Great stories have been told of the old days of smuggling. In olden times it was considered an honorable profession by the less fortunate, those who could not afford the taxes, duties and levies that had to be paid to the King’s men, or duty men as they were also known.
England’s shores were a treasure trove of caves and inaccessible beaches that only the skilled could navigate. When it came to smuggling, Cornwall was one of the most noted places in history and whilst the practice was frowned upon by the higher classes, they all knew where to purchase the best Portuguese sherry and the finest French lace, without paying the duty men.
What one country would call traders, another would call smugglers. One thing was clear, wherever there was a need for something, there was always someone willing to go get it and get it in the cheapest way possible.
One of the founding fathers of the United States of America was John Hancock; to some he was a merchant but to the British, a smuggler. Some claim that when the British seized Hancock’s ship the Liberty in 1766, over duty payable for the rum in the ship’s hold, it lit the fire under the War of Independence, a fire that would not die down until the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the largest and most dominant signature being that of John Hancock. Hence the expression ‘put your John Hancock here’ when asked to sign a document, an expression used to this day in England and the United States.
History tells us that the economies of nearly all the islands of the Caribbean would, over time, rise and fall as battle raged between the revenue men and the smugglers.
However, the seafarers of the Caribbean were so much more. The movement of ships between the islands was often the only lifeline for the people; bringing food, mail, clothes, workers and animals from one island to another. The island schooners, plying their trade, were not really seen as smugglers but as traders essential to the island communities.
The Lesser Antilles survived not from the hand of their colonial masters but by the bravery and seamanship of the men who sailed the schooners all year round, hurricane season or not. These were not fair weather sailors but real mariners who often ran goods from the southern islands right up the island chain to the Virgins, to pass their cargo on to bigger ships for onward passage to Europe, America and the world.
These great Caribbean sailors were not just traders; they were story tellers and news gatherers, carrying information between families and friends. The sailors knew what was going on; be it an uprising, a disaster or a disease, the crew of these little ships would know. The ports and rum shops would be the place to find out where to get what you needed and, if the sailors didn’t know, by the time they returned from their next trip, they would.
Today, the ancestors of those elite merchant seamen can still be found dotted around the ports of the Caribbean, their vessels often dwarfed by the ships that they lay alongside. These little schooners, often painted red and white or blue and white, maintain their traditional shape with a large wheel house aft, closed in bulwark, and sometimes raked masts and huge booms. In a changing world, they still ply their trade and make a living. Most, but not all, have big diesel engines and are crewed by local sailors from their home port.
The modern day cruising yachtsmen can do a lot to keep the old traditions of the Caribbean schooner men alive. Take the time to get to know them. Do a little research on the islands you visit and find out about the culture and history. Take a look at what they have and what they don’t have. If a friendly hand is extended, a friendly hand will be returned.
Remember reuse and recycle where possible.
Environmentalist, yachtsman and journalist Sean Paton lives in Bonaire where he hosts the popular radio show Mad Dog in the Morning on Mega Hit FM. Email: [email protected]