Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Are Islanders Insular? A Personal View

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Are Islanders Insular? A Personal View

Article excerpt

  Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and
  South. It is not down on any map; true places never are.
  --Herman Melville, [1851] 1950

There was basically only one paved road in the early 1970s, when my anthropologist wife, Karen, our Samoyed dog, Fudde, and I lived on Saint John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This was the Centerline Road--or the "Old King's Road," as it also was called--which wound its way up the hill from the port of Cruz Bay. Cruz Bay was, and is, the island's main connection to urbanized Saint Thomas and from there to the continental world. Cruz Bay was the only place on the island that remotely resembled a town, with a couple of shops, a few bars, a signless restaurant, a gas station, an apothecary, a bank, and the local seat of government. It was here that the bulk of the island's two thousand or so inhabitants lived. After a few miles of continuous twisting climb, the road straightened out and made a beeline east across the center of a volcanic plateau before winding down to a newly constructed asphalt route that clung to the crumbling cliff side of a mountain, before entering Coral Bay village, at the island's northeast corner (Figures 1 and 2). Coral Bay, when we lived in the bay area, consisted of a magnificent, centuries-old wooden Moravian church, a new barracklike school, a fire station of sorts, an abandoned gas station, a few houses, and the Sputnik bar and grocery, with its resident Great Pyrenees dog, Churchill.

At Coral Bay village the main road made a swing right, to the south, following the twisting contours of the island's eastern shore; and after a short while the asphalt gave way to broken and potholed slabs of poured concrete. The road passed through the nineteenth-century family-land settlements of freed slaves with names like "Calabash Boom," "Hard Labor," and "John's Folly," the last two of which bespeak the marginal agricultural character of the rocky and steep hillside soils. The paved road ended at that time at John's Folly, where, after a short stretch, rounding Drunk Bay and Ram's Head, the coast takes an abrupt right corner and then proceeds due west. After a number of tortuous, virtually impassable miles westward along the island's southern shore, one returned to the road's point of origin in Cruz Bay. The road thus marked about the longest possible overland distance between two points on Saint John, and even though the island is small (20 square miles), the ups and downs, coupled with the tropical heat, meant that one only made the journey with any frequency if one had a vehicle with good brakes. It was when we lived in Hard Labor that I met a young native of John's Folly, a nine-year-old boy named Leo.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Leo had little experience of the world beyond John's Folly, but this did not mean that he was not curious about it. His first question to me, after we exchanged names, was, "What island do you come from?" Without a moment's hesitation I responded, "Staten Island." He looked puzzled, until I explained that it was an island north of Puerto Rico--which formed the northern reach of his young world. The world at the other end of the road was relatively unfamiliar to him. Fishermen, however, visited John's Folly, and the family had a boat, which provided an easy means of transportation to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, which loomed on the horizon, a short sail from home, across Coral Bay, Privateer Bay, and the Sir Francis Drake Passage. There, in dusty Road Town, the family would have found supplies in an abundance, and at a price that could not be matched by Cruz Bay. At that time, however, they would not have met many people in Road Town who were not West Indians, so most of those whom Leo did meet would have been from an island.

Leo's question resonated with me because my home island bore about the same relation to Manhattan Island, as his did to Saint Thomas. To go into "the city"--Manhattan--we had to climb a hill before hopping a number 6 bus at the six corners of Meier's Corners (a few blocks down Victory Boulevard from Four Corners), and then, after traversing both hill and dale, take a ferry ride across New York's great harbor. …

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