Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Caribbean's Violent Winds

If you love pirates, you must, by necessity, love the Caribbean. Pirates of the Golden Age were utterly formed by this vast area of sea, sun, water and scattered islands. Here they bartered with the last of the free natives, exchanging scurvy preventing fruit for guns that the natives used in an attempt the stave off the colonial powers bent on destroying their culture and making them slaves.

Pirates drank rum produced by the local sugar plantations and made it a legend. They hid among the scattered volcanic islands, marooned their undesirables on deserted beaches, and formed free communities, hidden from the powers that be. And they raided ships of many nations, playing off the politics of what was, at that time, the farthest reaches of the wild, wild west.

Pirates faced the fury of the elements. On June 7, 1692, a massive earthquake hit the wickedest  city on earth. At 11:43 (according to a stopped pocket watch found among the ruins) 2/3 of one of the largest cities in the Caribbean sank into the waves. The grave of the infamous Captain Morgan was lost forever, and some 3,000 people died.

In true piratical fashion, the survivors looted the bodies, cutting rings from the fingers of the dead.

On July 31 1715, a large hurricane struck the Florida coast just as Spain’s Treasure Fleet, was passing by. 11 out of 12 vessels sank, and gold washed ashore on the Florida coast like sea foam. Treasure hunters form all over the New World came to loot the site, and many men who came as looters left as pirates. Even today, finds of gold and precious gems ignite the imagination – and sometimes enrich the bank accounts – of modern day explorers. 

On April 26, 1717, an unseasonable hurricane wrecked the Whydah Galley and ended the career of one of the most successful pirate captains of all time, Sam Bellamy.  Sam lost his life, and those of some 150 of his loyal followers, but the legend of the Whydah remained. When recovery began in 1984, the ship’s remains became the only fully authenticated Golden Age pirate shipwreck ever discovered. Some 26 million dollars’ worth of gold was hauled from the wreckage, but the archaeological evidence was beyond price, inspiring Barry Clifford, leader of the expedition to say, “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out!”

If you love pirates, then you should love the Caribbean, with all its violence and unpredictability.

And the Caribbean has been hard hit.

As many thousands of Americans watched the news nervously, awaiting news of friends or relatives in Florida, the islands of the Caribbean were just coming to terms with a wake of unimaginable destruction.

The tiny island of Barbuda, home to proud people who fought for their freedom, was not easily conquered, though it was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage. Like many Caribbean islands, this tiny piece of land was eventually settled by European colonists, and stocked with slaves. The dirty business of slave export was one way the colonists made money, in addition to raising sugar cane.  But even when the British government freed slaves, these people were not given land or any way to buy other means of support. They remained as substance farm workers.

Before and after Irma

Today the island is mostly Black, mostly poor, and now mostly gone. After Hurricane Irma, 90% of the island’s structure has been either completely destroyed or left roofless. So much vegetation has been washed away that aerial photos show a change in color. And another hurricane is bearing down.

Donations are being accepted by UNICEF, which is working to protect the most vulnerable victims including malnourished children.

For a more local effort, the Halo group had a donation page dedicated to Barbuda specifically. https://foundationhalo.org/cause/barbuda-relief-effort/

Elsewhere, on the island of Saint Martin/Sint Martaan, the only place in the word where France and the Netherlands share a border, has been severely ravaged. In addition to being hit squarely by Irma, the tension and terror have inflamed long-standing issues of race and class, as resident recount how pale skin and cash seemed to strongly influence evacuation effort.

We know which side the pirates would have been on! While this island is still linked to powerful European nations, there is still concern that the locals, lacking power or influence, will be forgotten. US charities are moving in to help, but residents say that at the moment, “We have nothing.” Here’s a link to sites where donations are being accepted. https://www.gofundme.com/irma

Americans are already working to help their Caribbean neighbors. The US territory of Puerto Rico has already become a refugee center for harder-hit islands and a supply hub for donations. Six shipping containers of items from hammers to diapers have already headed to the British Virgin Islands, and privately owned boats are bringing the homeless to safety. But the island’s infrastructure has been crumbling for years, and the stress may be beginning to show.  

Cuba, after the storm

Cuba, one-time gathering place for Spanish Treasure fleets, and the probably location where Anne Bonney gave birth to her only child, was hard hit by the storm. Much of the northern coast of the island is underwater, power is out, and many buildings are without roofs. Even some dolphins have been evacuated. Destruction of resorts will have a lasting effect on Cuba’s tourist industry, and farm fields contaminated by salt water may not return to normal productivity for decades. More than a million people have been evacuated.

In a time of growing nationalism, it would be easy to say “Take care of our own first.” But citizens of the Caribbean lack many of the luxuries available to Americans – such as the ability to get out of the storm’s path by road. Though the residents of the Caribbean are hard-working, the region is still damaged by European invasion and conquest, and by the history for slavery.

Holding back aid is simply not the pirate way. Pirates fought their battles in the name of the poor and downtrodden (starting with themselves of course) and it would be keeping in the pirate spirit to give, and give generously, to help rebuild the region that they loved.  

(And, as we all know, landlubbers can try to trick honest pirates. Not all of the donation centers listed here can be checked out at this time. When in doubt, give to well-known charities. But please give. It’s the piratical thing to do.)

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