Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter III. In a Schooner Amongst the Cays

LET us now go for an expedition of special interest, in a small schooner, amongst those cays, or small islands, which are dotted about the waters of British Honduras, within that great reef which extends in a long line down the coast, though some eighteen or twenty miles away, and forms a great protection to the small craft of the men who live by fishing and catching turtle.

As in our river expedition we charter the boat, but this time at a very moderate rate, £1 a day. It is a delightful little schooner of some thirty tons, and with a crew of four again, Alec Swazey the captain, and Tom Gill and his two brothers. Alec and Tom had built the boat themselves at their own little cay, and are justly proud of it. They call it Le Dernier--the last built--which I thought a very futile name, but have not been able to suggest another as yet, for all the names of boats are registered, whether great or small, which are sailed beneath the British flag, and it is very difficult indeed to get a good name, which has not been used before. I wanted Hope, or Fair Hope, or Good Hope, for special reasons, but all three were already in use, and so our schooner remains Le Dernier for the present.

One's outfit is just as it was before, with the exception of the camp beds now left behind. There is a cabin in the Dernier with two bunks, and so this time we take mattresses to put in them, chairs and tables as before, and of course the travelling basket duly replenished with cold roast fowls, bread and pears, and other good things. It was delightful to set out for an expedition over the sea, which was to be indefinite, in a sense, with no time fixed for our return, and feeling at liberty to keep our clean and bright little craft till our work was done.

The Governor--Sir Eric Swayne--took us off in his barge, coming himself to inspect our boat. He is an ardent sailor, and subsequently built a sloop which surpassed our Dernier, and in which I have enjoyed a sail or two with the keenest pleasure. He was very pleased with our little boat, and wished he was coming with us; and certainly the auspices were good that bright, clear sunny morning as we drew up our anchor, though a black and horrible-looking triangular fin moving slowly past us, just standing clear of the water but not showing the shark himself, relentless and ill-omened looking, reminded us that we were launching forth upon a perilous deep.

But what a change from the gas engine of a little river launch, and its vibrating movement and pungent smells, to the quiet, graceful, sweeping, swan-like movement of our schooner as it glides over the sea, almost noiselessly except for the little rippling swish of the waters parted by our bows! We sweep grandly on for a time with the Coxcomb Mountains on our right, stretching away into the unknown interior, the sea quite gay with other craft, the shores of richest green, cocoanut palms, bananas, mangrove--all different in shade, but always green.

The wind drops a little, and we have to begin to tack, taking large sweeps as we do so. A red cross flag--St. George's--with a mitre in one corner, is flying at our mainmast and is intended to announce that the boat is engaged for an episcopal visitation. Such days are indeed a renewal of one's youth, and the air one breathes seems to be a veritable elixir of life, and again and again I shall have to say of them that they will "never be forgotten," and I mean just what I thus say. It will be impossible while memory holds good to forget either the days themselves or their indelible impressions.

It will not be possible to describe at length the places to which one went for Confirmations and other Services. Space would not permit. I will therefore describe two only, one upon the sea and the other on the mainland, and from what one says of these two an idea can be formed of what one found and experienced in other places.

Tobacco Cay is a little island of white sand measuring about six acres, and some ten or twelve miles from the mainland. Six hundred cocoanut palms grow upon it and cover it completely over, coming down to the very water's edge and giving it the appearance, as one draws near, of a beautiful green bouquet held up above the waves. Not till one draws quite close does one see the white sandy edge of the shore, even with the water--a few high waves apparently would sweep clean over it--and under the palms the few houses and the little school church, all of timber and painted white, raised high up on strong wooden posts to keep things dry in case of high water or flood.

There are some sixty or seventy people, men, women and children, here altogether, and any one who wants to live the simple life could hardly do better than try it at Tobacco Cay. It seemed to me an ideal community.

Here on the island our four men lived--we visited their families--and here they had built their little boat only a very short time before, and ours was its first charter. It was early in the morning when we arrived, and our crew told us we need take no food ashore, as they would have made every hospitable preparation for our reception, so we gave them all our bread and the remaining roast fowl, and landed. I remembered as I was doing this that it was a somewhat incautious "burning of our ships," but put the thought aside as unjust to our worthy islanders, and forgot all about it. But I was to remember later.

In a little station like this one has a schoolmaster who is also a licensed lay reader, and he teaches and conducts services in a school church, and has the clergyman from the mainland to come over from time to time during the week, and give a special service and Celebration of Holy Communion.

They are a simple, quite clean and straight living people--all black, of course--and "follow the sea" for a livelihood, either by fishing or catching the small turtle which give us "tortoise-shell." I have a beautiful shell, all complete above and below, with a wonderful polish put upon it by an English firm, hanging up before me in my study in England, caught in these waters and sent me by my former crew. Their "shell" they sell, of course, in Belize; fish they eat when fresh, and dry quantities in the sun for use in time of stress and storm, and as I went about exploring I found a large quantity hung up to dry on a kind of clothes line, the smell of which was rather strong.

The lay reader, a very fine, capable and modest young fellow, took me everywhere, and helped me to make calls and see everything; but as it drew near to noon we began to feel those pangs of hunger which are only to be really known by those who are just living on the very bare necessaries of life; and so I at last took courage, and inquired,

"Mr. C------, will there be any food for us?"

"Food!" he said in a startled way--"food!" "Yes," I said more firmly, "food, for we have none aboard, and I should be very thankful for a meal, however simple."

"Well," he rejoined, "I'm afraid we shall have nothing for you, Bishop, till to-night."

"And what are you going to give us then?" I asked, thinking perhaps we might last out for something really satisfying.

"It will only be a little light pastry and icecream, I'm afraid," was his reply.

I could hardly believe my ears--"light pastry and ice-cream" on that small and lonely island! But it was perfectly true. They had sent to the mainland for half a hundredweight of ice--only half of it survived the journey--and were making little cocoanut tarts as well, so that they could have a first-class "Ice-cream Social" in honour of the Bishop's visit.

Of course it was impossible one should wait, and so I proposed that, like St. Peter, we should "go a-fishing." What an afternoon that was in our frail canoe! We looked over its sides deep down into what seemed infinities of ultramarine, gem-like, clear, still water of palest green it seemed at one moment, and then, as the light changed, of faintest glittering blue. It was fascinating and astonishing, and in a sense alarming, for one realized what a shark could do if it understood, and chose to come under and upset our light canoe as it danced upon the water. We saw strange forms moving below as we gazed down; great fishes came and quietly ate off our bait, avoiding the hook. My son pulled up a strange /creature shaped like a fish, stout and bulky, but all shell, like mother-of-pearl, with great goggle eyes looking indignant reproach. We were told it was poisonous to touch, and it was skilfully unhooked and put back. But at last we were rewarded by a beautiful large fish called amberjack being caught, which Tom Gill pronounced to be good to eat. We at once put back to our little cay, and twenty minutes were sufficient to roast it, and see it upon the table.

In the evening we had our Service with everybody present--eager, reverent, attentive,--and notice and invitation given for Holy Communion next day. Then, somewhat late, our "Ice-cream Social" followed, in the open air, of course, under the cocoanut palms, followed by speeches of welcome and goodwill. Paper lanterns lit up the scene, the murmur of the sea, so close at hand, accompanied our voices. It was a little idyll of simplicity and good feeling--a little picture of "Brethren dwelling together in unity" such as I have seldom seen before, and probably shall never see again.

A little wooden house had been lent us, and so we slept ashore that night with doors and windows wide open, the wind blowing almost fiercely over us, but giving us good and refreshing sleep until the dawn. We had two Celebrations: one for the convenience of an old sick creature after the seven o'clock Service, and forty received Communion out of that small population of between sixty and seventy men, women, and children, and of course all our crew.

After breakfast I blessed the little schooner for them, as this had not yet been done; the people all gathered together on the shore full of interest and attention. It was with a feeling of real regret that we sailed away later in the day from Tobacco Cay, the people sitting on the roots of their cocoanut palms about the landing-place and singing rather sadly, "GOD be with you till we meet again." The whole visit showed us the dark race at its best--their low, rich voices, their quiet, dignified movements, their refined and courteous bearing to one another, for our negroes always impress me at such times with their very good manners--all seemed to blend in with the quiet life they lead in the shade of their ever-waving palms upon the cay.

Next we passed on over a calm sea, with much tacking to be done, to Stann Creek, with its Rector, the Rev. Henry Cooke, who had come to fetch us, on board. He had been there, an Englishman and his wife and children, for seven years without a change, though since then, I am glad to say, he has been moved to a cooler place, four thousand feet above the level of the sea, at San ]os6, the capital of Costa Rica. Stann Creek will in time be a very important place if our Colony of British Honduras gets its due and full development. It is only a few hours from Belize, but has good water in which even liners can come up alongside the pier and discharge passengers and cargo, and--it has a railway!

This has been a very important enterprise, and I cannot help thinking that the Government will find themselves well repaid in the future for their foresight in making it. I will give the rest of the chapter to the railway, and ask the reader to picture to himself the Confirmation, Holy Communion, and other Services--we were there over a Sunday--going on just as I have already described, our crew coming ashore to attend them, though we were not sleeping on board ourselves.

On the Monday we started off to inspect the little railway--to be completed for the present in twenty-five miles--on a trolley. Of all the modes of travel which have fallen to my lot, for pure enjoyment, give me a trolley! Two or three stalwart negroes work a pumping arrangement; there is support for the back, and one goes gliding through the fresh, pure air, as the motion of the car stirs it to a breeze, with a delicious sense of freedom as different as possible from the confinement of a railway carriage. On through the tropical forest one went, with brilliant birds and butterflies and flowers on every side. A large tiger-cat came bounding out from our left, and after running along for a little while with a perfectly indescribable grace, bounded again into the forest on the right, a suggestion of the wild and savage life with which we were surrounded.

We passed over rails laid upon marble, for when the engineer and constructor were wondering how they would be able to lay a firm track for the metals across the swamps, they found a small hill of marble quite close to their projected line, which only had to be hewn out and carried away.

I went to see it, and gazed in astonishment at this strange upheaval of pure white stone (covered partly over with maidenhair and hart's tongue-shaped ferns and flowers) which had been found so opportunely.

We were under the care of Mr. Boyle, the engineer of the railway, a most capable and well- informed man and most hospitable host. He explained all the difficulties they had to encounter in the construction of even that small line--a bridge had just been swept away by a flood and replaced. At Railhead we saw all the clearing of the tropical forest going on, the weird steam-shovel at work, and all the interesting things connected with railway construction under such circumstances. Walking away clear of everything and taking me with him, he turned to me and said, "And now, Bishop, you have been further into the interior of British Honduras in this part than any living man." So little is known of the country as yet!

We are hoping great things from that railway. Already stations are being formed along its course and the forest cleared. Roads will be made, though the rapid growth will always be a hindrance to their maintenance, and land will be let out on easy terms by the Government for banana and maize cultivation, and other forms of agriculture.

I hope the possibilities will soon begin to attract some of our steadiest and most thrifty Jamaicans from the Central American plantations down the coast with the prospect it holds out of their being able to get little places of their own.

The Government intends also to help them by buying their small supplies of produce, and selling them themselves to the Fruit Company; which will be a very great boon to them, and a great encouragement, at any rate at the start.

British Honduras is very fortunate in having a really public-spirited Governor in Sir Eric Swayne, whose one great object in life, whether his policy vexes or pleases, is the good of his Colony. I have a great regard and respect for him, and also for Mr. Collet, the Colonial Secretary, and owe them much for their great kindness, hospitality and unvarying friendliness. May the British Honduras Railway be a great success, and all that it is expected to be!

After our stay at Stann Creek was over, the night came, at length, on which we had to bid goodbye to our crew. It was to us a sad parting. We had really grown quite attached to them, and they apparently to us. I shall often think of those nights beneath the stars when I would begin to talk first with the brother who was steering; then the others would join us, and all would question and comment in their rich, deep, low voices, as we talked about religion and the spiritual life, with a naturalness and freedom and simplicity which I have never yet known in my own countrymen. Everything connected with that expedition will ever be delightful to recall, but especially those wonderful nights and earnest conversations under the stars amongst the cays.

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