islands and ports, which to have seen were ‘a joy for ever.’

But almost the most interesting group of all was one of Cornish miners, from the well-known old Redruth and Camborne county, and the old sacred hill of Carn-brea, who were going to seek their fortunes awhile in silver mines among the Andes, leaving wives and children at home, and hoping, ‘if it please God, to do some good out there,’ and send their earnings home.  Stout, bearded, high-cheek-boned men they were, dressed in the thick coats and rough caps, and, of course, in the indispensable black cloth trousers, which make a miner’s full dress; and their faces lighted up at the old pass-word of ‘Down-Along’; for whosoever knows Down-Along, and the speech thereof, is at once a friend and a brother.  We had many a pleasant talk with them ere we parted at St. Thomas’s.

And on to St. Thomas’s we were hurrying; and, thanks to the north-east wind, as straight as a bee-line.  On the third day we ran two hundred and fifty-four miles; on the fourth two hundred and sixty; and on the next day, at noon, where should we be?  Nearing the Azores; and by midnight, running past them, and away on the track of Columbus, towards the Sargasso Sea.

We stayed up late on the night of December 7, in hopes of seeing, as we passed Terceira, even the loom of the land: but the moon was down; and a glimpse of the ‘Pico’ at dawn next morning was our only chance of seeing, at least for this voyage, those wondrous Isles of the Blest—Isles of the Blest of old; and why not still?  They too are said to be earthly paradises in soil, climate, productions; and yet no English care to settle there, nor even to go thither for health, though the voyage from Lisbon is but a short one, and our own mail steamers, were it made worth their while, could as easily touch at Terceira now as they did a few years since.

And as we looked out into the darkness, we could not but recollect, with a flush of pride, that yonder on the starboard beam lay Flores, and the scene of that great fight off the Azores, on August 30, 1591, made ever memorable by the pen of Walter Raleigh—and of late by Mr. Froude; in which the Revenge, with Sir Richard Grenville for her captain, endured for twelve hours, before she struck, the attack of eight great Spanish armadas, of which two (three times her own burden) sank at her side; and after all her masts were gone, and she had been three times boarded without success, defied to the last the whole fleet of fifty-one sail, which lay around her, waiting, ‘like dogs around the dying forest-king,’ for the Englishman to strike or sink.  Yonder away it was, that, wounded again and again, and shot through body and through head, Sir Richard Grenville was taken on board the Spanish Admiral’s ship to die; and gave up his gallant ghost with those once-famous words: ‘Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind; for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought, fighting for his country, queen, religion, and honour; my soul willingly departing from this body, leaving behind the lasting fame of having behaved as every valiant soldier is in his duty bound to do.’

Yes; we were on the track of the old sea-heroes; of Drake and Hawkins, Carlile and Cavendish, Cumberland and Raleigh, Preston and Sommers, Frobisher and Duddeley, Keymis and Whiddon, which last, in that same Flores fight, stood by Sir Richard Grenville all alone, and, in ‘a small ship called the Pilgrim, hovered all night to see the successe: but in the morning, bearing with the Revenge, was hunted like a hare amongst many ravenous houndes, but escaped’ {4}—to learn, in after years, in company with hapless Keymis, only too much about that Trinidad and Gulf of Paria whither we were bound.

Yes.  There were heroes in England in those days.  Are we, their descendants, degenerate from them?  I, for one, believe not But they were taught—what we take pride in refusing to be taught—namely, to obey.

The morning dawned: but Pico, some fifty miles away, was taking his morning bath among the clouds, and gave no glimpse of his eleven thousand feet crater cone, now capped, they said, with winter snow.  Yet neither last night’s outlook nor that morning’s was without result.  For as the steamer stopped last night to pack her engines, and slipped along under sail at some three knots an hour, we made out clearly that the larger diffused patches of phosphorescence were Medusæ, slowly opening and shutting, and rolling over and over now and then, giving out their light, as they rolled, seemingly from the thin limb alone, and not from the crown of their bell.  And as we watched, a fellow-passenger told how, between Ceylon and Singapore, he had once witnessed that most rare and unexplained phenomenon of a ‘milky sea,’ of which Dr. Collingwood writes (without, if I remember right, having seen it himself) in his charming book, A Naturalist’s Rambles in the China Seas.  Our friend described the appearance as that of a sea of shining snow rather than of milk, heaving gently beneath a starlit but moonless sky.  A bucket of water, when taken up, was filled with the same half-luminous whiteness, which stuck to its sides when the water was drained off.  The captain of the Indiaman was well enough aware of the rarity of the sight to call all the passengers on deck to see what they would never see again; and on asking our captain, he assured us that he had not only never seen, but never heard of the appearance in the West Indies.  One curious fact, then, was verified that night.

The next morning gave us unmistakable tokens that we were nearing the home of the summer and the sun.  A north-east wind, which would in England keep the air at least at freezing in the shade, gave here a temperature just over 60°; and gave clouds, too, which made us fancy for a moment that we were looking at an April thunder sky, soft, fantastic, barred, and feathered, bright white where they ballooned out above into cumuli, rich purple in their massive shadows, and dropping from their under edges long sheets of inky rain.  Thanks to the brave North-Easter, we had gained in five days thirty degrees of heat, and had slipped out of December into May.  The North-Easter, too, was transforming itself more and more into the likeness of a south-west wind; say, rather, renewing its own youth, and becoming once more what it was when it started on its long journey from the Tropics towards the Pole.  As it rushes back across the ocean, thrilled and expanded by the heat, it opens its dry and thirsty lips to suck in the damp from below, till, saturated once more with steam, it will reach the tropic as a gray rain-laden sky of North-East Trade.

So we slipped on, day after day, in a delicious repose which yet was not monotonous.  Those, indeed, who complain of the monotony of a voyage must have either very few resources in their own minds, or much worse company than we had on board the Shannon.  Here, every hour brought, or might bring, to those who wished, not merely agreeable conversation about the Old World behind us, but fresh valuable information about the New World before us.  One morning, for instance, I stumbled on a merchant returning to Surinam, who had fifty things to tell of his own special business—of the woods, the drugs, the barks, the vegetable oils, which he was going back to procure—a whole new world of yet unknown wealth and use.  Most cheering, too, and somewhat unexpected, were the facts we heard of the improving state of our West India Colonies, in which the tide of fortune seems to have turned at last, and the gallant race of planters and merchants, in spite of obstacle on obstacle, some of them unjust and undeserved, are winning their way back (in their own opinion) to a prosperity more sound and lasting than that which collapsed so suddenly at the end of the great French war.  All spoke of the emancipation of the slaves in Cuba (an event certain to come to pass ere long) as the only condition which they required to put them on an equal footing with any producers whatsoever in the New World.

However pleasant, though, the conversation might be, the smallest change in external circumstances, the least break in the perpetual—

‘Quocumque adspicias, nil est nisi pontus et aer,’

even a passing bird, if one would pass, which none would do save once or twice a stately tropic-bird, wheeling round aloft like an eagle, was hailed as an event in the day; and, on the 9th of December, the appearance of the first fragments of gulf-weed caused quite a little excitement, and set an enthusiastic pair of naturalists—a midland hunting squire, and a travelled scientific doctor who had been twelve years in the Eastern Archipelago—fishing eagerly over the bows, with an extemporised grapple of wire, for gulf-weed, a specimen of which they did not catch.  However, more and more still would come in a day or two, perhaps whole acres, even whole leagues, and then (so we hoped, but hoped in vain) we should have our feast of zoophytes, crustacea, and what not.

Meanwhile, it must be remembered that this gulf-weed has not, as some of the uninitiated fancy from its name, anything to do with the Gulf Stream, along the southern edge of which we were steaming.  Thrust away to the south by that great ocean-river, it lies in a vast eddy, or central pool of the Atlantic, between the Gulf Stream and the equatorial current, unmoved save by surface-drifts of wind, as floating weeds collect and range slowly round and round in the still corners of a tumbling-bay or salmon pool.  One glance at a bit of the weed, as it floats past, showed that it is like no Fucus of our shores, or anything we ever saw before.  The difference of look is undefinable in words, but clear enough.  One sees in a moment that the Sargassos, of which there are several species on Tropical shores, are a genus of themselves and by themselves; and a certain awe may, if the beholder be at once scientific and poetical, come over him at the first sight of this famous and unique variety thereof, which has lost ages since the habit of growing on rock or sea-bottom, but propagates itself for ever floating; and feeds among its branches a whole family of fish, crabs, cuttlefish, zoophytes, mollusks, which, like the plant which shelters them, are found nowhere else in the world.  And that awe, springing from ‘the scientific use of the imagination,’ would be increased if he recollected the theory—not altogether impossible—that this sargasso (and possibly some of the animals which cling to it) marks the site of an Atlantic continent, sunk long ages since; and that, transformed by the necessities of life from a rooting to a floating plant,

‘Still it remembers its august abodes,’

and wanders round and round as if in search of the rocks where it once grew.  We looked eagerly day by day for more and more gulf-weed, hoping that

‘Slimy things would crawl with legs
Upon that slimy sea,’

and thought of the memorable day when Columbus’s ship first plunged her bows into the tangled ‘ocean meadow,’ and the sailors, naturally enough, were ready to mutiny, fearing hidden shoals, ignorant that they had four miles of blue water beneath their keel, and half recollecting old Greek and Phœnician legends of a weedy sea off the coast of Africa, where the vegetation stopped the ships and kept them entangled till all on board were starved.

Day after day we passed more and more of it, often in long processions, ranged in the direction of the wind; while, a few feet below the surface, here and there floated large fronds of a lettuce-like weed, seemingly an ulva, the bright green of which, as well as the rich orange hue of the sargasso, brought out by contrast the intense blue of the water.

Very remarkable, meanwhile, and unexpected, was the opacity and seeming solidity of the ocean when looked down on from the bows.  Whether sapphire under the sunlight, or all but black under the clouds, or laced and streaked with beads of foam, rising out of the nether darkness, it looks as if it could resist the hand; as if one might almost walk on it; so unlike any liquid, as seen near shore or inland, is this leaping, heaving plain, reminding one, by its innumerable conchoidal curves, not of water, not even of ice, but rather of obsidian.

After all we got little of the sargasso.  Only in a sailing ship, and in calms or light breezes, can its treasures be explored.  Twelve knots an hour is a pace sufficient to tear off the weed, as it is hauled alongside, all living things which are not rooted to it.  We got, therefore, no Crustacea; neither did we get a single specimen of the Calamaries, {8} which may be described as cuttlefish carrying hooks on their arms as well as suckers, the lingering descendants of a most ancient form, which existed at least as far back as the era of the shallow oolitic seas, x or y thousand years ago.  A tiny curled Spirorbis, a Lepraria, with its thousandfold cells, and a tiny polype belonging to the Campanularias, with a creeping stem, which sends up here and there a yellow-stalked bell, were all the parasites we saw.  But the sargasso itself is a curious instance of the fashion in which one form so often mimics another of a quite different family.  When fresh out of the water it resembles not a sea-weed so much as a sprig of some willow-leaved shrub, burdened with yellow berries, large and small; for every broken bit of it seems growing, and throwing out ever new berries and leaves—or what, for want of a better word, must be called leaves in a sea-weed.  For it must be remembered that the frond of a sea-weed is not merely leaf, but root also; that it not only breathes air, but feeds on water; and that even the so-called root by which a sea-weed holds to the rock is really only an anchor, holding mechanically to the stone, but not deriving, as the root of a land-plant would, any nourishment from it.  Therefore it is, that to grow while uprooted and floating, though impossible to most land plants, is easy enough to many sea-weeds, and especially to the sargasso.

The flying-fish now began to be a source of continual amusement as they scuttled away from under the bows of the ship, mistaking her, probably, for some huge devouring whale.  So strange are they when first seen, though long read of and long looked for, that it is difficult to recollect that they are actually fish.  The first little one was mistaken for a dragon-fly, the first big one for a gray plover.  The flight is almost exactly like that of a quail or partridge—flight, I must say; for, in spite of all that has been learnedly written to the contrary, it was too difficult as yet for the English sportsmen on board to believe that their motion was not a true flight, aided by the vibration of the wings, and not a mere impulse given (as in the leap of the salmon) by a rush under water.  That they can change their course at will is plain to one who looks down on them from the lofty deck, and still more from the paddle-box.  The length of the flight seems too great to be attributed to a few strokes of the tail; while the plain fact that they renew their flight after touching, and only touching, the surface, would seem to show that it was not due only to the original impetus, for that would be retarded, instead of being quickened, every time they touched.  Such were our first impressions: and they were confirmed by what we saw on the voyage home.

The nights as yet, we will not say disappointed us,—for to see new stars, like Canopus and Fomalhaut, shining in the far south, even to see Sirius, in his ever-changing blaze of red and blue, riding high in a December heaven, is interesting enough; but the brilliance of the stars is not, at least at this season, equal to that of a frosty sky in England.  Nevertheless, to make up for the deficiency, the clouds were glorious; so glorious, that I longed again and again, as I did afterwards in the West Indies, that Mr. Ruskin were by my side, to see and to describe, as none but he can do.  The evening skies are fit weeds for widowed Eos weeping over the dying Sun; thin, formless, rent—in carelessness, not in rage; and of all the hues of early autumn leaves, purple and brown, with green and primrose lakes of air between: but all hues weakened, mingled, chastened into loneliness, tenderness, regretfulness, through which still shines, in endless vistas of clear western light, the hope of the returning day.  More and more faint, the pageant fades below towards the white haze of the horizon, where, in sharpest contrast, leaps and welters against it the black jagged sea; and richer and richer it glows upwards, till it cuts the azure overhead: until, only too soon—

‘The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out,
At one stride comes the dark,’

to be succeeded, after the long balmy night, by a sunrise which repeats the colours of the sunset, but this time gaudy, dazzling, triumphant, as befits the season of faith and hope.  Such imagery, it may be said, is hackneyed now, and trite even to impertinence.  It might be so at home; but here, in presence of the magnificent pageant of tropic sunlight, it is natural, almost inevitable; and the old myth of the daily birth and death of Helios, and the bridal joys and widowed tears of Eos, re-invents itself in the human mind, as soon as it asserts its power—it may be, its sacred right—to translate nature into the language of the feelings.

And, meanwhile, may we not ask—have we not a right—founded on that common sense of the heart which often is the deepest reason—to ask, If we, gross and purblind mortals, can perceive and sympathise with so much beauty in the universe, then how much must not He perceive, with how much must not He sympathise, for whose pleasure all things are, and were created?  Who that believes (and rightly) the sense of beauty to be among the noblest faculties of man, will deny that faculty to God, who conceived man and all besides?

Wednesday, the 15th, was a really tropic day; blazing heat in the forenoon, with the thermometer at 82° in the shade, and in the afternoon stifling clouds from the south-west, where a dark band of rain showed, according to the planters’ dictum, showers over the islands, which we were nearing fast.  At noon we were only two hundred and ten miles from Sombrero, ‘the Spanish Hat,’ a lonely island, which is here the first outlier of the New World.  We ought to have passed it by sunrise on the 16th, and by the afternoon reached St. Thomas’s, where our pleasant party would burst like a shell in all directions, and scatter its fragments about all coasts and isles—from Demerara to Panama, from Mexico to the Bahamas.  So that day was to the crew a day of hard hot work—of lifting and sorting goods on the main-deck, in readiness for the arrival at St. Thomas’s, and of moving forwards two huge empty boilers which had graced our spar-deck, filled with barrels of onions and potatoes, all the way from Southampton.  But in the soft hot evening hours, time was found for the usual dance on the quarter-deck, with the band under the awning, and lamps throwing fantastic shadows, and waltzing couples, and the crew clustering aft to see, while we old folks looked on, with our ‘Ludite dum lubet, pueri,’ till the captain bade the sergeant-at-arms leave the lights burning for an extra half hour; and ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ was danced out, to the great amusement of the foreigners, at actually half-past eleven.  After which unexampled dissipation, all went off to rest, promising to themselves and their partners that they would get up at sunrise to sight Sombrero.

But, as it befell, morning’s waking brought only darkness, the heavy pattering of a tropic shower, and the absence of the everlasting roll of the paddle-wheels.  We were crawling slowly along, in thick haze and heavy rain, having passed Sombrero unseen; and were away in a gray shoreless world of waters, looking out for Virgin Gorda; the first of those numberless isles which Columbus, so goes the tale, discovered on St. Ursula’s day, and named them after the Saint and her eleven thousand mythical virgins.  Unfortunately, English buccaneers have since then given to most of them less poetic names.  The Dutchman’s Cap, Broken Jerusalem, The Dead Man’s Chest, Rum Island, and so forth, mark a time and a race more prosaic, but still more terrible, though not one whit more wicked and brutal, than the Spanish Conquistadores, whose descendants, in the seventeenth century, they smote hip and thigh with great destruction.

The farthest of these Virgin Islands is St. Thomas’s.  And there ended the first and longer part of a voyage unmarred by the least discomfort, discourtesy, or dulness, and full of enjoyment, for which thanks are due alike to captain, officers, crew, and passengers, and also to our much-maligned friend the North-East wind, who caught us up in the chops of the Channel, helped us graciously on nearly to the tropic of Cancer, giving us a more prosperous passage than the oldest hands recollect at this season, and then left us for a while to the delicious calms of the edge of the tropic, to catch us up again as the North-East Trade.

Truly, this voyage had already given us much for which to thank God.  If safety and returning health, in an atmosphere in which the mere act of breathing is a pleasure, be things for which to be thankful, then we had reason to say in our hearts that which is sometimes best unsaid on paper.

Our first day in a tropic harbour was spent in what might be taken at moments for a dream, did not shells and flowers remain to bear witness to its reality.  It was on Friday morning, December 17th, that we first sighted the New World; a rounded hill some fifteen hundred feet high, which was the end of Virgin Gorda.  That resolved itself, as we ran on, into a cluster of long, low islands; St. John’s appearing next on the horizon, then Tortola, and last of all St. Thomas’s; all pink and purple in the sun, and warm-gray in the shadow, which again became, as we neared them one after the other, richest green, of scrub and down, with bright yellow and rusty rocks, plainly lava, in low cliffs along the shore.  The upper outline of the hills reminded me, with its multitudinous little coves and dry gullies, of the Vivarais or Auvergne Hills; and still more of the sketches of the Chinese Tea-mountains in Fortune’s book.  Their water-line has been exposed, evidently for many ages, to the gnawing of the sea at the present level.  Everywhere the lava cliffs are freshly broken, toppling down in dust and boulders, and leaving detached stacks and skerries, like that called the ‘Indians,’ from its supposed likeness to a group of red-brown savages afloat in a canoe.  But, as far as I could see, there has been no upheaval since the land took its present shape.  There is no trace of raised beaches, or of the terraces which would have inevitably been formed by upheaval on the soft sides of the lava hills.  The numberless deep channels which part the isles and islets would rather mark depression still going on.  Most beautiful meanwhile are the winding channels of blue water, like land-locked lakes, which part the Virgins from each other; and beautiful the white triangular sails of the canoe-rigged craft, which beat up and down them through strong currents and cockling seas.  The clear air, the still soft outlines, the rich and yet delicate colouring, stir up a sense of purity and freshness, and peace and cheerfulness, such as is stirred up by certain views of the Mediterranean and its shores; only broken by one ghastly sight—the lonely mast of the ill-fated Rhone, standing up still where she sank with all her crew, in the hurricane of 1867.

At length, in the afternoon, we neared the last point, and turning inside an isolated and crumbling hummock, the Dutchman’s Cap, saw before us, at the head of a little narrow harbour, the scarlet and purple roofs of St. Thomas’s, piled up among orange-trees, at the foot of a green corrie, or rather couple of corries, some eight hundred feet high.  There it was, as veritable a Dutch-oven for cooking fever in, with as veritable a dripping-pan for the poison when concocted in the tideless basin below the town, as man ever invented.  And we were not sorry when the superintendent, coming on board, bade us steam back again out of the port, and round a certain Water-island, at the back of which is a second and healthier harbour, the Gri-gri channel.  In the port close to the town we could discern another token of the late famous hurricane, the funnels and masts of the hapless Columbia, which lies still on the top of the sunken floating clock, immovable, as yet, by the art of man.

But some hundred yards on our right was a low cliff, which was even more interesting to some of us than either the town or the wreck; for it was covered with the first tropic vegetation which we had ever seen.  Already on a sandy beach outside, we had caught sight of unmistakable coconut trees; some of them, however, dying, dead, even snapped short off, either by the force of the hurricane, or by the ravages of the beetle, which seems minded of late years to exterminate the coconut throughout the West Indies; belonging, we are told, to the Elaters—fire-fly, or skipjack beetles.  His grub, like that of his cousin, our English wire-worm, and his nearer cousin, the great wire-worm of the sugar-cane, eats into the pith and marrow of growing shoots; and as the palm, being an endogen, increases from within by one bud, and therefore by one shoot only, when that is eaten out nothing remains for the tree but to die.  And so it happens that almost every coconut grove which we have seen has a sad and shabby look as if it existed (which it really does) merely on sufferance.

But on this cliff we could see, even with the naked eye, tall Aloes, gray-blue Cerei like huge branching candelabra, and bushes the foliage of which was utterly unlike anything in Northern Europe; while above the bright deep green of a patch of Guinea-grass marked cultivation, and a few fruit trees round a cottage told, by their dark baylike foliage, of fruits whose names alone were known to us.

Round Water-island we went, into a narrow channel between steep green hills, covered to their tops, as late as 1845, with sugar-cane, but now only with scrub, among which the ruins of mills and buildings stood sad and lonely.  But Nature in this land of perpetual summer hides with a kind of eagerness every scar which man in his clumsiness leaves on the earth’s surface; and all, though relapsing into primeval wildness, was green, soft, luxuriant, as if the hoe had never torn the ground, contrasting strangely with the water-scene; with the black steamers snorting in their sleep; the wrecks and condemned hulks, in process of breaking up, strewing the shores with their timbers; the boatfuls of Negroes gliding to and fro; and all the signs of our hasty, irreverent, wasteful, semi-barbarous mercantile system, which we call (for the time being only, it is to be hoped) civilisation.  The engine had hardly stopped, when we were boarded from a fleet of negro boats, and huge bunches of plantains, yams, green oranges, junks of sugar-cane, were displayed upon the deck; and more than one of the ladies went through the ceremony of initiation into West Indian ways, which consisted in sucking sugar-cane, first pared for the sake of their teeth.  The Negro’s stronger incisors tear it without paring.  Two amusing figures, meanwhile, had taken up their station close to the companion.  Evidently privileged personages, they felt themselves on their own ground, and looked round patronisingly on the passengers, as ignorant foreigners who were too certain to be tempted by the treasures which they displayed to need any solicitations.  One went by the name of Jamaica Joe, a Negro blacker than the night, in smart white coat and smart black trousers; a tall courtly gentleman, with the organ of self-interest, to judge from his physiognomy, very highly developed.  But he was thrown into the shade by a stately brown lady, who was still very handsome—beautiful, if you will—and knew it, and had put on her gorgeous turban with grace, and plaited her short locks under it with care, and ignored the very existence of a mere Negro like Jamaica Joe, as she sat by her cigars, and slow-match, and eau-de-cologne at four times the right price, and mats, necklaces, bracelets, made of mimosa-seeds, white negro hats, nests of Curaçoa baskets, and so forth.  They drove a thriving trade among all newcomers: but were somewhat disgusted to find that we, though new to the West Indies, were by no means new to West Indian wares, and therefore not of the same mind as a gentleman and lady who came fresh from the town next day, with nearly a bushel of white branching madrepores, which they were going to carry as coals to Newcastle, six hundred miles down the islands.  Poor Joe tried to sell us a nest of Curaçoa baskets for seven shillings; retired after a firm refusal; came up again to R—–, after a couple of hours, and said, in a melancholy and reproachful voice, ‘Da— take dem for four shillings and sixpence.  I give dem you.’

But now—.  Would we go on shore?  To the town?  Not we, who came to see Nature, not towns.  Some went off on honest business; some on such pleasure as can be found in baking streets, hotel bars, and billiard-rooms: but the one place on which our eyes were set was a little cove a quarter of a mile off, under the steep hill, where a white line of sand shone between blue water and green wood.  A few yards broad of sand, and then impenetrable jungle, among which we could see, below, the curved yellow stems of the coconuts; and higher up the straight gray stems and broad fan-leaves of Carat palms; which I regret to say we did not reach.  Oh for a boat to get into that paradise!  There was three-quarters of an hour left, between dinner and dark; and in three-quarters of an hour what might not be seen in a world where all was new?  The kind chief officer, bidding us not trust negro boats on such a trip, lent us one of the ship’s, with four honest fellows, thankful enough to escape from heat and smoke; and away we went with two select companions—the sportsman and our scientific friend—to land, for the first time, in the New World.

As we leaped on shore on that white sand, what feelings passed through the heart of at least one of us, who found the dream of forty years translated into fact at last, are best, perhaps, left untold here.  But it must be confessed that ere we had stood for two minutes staring at the green wall opposite us, astonishment soon swallowed up, for the time, all other emotions.  Astonishment, not at the vast size of anything, for the scrub was not thirty feet high; nor at the gorgeous colours, for very few plants or trees were in flower; but at the wonderful wealth of life.  The massiveness, the strangeness, the variety, the very length of the young and still growing shoots was a wonder.  We tried, at first in vain, to fix our eyes on some one dominant or typical form, while every form was clamouring, as it were, to be looked at, and a fresh Dryad gazed out of every bush and with wooing eyes asked to be wooed again.  The first two plants, perhaps, we looked steadily at were the Ipomœa pes capræ, lying along the sand in straight shoots thirty feet long, and growing longer, we fancied, while we looked at it, with large bilobed green leaves at every joint, and here and there a great purple convolvulus flower; and next, what we knew at once for the ‘shore-grape.’ {15a}  We had fancied it (and correctly) to be a mere low bushy tree with roundish leaves.  But what a bush! with drooping boughs, arched over and through each other, shoots already six feet long, leaves as big as the hand shining like dark velvet, a crimson mid-rib down each, and tiled over each other—‘imbricated,’ as the botanists would say, in that fashion, which gives its peculiar solidity and richness of light and shade to the foliage of an old sycamore; and among these noble shoots and noble leaves, pendent everywhere, long tapering spires of green grapes.  This shore-grape, which the West Indians esteem as we might a bramble, we found to be, without exception, the most beautiful broad-leafed plant which we had ever seen.  Then we admired the Frangipani, {15b} a tall and almost leafless shrub with thick fleshy shoots, bearing, in this species, white flowers, which have the fragrance peculiar to certain white blossoms, to the jessamine, the tuberose, the orange, the Gardenia, the night-flowering Cereus; then the Cacti and Aloes; then the first coconut, with its last year’s leaves pale yellow, its new leaves deep green, and its trunk ringing, when struck, like metal; then the sensitive plants; then creeping lianes of a dozen different kinds.  Then we shrank back from our first glimpse of a little swamp of foul brown water, backed up by the sand-brush, with trees in every stage of decay, fallen and tangled into a doleful thicket, through which the spider-legged Mangroves rose on stilted roots.  We turned, in wholesome dread, to the white beach outside, and picked up—and, alas! wreck, everywhere wreck—shells—old friends in the cabinets at home—as earnests to ourselves that all was not a dream: delicate prickly Pinnæ; ‘Noah’s-arks’ in abundance; great Strombi, their lips and outer shell broken away, disclosing the rosy cameo within, and looking on the rough beach pitifully tender and flesh-like; lumps and fragments of coral innumerable, reminding us by their worn and rounded shapes of those which abound in so many secondary strata; and then hastened on board the boat; for the sun had already fallen, the purple night set in, and from the woods on shore a chorus of frogs had commenced chattering, quacking, squealing, whistling, not to cease till sunrise.

So ended our first trip in the New World; and we got back to the ship, but not to sleep.  Already a coal-barge lay on either side of her, and over the coals we scrambled, through a scene which we would fain forget.  Black women on one side were doing men’s work, with heavy coal-baskets on their heads, amid screaming, chattering, and language of which, happily, we understood little or nothing.  On the other, a gang of men and boys, who, as the night fell, worked, many of them, altogether naked, their glossy bronze figures gleaming in the red lamplight, and both men and women singing over their work in wild choruses, which, when the screaming cracked voices of the women were silent, and the really rich tenors of the men had it to themselves, were not unpleasant.  A lad, seeming the poet of the gang, stood on the sponson, and in the momentary intervals of work improvised some story, while the men below took up and finished each verse with a refrain, piercing, sad, running up and down large and easy intervals.  The tunes were many and seemingly familiar, all barbaric, often ending in the minor key, and reminding us much, perhaps too much, of the old Gregorian tones.  The words were all but unintelligible.  In one song we caught ‘New York’ again and again, and then ‘Captain he heard it, he was troubled in him mind.’

‘Ya-he-ho-o-hu’—followed the chorus.

‘Captain he go to him cabin, he drink him wine and whisky—’

‘Ya-he,’ etc.

‘You go to America?  You as well go to heaven.’

‘Ya-he,’ etc.

These were all the scraps of negro poetry which we could overhear; while on deck the band was playing quadrilles and waltzes, setting the negro shoveller dancing in the black water at the barge-bottom, shovel in hand; and pleasant white folks danced under the awning, till the contrast between the refinement within and the brutality without became very painful.  For brutality it was, not merely in the eyes of the sentimentalist, but in those of the moralist; still more in the eyes of those who try to believe that all God’s human children may be some-when, somewhere, somehow, reformed into His likeness.  We were shocked to hear that at another island the evils of coaling are still worse; and that the white authorities have tried in vain to keep them down.  The coaling system is, no doubt, demoralising in itself, as it enables Negroes of the lowest class to earn enough in one day to keep them in idleness, even in luxury, for a week or more, till the arrival of the next steamer.  But what we saw proceeded rather from the mere excitability and coarseness of half-civilised creatures than from any deliberate depravity; and we were told that, in the island just mentioned, the Negroes, when forced to coal on Sunday, or on Christmas Day, always abstain from noise or foul language, and, if they sing, sing nothing but hymns.  It is easy to sneer at such a fashion as formalism.  It would be wiser to consider whether the first step in religious training must not be obedience to some such external positive law; whether the savage must not be taught that there are certain things which he ought never to do, by being taught that there is one day at least on which he shall not do them.  How else is man to learn that the Laws of Right and Wrong, like the laws of the physical world, are entirely independent of him, his likes or dislikes, knowledge or ignorance of them; that by Law he is environed from his cradle to his grave, and that it is at his own peril that he disobeys the Law?  A higher religion may, and ought to, follow, one in which the Law becomes a Law of Liberty, and a Gospel, because it is loved, and obeyed for its own sake; but even he who has attained to that must be reminded again and again, alas! that the Law which he loves does not depend for its sanction on his love of it, on his passing frames or feelings; but is as awfully independent of him as it is of the veriest heathen.  And that lesson the Sabbath does teach as few or no other institutions can.  The man who says, and says rightly, that to the Christian all days ought to be Sabbaths, may be answered, and answered rightly, ‘All the more reason for keeping one day which shall be a Sabbath, whether you are in a sabbatical mood or not.  All the more reason for keeping one day holy, as a pattern of what all days should be.’  So we will be glad if the Negro has got thus far, as an earnest that he may some day get farther still.

That night, however, he kept no Sabbath, and we got no sleep; and were glad enough, before sunrise, to escape once more to the cove we had visited the evening before; not that it was prettier or more curious than others, but simply because it is better, for those who wish to learn accurately, to see one thing twice than many things once.  A lesson is never learnt till it is learnt over many times, and a spot is best understood by staying in it and mastering it.  In natural history the old scholar’s saw of ‘Cave hominem unius libri’ may be paraphrased by ‘He is a thoroughly good naturalist who knows one parish thoroughly.’

So back to our little beach we went, and walked it all over again, finding, of course, many things which had escaped us the night before.  We saw our first Melocactus, and our first night-blowing Cereus creeping over the rocks.  We found our first tropic orchid, with white, lilac, and purple flowers on a stalk three feet high.  We saw our first wild pines (Tillandsias, etc.) clinging parasitic on the boughs of strange trees, or nestling among the angular limb-like shoots of the columnar Cereus.  We learnt to distinguish the poisonous Manchineel; and were thankful, in serious earnest, that we had happily plucked none the night before, when we were snatching at every new leaf; for its milky juice, by mere dropping on the skin, burns like the poisoned tunic of Nessus, and will even, when the head is injured by it, cause blindness and death.  We gathered a nosegay of the loveliest flowers, under a burning sun, within ten days of Christmas; and then wandered off the shore up a little path in the red lava, toward a farm where we expected to see fresh curiosities, and not in vain.  On one side of the path a hedge of Pinguin (Bromelia)—the plants like huge pine-apple plants without the fruit—was but three feet high, but from its prickles utterly impenetrable to man or beast; and inside the hedge, a tree like a straggling pear, with huge green calabashes growing out of its bark—here was actually Crescentia Cujete—the plaything of one’s childhood—alive and growing.  The other side was low scrub—prickly shrubs like acacias and mimosas, covered with a creeping vine with brilliant yellow hair (we had seen it already from the ship, gilding large patches of the slopes), most like European dodder.  Among it rose the tall Calotropis procera, with its fleshy gray stems and leaves, and its azure of lovely lilac flowers, with curious columns of stamens in each—an Asclepiad introduced from the Old World, where it ranges from tropical Africa to Afghanistan; and so on, and so on, up to a little farmyard, very like a Highland one in most things, want of neatness included, save that huge spotted Trochi were scattered before the door, instead of buckies or periwinkles; and in the midst of the yard grew, side by side, the common accompaniment of a West India kitchen door, the magic trees, whose leaves rubbed on the toughest meat make it tender on the spot, and whose fruit makes the best of sauce or pickle to be eaten therewith—namely, a male and female Papaw (Carica Papaya), their stems some fifteen feet high, with a flat crown of mallow-like leaves, just beneath which, in the male, grew clusters of fragrant flowerets, in the female, clusters of unripe fruit.  On through the farmyard, picking fresh flowers at every step, and down to a shady cove (for the sun, even at eight o’clock in December, was becoming uncomfortably fierce), and again into the shore-grape wood.  We had already discovered, to our pain, that almost everything in the bush had prickles, of all imaginable shapes and sizes; and now, touching a low tree, one of our party was seized as by a briar, through clothes and into skin, and, in escaping, found on the tree (GuilandinaBonducella) rounded prickly pods, which, being opened, proved to contain the gray horse-nicker-beads of our childhood.

Up and down the white sand we wandered, collecting shells, as did the sailors, gladly enough, and then rowed back, over a bottom of white sand, bedded here and there with the short manati-grass (Thalassia Testudinum), one of the few flowering plants which, like our Zostera, or grass-wrack, grows at the bottom of the sea.  But, wherever the bottom was stony, we could see huge prickly sea-urchins, huger brainstone corals, round and gray, and branching corals likewise, such as, when cleaned, may be seen in any curiosity shop.  These, and a flock of brown and gray pelicans sailing over our head, were fresh tokens to us of where we were.

As we were displaying our nosegay on deck, on our return, to some who had stayed stifling on board, and who were inclined (as West Indians are) at once to envy and to pooh-pooh the superfluous energy of newcome Europeans, R—– drew out a large and lovely flower, pale yellow, with a tiny green apple or two, and leaves like those of an Oleander.  The brown lady, who was again at her post on deck, walked up to her in silence, uninvited, and with a commanding air waved the thing away.  ‘Dat manchineel.  Dat poison.  Throw dat overboard.’  R—–, who knew it was not manchineel, whispered to a bystander, ‘Ce n’est pas vrai.’  But the brown lady was a linguist.  ‘Ah! mais c’est vrai,’ cried she, with flashing teeth; and retired, muttering her contempt of English ignorance and impertinence.

And, as it befell, she was, if not quite right, at least not quite wrong.  For when we went into the cabin, we and our unlucky yellow flower were flown at by another brown lady, in another gorgeous turban, who had become on the voyage a friend and an intimate; for she was the nurse of the baby who had been the light of the eyes of the whole quarter-deck ever since we left Southampton—God bless it, and its mother, and beautiful Mon Nid, where she dwells beneath the rock, as exquisite as one of her own humming-birds.  We were so scolded about this poor little green apple that we set to work to find put what it was, after promising at least not to eat it.  And it proved to be Thevetia neriifolia, and a very deadly poison.

This was the first (though by no means the last) warning which we got not to meddle rashly with ‘poison-bush,’ lest that should befall us which befell a scientific West Indian of old.  For hearing much of the edible properties of certain European toadstools, he resolved to try a few experiments in his own person on West Indian ones; during the course of which he found himself one evening, after a good toad-stool dinner, raving mad.  The doctor was sent for, and brought him round, a humbled man.  But a heavier humiliation awaited him, when his negro butler, who had long looked down on him for his botanical studies, entered with his morning cup of coffee.  ‘Now, Massa,’ said he, in a tone of triumphant pity, ‘I think you no go out any more cut bush and eat him.’

If we had wanted any further proof that we were in the Tropics, we might have had it in the fearful heat of the next few hours, when the Shannon lay with a steamer on each side, one destined for ‘The Gulf,’ the other for ‘The Islands’; and not a breath of air was to be got till late in the afternoon, when (amid shaking of hands and waving of handkerchiefs, as hearty as if we the ‘Island-bound,’ and they the ‘Gulf-bound,’ and the officers of the Shannon had known each other fourteen years instead of fourteen days) we steamed out, past the Little Saba rock, which was said (but it seems incorrectly) to have burst into smoke and flame during the earthquake, and then away to the south and east for the Islands: having had our first taste, but, thank God, not our last, of the joys of the ‘Earthly Paradise.’

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