THEY THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS by Colville L. Petty
This article was first published in The Anguillian 10th April 2009.)
Anguilla has long been an island of seafarers. According to the Honourable Minister of Communications and Works, Kenneth Harrigan (1994), “We were born to fish and to plant our ground”. But Anguilla’s limited land resources never ever produced enough to sustain us so our people made maximum use of the sea.
The sea was extremely critical to our survival. We exploited it as a principal source of our food and we evolved, over several generations, into a society of fishermen.
Back in 1954, Verna S. Lloyd, a Form II student at The Valley Secondary School, was often awakened by the early morning activities of the fishermen, at Crocus Bay, which inspired her poem The Fishers of the Deep:
Hark! Hark! To the sound of the conch shell,
That echoes from the hillsides steep;
It tells of the doughty fishers
Who tempt the dangerous deep.
In the silent morning hours
When the mist still clouds the way,
They sail over the raging billows
And return to the calm of the bay . . .
Our fishermen continue to be early risers. It was early Monday morning 11th September 2006 when I joined Sam Webster at Island Harbour for a fishing trip – a trip which heightened my realisation of the sacrifices our fishermen make, and the hardships they endure, in their efforts to make a living and to put healthy food on our tables. That realisation caused me to suggest, in The Anguillian, that we need to take time out to recognise the contributions which fishermen make to our society. I went on to suggest that just like we have Police Week, Teachers’ Week, Nurses’ Week, and so on, we should have a Fishermen’s Week.
We still do not have a Fishermen’s Week but we now have a Festival Del Mar (Festival of the Sea) which I applaud. Its aim is to celebrate our longstanding connection with the sea.
The Festival’s home is Island Harbour, and one can easily understand why. Its people have exceedingly strong links with the sea as evidenced, for example, by its boatbuilding tradition. Two of its foremost builders were the late Walter G. Hodge and the late Feddy Webster. Also, Island Harbour was the homeport of several large trading vessels: the Convinsor, Excelsior Hodge, Ramona, Thelma, Yankey Girl, Tiny Girl and the Oceanic among others.
Most notably, however, is the fact that Island Harbour has long been recognised as Anguilla’s fishing capital. Its fleet of colourful fishing boats at anchor, especially on a Sunday, is astonishingly beautiful: an expression of the great pride which the fishermen have in their boats and in their trade. I have often heard it said that an “Island Harbour man loves his boat more than he loves his wife,” but I ain’t getting involved in dat.
Yes. Island Harbour is primarily a community of fishermen (with money, fine homes and expensive jeeps and cars). The skills of the trade were passed on from generation to generation like, for example, in the case of young Patrick Webster who is an expert in the catching of the Wahoo. His great grandfather Dyer (Elijah Webster) was a fisherman. His grandfather, Wearar, was a fisherman. His father, Stephen was a fisherman; and his uncles, Gladstone, Alceil, Anderson, Clifford, Hope, Sidney (Tata), Bandon (Bandu) were fishermen.
Indeed, the sea and fishing ‘is in the blood’ of many Anguillians especially those of Island Harbour. I will let The Fisherman’s Song by Patricia Adams tell you about it:
Take me back to Island Harbour
Where the sea flows in my blood;
Where the waves speak salty words
That I have always understood . . .
Take me back to Island Harbour
Where we fishermen rejoice
When our rainbow catch of fishes
Fill our . . . folks with joy.
Minister Kenneth Harrigan, who represents the Electoral District of Island Harbour in the Anguilla House of Assembly, boasted at several political meetings (1994) about his own fishing skills: “I was a great fisherman. I was one of the best . . . I remember I used to carry the stripes (prizes) for catching the most lobsters in my time”.
As a fishing village, Island Harbour goes way back. I remember the 1940s and 50s when a typical school-day began at 9.00 am and most children had to undertake a host of chores before going to school. I recall the children of East End travelling, on foot, to Island Harbour to buy fish from men like Zumpy (Ernest Harrigan), Peypay (James Godfrey Webster), Feeley, Woodoo, Tom-tom, Arthur Van Webster, Lewis Webster, Alceil Webster, Dyer (Elijah Webster) or one of the many other fishermen there. The children were amused by the way Dyer walked. He seemed to pound the ground with his feet, thus the rhyme:
Dyer sound like he punging [pounding] corn,
I ain’t goin’ in his yard me one.
The fishermen back then were all very kind people who when they sold fish always added an extra one or two – be it doctor, old wife or grunt. And on those days when a seine loaded with jacks was being pulled in, everyone who assisted got some jacks for his or her efforts.
For sure there will be jacks on the menu for Festival Del Mar 2009, from 11th to 12th April. Actually, there will be sea foods to satisfy every taste. Fish dishes of every sort: boiled, steamed, grilled, roasted, fried, barbequed, marinated and baked; and plenty of lobster, crayfish, conch and whelk delicacies. On sale too, will be the popular Anguilla Johnny cakes. Last year Josette (for Tim) did not have enough to sell so it is unlikely that she will make the same mistake this year. By the way, people should not bother about putting on weight because there will be plenty of string band music to have everybody ‘jumpin and winin’ and, in the process, burning up calories.
The Festival with its array of activities – boat races, deep sea fishing contest, triathlons – promises to be bigger and better than last year’s. However, I trust that our people would take time out to remember those fishermen, from across the island, who went fishing but who never came back. Those from Island Harbour who readily come to mind are Larla Harrigan (1972) who perished when the boat in which he and Elliot Webster were fishing was swamped by heavy seas; and Leslie Webster (1985) who drowned, near Scrub Island, in pursuit of a turtle he had harpooned. They were not as fortunate as those who were lost but who were found.
Sam Webster was one of the lost and found. As many of us will recall, he was out fishing on Friday 14th March 2008, when he fell off his boat, Try Hard. As he swam for his life he came upon a fish pot, removed its two buoys, fastened them under his shirt and managed to stay afloat – managed to keep his head above the water. It was when night fell that Sam realised that he was in serious trouble and therefore prayed like ten thousand pundits. He prayed like he never prayed before. He told the Lord, among other things, that if he spared his life – “gave him a second chance” – he would be a Christian until death.
In addition to praying, Sam sang many hymns and religious songs. One was the children’s song which went like this:
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.
Imagine 46-year-old Sam, who has children and grandchildren, singing I want to be a sunbeam “at home, at school, at play”. But when one is faced with death one would do but anything to stay alive. Sam thought his time had come – that he was on his last hours – so much so that he imagined hearing Ras B on the Heart Beat Radio reading the news saying: “Sam is dead. He used to play cricket for the island and managed Anguilla’s cricket teams. May his soul rest in peace . . . ” He imagined hearing Cardigan Connor, his good friend, reading the eulogy “without a body [in the church]”. And he imagined hearing the congregation singing:
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
Sam felt like he was already dead. But he kept on singing and he kept on praying. The Lord heard him and the following day, Saturday 15th March, he was rescued after spending some 23 hours in the shark-infested waters some 35 miles east of Anguilla. Sam’s survival is still regarded as a modern-day miracle and today he is a Christian – “a sunbeam” for Jesus. He is also a sunbeam for the AUM in the 2010 general elections, but whether Uncle Kenneth, Othlyn Vanterpool, Terry Harrigan and Maclean Webster allow his beam to shine, politically, only time will tell.
I have highlighted Sam’s experience to make the point that an important component of Festival Del Mar should be prayer, thanksgiving and reflection:
23 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; 24 These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep . . . 27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. 28 Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. 29 He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. . . 31 Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness . . . (Psalm 107).