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Archive for May 1st, 2009

In 1647 the Caribbean island of St. Kitts was a hotbed of conspiracies, intrigues and power struggles. One of these conflicts involved the attempt by a certain Monsieur de Poiney to replace the then Governor General of the island.

Monsieur de Poiney had many powerful and important allies, but he also had many enemies. De Poiney had a tendency to deal quite harshly and ruthlessly with those who stood in the way of his goals. He divided his adversaries into two categories corresponding to their social position. His lower class opponents would often find themselves deported for one reason or another. Others turned up dead or missing. Some of  his enemies, however, were prominent citizens who were not so easy to silence. If he had them sent back to France, they could cause trouble for him, and if they were to disappear or suffer untimely deaths, an investigation would ensue which could prove, at the very least, embarrassing.

De Poiney, being a creative individual, arranged for the formation of an expedition to explore and settle an outlying island. Sixty people, all political adversaries of  De Poiney, were chosen to make the excursion.  They were not expected to survive the voyage. Almost as soon as their ship weighed anchor, their lands and personal property were confiscated and sold to the highest bidder.

The captain of the ship carrying these unfortunates was a man named Jean Pinart. His instructions were to arrange for the demise of his passengers, but Pinart was not as cold blooded as his superior. He took the “explorers” to an island where food and water could be found. He also allowed them to keep a small boat and some tools and other supplies. From what records remain, it is very possible that this island was none other than St. John.

At this time the Virgin Islands were mostly uninhabited save for sporadic visits by pirates, woodcutters, fishermen and hunters. Spain still laid claim to the Virgin Islands by “right of discovery”. Although the Spanish never attempted to settle the islands, they did make occasional patrols to discourage others from doing so. On the first day ashore the castaways made a rather unnerving discovery. While preparing rudimentary shelters and scouting about the area, several fresh corpses were found on a nearby beach. They were Englishmen who had been caught there by the Spanish.

A week later a lone Spanish ship anchored in a nearby bay. A party of soldiers rowed ashore and attacked the settlers. When the Spanish realized they were vastly outnumbered, they beat a hasty retreat.

The very next day the Spaniards returned in greater number. Many of the exiles were killed. The survivors were dispersed into the hills and thick bush. Before setting sail the Spanish destroyed the exile’s camp, wrecked their boat and confiscated all their supplies.

The survivors of the attack reunited later that day. Their situation was desperate. They searched the wrecked campsite for anything useful that might have been overlooked by the Spaniards. They found one ax and one cutlass. They decided to construct a raft and send out a party in search of help.

Trees were cut and lashed together with whist vine to fashion a marginally seaworthy fourteen foot raft. A sail was fashioned out of  cloth from the exiles clothing and sewn together using the “needle and thread” found within the leaf of the century plant. Oars were painstakingly carved and the boat was provisioned as well as possible.

Five men were chosen to set out to sea and look for help. They had no charts, no navigational equipment and little sailing experience. At first they decided to head east in an attempt to return to St. Kitts. The crew soon found that the little raft could hardly sail into the wind at all. After an entire night of arduous rowing they had only reached what we believe to be Norman Island.

The men spent the next day searching for food and fresh water, neither of which were to be found. They did, however, make the rather ominous discovery of the bones of an earlier visitor.

Because their progress upwind was painstakingly slow and difficult, the voyagers decided to abandon the idea of sailing to St. Kitts. Their only alternative was to head west and sail downwind even though they lacked knowledge of the geography of the area and had little idea of what lands lay in that direction.

Early the next morning the courageous crew once again put out to sea. They sailed along the southern coast of St. John, crossed Pillsbury Sound and made landfall on St. Thomas in late afternoon.

The next day the men began to explore the island looking for signs of human habitation. No settlements were found, but provisions, such as wild fruits and fresh water, were secured for the next leg of the journey.

The following morning the adventurers left St. Thomas taking advantage of that day’s brisk tradewinds. They sailed all day and all night and came ashore on a small beach on the island of Puerto Rico in the late morning. The men soon realized where they were, and their fear of the Spanish prevented them from seeking aid. Consequently, they continued on their way, only coming ashore on uninhabited parts of the island where the raft could secretly be provisioned.

When the rafters reached the western tip of Puerto Rico, they made the decision to continue across the vast passage that lay in front of them. They knew there would be no turning back. The seas became rough, and the raft was in imminent danger of breaking up or capsizing. Against all odds the badly damaged craft safely reached Mona Island which lies between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola almost in the middle of the Mona Passage.

Afraid to continue across the passage and unable to return in the direction from which they came, the five would be rescuers realized that they themselves were now marooned. They gave up their hope of obtaining help for their colleagues stranded on St. John and concentrated on their own rescue and survival.

An exploration of the island revealed abandoned huts and the remains of a small settlement. Here the castaways were able to find shelter and salvage some tools and supplies. They also found the island to have an abundance of wild fowl, readily available sea food and a variety of native fruits. For three months they eked out a meager existence.

One day a lookout spotted a vessel which was about to pass near the island. Being on the verge of starvation, the men chanced a hostile reception and lit their signal fire. The ship turned out to be a fishing boat out of Puerto Rico. Even though the captain and crew were Spanish, they took pity on the rag-tag group of adventurers and gave them clothing, bread and wine. The captain promised to come back to the island after the completion of their fishing expedition. At that time the exiles could chose whether or not they wanted to return with the boat and face a possibly unpleasant reception in the Spanish settlement of San Juan.

Two weeks later the fishermen reappeared and our intrepid adventurers decided to end their exile and take their chances with the Spanish. On the first day out an incredible thing happened. Another raft carrying a bedraggled crew of six was sighted about five miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The raft was approached by the fishing vessel, and its occupants were taken aboard. By extraordinary coincidence these rafters turned out to be the last survivors of the original sixty St. Kitts colonists who had been marooned on St. John.

Upon reaching San Juan, the eleven survivors disembarked, resigning themselves to whatever fate awaited them at the hands of the Spanish authorities. Their amazing tale of survival and coincidence, however, enthralled all who heard it. Rather than being imprisoned or executed, the exiles received a heroes welcome. They found jobs in San Juan and eventually earned enough money to book passage back to Europe; all except for one, that is, who married a local woman and lived the rest of his days in Puerto Rico.

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