Category Archives: Virgin Islands and Caribbean

Thoughts on Charter Yachts in the US Virgin Islands

The Charlotte Amalie waterfront in the 1970s presented a picturesque scene of native sloops, fishing boats and local cargo vessels tied up to the seawall. On the paved walkway along the harbor front were numerous kiosks selling fruits and vegetables, meats and fish.

In those days, St. Thomas was a sailing Mecca. The harbor was full of yachts of all sizes and classes, some itinerant, some local and some there to take part in the charter industry. Experienced captains took adventurous tourists to the then sparsely developed British Virgin Islands or further away to the down island chain of the Lesser Antilles or west to Culebra, Vieques and Puerto Rico.

Yacht Haven Marina was the center of this industry and the center of the center was Fearless Fred’s Bar at the Marina where charter captains would pitch would be charters and old salts would spin tales of adventures and misadventures at sea.

This was before the popularity of the bare boat rental system in which charterers rent a boat for a week or more and sail it themselves.

By the 1980s the nature of  charter boat industry in the US Virgin Islands had changed with bare boats predominating over crewed charters. While the US Virgin Islands’ government imposed complicated restrictions, taxes and fees on charter yachts favoring instead the cruise ship industry, the British Virgin Islands actively courted the charter yacht companies and tried to make it as easy as possible for them. As a result many USVI companies changed their base of operations to the BVI whose government was more responsive to the needs of the industry and little by little most of the sailing yachts left the Charlotte Amalie Harbor setting up shop in places like Sopers Hole and Roadtown on the island of Tortola.

The Yacht Haven hotel and Marinaf closed down, went into a state of disrepair remained so for many years.

Recently the charter industry on St. Thomas has made a comeback of sorts. More and more you can see luxury mega yachts tied up stern-to along the waterfront seawall, at anchor in the harbor and alongside the docks at the Yacht Haven Grande, the new incarnation of the old Yacht Haven now featuring a modern marina, a high end shopping mall and a condominium complex. The operation was designed specifically to attract the mega yacht business and has had a limited degree of success, but not to the extent that was predicted.

Rumor has it that one of the big reasons that mega yachts are not stopping in the USVI as much as was previously expected is due to complications and red tape imposed by Homeland Security and Customs and Immigration regarding foreign registered vessels and non-US citizen charterers and crews. On Tortola in the neighboring British Virgin Islands and on nearby St. Martin, which have somewhat comparable facilities the governments have endeavored to make it as easy as possible for the Mega Yachts to enter and clear and captains, trying to avoid red tape and delays, will often opt for these foreign destinations instead of St. Thomas if they have a choice in the matter.

Notwithstanding the problems, it seems to me that Charlotte Amalie Harbor has been making a comeback as a sailing destination, especially in the realm of the super luxurious mega yachts.

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Sportfishing in the Virgin Islands and the Gulf Oil Disaster

St.Thomas Dockside Scuttlebutt
I rent a little dock space over at Sapphire Marina on St. Thomas and today I noticed that the marina was just about full. This is unusual for this time of year, when many of the boats take leave of the Virgin Islands during the dread Atlantic Hurricane Season. The other thing I noticed was that most of the formerly empty slips were now occupied by a fleet of top of the line sport-fishing boats.

I was told that most of these newly arrived vessels were refugees from the Gulf oil spill.

The sport fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is in big trouble. Really big, like it’s just about not happening at all, not now and probably not for a long time to come. Consequently, those in the sport fishing industry and who want to continue doing what they love to be doing are relocating, and many of them have chosen to come here to the Virgin islands, which some say is the sport fishing capitol of the world.

A captain from the Gulf Coast, who had arrived here on his sport fisherman described coming upon part of the spill.

Being someone who has never seen an oil spill, I had imagined it to be a shimmering film of oil floating on top of the water, making rainbow like colors in the sunshine, but something you could drive a boat through. Not even close.  The captain described it as an extremely large floating mass of thick gooey oil some 100 yards wide and an incredible six feet deep, a disgusting, impassable, mess that gets bigger every day.

It’s good to have new business come to the Virgin Islands, but not like this.

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A Nostalgic Visit to Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, BVI
Yesterday I headed over to Jost Van Dyke, carrying with me two old friends, whom I haven’t seen in many years, and a copy of an book given to me by Joe Jackson, a book of photos of the Virgin Islands published in 1970, several of which were taken in Jost Van Dyke.

The mission of the day, besides just having a good time and enjoying a lobster dinner over at Abe’s in Little harbor, was to try to take photographs from  same positions as the 1970 photographer and present them side by side. Images changed only by some 38 years of time. (I was fairly successful and am working on a blog presentation of these photos – soon come)

The trip turned nostalgic as I presented the book to the Jost Van Dyke natives and residents all of whom were fascinated with the old studies of Jost Van Dyke. My friend, Steve Coakley, took us in his taxi to some of the spots that I need to access.

Ivan and Steve check out the 1970 Virgin Islands book
Ivan and Steve check out the 1970 Virgin Islands book

We drove up the road to the west of Great Harbour for one of the locations, and Steve decided to continue over the ridge and down into White Bay to check out Ivan at the campground. Heading down into the valley I shot the above photo of White Bay, which brought back memories of my first visit to that bay back in the same year that our book was published, 1970.

White Bay Nostalgia
My girlfriend at the time and I were over at Foxy’s when we first heard about the beautiful beach just over the hill to the west. We headed up the rugged jeep trail on the western side of Great Harbour, in the bright morning sunshine. At the top of the hill, a narrow shaded footpath led down through thick bush into the next bay. At the bottom of the trail there was a small opening through a thicket of sea grape trees. We stepped through and were greated by one of the most magnificent sights I have ever experienced. This long pristine white sand beach, backed by coconut palms and sea grapes was totally untouched. Not a soul or a house could be seen anywhere. The waters within the bay were crystal clear, with the characteristic mix of blues found in our shallow indented bays. Not far offshore were the reddish tints created by the coral reef that protected the bay from the open sea.

The beach extended to a rocky outcropping around which was another stretch of coral sand beach. We had passed through a portal into a tropical paradise more beautiful and romantic than even the imagination could conjur up.

I told Steve this story and he told me that he, although born and bred on Jost van Dyke, had the same feeling of awe when he first encountered that beach lying beyond the opening in the sea grape trees.

White Bay Today
Today, White Bay, is not quite the same. It’s still beautiful, but fairly well developed. Whereas a sailing publication advised mariners that there was swinging room behind the reef within the two bays for two or three vessels and if you encountered that many you were advised to head back to Great Harbor and anchor there, today that concept is a joke. In addition to the many, many more than three vessels one can find at any given time at anchor in the bay, mini cruise ships such as the five masted Club Med often anchor just outside the reef ferrying passengers back and forth to the shore. There are now bars and restaurants, campgrounds and guest houses and villas. In general it’s a bustling party atmosphere, still cool, just very different.

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St. John Virgin Islands: Tropical Depression Two Formed in the Atlantic

Tropical Depression Two has formed out of the strong tropical wave off the coast of Africa we’ve been watching, and has a good chance of becoming the Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm. Satellite loops of the storm show that heavy thunderstorm activity is increasing near the storm’s center.

Atlantic Will Produce Tropical Storm Soon
By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor from the August 11, 2009 edition

New York – The tropics are about to heat up – in a stormy sort of way.

The Atlantic’s first tropical storm of the year will be named shortly, meteorologists say. And at least two more storms could form in the next two to three weeks, according to some computer forecasts. What this means is that residents living along the East Coast will need to pay attention to the weather forecast.

“We will be getting to the peak of the tropical season over the next two months,” says Brian Edwards, a meteorologist at “By [Wednesday] morning, we could have our first named storm.”

The first name for a storm this year will be Ana.

Currently, a storm system is a few hundred miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, which are off the coast of Africa. Even if it becomes tropical storm Ana, it’s not expected to become a full-fledged hurricane. “At this point, it probably would not, but it’s too early to tell,” Mr. Edwards says.

However, to the east of what could become Ana is another, more potent tropical wave – a low-pressure zone over Africa that should emerge into the Atlantic in the next 12 to 24 hours. “Once it’s off the coast, it enters an area that is favorable to development,” he says.

The second system would be entering an Atlantic that is considerably more humid as a result of the first system. This is one reason that some AccuWeather computer models show a powerful storm developing in the next 12 to 15 days. “Some of the models have it going up the East Coast. Some have it going out to sea,” says Edwards.

Yet a third tropical wave is east of the Lesser Antilles. That system could move into the Gulf of Mexico, Edwards says. But, he adds, right now the Caribbean is a very hostile place for hurricane development.

That hostile environment is partly the result of a developing El Niño event. El Niño is when some of the Pacific Ocean’s waters become warmer than normal, affecting the wind currents. Those wind currents can create wind shear in the Caribbean, which inhibits hurricane development in the Atlantic.

The developing El Niño is partly why Philip Klotzbach and William Gray of Colorado State University adjusted their forecast for the Atlantic area a week ago. In June, they called for 11 named storms; now, they’re calling for 10 named storms, two of them major hurricanes. Their work, much of it based on statistical data, shows a slightly reduced hurricane season.

“We think this will be a below-normal hurricane season, comparable to 2002 and 2006,” says Mr. Klotzbach. “In those years, there were no major hurricanes that had a landfall.”

But, he adds, “It only takes one storm in your area for it to be an active hurricane season for you.”

It’s not unusual to have some below-average hurricane years, Klotzbach and Mr. Gray say in their August analysis. But this doesn’t change their view that for the next 10 to 15 years, the Atlantic hurricane seasons will be active.

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Tales of St. John & the Caribbean: The Queen’s Panties

From Tales of St. John & the Caribbean
“The Queen’s Panties” by Curtney “Ghost” Chinnery

In the mid-sixties, the Queen of England paid a visit to the island of Tortola. This particular story is one that probably should not be told. But what the hell, we were just children.

Let me start with the day before the Queen came to Roadtown, Tortola. There were four of us. We were called “Water Rats.” There were two police officers that were assigned to the waterfront area. One of the officers called out to us saying: “Hey! Come here. Tomorrow the Queen will be here, and we don’t want you Water Rats in the water. Don’t let us have to chase you guys around.”

Those officers were men we respected. Therefore, we promised not to be in the water. We had intentions of making good money that day from visiting tourists by diving for coins.  Being that our plans were changed because of our promise, we were left with nothing in mind to do for the day of the Queen’s visit. The eldest of our group, a fellow we called Hookadoe, who is no longer with us in life today, said, “I know what we can do tomorrow. Let’s come early in the morning and go up under the stage.”

My brother Abraham asked Hookadoe, “Why?”

“To see what color panty she’ll be wearing,” Hookadoe replied.

Suddenly, we all thought it was a great idea, for it meant to us that we would be the only ones who would have the   pleasure of seeing the Queen’s panty.

Early the following morning, Hookadoe, Abraham, our friend Blackbird and I met up at the Market Square near the waterfront. Slightly before daybreak, we made our way over the hill so that we would not be seen by anyone.

Directly above the Roadtown Post Office was an old pirates’ castle, which today is the Dr. Tattersol Hospital. Sticking out from various points of the castle were heavy iron cannons pointed out towards the Roadtown harbor. There was one particular cannon we kids used to descend downwards into one of the many genip trees to get to the street below on the side of the Post Office. As we got to the street level, which is the same narrow Main Street of today, I was sent out as a scout to see if anyone was in the street.

After seeing no one, I signaled to the others to follow.

In those days, we had a wooden dock that was for ferry and yacht discharge only. The dock directly across from the passenger dock was for cargo boats to unload. For the Queen’s comfort, they constructed a large stage between both docks using many strips of wood for the floor, which made us think we would be able to look up between the many single strips of board.

We all took turns inching our way out toward the customs building at the dock. Upon arrival, we went into the water, clothes and all. The back end of the stage that faced the water was open so that we Water Rats could climb out of the water and go up under the stage.

After we made it under the stage, we undressed and wrang out our clothes. We depended upon our body heat as a drying agent to dry our clothes.

It wasn’t long before people started to gather. Suddenly we heard the sound of an engine. A few moments later, two U-boats came and tied up at the end of both docks, which meant we were totally trapped. To keep from being seen we now had to move toward the front section of the stage and in our little peeping plot, there was no turning back.

That morning we had no breakfast, which was a big mistake. The crowd started to build, and beneath the stage started to get hot from the sun. There was nothing we could do but lay on the ground for a few hours. As time went by, we developed hunger. What made matters worse was the odor of fried chicken, which was causing a big problem for us.

As the  hours passed, the heat built up. Our wet clothes never got a chance to dry from our body heat, because our bodies were just pushing out more water from sweat. Therefore what we did was remove our clothes.

I can remember starting to say a prayer, a prayer asking God to send the Queen soon, so that we could get out of there. There were only two ways out. One was to give up our quest. The other was to wait it out until the Queen arrived, made her speech, and moved on up through Main Street to the schoolyard where many people were gathered to see her. The choice of giving up was out of the question, so we stuck it out.

As we lay upon our clothes, up under the hot darkened stage, we heard clapping through the cracks of the stage steps. I could see the crowd moving to the left side in front of the stage. This cheering, clapping, and movement of the crowd told us our big moment was about to come. We made our move to the center of the stage, so that we could have a clear view of the Queen. We all laid side by side in the area where the Queen was about to walk up on the stage.

I can remember that our hunger had intensified so much so that our stomachs were making noises. This was another problem, because the moving gas in our stomachs was loud enough to be heard from the outside. Then as we lay there trying to quiet our stomachs by squeezing them with our hands, it suddenly got very dark.

It seems that someone had just unrolled a three-foot-wide   red carpet for the Queen to walk on, which posed another problem. To combat this new dilemma, my brother and I moved to one side of the carpet and Blackbird and Hookadoe the other. That way we could still view the Queen from the sides of the carpet.

The white convertible carrying the Queen drove up in front and stopped directly at the beginning of the red carpet. The car door was opened by one of our local police officers. We could now clearly see her face. Her beauty glittered as the sunlight hit her overall structure. Her large white dress was whiter than white itself. But our viewing of her was just for a brief moment. Once she came to the first step we beneath lost visual of her face.

Our big moment had finally arrived. We moved back from under the step section in an attempt to follow her movements as she was being escorted to her area upon the stage. We tried to look and peep through the cracks of the strips of wood on the sides of the carpet, except that fate was not on our side. The panty we had tried to see, for us, did not exist. All that we saw from our angle was layers and layers of material. It seems that the Queen had on about 25 dresses, one dress on top of another. We did not even get to see her ankle. The only part of her skin we saw was what all had seen, which was from her elbow to below her shoulders and her face. All other parts of her body were covered.

Disappointed as we were, we had no choice but to re­­main under that stage with our hunger. Many people made speeches as we prayed for them to finish and to begin the parade that would lead everyone through town and away from us, which, in time, happened.

Tired and hungry at the end of our worthless quest, we left the stage in the same way we entered it.

Due to the fact that we were so hungry and no one seemed to be around, we walked about the waterfront area and picked up bits and pieces of chicken and anything else we found to eat that had been left on the ground. For drinks we drained old soda cans, and thus ended our worthless quest to see if we could view the Queen’s panty.

Now today as a man I wonder. If they had caught us then, what would have become of us? What type of charge would they have placed upon us? In any case we did what we did when we did it. Personally, I for one would like to apologize to the Queen. I was just a crazy little boy.

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Tales of St. John & the Caribbean: Donkey Foot Woman

From Tales of St. John & the Caribbean
I first met Mervin when I lived in St. Thomas in the late 1960s. I had only been living in the Virgin Islands for about a month and the Caribbean experience was new and exciting. I had just purchased a 17-foot fishing boat from a Frenchtown   fisherman. It was tied up to the seawall on the waterfront at Charlotte Amalie and I was standing there, looking out over the harbor, lost in daydreams about all the new adventures that awaited me. It was a feeling similar to the one I had when I bought my first automobile: a sense of freedom, of being able to get up and go wherever and whenever I wanted.

My attention was drawn to the entrance of Charlotte Amalie Harbor where a black-hulled, gaff-rigged, wooden schooner was coming in with all sails flying. I watched as the crew took down the sails and motored over to the seawall, tying up right behind my new boat. I could see three young men standing on deck, one black and two white. They scurried about the vessel, neatly arranging the lines and sails and making everything shipshape.

The schooner carried a cargo of colorful and delicious-looking tropical fruits and vegetables from Dominica, which the crew began to organize so that they could sell them to the shoppers and passers-by on the bustling St. Thomas waterfront.

It was truly a sight to behold, especially to an American recently arrived in the Caribbean. There were mangos of all sizes and colors, bananas with names like fig, apple and horse; limes the size of melons, ugli fruit, sweet green oranges and grapefruit, small ripe pineapples, green coconuts called jelly nuts, breadfruit, papaya, star-shaped carambolas, sugar apples and soursop, colorful sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant; and root vegetables like yam, sweet potato, tanya, yucca and boniato.

While the three young men were getting ready for the day’s activities, I struck up a conversation with them, asking all kinds of questions like: What are your names? Where are you all from? What are those fruits over there? and Can I see the inside of the boat?

The two white men were British expatriates who had re­cently bought the old schooner for a song, but had spent a good deal of time and money in restoration and refitting. This was their first voyage of a commercial nature and all had gone well so far.

The black man was Mervin, a native of the island of Dominica. Mervin was the invaluable crewman. In addition to being a great sailor, Mervin could also be a navigator, carpenter, plumber, electrician, rigger and cook.

The schooner from Dominica was not the only boat to have brought tropical fruits and vegetables to St. Thomas. There were other boats tied up to the seawall with produce for sale from Santo Domingo, from Puerto Rico and from the British Virgin Islands. In addition, there were kiosks on the walkway that were supplied daily with fruit and vegetables brought in by air from San Juan.

Notwithstanding, the tropical produce grown in the lush  volcanic soil of the Dominican mountain valleys was bigger and better and less expensive.

Although sales were brisk and steady, the young entrepreneurs decided to expand the scope of their market and came up with a more direct sales approach; one that they hoped would enable them to sell out faster, with less competition, and at higher prices. Their idea was to sell door-to-door, so to speak, stopping alongside the yachts that were anchored in the harbor or tied up at the dock at the then-prestigious Yacht Haven Marina.

To put the plan into effect, they needed a boat about the size of mine. Their schooner was too big and not maneuverable enough for such an activity, and their dinghy was too small to carry an appreciable amount of goods.

The captain made me an offer: a portion of the profits in exchange for my time and for the use of my boat. I readily  accepted their proposal, delighted by the opportunity to be part of this Virgin Island adventure.
That very afternoon, when business began to slow down at the waterfront, we loaded up my boat and motored around the harbor, stopping alongside the anchored yachts to show the people our fruits and vegetables. It was an easy sell. Everything looked just too delicious to pass up.

After that day, we all stayed in touch and whenever the fruit boat was in port, we would get together socially for a drink or a night on the town.

One day after I had moved to St. John,  I received a call from Mervin, who had decided to leave the fruit boat and seek his fortune in the Virgin Islands. He needed a place to stay while he was waiting to receive some documents regarding his immigration status, and I told him that he could use my  apartment in Coral Bay.

As usual, Mervin proved to be helpful and multitalented. He helped me build fish traps and, in a flamboyant spectacle of religion and theater, he fortified the house against evil spirits. Carrying a coal pot full of smoldering branches, leaves and herbs into every nook and cranny of the house, he chased away any “jumbies” that might have been lurking about.

In the mornings, we went into the bush to cut birch sticks for the fish pot braces, and after lunch, we spent long and tedious hours in the front yard tying up the chicken wire traps.

In the evenings, Mervin would captivate me with stories about the wonders of Dominica: rich jungles where every kind of tropical fruit imaginable grew in abundance, haunted mountains that rose above the clouds and where the Devil himself was known to walk, spectacular waterfalls possessed with spirit­ual powers, and hot springs whose waters could cure illnesses and restore lost youth. He told me of trained monkeys that would climb the tall coconut trees and throw coconuts down to the gatherers below, about his maternal grandmother who was a full-blooded Carib, and a princess among her people, about magic and jumbies and ghosts and zombies who roamed about on full-moon nights in a netherworld hovering between life and death, and about the poor farmer who shared his meager plate of food with a stray  mongrel dog and awoke the next morning to find a $100 bill in the gourd where he had placed the dog’s food.

One story that particularly impressed me was the tale of the Donkey Foot Woman, which Mervin told me by candlelight one night when we were temporarily without electricity:

One evening, there was a festival in Mervin’s village. Housewives prepared plates of fish and meats and vegetables. Others brought rum and beer. A huge bonfire lit up the clear Caribbean night and the sound of music and laughter echoed throughout the village.

At one point, a crowd drew around to observe a group of young men and women who were dancing to an ancient African rhythm, expertly played on a variety of homemade percussion instruments.

One of the dancers was not from the village. She was a beautiful white woman wearing a large straw hat. No one knew who she was or where she came from.

A little boy stood next to his mother in the crowd. He stared at the strange woman, fascinated by the spectacle and the hyp­notic beat of the music. Suddenly he turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, look de woman. She have a donkey foot!”

The little boy’s mother answered, “Me son, I see no woman with donkey foot.”

“Momma, momma, yes, look!” the boy cried, then loud enough for all to hear he yelled, “Watch de donkey foot!”

An instant later, the little boy fell to the ground dead, his skull mashed in by a mysterious and powerful blow.

Many years have now passed and much has changed since I last saw Mervin, but I still carry fond memories of him and of those wonderful and exciting days of my initiation into the island experience.

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St. John USVI: Canoes

The first Europeans to travel to the islands of the Americas were duly impressed by the boats used by the Taino natives they met there. Their craft were made from the hollowed out trees and were called canoas, from which the English word canoe came from.

The smaller canoes were used by individuals for near shore fishing or by small parties of fishermen, hunters or warriors. The largest ones were the property of the caciques or chiefs and were capable of carrying as many as one hundred people over long distances.

Christopher Columbus wrote, “On every island there are many canoes of a single piece of wood; and though narrow, yet in length and shape similar to our rowboats, but swifter in movement. They steer only by oars. Some of these boats are large, some small, some of medium size. Yet they row many of the larger row-boats with eighteen cross-benches, with which they cross to all those islands, which are innumerable, and with these feats they perform their trading, and carry on commerce among them. I saw some of these canoes which were carrying seventy and eighty rowers.”

These great canoes were carved from a tree that the Taino called tsayee-baa. On St. John, this tree is called kapok, elsewhere it is known as ceiba or silk cotton.

For a people who possessed only stone tools, the felling and subsequent carving out of a tree large enough to make a hundred-person canoe was no mean feat. It was accomplished by making a fire at the base of the tree, which would char the trunk. The fire was then extinguished and the burned wood scraped out with sharp stone tools.

This process would be repeated again and again until the tree came down. The fallen tree would then be stripped of its branches and hauled out of the forest. The ends were then squared off and the bark removed. The same charring and scarping process would be used to carve out the inside of the trunk and after the proper configuration was obtained the canoa would be polished, painted and launched.

The incredible amount of manpower, time, dedication and craftsmanship required to produce a canoe of this magnitude is only part of the story. To the Taino, as well as to most other cultures of the Americas, the ceiba was a highly sacred and spiritual tree. It could not just be cut down and carved up without attention to the powerful spirit that resides within.

According to the Spanish chroniclers who left us the only written documents concerning of the Taino culture, the fabrication of these giant canoes involved a complicated spiritual ritual. The chief who intended to make the canoe would first need to communicate with the spirit of a ceiba tree, which could only be cut down if the tree spirit gave its permission. The spirit would also indicate the manner in which it would be transformed, giving detailed instructions as to the size, nature of carving and even the painting of the canoe. The spirit of the tree would then exist within the canoe, and the chief would carry the responsibility for that spirit for the rest of his life. This would involve ceremonies honoring and making offerings to the tree spirit.

The Tainos took pride in their courage on the high ocean as well as their skill in finding their way around their world. Columbus was often astonished at finding lone Taino fishermen sailing in the open ocean as he made his way among the islands. Once, a canoe full of Taino men followed him from island to island until one of their relatives, held captive on one of the ships, jumped over the side and was spirited away so quickly that the Spanish sailors could not recapture them.

The Taino were so comfortable at sea and so adept at navigation that they were said to make almost daily crossings over the rough and treacherous Mona Passage that separates Puerto Rico from Hispaniola.

The Tainos did not confine their sea travel to their homeland islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They were also known to venture as far as the mainland of South America, Mexico, Yucatan and Central America, which, according to archeologists, explains the many cultural similarities between the Taino and the often advanced societies that inhabited these far off places.

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St. John, Virgin Islands & Caribbean Stories: Enriquillo

The hero of this story was born on the island of Hispaniola in the early 1500’s. His name was Guarocuya. He was the son of a Taino cacique, or chief, who was assassinated by the Spaniards. After the death of his father, Guarocuya was adopted by Franciscan monks, who provided him with a Spanish-style education. Upon his conversion to Catholicism he was given the Christian name, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo was happily married to the granddaughter of the illustrious caciques, Caonabo and Anacaona. Her name was Mencía, and she also had converted to Christianity.

The Tainos of Hispaniola, conquered and subjugated by the Spanish, were governed under a policy called the encomienda, a system not very different than the institution of slavery. Under this policy Taino lands were entrusted to Spanish colonists who then exercised complete authority over that land and the people on it.

Enriquillo and Mencía, along with other Tainos of their village were “entrusted” to the Spanish colonist, Francisco de Valenzuela who operated a large ranch. When Francisco de Valenzuela died he left his estate, including the “entrusted” workers, to his son Andrés who, taking advantage of his position and his power, began to make unwanted sexual advance towards Mencía.

When Enriquillo found out about the persecution being suffered by his wife, he reproached his new master and begged him to leave Mencía in peace. Andrés de Valenzuela perceived his servant’s complaint as an affront to his authority and had Enriquillo beaten in front of the other Tainos.

Indignant over this unjust treatment, Enriquillo denounced Andrés to the lieutenant governor of the village, don Pedro Badillo. The Spanish colonial official, however, refused to get involved in any case involving a Taino against a Spaniard. Enriquillo then took his complaint to the highest judicial authorities on the island. This only resulted in the case being sent back to Badillo to deal with. When Badillo received the complaint for the second time, he warned Enriquillo that if he persisted in this matter, he would be arrested and sentenced to prison.

At this point Enriquillo made his decision to rebel against the Spaniards. He gathered together a large group of fellow Tainos and fled to the rugged mountain terrain in the region of Bahoruco. The year was 1520.

Badillo and Valenzuela and a force of armed men set out in pursuit of the rebels. A fierce battle ensued and the Taino rebels succeeded in defeating the Spaniards, many of whom were killed or wounded. Valenzuela himself was at the point of being killed by one of the Taino warriors when, Enriquillo, the former servant, took pity on him and ordered the warrior to spare Valenzuela’s life. Enriquillo set Valenzuela free, saying to him, “Be grateful that I have not killed you. Leave and never return here again.”

The Taino insurgents established a secure mountain stronghold where they planted fields of yucca and other provisions in the most hidden and remote valleys and conducted raids against Spanish haciendas and ranches in the vicinity.

Enriquillo turned out to be a great warrior and a master strategist. He used guerrilla tactics in which he avoided meeting his numerically superior and better armed enemy on open ground. Instead Enriquillo took advantage of his knowledge the terrain and lead his adversaries into to fall into deadly ambushes. After attacking with lightning speed Enriquillo would retreat into the nearly inaccessible mountain valleys and steep ravines, which only they knew well and, from there, prepare for the next surprise attack.

After several humiliating defeats, the Spaniards decided to take another tack. Diego Colon, the Governor General of Hispaniola offered to make peace with Enriquillo and his followers granting them complete immunity if they would give up the rebellion and once again submit to Spanish authority. Enriquillo refused to accept this and several other subsequent proposals made by both the government and the church.

At one point the Spanish sent Father Remigio, the priest who had been Enriquillo’s former teacher, to act as an intermediary between the government and the rebels. Father Remigio was intercepted by lookouts who dispossessed the Franciscan of his robes. They then conducted the priest, who was dressed only in his underwear, to meet Enriquillo.

Ashamed at seeing his old teacher in such a state, Enriquillo punished the warriors who were responsible for this show of disrespect, and as a means of apology ordered that a grand reception be made in Father Remigio’s honor. Enriquillo’s doubts concerning the sincerity and good faith of the colonial officials, however, still remained and he once again refused to accept the peace offer.

In 1532 in order to put an end to the Taino uprising, the Emperor sent a corps of two hundred well-armed and well-equipped soldiers to Hispaniola under the command of Captain Francisco de Barrionuevo.

Barrionuevo was ordered to explore all peaceful avenues for ending the conflict before resorting to violent action. In 1533 Barrionuevo, along with thirty soldiers, two priests and thirty Tainos, among whom were Enriquillo’s and two priests met to discuss peace with the rebellious cacique. The meeting took place alongside a saltwater lake that today is called Lake Enriquillo in commemoration of the epic uprising.

Barrionuevo carried with him a missive from the Royal Court that proposed that the cacique cease hostilities and sign a pact of peace. Enriquillo read the document which agreed to the abolition of the encomienda system, freedom for the Tainos and grants of land to be used for the cultivation of crops and the raising of animals in exchange for the cessation of hostilities and the acceptance of Spanish authority.

Enriquillo accepted the terms and signed the agreement with Barrionuevo. The Spanish monarchy rapidly approved the treaty and sent the ratified documents to a Taino representative named Gonzáles who had been commissioned by Enriquillo for that purpose.

The Royal Court was true to their word and even took special care in the resettlement of the Tainos, providing them with cattle for livestock and seeds for the cultivation of the land. Enriquillo died peacefully a year after the peace treaty was signed, earning the love of his people and the admiration and respect of the Spaniards.

Enriquillo’s wife, Mencía organized the construction a church where the remains of her heroic husband were then buried. His tomb, however, was also the tomb of the Taino people; for despite their recently won gains, the ravages of European diseases and depredations continued to take their toll on the less than 4,000 surviving Tainos of Hispaniola. By the end of the sixteenth century that noble and gentle race had all but disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Loosely translated from Historica Grafica de la Republica Dominicana by Jose Ramon Estella.

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Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean: Legend of Hatuéy

Hatuéy was a great Taino cacique in Ayti, the land of mountains, now known as the nation of Haiti. He had first hand experience with the Spanish conquerors of his homeland, who had enslaved the Taino people, committing atrocities upon them and forcing them to labor, often to their deaths, in order to satisfy the Spaniard’s lust for gold. Rather than submit or offer resistance to the well-armed oppressors, Hatuéy chose to leave the land of his birth. He and his people escaped across the Windward Passage to Cuba.

In 1511, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who had participated in the massacre of the Taino in the province of Xaraguá, and Pánfilo de Narvárez, a veteran of the conquest of Jamaica, were chosen by the Spanish to begin the conquest of the island of Cuba. The chronicler, Bartolomé de Las Casas, sailed with Narvárez. When Hatuéy heard rumors of this invasion, he proceeded to warn the caciques of eastern Cuba about this serious threat to their very existence.

Hatuéy arrived in the village of the Cuban cacique, Guamax accompanied by a small entourage and carrying in his canoe a basket filled with gold and gold jewelry.

Addressing Guamax’s people, Hatuéy explained that the Christians so cruelly mistreated the Taino people because the Christians had a God who they worshiped and revered. The Tainos were murdered and enslaved in order to take that God away from them.

Hatuéy then displayed the basket of gold to the gathered assembly and explained that this was the God of the Christians. He then asked the people to decide what to do with Him.
Hatuéy suggested that the people perform their ceremonial dance called the Arieto and the sacred and magical Cohoba ceremony in which hallucinogenic herbs are ingested. Perhaps the God would then be pleased and He would instruct the Christians not to kill the Tainos.

After the ceremony, however, Hatuéy warned the assemblage that if they were to keep the God amongst them, the Christians would surely come and kill them in order to get possession of the God. It was finally decided to throw the God into the river.

Hatuéy’s warnings to the Cuban Taino precipitated several major rebellions and began an overall pattern of resistance against the Spanish in Cuba that was not completely subdued until the 1530’s.
Hatuéy himself was finally captured, and he and his warriors were burned alive at the stake. While tied to the stake Hatuéy was approached by a Spanish priest, who offered to baptize and convert Hatuéy, thus cleansing his sins against the Christian God which would allow Hatuéy to enter heaven and avoid hell.

Hatuéy asked for time to think about the offer. After a time Hatuéy responded by asking the priest where the Spanish went after they died. The priest told Hatuéy that baptized Christians went to heaven. Hatuéy then made his final decision. He told the priest not to baptize him because if the Spanish went to heaven, he preferred to go to hell.

The story of Hatuéy’s execution was recorded by Las Casas and is now part of Cuban folklore. Hatuéy has become a national folk hero representing Cuba’s struggle against foreign oppression, first from Spain and later from the United States of America.

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Tales of St. John and the Caribbean: A Vieques “Wild” Horse Story

Many visitors and even some guidebooks talk about the wild horses of Vieques. In fact, these horses are not wild. They all have owners. Well, sort of.

The way it was explained to me was that if a horse upsets your garden or damages your car, that horse may very well not have an owner. On the other hand, if instead you were to take that same horse home, you can bet that its rightful owners would show up at your door demanding that you give them back their horse.

A Horse Story

A longtime resident of Vieques told me an interesting anecdote about horses and their owners.

Once upon a time, when the Marines were in Vieques, they decided that the horses grazing the fields inside the Camp Garcia gate were trespassing on government land.

The horses were rounded up, arrested, so to speak, and then put in a corral to be used for the horseback riding pleasure of the Marine brass.

One day, during a visit by the British Marines to Camp Garcia, a British Sergeant Major, passing by the corral, asked an American Sergeant Major about the horses in the camp. It was soon discovered that they both loved riding and the American Sergeant Major invited the British Sergeant Major out for a ride.

Late that afternoon the two Sergeant Majors saddled up two of the finest horses in the camp and rode out towards Esperanza. When they passed the Don Q Bar on the way into town, the two Sergeant Majors developed a keen thirst and decided to go into the bar for a few drinks.

The two officers tied up the horses to a tree and walked into the bar where they sat down and very knowledgeably discussed horses, horsemanship and their favorite places to ride.

The American Sergeant Major described to the British Sergeant Major every detail of the trail that the two men would take as soon as they had satiated their thirst. This being accomplished, they got off of their barstools and walked out onto the street.

When the two Sergeant Majors looked over at the tree where they had left the horses tied, they saw a pair of fancy saddles, a pair of bridles, and a pair of saddle blankets, in effect, all their riding paraphernalia, but there were no horses. The owner of the horses had recognized them and had taken them back.

There was too much gear to walk back to the camp. So they sat down at the bar and tossed down a series of stiff drinks, while they waited for transportation to take them and their equipment back to the base.

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