ISLANDS OF THE NORTHWEST PENINSULA
ISLETS OF THE BOCAS
When Columbus sailed up the gulf to find open sea, the whale that spouted in front of his ships did nothing more than cause him to give a name to the placid water: Golfo de la Ballena (Gulf of the Whale). Not wanting to take the risk to pass among those jagged rocks of the Bocas that seemed to be the gateway to wide ocean, he skirted the northwest of the land he had called La Trinidad and headed for what he thought was a channel in the land-mass lying to the west. He found it was no channel but a land the natives called “Paria.” However, rather than retrace his course he decided to sail a little way down that coast, mainly because of the natives of those parts gathering on the shore and calling to them. There was one point where the natives appeared to be shouting out something like “Macuro!” and at this place, which he named “Macuro,” he and his men landed, and he, in particular, seemed to have spent there the happiest days of the voyage. Incidentally, the native word “Macuro” simply meant “White men.”
When Columbus went ashore he was entertained by the cacique who considered him a great king and lord that had appeared from the sunrise. But Columbus, after the five or so days he spent at Macuro, wanted to hurry away. He became suddenly anxious, no doubt remembering that the meat and provisions he was taking to the settlement of Isabella (at Hispaniola) were rotting away in the ships’ holds. He told the cacique of Macuro he had to leave. The cacique said a sad farewell. The cacique told him not to be afraid of the rocky islets. The cacique said that it was true, those channels and the expanse to the west was the entry into open sea but that it was in fact safe, with no reefs as the Spaniards suspected, and all one had to do was to wait on the tides. The cacique further said what amounted to: “I am very much surprised that you men who said you came from heaven are afraid of such trivial things. Our people, with much smaller canoes, pass through that channel every day. Go back and wait on the tide, and maybe when the shrieking birds come home from the sunset the tides will shriek too in rushing out, and then your canoes will ride the waters and it will soon be open sea.”
When Columbus came back from Macuro to the islets in the northern channel it must have already been Friday, August 10, 1498. The first of the islets he met had a magnificent, deep-set harbor and he went into it and anchored for the night. The next day the Spaniards found out that the harbor was the only true one in all the three islets. Because of its blue-black water, rather like ink, the Spaniards gave it the name for ink — La Bahia Tinta — or La Tinta Bay, as the English call it. They saw no one.
The next day the Spaniards saw a lot of red howling monkeys. These had long bushy tails, and maybe looked like cats, for Columbus called the harbor “Puerto de los Gatos,” or “Port of the Cats.” It is possible the Spaniards had never seen monkeys before. The next day Columbus sailed around the islet, and deciding that it looked like a snail, he named it “El Caracol” or “The Snail.” But the name which prevailed was the name the natives had given it, mocking the sound of the sea against the rocks — Chacachacare.
When the Spaniards went to the middle islet it seemed just as deserted as the first. But they knew that it was inhabited and that its inhabitants had fled, because they found fishermen’s implements and a good deal of fresh water in little huts by the water’s edge. They called that place “Puerto de las Cabanas,” or “Port of the Cabins.” Columbus found that the islet was shaped like a dolphin so he named it “El Delfin.” Later Spaniards were more impressed with the number of birds’ eggs on the ground for they called it “Huevos” (Eggs). The last islet, the one nearest the mainland, seemed to have had more monkeys than the other two. But Columbus was more taken up with the fact that its coast was so blunt all around, it had neither headland nor harbor, not even an inlet to give shelter from a storm. He called it “Cabo Boto,” or “Blunt Cape.” Later Spaniards called it “Monos,” Spanish for monkeys.
All these things were done when Columbus was merely killing time waiting on the tides. He explored and named the islets on Sunday, August 12, and Monday 13, and the next day he was suddenly on the alert. For the normal sound of the waters had gone quiet. Not only was the passage quiet but the cacique must have taught him a thing or two for he realized the tide was preparing to rush out. It was now Tuesday, August 14. There was a low whistle. And…and was it a shriek? It was goodbye. They spread their sails and lifted anchor and in a quick time they rode out of the gulf. The fear the passage had instilled in Columbus made him look back and call it: “Boca del Dragon.”
As the discoverer (and the discovered!) sailed away he spotted far to the northwest, on the horizon, a lovely silhouette against the sky, and he knew it was another island. He called it “Bella Forma” (Beautiful Outline). But it wouldn’t attract him, though, for now he was hurrying “home” to Hispaniola.
Bella Forma was Tobago. But in his log Columbus’ name for it was also Concepcion. Later we shall say a lot about Concepcion, or Bella Forma, or Tobago of the Caribs. But as Columbus leaves we reflect on the islets of the Bocas, and although there is not much change we think of the Puertos de las Cabanas and would like to spend some time in those cabins too.
THE FIVE ISLANDS
What is known as the Five Islands lie roughly two miles south of the coast of Carenage and southwest of Point Gourde. They are Caledonia, Craig, Lenegan, Nelson, and Rock. Lenegan, Craig and Rock are very little used. Caledonia is the largest of these islets, and although the name “Rock” implies that Rock is the smallest, the smallest is Craig. Caledonia is the first of the islets as one goes due south from St Peter’s Bay on the Carenage coast. Close to its southwest coast is the tiny Craig, and not too great a distance to the west of Craig is Lenegan. About 3/4 mile almost due south of Caledonia and almost the same size as it, is Nelson Island. Less than a quarter-mile due west of Nelson Island is Rock.
In the Spanish days these islets were known as “Las Cotorras,” which means “The Parrots.” During East Indian indentureship Caledonia was frequently used as a place of quarantine. It was also the place where Uriah Butler spent six years in detention - from the outbreak of war in September, 1939, until the end of the war (in Europe) in May 1945. Nelson Island was at times used for the purpose of quarantine and it also became known as a place for the detention of political prisoners. During the civil unrest known as the Black Power Riots of 1970 quite a number of political “activists” were held there, including George Weekes, president-general of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union, and Makaandal Daaga, who became known as the leader of the Black Power movement.
THE ISLANDS OF DON GASPAR AND DON DIEGO
The other islands that call attention are the islands of Don Gaspar and Don Diego. By far the largest of all the islets in the Don Gaspar and Don Diego groups is what is known as Gaspar Grande and this was given by Governor Jose Maria Chacon around 1785 to Don Gaspar for his contribution, which does not appear to have been recorded. Gaspar Grande had been used as a fortress to protect Trinidad but it did not prove effective when the British came in 1797.
Chacon also gave another islet to Don Gaspar. This was much smaller than the first - a tiny islet - and this took the name “Gasparillo.” It is often called “Centipede Island” on some maps, as it is said to teem with these creatures. However, Gasparillo is its proper name.
The two islets to look at now are what are called the Diego Islands, and they can be looked upon as arguably the most useful of all these little isles. These were given to Don Diego around 1785. They are both less than a mile from the southern tip of Pointe Gourde, on the southwest of the peninsula, and they are both about the same size, midway between the huge islet of Gaspar Grande and the tiny Five Islands. The first of these Diego islets is Carrera, and Carrera has been used exclusively for the detention of dangerous criminals since 1877. The second is Cronstadt, which one can call an industrial islet. The main activity on Cronstadt is quarrying, and a number of industries have quarrying posts there.
Copyright NALIS, 2007