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I had come to San Salvador Island to stay at a research station, a cinder block former Cold War-era US naval base that announced at its front gate: Centre for the Study of Archaeology, Biology, Geology, and Marine Science. My college had received a grant to develop Humanities courses for the Environmental Studies program, so here I was to plan a literature course. We landed on the island in a tiny, noisy plane on an outsized runway that looked like a thick black belt across the map, built to bring huge charter jets to the international resort that’d opened about 20 years before. The island was oval-ish, about five miles by twelve miles, with about a thousand residents, and the eastern and western sides of the island showed the consequences of facing toward or away from the ocean.
San Salvador is the outermost island of the Bahamas archipelago. Standing on East Beach, the Atlantic stretches out before you. The unbroken-ness of the horizon—not even a boat in sight—is sublime in its nothingness. On this side of the island, you might not see another person all day; the roar of the crashing waves kept you from contemplating swimming and blocked out any other island sound you might listen for. You might feel like you’re in the most remote place you’ve ever been. But at your feet: garbage washes up from all over the world. Pieces of rope, a tire, a dated computer monitor, a ketchup bottle with Russian writing, unrecognizable shapes of plastic and more plastic. All brought here by global currents that remind you the Caribbean is a crossroads of the world.
This island is believed to be Columbus’s first landfall site; following the evacuation and elimination of the Lacayan tribe, the Bahamas hosted a piratic tug-of-war between the Spanish and the English for hundreds of years; the English claimed possession by bringing in ships of enslaved African people; emancipation arrived in 1834 but independence not until 1973.
That first trip and all the rest over the years, teaching and researching, the island would surprise me, even disorient me. The one time I entered the resort on the island, I was surprised by its insect-less-ness and the landscaping of plants I did not think could be landscaped. I went up to the front desk to ask what time it was and found out it wasn’t an island myth that the resort pretended to be an hour ahead for the sake of the European tourists.
We drove on the opposite side of the road, but the steering wheels were still on the left. The first time someone at the research station told me I better take a machete with me where I was going, I laughed, thinking he was joking; I struggled to get a grip on the machete handle made for a much bigger hand, and each trip I developed a blister at the base of my thumb that took weeks to disappear. Even through foggy snorkeling masks, the reefs mesmerized me with their beauty; then scientists told me they were dying, nothing like they used to be. And then there were the two remaining whipping posts: two painted cylinders sticking out of the ground, faceless and generic as if they could have been used for tethering almost anything. Planted at two high points with some of the most beautiful views of the bright turquoise water that shifted its color so you could see where the sea was shallower or deeper.
And perhaps most disorienting of all: heading out from the research station for the ruins of slave plantations and being given only vague, unsure directions about where the trail heads might be.
We had to seek out paths by looking for tiny flags of orange tape left tied to a tree by previous researchers, sometimes faded to white by the sun; or, without a working odometer, we had to try to time driving one mile past so-and-so’s house; or we were told to spy out a discarded pallet of wood over a wet dip in the grass. All in line with the suggestion that, if we came across islanders’ last names while studying the history of slavery, we shouldn’t ask outright about their ancestry.
Plantation slavery was established in the Bahamas as a result of the American Revolution, after which some British Loyalists decided to relocate their US plantations to various spots in the British West Indies. Most of the residents on San Salvador today are descended from the enslaved on six such grafted plantations.
A Relic of Slavery: Farquharson’s Journal for 1831-32 is the only existing plantation journal from the Bahamas, kept by Prospect Hill estate owner Charles Farquharson. The journal was found in 1903 and hand-copied from the original by Ormond J. McDonald, a local official; it was later typed and published as A Relic of Slavery in 1957 by the Deans Peggs Research Fund. So the only available version is a copy of a copy. And the text is only the owner’s record of the day-to-day work on the estate: who was where, performing which tasks, how much was harvested, in what kind of weather.
In creating his copy, McDonald points out that “it required great care and attention on account of bad spelling etc etc to obtain a true Copy.” The “etc etc” is never defined. Missing dates are attributed to Farquharson being away from the plantation. One footnote mentions pages being torn out, from December to February: an important period, it seems, given what happened about a week later by the livestock watering hole.
On February 20, 1832, Farquharson records Isaac disobeying his son James’s order to mount a mule from the other side:
…James picked up a pomato lief with a long stem to it and gave Isaac 2 or 3 stripes with it, his brother Alick who had been or pretended to be sick and had been laid up in the kitchen for a week befor and was blooded for a pain, or pretended pain in his brest this morning– came out of the kitchen and asked James what right he had to beat Isaac so, on James going up to Alick and asking him what right he had to call him to account on Isaac’s account Alick answered I am D—d if I don’t let you know that I have and drawing a heavy Bludgeon from under his arm, James asked Alick if he meant to strick him, Alick answered yes, By God if you strick me I will knock you down. James having only a light walking stick in his hand gave Alick a Tape with it, and Alick returned the Blow with his heavy Bludgeon … By this time the whole gang came into the yard like so many furies threatening vengeance against James mearly for his switching Isaac…
This is the longest entry in the journal. You can almost feel the bewilderment vibrating the words—the incomprehension when Farquharson, the one who accounts in writing and otherwise, witnesses his son being called to account. And while references of illness or injury proliferate through the journal, this entry marks the first of many in which a hand is described as possibly pretending—as though this act of rebellion marked the first time the writer considered the possibility the enslaved had a lived experience behind the masks presented to him.
The incident isn’t mentioned again until a month later, when Farquharson records “our Mutineers” sailing “to Nassau to be tryed there for there last Mutinous behaviour.”
Reading this text transformed the course I was planning from one on transnational abolitionist literature to a course specifically on Caribbean literature, built around texts like Farquharson’s. Instead of reading books while we happened to be in the Bahamas, we’d trek inland with our machetes and our copies of Relic, seeking clues about the text from what we saw on the plantation and clues about the land from what we read in books. One of the most memorable moments from my teaching career: the first time my students slowly mapped where we were on the plantation and, excitedly, in the story: this spot was where the “Mutinous behaviour” occurred!
Farquharson’s journal ends on December 31st with no comment on what had transpired. Just the weather: “Thus ends the year 1832.”
Before my novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners took shape, I was writing a short story about a white American tourist: a way to get someone from the US to the island without explanation. I didn’t yet know what the story was about. I was mainly cataloguing things I couldn’t get off my mind—the beach strewn with international garbage, for example, that I was busy inventing a mythology for. The story existed in fits and starts for a year or two.
In taking a step back from this story to find another path in, I remembered a piece of advice from a writing teacher—one that seems antithetical to writing a book from someone else’s point of view. Write something other people wouldn’t know, something only you can write. Without knowing where I was traveling, I dabbled with explaining how to use a machete, how I was instructed that the machete was a tool not of force but of gravity. My hand kept leaving the keyboard so my arm could swing in the correct arc: winding up the muscle memory that would take me deeper inland. A voice immediately took over the description I was writing. The voice belonged to Myrna: the narrator of what became Fingerprints of Previous Owners. I didn’t know whether I could or should follow her, an Afro-Caribbean woman working at the island resort, but I felt I had to.
What if she were able to follow the stones to find more than A Relic of Slavery allows its readers to find? Or, if she couldn’t, what would she do with the absences, the missing pages, the unnamed etc etc? I wanted to find out. What is writing fiction if not playing a game of what if?
Some of the ifs stay on a small scale, are fun inventions: what if tourists were snorkeling in a pool because there was a coral reef painted on the bottom? Some are vast, haunting: what if, in the world of this novel, talking about slavery in casual conversation was not just frowned upon but actually policed? What if digging into the plantation ruins was considered not just irrelevant or unsavory but dangerous? Feeling the presence of slavery each day would be—as one of the characters says in the book—like swimming with sandbags. What if someone had to leave the flagging tape behind to sneak into the brush at her own peril? And what if those perils were much higher than insect bites and scratches?
What if the uneasy fit between troubling layers of culture—historical, gendered, racial, national and international, socioeconomic—on such an island became literal? My mind lifted the resort and plopped it down right on top of some plantation ruins. Questions crept out from under that mess: would those creating a tourist experience know what they were covering, destroying, ignoring, transforming, exploiting? What would these ruins become through the deforming process of being looked at by those who could not read them? The answer, in the novel, is a tourists’ lookout point where the remnant of a whipping post is touted as having the best views on the island.
But a novel of this kind takes more than imagining ifs.
I have heard authors propose that imagining another’s point of view and experience is all part of their job. Philosophically, that makes sense to me, but it also leaves me frustrated. I don’t disagree about the skills necessary for the job, but there’s more to the story. Imagining is not necessarily publishing, and a focus just on the writer’s imagination glosses over a history of not just silence or absence but of very damaging misrepresentations of others.
As a professor of 19th-century American literature, I feel my mind fill up with examples—the “plantation school” of American literature with its persistent depictions of contented slaves on idyllic plantations, for example. But I also think of the “well-meaning” texts: the Harriet Beecher Stowes. My students can see clearly where her writing falls into the pothole of stereotype but also where Stowe can imagine sympathetic enslaved characters only through her own experience. The slave cabin they are invited into is, they see, a middle-class home bearing little relation to what such quarters would have been like historically. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands as the screen against which students see all that autobiographical slave narrators add to—or correct about—the conversation. These narrators who’ve been there give us glimpses of the real; and if the publication strictures they bumped up against asked them to shape the story for readers like Stowe’s, we can at least feel the tensions between what is meant and how it is said. The explicit roils beneath the implicitly rendered.
In response to Kaitlyn Greenidge’s recent piece “Who Gets to Write What?” I’ve had to ask myself continually: did I get to write this story? Greenidge makes the essential point that writers should not go about their jobs “without nuance or sense of history, only with an implicit insistence that writing and publishing magically exist outside the structures of power that dominate every other aspect of our daily lives.” A novel takes more than empathy, then, though of course it takes that; it takes a commitment to history in its finest nuance, and the awareness of the bigger picture of these structures to avoid consequences that veer off from intention like a car spinning out.
Though the island of my book is fictional, I am still a tourist there; the writing must exceed my own personal perspective. I’m tasked with doing the research required to be truthful (if not factual) about a culture that is not my own. But just as empathy is not the only answer to the question, research isn’t either.
I’ve thought a lot about the usefulness of trepidation: proceeding in writing with the trepidation that can guard against thinking I know too much. Perhaps such trepidation is merely Keats’s concept of negative capability—dwelling in the unknown always part of the creative process. But I’m arguing for, I think, some version with a sense of history and social conscience.
Derek Walcott, in his essay “Isla Incognita,” invites his readers to proceed backward from knowing, from all the stories they’ve ingested about so-called undiscovered islands. In arriving on an island, in fact or in reading, he urges direct observation: “erase everything, even the name of this island, if it is to be rediscovered. It is the only way to begin. We will try to pretend that we have seen none of it before.” He writes that the “root of evil may come from the wrong or casual naming of things.” Proceed with “the opposite method to the explorer’s” and find your way only “by a great deal of principled doubt.” A writing process that is never casual or comfortable. A productive trepidation. “Principled doubt”: the version of negative capability I was looking for.
In Myrna I found the position from which to look back at the gaze that comes to the island with its casual certainty. She understands the supposed knowledge of “paradise” tourists bring with them. This narrator stands on the beach, the garbage washing up at her feet, and sees all the way out to her island’s place in the world.
On my third trip to San Salvador, I explored the inland plantation by myself for the first time. I also drove a truck for the first time, reminding myself to stay on the left side of the road, over and over again like an incantation. I had no phone that worked on the island, no way to get in touch with anyone if I broke down. I’d be on a side of the island few people drove through and where no one lived. I had a water bottle, a machete, a spray with over 90 percent deet, a sun hat, and pants nubby with snags from previous encounters with haulback, the branches with the prickers that snag and pull you back. (All vehicles were due back at the station by dinner; if I didn’t come back, someone would probably come looking for me.) I drove through the lively United Estates neighborhood and the turnoff for East Beach—and then saw my view of a lake and the ocean beyond it open up as I moved toward the uninhabited stretch of the southeastern part of the island.
Two days in a row I stopped at the wrong quarry. Face swollen with mosquito and other bites, drenched in sweat, clothes and skin snagged and bloody, I returned to the station to eat and discussed research strategies with scientists. Was looking around, not finding what you were looking for, part of the process or a waste of time? I thought about writing in general. The question didn’t keep me up that night, though, since I had to take Benadryl to bring down the swelling and thickness of histamines through my veins.
The next day I grew weary of the time-consuming task of cutting a path, closed my eyes, and let the haulback scrape against me. I over-flagged, afraid I’d never find my way out, as I ducked between trunks of different thicknesses. Eventually I did find my way out, looked down at the truck waiting for me, and took a chance that if I kept driving south, I might come across another quarry—the right quarry—which I did, about ten minutes later.
I hardly had to machete at all at the trail head. I walked pretty easily up the rocks toward the turn off to the kitchen, walked under what looked like a chuppa of cacti, and maneuvered over a pile of loose stones to reach the entrance to the building. Ducked into the fireplace and watched, mesmerized, a wasps’ nest the size of my head.
The brush farther in had flourished forcefully after the most recent hurricane, and I couldn’t get through to the slave quarters. That brush, covering everything, demanding machetes, wouldn’t have been here in the plantation era though. The island had hardwood trees then. The slave cabins that seemed so far and hidden from the master’s house—a distance that puzzled my students—would have been in easy view. But when the cotton crop didn’t do well, the owners turned to lumber. They cut down the trees and shipped them off in boats. The way the plantation owners altered the landscape made their acts harder to see from the future, as though slavery covered its own tracks.
I swung away for almost an hour, then gave up and walked back to the livestock watering hole. Almost complete silence surrounded me as I looked out at the water in the distance. Felt the unnerving peacefulness of the now-dormant plantation, machete resting at my side.
Setting out for the plantations, it was hard not to focus on the perils facing you: the heat, the sunscreen and bug repellant burning into your eyes, the bites and the scratches, the sweaty work of slashing a path into the brush, the slight tremor in your chest when you lost sight of your flagging tape. Only back at the station, showered and fed, sitting in the shade, does your mind wander back to what it would have been like to trek up and down the hillside with rocks you quarried yourself; carrying water from the well; working no matter the weight of the sun, the fact of meals or no meals. I remember looking down at the sturdy hundred-dollar shoes that had taken me into the brush to do nothing but look around and try to find what I could not see.
Craton, Michael and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People, Volume One: From Aboriginal Times to the End of Slavery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth M., Renee K. Gosson, and George B. Handley. Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture. Introduction. Charlottesville: University of Virgini Press, 2005. 1-30.
Farquharson, Charles. A Relic of Slavery: Farquharson’s Journal for 1831-32. Nassau: The Dean Peggs Research Fund, 1957.
Saunders, Gail. Bahamian Loyalists and their Slaves. London: MacMillan Caribbean, 1983.
Strachan, Ian G. Paradise and Plantation: Tourism and Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean. Charlottesville University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Eds. Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, Renee K. Gosson, and George B. Handley. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. 51-57.