Category Archives: American History

Nautical Nassau

Back in February of this year, before the dreaded “lockdown”, I flew to Nassau on New Providence Island in the Bahamas to stay for a couple of weeks. This was rather out of character, since I am not normally a globe-trotter, but it was designed as a trip to research some settings for the second novel I am writing wherein the heroine sails to Nassau from Liverpool in 1864.

On my arrival the town at first defined my expectations, but not in a good way. Walking the short distance from my hotel to the “downtown” area at dusk in search of congenial rest and refreshment, I found everything closing-up and the prevailing atmosphere unsettling, so that I was forced to retreat to the hotel bar for the evening. I soon learned that downtown, which is basically Bay Street and Woodes Rogers Walk that run parallel at the harbour-front, caters almost exclusively for the cruise-ships that visit in the daytime. Along this tawdry esplanade of gift shops and insalubrious eateries, hustling for tourist dollars is the overriding preoccupation.

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Five huge cruise-ships tie-up at the Prince George Wharf, at right angles to the harbour-side Woodes Rogers Walk, every day. My Photo

To the left of the above picture loom the massive installations of “Paradise Island” (formerly the more prosaic Hogg Island) which is an entirely self-contained resort, the residents of which do not seem to visit the town of Nassau at all.

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A closer view of Paradise Island from the shore to the east of Nassau. My Photo

Apart from the beach bars of Arawak Cay and Junkanoo, the town centre has almost no native life of bars, shops or restaurants of its own. Indeed a number of the streets climbing the low ridge rising inland from the harbour are actually derelict, their buildings being reclaimed by nature. Like the protagonist in the Beach Boys’ classic rendition of “Sloop John B”, my initial impressions of Nassau left me feeling so broke-up I wanted to go home (and we’re talking here about my home being the then storm-lashed and wintery north of England!).

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A derelict bungalow to the South West of Nassau town centre, near Clifford Park. My Photo

Knowing something of the history of the Bahamas, it occurred to me to compare the current era of cruise-ship driven prosperity to previous boom-times in Nassau brought about by temporary incomers. I’m thinking of its periods as a nest of piracy in the early eighteenth century, as a base for Confederate blockade running in the American Civil War in the 1860s, and as a hub for liquor-smuggling into the US during the 1920s prohibition. Perhaps in the aftermath of the current global pandemic with its social distancing, the ascendancy of the cruise-ship will prove to be as ephemeral for the town as were those other historical phenomena in their day.

But, if so, it will leave a most pleasing alternate aspect of the town, which I was soon to discover during my stay, entirely intact. Some parts of Nassau which few cruise-ship excursioners visit, particularly those around Government House atop of the ridge, are very beautiful.

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Government House, looking westward. My Photo

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 A view along West Hill Street, looking east.  My Photo

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A garden by the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, off West Hill Street. My Photo

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A view of St Francis Xavier Cathedral from the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas garden, looking North West. My Photo

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A colourful mural. My Photo

I was delighted to find, as my explorations widened, that the town actually hosts many notable attractions that I seemed to have pretty much to myself, all staffed by the most helpful, friendly and informative local people you could wish to find. I particularly enjoyed the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas, the Nassau Public Library, and Fort Charlotte.

At the Bahamas Historical Society Museum, I was settled down at a table with a cup of tea and given wonderfully informed help with my researches. At the Balcony House Museum, I was offered some tremendous insights into the historical nature of Bahamian society. At The Retreat, a bus ride out to the southeast of town, I discovered a gorgeous ornamental garden run by the Bahamas National Trust. And at Ardastra Garden, I enjoyed a terrific garden/zoo replete with exotic birds and marching flamingos.

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 A peaceful scene at The Retreat. My Photo

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Flamingos at Ardastra Gardens. My Photo

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A Study in Flamingos at Ardastra Gardens. At certain times of the day a park-keeper drills these birds to march up and down to his order. My Photo

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Exotic Birds at Ardastra Gardens. My Photo

I went on a catamaran trip to offshore Rose Island and bathed in the sea while most other trippers went snorkelling, which I didn’t fancy.

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A cool dude on a catamaran. My Photo

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A monster emerges from the sea at Rose Island. My Photo

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A view from Rose Island. My Photo

I took a bus trip to Clifton Heritage Park, a former slave plantation at the western tip of the island, and leaned something of its history of slavery and emancipation.

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A moving memorial to slavery at Clifton Heritage Park. These tree-trunk representations of slave women are looking out to sea over sheer cliffs. It is reported that some slaves threw themselves to their deaths at this spot. My Photo

So, in the end, I really enjoyed my time in Nassau and gathered some invaluable research. My hotel was opposite Junkanoo beach and my favourite bar became that beach’s Salty Crab, where I was treated to bottles of the local beer and delicious lobster salad.

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The view from my hotel window, as a cruise-ship arrives in the morning. My Photo

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My favourite beach bar, The Salty Crab, Junkanoo Beach. My Photo

Bartleby the Apparition

Certain figures from nineteenth century gothic horror fiction are still very much part of mainstream culture. One thinks of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula the vampire, and Doctor Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego Mr Hyde. Less well-known, but more unsettling in my opinion, is the figure of “Bartleby the Scrivener” from a short story of that name by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) first published in 1853. Bartleby is ostensibly a bland, passive character, who could not be further removed from the nightmarish creations I have mentioned. But, to me, he is scarier than any of them.

Melville’s story is narrated by a successful, elderly lawyer who has his business chambers on the second floor of a Wall Street office building in New York City. In the days before photocopying and digital technology, lawyers had to employ droves of law-copyists, known as “scriveners”, to laboriously transcribe duplicates of legal documents by hand. It is hard to imagine a more monotonous and soul-destroying occupation. At the beginning of his story the narrator already has two scriveners in his service, but needs a third to cope with an expected influx of new work:

“In answer to my advertisement,” the narrator relates, “a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” If Bartleby has a first name we never learn what it is, and, despite knowing nothing whatever of him beyond his having the appropriate qualifications, the narrator engages him straightway.

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Everything is fine at first, since Bartleby works quickly and efficiently by daylight and candlelight (“he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”), the only cause for unease being that he does so “silently, palely, mechanically”. But when the narrator asks him to help in examining copies against each other, a routine exercise for a scrivener, Bartleby simply says “I would prefer not to.” He does not refuse in any insolent or confrontational manner but “in a singularly mild, firm voice…”. “His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.” Although disconcerted by this, Bartleby’s blank passivity somehow disarms the narrator.

The scrivener will not be shifted from his refusal and the narrator gradually notices that he never leaves the office, indeed when asked to go out on an errand he replies “I would prefer not to.” Needing to call in there one Sunday morning, the narrator finds that he cannot get his key into the lock because there is a one already lodged there from the inside. The door is at last opened from within “and thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but that he was deeply engaged just then, and – preferred not admitting me at present.”

Bartleby is plainly living at the office, and the narrator finds himself deeply affected by his employee’s apparent loneliness and desolation: “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me.” “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

An attempt by his employer to elicit some basic facts from Bartleby concerning his previous life and present circumstances receives the inevitable reply, “I would prefer not to”. Soon he stops copying (“I would prefer not to”) and declines to do any work at all. Increasingly, he does no more than stand looking out of a window which is faced by the blank wall of another building only ten feet distant, in a pose the narrator refers to as his “dead-wall revery”. The narrator tries to dismiss him but he will not go, even when offered monetary incentives. All efforts to persuade and reason with him, and tempt him, are met with his standard anodyne rebuff: “I would prefer not to”.

At length the narrator, his other employees, and his clients and business associates grow so unnerved by the baleful and inert presence that the situation becomes intolerable. But still the narrator cannot bring himself to have Bartleby coerced in any way. Instead, he actually moves office and leaves the scrivener in sole occupation of his now empty former premises.

Eventually Bartleby declines to go on living altogether, so he stops eating and passes away. But in a coda to the story, the narrator hears a rumour that the scrivener had previously been employed at the “dead letter” office in Washington. This was where letters that could not be delivered due to their being hopelessly addressed ended up. There, they were opened, and then burned if no return address could be located inside. Anything valuable within would be auctioned off. “Dead letters!” the narrator observes, “does it not sound like dead men?”

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Having reread the story recently, I turned to the editor’s (Harold Beaver) introduction to my volume of Melville’s work to find out what it’s supposed to mean. Apparently it comes out of Melville’s own experience as a writer: “…it becomes a parable of all writers in a financial society who refuse to write on demand or to compromise…”. Alternatively, the editor says, it’s a religious parable, with the narrator eventually betraying the Christ-like purity of Bartleby by forsaking him.

But, echoing Bartleby, I prefer not to accept such convoluted abstractions. To me, it’s about a haunting. I read somewhere that all ghost stories are grief stories, and I fancy that Bartleby represents some elemental human grief being visited upon the complacent narrator. As the story ends: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

The illustrations are “The Book Auctioneer” from Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (which looks like my idea of Bartleby) and “The dead letter office at Washington”. I read “Bartleby” in “Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, And Other Stories” ed. Harold Beaver

Sweet Auburn

I visited the United States a lot in the nineties and early noughties, and in those days tended to let my curiosity run away with me so that I might suddenly find myself in the wrong part of town. This was, on occasion, an uncomfortable experience. But one day when I was in Atlanta, Georgia, I gave free-rein to my exploring instincts, to the most magnificent effect.

It was Tuesday 21st November 2000, and the disputed Bush/Gore presidential election had just taken place with its outcome still hanging in the balance. I was staying with a friend in suburban Atlanta and, as he and his partner were at work on the day in question, I took a train downtown to have a look around. As I was walking about the city centre, I became aware that large numbers of African-Americans were gathering and heading in a particular direction. The atmosphere was peaceful and celebratory. I went into a shop and asked what was going on, to be told that the funeral of a prominent civil rights activist, Hosea Williams, was taking place in a nearby inner-city area known as “Sweet Auburn”. I did not think twice before joining the crowds as they surged eastward along Auburn Avenue.

Though I had long been an admirer of the civil rights struggle of the nineteen-sixties, I must admit to not then having heard of Hosea Williams. I know now that he was a close associate of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and that he had led the attempted march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. This demonstration in favour of African-American voting rights (generally denied to them throughout the south), was trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when it was attacked by armed police. The peaceful marchers, including Williams himself, were gassed and beaten. And this wasn’t the first racist violence that Williams had endured. On returning from the Second World War in Europe, Williams, a decorated soldier still in uniform, was beaten so badly that he was left for dead by a gang of whites. His offence had been to drink water from a “whites only” fountain at a Southern bus station.

I was swept along by the crowds to eventually reach a building called the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Again, I did not know this at the time, but this was where Dr King and his father pastored in earlier years. I remember that mine was one of the very few white faces to be seen thereabouts, apart from some belonging to officers of the Atlanta police, as appears from this photograph I took outside the church:

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The funeral itself was underway, and was being held in the new Ebenezer church building across the road. This was full to overflowing, as appears from my snapshot:

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But, when I summoned up the courage to step through its doors into the old Ebenezer church, I found out that live coverage from across the road was being shown there on a screen. The hall was pretty crowded, though a welcoming usher showed me to a vacant space along a bench towards the back. It was thus my good luck to see and hear several of the impassioned speakers live, who included Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. Dr King’s widow Coretta was there, along with a roll-call of civil rights campaigners. Reaction to the speakers pulsed around the church, and those around me frequently voiced responses, and frequently stood up and sat down again. Far from feeling like an outsider I found myself thoroughly buoyed upon the cresting waves of emotion, sometimes fighting back tears. Someone gripped my shoulder and someone else squeezed my arm. Everyone beamed at me, and soon I was responding vocally to the speakers myself, and getting up and down at climactic moments alongside everyone else.

I particularly remember one speaker, apparently Williams’ old friend James “Alley Pat” Patrick, puncturing the solemnity of his predecessors by stating that he intended to talk about “the real man” that he had hung out with “after midnight.” This was received with whops and hoots of knowing laughter. Apparently it’s well-established that, like Dr King himself, Williams was no stranger to secular indulgences of various sorts. “Alley Pat” treated us to a catalogue of delightful stories that lit his deceased companion in a less-than-sanctified light, all of which were greeted with great enthusiasm.

When the service was ended we all cleared the hall to observe the procession, which was then mustering around a simple mule-drawn waggon bearing the flag-draped coffin back into town. Williams was said to have often dressed in simple dungarees, and many of the mourners turned out in likewise fashion:

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I climbed a wall to take this shot of the procession, showing Jesse Jackson walking behind the waggon with his hands on the coffin:

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I was also much taken with these cowboy-hatted procession outriders:

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On returning to my friend’s home in suburban Atlanta I excitedly recounted the events I had observed, and revelled in the extraordinary happenstance that had landed me in downtown Atlanta on that particular day. My friend’s partner regarded me with an expression of mock-concern and said, “We’ll have to put you under close supervision next time you’re allowed out and about.” She meant this humorously, but it did say something to me, nonetheless, about the continuing ruptures in American society. It’s sad that a white suburban American would regard attending such an event as something slightly alien, dangerous even, for someone like her to do. For myself I loved every minute of it, and felt blessed to have been there.