FROM Trinidad, twice in the year, a special steamer starts for a cruise among the West Indian islands. Before embarking upon such a voyage it is well to take a glance at the map, in order to appreciate the remarkable disposition of land and sea in this part of the globe.
A crowd of islands, arranged in the form of a sickle, extends from the point of Florida to the north-east of Venezuela. They are of every size, ranging from an island larger than Ireland to a mere rock an acre in extent. They form a series of stepping-stones between North and South America, the summits of a submarine causeway joining the two continents, and the foundations of a breakwater which, if complete, would make an inland sea of the American Mediterranean.
This immense stretch of water, formed by the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, is, even now, nearly land-locked. To cross it at its greatest length would compel a journey further than that from Liverpool to New York, while the voyager who followed its sea borders would skirt the coasts of Florida, Texas and Mexico, the length of Central America, the northern shores of the southern continent and the whole sweep of islands from Trinidad to the Bahamas. At his journey’s end he would have travelled 12,000 miles.
On the west this Mediterranean ocean is closed by solid land closed until the Panama Canal is completedbut on the east there are many gaps in the sea wall, as well as four wide ways that lead out into the open Atlanticviz. by the Anegada channel, by the Mona and Windward Passages, and by the Straits of Yucatan. Through these waterways, through every chink in the colossal masonry, through every runnel between the Titanic stones pours the Gulf Stream on its way to the north. Between Jupiter Inlet on the coast of Florida and Memory Rock in the Bahamas the stream is at its narrowest, but even here ” it represents a moving mass equal to about three hundred thousand Mississippi rivers.” 1
Those who are learned in the tale of the days when the earth was young, say that a tract of mountainous land did once stretch all the way from Florida to Venezuela, and that the islands became islands partly by a sinking of the land and partly through the upheaving of volcanoes. They say also that there was a time when a man could walk from Jamaica to the mainland and find himself at Cape Gracias a Dios, for even now there are shoals along that way, such as ” Pedro Bank,” ” Seranilla Bank ” and ” Thunder Knoll,” as well as rocks and cays upon which the sea breaks in heavy weather. These rocks which mount out of the sea, as they once lifted themselves up into the clouds, are the needle points of everlasting hills, so that a little cay with only a poor tuft of samphire on it might be the pinnacle of a submerged Matterhorn.
Many of these shallows, by the way, have names that provoke great curiosity. Who, for instance, was the lady made immortal by the ” Rosalind Bank “? Was she a sea-rover’s wife who, although she may lie in a forgotten churchyard by the English Channel, will yet live so long as there is a chart of the Caribbean Sea. Who, too, was ” Old Isaacs ” after whom an unpleasant shoal near the Grand Cayman was named ? Was he the shuffling old man who waited on the captain and who was the butt of the ship, or was he a troublesome money-lender at some such easy-going spot as Port Royal ?
The Grand Cayman, it may here be said, is a small, low-lying, tree-covered island belonging to Great Britain. It does a trade in turtles and cocoanuts, rears cattle, and boasts of a prison and other evidences of civilisation. It is a colony perched on the pinnacle of an isolated submarine mountain whose northern slope is 10,662 feet high, while on the south the depth from the streets of its little town to the solid earth is 20,568 feet, or nearly four miles. If the sea were to drain away, as did the snow from around Baron Munchausen’s church steeple, then would George Town, the capital of the Grand Cayman, appear on the very apex of a mountain which (viewed from its southern valley) would be nearly a mile higher than Mont Blanc.
There are deep seas in this part of the world. In crossing a pool to the north of Puerto Rico, for instance, a ship would have 27,366 feet of water beneath her, so that if a coin were dropped overboard it would have to travel more than five miles before it reached the bottom.’
Of the individual islands it is only necessary to say that the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, San Domingo, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Archipelago) rest on a common submarine bed and are fragments of a continent through which runs, from west to east, a mountain chain.
These are the Leeward Islands properly so called, the ” Islas soto viento ” of the Spanish because the northeast trade wind blows so constantly from the eastward throughout the year and because they lie, in relation to the other groups, to the west.
The Windward Islands stand away towards the rising sun and are known most usually as the Lesser Antilles or Caribbee Islands. Finally there is a group of islands called the Coast Islands. They were included by the Spanish in the ” Islas soto viento,” and are to be regarded merely as detached portions of the coast of South America. They extend from Tobago to Oruba.
The islands which are most closely concerned with the present voyage are the Caribbee Islands. They form a regular crescent from Sombrero, or the Spanish Hat, in the north, to Grenada in the south. Along a part of the crescent they range themselves into two linesan outer and an inner chainone facing the Atlantic, the other the Caribbean Sea. The outer row of islands’ are built up of white limestone or coral rock and are all comparatively low-lying, no point that they can boast of reaching 1400 feet. With the exception of Antigua none of these islands show evidence of volcanic action.
The inner or main line of islands are the most interesting and picturesque in the archipelago. They are all of volcanic origin, are all crater heaps. Even the little Grenadines represent ” the scattered fragments of a great volcano disrupted during some tremendous outburst in late Tertiary times.”‘ They are precipitous, rising almost vertically out of the sea, and mount to great heights. The highest point, that of some 5000 feet, is attained by Morne Diablotin in Dominica. Some are mere crater cones, as are the islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and Nevis. Others present stately peaks and dim ravines, towering mornes and winding valleys.
In these islands, so weird and so fantastic, the land has been rent and torn by awful forces, has been shaken by convulsions which must have sent a shudder through the great world, has been kneaded and moulded by terrific hands. The soil is dark for it is made up of ashes, of poured out lava, of piled up cinders and rocks. The rains of the tropics have gouged out river beds and gullies, have made in one place a rich plain and in another a stagnant swamp. There are here no smooth, whale-back downs covered with gorse, no be-flowered water meadows, no white cliffs. In their place are mountain peaks hammered out upon the world’s anvil into the form of prongs and pikes, together with ragged chines where the cup of the crater would seem to have cracked with fervent heat.
The very soil which is so fertile has been hurled up from the great furnace in the vaults of the globe.
All these islands are covered with luxuriant vegetation from the wall of green at the water’s edge to their mist-enticing summits. Their ” woods are perpetually green as the plumage of a green parrot.” 1 Their seas are ever a pansy-blue. ” Their days have such an azure expansion, so enormous a luminosity that it does not seem to be our sky above, but the heaven of some larger world . . . lit by the light of a white sun.”
In the days when the islands were fashioned this corner of the world must have been the scene of an appalling spectacle. A curved line of volcanoes rising out of the sea, belching fire and smoke and cascades of ashes into the lowering skies. Each island a mouth coming up to breathe from the inner fire, a vent of the vast furnace thrust up through the deep.
For long after the blaze had died away each round of land would be a mere black cinder cone. Then would come, borne by the birds and the winds, the germs of vegetation and the blush of green. Ferns and bushes would cover the harsh scars. Woods would climb to the very edge of the smoking crater. Fluttering wings would fill the solitudes with life.
One night, among the trees around some quiet beach, a light would be seen and the red reflection of it would fall upon the water in the lonely bay. Then it would be known that man had come.