ISLAND ARCHIVES: The Parker Manuscript, 1768
On this Day of Our Lord 24 November, 1768, I, Bartholomew Parker, Second Pilot of the trading vessel Phoenix, following the horrendous murther of Captain Hawkins and casting-away of the other officers whereupon the Christian souls remaining aboard are entrusted to my authority, do hereby in travail of spirit and body record these words of her dire straits.
Even as we poor few gather belowdecks to pray God mercy on our souls, whiles the sea rages unabated and the timbers scarce hold, the black fiends on deck howl and dance to their accursed pagan deities ‘round the sprung mainmast. They bedevil still the mortal remains of Captain Hawkins, whom they did most cruelly and fiendishly mutilate and secure with his own bowels to the mast, may God have mercy on his soul. Tormented man, no more may he suffer this accursed and ill-timed voyage!
The slaves erst did rise from their chains in the hold and take the ship through treachery, causing myself and the crew remain to see them to a landing. Defying the laws of God and man, raising themselves above their Christian masters, they make wild talk of bearing a great token to free their king from exiled bondage. Withal they now wear bracelets and ornaments of gold and jewels which they had secreted aboard through trickery. They practise all manner of vile magicks with unholy effigies, and the foul sacrilege of a blood sacrament imbibed from the veins of Lucifer Himself! Yet now by God’s hand are they cast down from their savage arrogance and blood lust, and go where gold and magicks avail not.
For as by my reckoning we did near the isles of the Danish Caribees we had of a sudden thunderstorms and heavy rain. At ten o’clock of this morning the weather became so thick that it was as black as night, whiles the violent clashing of the waves against each other seemed to give light from the pale froth. The sea and the wind made a frightful noise, and the ship laboured heavily and pitched so much from poop to prow that each time she fell it seemed to be as from a high tower and so that she would founder in the abyss.
And sorely pressed we were indeed, as without warning a tremendous sea, much higher than the last, bore down directly on us, so black and dark below and so white with foam above, that all those who saw it fully believed that it would bring us all to the end of our lives in a few seconds. This sea, crashing across the bow with a gust of wind, broke over the ship in such a force that it swept away the foremast and sail, yard and shrouds, as well as the bowsprit, and swept many men, Christian and pagan alike, into the raging sea.
Myself swept forward and suffering grievous injury to my leg, I saw breakers starboard, and through the thick sky beheld the darker form of land, rocky and stark like a cruel fortress. Then did the savages bid me make for land, and would have us crash upon the sharp rocks and reef, which the ruin of our sails compelled. We did contrive to make crude running repairs and without hope of escaping the raging of wind and sea I called the crew to carry me below to offer prayer for our souls, as we go to our sure death with the next fury of the storm. For now the black devils would have us on deck again and drive the ruin of poor Phoenix against the island. They say their dark gods have promised them a refuge here, but in this sheer rock and storm there can be none. Never I fear shall she rise from the ashes of this death!
We ask for the love of God that all who may learn of this commend us in their prayers to our Lord. And therefore do I seal this missive in a tube, and which shall be caulked tight and left to the sea, to be taken whither the waves shall drive it.
- Last journal entry of Bartholomew Parker, acting Captain of the Phoenix, lost with all hands and cargo of 214 slaves on November 24, 1768.
The Caribbean – 1980
Wind pummeled the dark clouds, wringing out drops as the storm caught our craft and threw it sideways. We bucked, tossed up into the gray-black commotion and then flung down in a jarring plunge. Blinding rain lashed. Behind me, shattering glass and curses.
“Just a touch of turbulence, folks. Buckle up.”
Another slewing plummet left my stomach fluttering under my ribcage as I clutched the armrests. A muttering stewardess knelt to pick up broken bottles. Beyond the rain-streaked window, the world was only gray clouds shredded by wind and wingtip, darker shadows surging in the heart of the storm.
I closed my eyes and a wave of the nightmare memories broke over me:
Night sea. A submerged light beam rakes a black boulder carved in crude designs, odd creatures, faces. Etched spiral eyes gleam into life. Hissing shush of the diver’s panting breaths, bubbles swirling as he turns, blond hair drifting, glitter of a knife spinning, slowly sinking and the demon faces bulge up out of the stone, summoned. Shadow hands grab him, pull him deeper as he screams into the black waters –
“That’s the worst of it, folks. Just a little tropical squall,” the voice over the speakers crackled cheerfully.
“Damn.” I shook my head and stared at the blinking light out on the wingtip, mechanically counting the flashes. Finally the plane shot free of the clouds into a harsh dazzle of sunlight, and I took a deep breath, squinting past the wing’s edge.
Islands scattered below, lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The shapes varied – long, short, angular, smoothly rounded, or bent and twisted – but they were all the color of yellowed parchment edged with the deceptive white lace of waves breaking on hidden reefs. Midday sunlight flattened the Caribbean to the two dimensions of an antique map.
I leaned closer to the window. My fingers itched to pluck those cookie-cuttered pieces off the turquoise sea and fit them into a coherent picture. Read their tales of hurricanes, sacrifices to greedy gods pagan and Christian, waves of pillage and pestilence. Did our histories make us what we were? Only flotsam driven by the wind?
An anthropologist wasn’t supposed to ask melodramatic questions, just observe. Island after island, they slid off toward the horizon. Hieroglyphs, spelling out a secret message, slipping away before I could translate it.
But I was going to break the code. My research grant was my ticket, and the petroglyphs would give me the breakthrough I needed.
“Sure.” Tom Farber, slouching down the hall from Philosophy to wend his way with me through drifts of fallen maple leaves and bewildered college freshmen. He’d squinted at the dog-eared photo I passed him of the boulder with its ancient carved designs. “Truth is one slippery bugger, so don’t get too obsessed with this. I heard about your run-in with the Anthro Chairman. You didn’t accuse him of fossilized thinking in front of all the committee members?”
“Right before God and the committee.”