Tag Archives: Bahamas

Poem: “Blues Sonnet for the Bahamas, 1929”

Storm track of the 1929 hurricane, stalling over Nassau and Andros

The hurricane of 1929–
That massive killer storm of ’29–
Came when boats sailed, thinking the weather fine.

The storm came violent as a warrior–
Crept up in silence, struck like a warrior
The Ethel, Myrtle and Pretoria.

The three were bound for Andros, two escaped–
The Ethel and the Myrtle, they escaped–
But 35 drowned when the sea’s mouth gaped.

The storm sat over Nassau for three days–
It killed a hundred, sitting for three days–
Three quarters of all houses just erased.

Bahamians now don’t know what happened then…
They just sing ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’.

The September 1929 hurricane is memorialised in the old Blind Blake calypso ‘Run Come See Jerusalem‘. Poorly-built structures and ships were destroyed throughout the Bahamas. 142 people were killed, out of a population of less than 50,000. Andros Island was within the envelope of the storm’s hurricane-force winds and storm surge for two days. Parts of the island were inundated by a 12 ft (3.7 m) surge that advanced 20 mi (32 km) inland, wiping out all crops and most fruit trees and livestock.

A wind gust of 164 mph (264 km/h) was measured in Nassau, which also experienced the calm of the hurricane’s eye for two hours. An estimated 73% of the city’s homes and businesses sustained damage, leaving more than 5,000 people without homes. The hurricane was a heavy blow to the declining sponge industry on the islands. Following the storm, wild birds and crops were brought from the Caribbean to replenish their losses in the Bahamas. New building codes were enacted after the 1929 storm to prevent similarly extensive destruction. (Wikipedia)

For the most part, hurricanes in this part of the world come west from Africa, turn northwest before or after reaching the Caribbean, and somewhere around Florida turn northeast, ending up as gales in Ireland and the UK. That’s their natural track, anyway. It seems that the storms that do the most damage in the Bahamas are those that get off track in the Atlantic, turn southwest into the Bahamas, and then pause for a couple of days while the surrounding weather systems slowly force them north again. That was true of Joaquin in 2015, Betsy in 1965, and the unnamed 1929 hurricane. 

This week is the anniversary of Hurricane Dorian, the storm that devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama last year. Dorian turned from north-northwest to west, then stalled over Grand Bahama for a couple of days before turning north again. If the hurricane just keeps moving it may be powerful and destructive like Andrew in 1992 and Floyd in 1999, but no location will have strong winds for more than a couple of hours. Buildings can withstand this. But when a hurricane stalls, and the strong winds continue for a couple of days and nights, with storm surges on top of several high tides… that’s when the most damage can happen. But we’re into September. Hurricanes happen at this time of year.

As for the poem, it’s a Blues Sonnet, an established mashup of European sonnet and Afro-American blues. It contains less information than a regular sonnet because of the amount of repetition, but it works well to express a mood of lamentation. The Poet’s Garret has Hillary Clinton singing the blues as an example.

Sonnet: “Windsor and Oakes, 1943”

Oakes and Windsor

Sir Harry Oakes and the Duke of Windsor in Nassau

Edward, ex-king, pro-Nazi, was sent out
to the Bahamas for the War’s duration.
As Governor of our well-mixed-race nation
he joked with blacks but liked white rule and clout.
The wealthy Bay Street Boys, all white, agreed.
But one combative multimillionaire
felt equal pay for non-whites would be fair.
Canadian Harry Oakes disliked white greed.
Oakes pumped in cash for land, built an airport,
bought a hotel, hired coloured management,
then fought the U.S. Mob’s gambling intent.
Still, Bay Street had the Governor’s support.
Oakes wouldn’t change his mind, and he got killed.
Edward prevented justice. Whites were thrilled.

The 1943 murder in the Bahamas of Sir Harry Oakes–perhaps the richest man in the British Empire–was never legally solved. Having been found bludgeoned to death in his bed, with an attempt having been made to set the bed on fire, foul play might have been suspected immediately. But the top realtor in the Bahamas, Harold Christie (subsequently knighted) who had been sleeping in a guest bedroom two doors down from his host, hadn’t heard a thing and, discovering the body in the morning, tried to revive Oakes by getting him to drink some water.

Harold Christie first called his brother, and next the Duke of Windsor, rather than the police. The Duke of Windsor, being the Governor of the Bahamas, could have called the local police, or local British military forces, or brought in the CID, Britain’s Criminal Investigation Department. Instead he called two Miami detectives he knew (and who in later years were found to have Mafia connections), telling them “he wished to confirm the details of a suicide”. The Americans came, screwed up the crime scene, planted false clues, and then arranged for Oakes’ son-in-law to be charged.

But the evidence against the son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, was so clearly fraudulent and the evidence against Christie and his brother was so strong that the Police Commissioner at the time refused to charge de Marigny. So the Duke of Windsor had the Police Commissioner transferred to Trinidad until the trial was completed, in order to prevent him from testifying.

One of the mysteries unresolved at the trial was matter of the four triangular holes in Oakes’ skull. Some form of local voodoo was suggested, but no one could think of anything specific that might have caused it. No one suggested it might have been a tool found on every boat in Nassau Harbour…

Oil drum bung wrench

Oil drum plug wrench

After one of the greatest legal defences of the 20th century de Marigny was acquitted and, although innocent and a British citizen, ordered deported. Unsuccessful attempts were made on his life in the next couple of years, as he detailed in his book A Conspiracy of Crowns.

Other books on the murder, two of which were called Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?, initially failed to point a finger of blame. This was probably wise, as a couple of people who might have discovered unpleasant facts came to violent ends.

In 1950 American lawyer Betty Renner–a former Department of Justice lawyer who had done war crimes work in Japan–came to Nassau to gather evidence about the Oakes murder and speak to a potential informer. She was hit over the head, stripped half-naked, dragged over coral rocks and thrown head-first down a narrow well where she suffocated to death. Tree branches were cut and placed over the well. The autopsy concluded “there was no positive evidence of criminal attack but the possibility was still being investigated.”

In 1962 Dorothy Macksey, a 60-year-old white Bahamian secretary, was raped and murdered in her apartment some months after she told her employer she knew who had killed Oakes and was starting to write a book about it. Although it turned out she had been Harold Christie’s secretary in 1943, the Nassau police quickly determined there was no connection.

Books continue to be written about the Oakes murder. Perhaps the most complete and authoritative so far is John Marquis’ Blood and Fire, but the story is still dribbling out from those (apparently many) people who know the truth.

Oh, and by the way, my sonnet at the top was just published in Bewildering Stories, which I think is appropriate!

Sonnet: “Out Island Town in the Early Morning”

Harbour reflection

Harbour reflection

Before the sun is up, the people are.
Fishermen have gone out, for noon’s fierce light
Will punish them, and their desires are slight:
To sell their catch, drink cold beer by a bar.
The workers hitch rides with some early car
That will go fairly near their building site.
Women prep kids’ meals, feeling it’s not right
To have to leave to clean some tourist spa.

Only the unemployed and office staff
Still sleep while roosters crow and seagulls laugh,
And the light rising in its eastern glow
Shows Harbour houses in a double row,
One on the Cay, the other upside down
Painted on windless glass, a mirror town.

This sonnet was first published in The Hypertexts, the massive poetry collection assembled by Michael R. Burch. There’s not much to say about the poem… it’s a love poem to Governor’s Harbour, my home town.

But sonnets in general have a charm for many people. They seem just the right size both to hold a description or a complex thought that has tendrils in various directions, and to be small enough to be memorised. They are a good tool for high school classrooms, containing a richness of thought for analysis and an opportunity to develop memory skills. They allow a learner to absorb and express the power of the language’s potential for rhythm and rhyme. A good education will have made you familiar with dozens of sonnets, and they and their organising principles remain deeply embedded somewhere within you all your life.

Poem: “Viking Sails South”

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in March 2019. I wrote it for a variety Viking, Snakeskin 259reasons. I’ve often thought that when the Norse settlement of Greenland ended around 1450, not all of the settlers would have either died or sailed back toward Scandinavia… why not explore further in North America and look for somewhere pleasant?

VIKING SAILS SOUTH

Tired of ‘Greenland’ and its icy coast,
a band of us sailed south to Leif’s old place,
discussed old legends (drinking many a toast)
of Norman settlements in Spain and Thrace.
So why not us as well? Let the old stay
in frost-filled farms, friendly, familiar.
Go south! Long nights to lengthening days give way
until it seems like Equinox all year.
Bring our old gods, have garlands round them hung –
wind in soft pines like loneliness of girls –
where just to taste the water makes you young –
pink conch shells on pink sand yield up pink pearls –
we saw Njord, sea god, sleeping from our railings.
Brown women smile. Our children will be skraelings.

My own family history supports this possibility of Vikings being attracted to the Caribbean: my great-great-uncle was a (very reactionary) Governor of the Danish West Indies; my grandfather was a (very liberal) Lutheran minister there; so my father was raised on St. Croix for ten years until it was sold to the US in 1917 – he was sent “home” to Denmark but returned to settle in the Bahamas for the last 22 years of his life; and though I have kept my connection to Denmark, and lived there for five years, the Bahamas is my home. Some Scandinavians are perfectly happy in the islands!

About the use of form in this poem: it is a standard Shakespearean sonnet: 14 lines (sonnet) of iambic pentameter (standard), rhyming abab cdcd efef gg (Shakespearean). However, it doesn’t have a strong volta, or turn in the argument, which is normally considered a requirement for a sonnet – you set the argument up first, and after the volta you demolish and replace it, or give it a good twist. The best that can be said for this sonnet is that the last two lines provide a resolution to the argument. Regardless, the sonnet length and structure allows a full exposition of an idea, while requiring brevity and compression. It can be very satisfying to produce.