The 60s in the Bahamas was a decade of flux. The winds of change were already blowing early in the 1960s as the fledgling Progressive Liberal Party began to flap its wings. For years the islands had been firmly held in the grip of a largely white (some Conchy Joe) minority who shamelessly bought elections and doubtless cheated their way to power in the time-honored tradition of their pirate forbears.
Little did anyone know that one election would suddenly thrust the PLP into power. In 1967 the transition of power was dramatic – as was the elevation of many of the humble members of the party. The linotype machine operator in the pressroom of the still hot-lead Nassau Guardian was a friend who did not afford himself the luxury of socks and shoes.
Within weeks he was wearing expensive suits, driving his first new car – and loving on a brand new Swedish girlfriend. Many a time I attended a PLP rally to hear the rotund Milo Butler angrily announce that as soon as the PLP came to power he would personally walk down Bay Street in Nassau, opening each of the banks and “hand the money to the people.” The crowd would cheer for minutes on that one. Then he would add, “..and the streets will flow with white blood!” The cheers would amplify to manic screams of joy.
After the 1967 election I waited for Milo to deliver on the promise…but for some reason Gumment Biz always got in the way. I actually asked him about it once over dinner in the amazing Chinese junk replica restaurant inside the Sheraton-British Colonial Hotel. “We’re getting to it,” That was all he’d say. In the meantime the ousted white politicians were scampering off the islands like wealthy, well-fed rats who seemed to have well-planned escape routes already in place. It was said that Sir Stafford Sands had already removed his wealth and his fabled pornography collection to Spain along with his Swedish mistress (no surprise that the Swedes preferred the Bahamas to ice-coated fiords). I had lunch with him once on Abaco Island and he let me know in no uncertain terms that money, porn and Swedes were never to be topics of conversation. He weighed somewhere near 300 lbs and I later wondered if he were the inspiration for Jabba the Hut.
As it turned out, the black politicians were even better at piracy than their white predecessors…or so it seemed. It was in the midst of this political and racial turmoil that I was doing my own thing – delving into the darkest corners of the lore and legend of the local communities. These were the settlements of the the Out Islands. Being island dwellers, good seamanship was vital to survival – and being the descendants of Africans, there was a healthy spiritual component to life on the water. They called it “Scratch,” a Bahamian version of Obeah, Voodoo, Santeria – and its use got to be very serious indeed.
The result of my immersion in this world was “Sharkey & The Thunderjack.” Here is the introduction to the series of novellas:
Sharkey & The Thunderjack:
There has always been the sea. It surrounds and nurtures each gem like island. It tempers the chill northern winds of winter and the humid heat waves of summer. Its currents bring tantalizing flotsam from distant and mysterious places far to the south. Its depths yield up bounties of food and sometimes treasure. There are times when it tests a man’s mettle, tries his soul, and tempers both to produce a hardy breed of sailormen who take pride in their power to live in harmony with the powers of the wind and waves. They are the Out Islanders. Here seamanship is the measure of a man. They each set out to sea in sturdy boats of horseflesh and heartpine, a prayer to the white man’s Lord on their lips – an incantation to Okolun, the ancient African God of the sea in their hearts. Born of the Yoruba in Nigeria, their religion became Haiti’s Voodoo, Jamaica’s Obeah – and here the Bahamas – Scratch. By any name, it is a powerful magic, the taproot of daily life that can shape the primeval forces of nature to make a man strong – or make him die.
One day above all others is paramount in the demonstration of each man’s prowess under sail – August Race Day. This is the holiday weekend when sailors from each island of the Bahamas converge on a tiny cay off the East coast of Andros. Off the gently curving beach at Mangrove Cay they race their boats. The winner is the best sailor in the Bahamas. In the days before the race, the little community is alive with the excitement of preparation, the scheming of the crews and captains – the spell casting of the Scratchmakers.
These are the men and women who keep alive the old traditions. They are said to have power over the winds and seas for long enough to help a captain win. The most powerful magic of all is that embodied in the bones of ancestors who were master sailors in their own time. Their bodies are often buried in ‘Banana Holes’ – deep natural pits in the island bedrock. As race day nears, the bones are resurrected and used in spell casting – then placed aboard the boats. The power of Scratch was not limited to the fortunetellers and spell makers – in the veins of some of the sailors runs the blood of ancient Yoruba priests. They and their ancestor sailors were men who had ‘Scratch’.
The first installment of “Sharkey & The Thunderjack” is now available as an E-book (pdf) readable on your laptop or importable into Nook and Kindle. Send $7.50 to email@example.com via PayPal.