Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of columns detailing Kent Mountford's journeys tracing the route of the early voyages from Europe to the Chesapeake.
Coming ashore on Barbados, I departed from the course the Virginia Company Adventurers-and John Smith-followed on their 1606-07 voyage to America. Barbados, the easternmost of the Antilles, was discovered by the Portuguese mariner Pedro a Campos in 1536. He named it Los Barbados (Bearded Ones) after the island's native fig trees, which feature a rootlike structure that grows down from the tree's branches to help support the tree. (See photo on this page.)
It was later taken by the Spanish, and thus avoided by British voyagers until 1625, when it was claimed for Charles I. English settlers landed at today's Holetown (a small indentation on the west coast) and named the settlement Jamestown-the second one in the New World British Empire. The British controlled Barbados until its independence in 1966.
Because Barbados was still under Spanish control in 1607, though, Capt. Christopher Newport's destination was the island of Santo Domingo, known today as Dominica, a favored destination for English mariners during the early years of settlement.
Sir Thomas Dale wrote in May 1611, "We had...reached Dominico-a passage which I could heartily wish might not be declined by those our English fleet which should at any time make into Virginia, probable enough, as may appear by this our trial, to be most speedy and, I am right well assured, most convenient by our people's refreshing and preservation of our cattle."
The passage, he wrote, "may be made good by reason of continual easterly wind from the Canaries to the West Indies, the second [pausing at Dominica is justified] by the restitution of our sick people into health by the helps of fresh air, diet, and the baths."
Dominica's baths were sulfurous thermal springs that originated from volcanism just beneath the island's surface. Dale would have known that these were curative because of the hot springs in Bath England, which were touted for their restorative powers since Roman times. That they both smelled and tasted bad, and their heat-which had to be tempered to be able to immerse one's body-only underscored that these humors had to be curative.
I was privileged to sail to Dominica aboard Capt. Charles "Chuck" Waechter's yawl Ming in January 1976. Prevailing trade winds sweeping between the islands often cross tidal streams and kick up wild chops. Waves 6-7 feet high repeatedly burst over the decks as we forged into them at 8 knots. It was certainly the same for the Virginia adventurers as they approached after their trans-Atlantic voyage.
Dominica has two principal anchorages on her lee, or western side.
At one anchorage, Roseau Roads adjacent the capital of Roseau, the waves generated by constant trade winds "wrap" around the island's precipitous south end and cause boats moored there to rock ceaselessly, making it difficult to sleep, cook and work.
The second anchorage, and the one I'd bet any money Captain Newport chose for his fleet, is in Prince Rupert Bay, just inside the island's northern end in 6 to 9 fathoms (36-54 feet). It's protected from most of the "wrapping" seas by Cabrit Hill, a promontory that extends a mile west into the Caribbean Sea. The village of Portsmouth is here along a wide curving sand beach.
Two fresh watering places are still on modern charts and in 1611, John Clark reported to the Spanish that water could be taken aboard here even in stormy weather. A small estuary, Indian River, which becomes freshwater upstream, runs east into the island.
When the Virginia adventurers arrived here in 1607, the change from cold England and their cramped ships must have been stunning. Mountains rise abruptly over Portsmouth first to 1,876 feet, then to 2,917 feet, within just a couple miles of the coast. In other places, the cliffs leap 1,200-1,400 feet out of the sea.
These mountains, forming an almost continuous range down the island's spine of 29 miles, catch moisture from trade wind clouds. Rainfall on the east slopes is 150 inches a year. Only chance showers make it over the peaks to the Caribbean side, which receives 35 inches a year.
While I was there, showers emerged over the mountains and in minutes fell on us at anchor or ashore, before passing west, shot through with rainbows that arched high above and ended in the sea. Then the sun would dry our clothes in minutes.
Francis Perkins, who was with the 1606-07 adventurers, wrote to a friend on Nov. 29, 1607: "we reached the island of Santo Domingo, which is in the West Indies; and we were there all that day trafficking with the savages, who came on board naked, bringing us potatoes, plantains (bananas), pineapples which are a very savory fruit, bread which they call 'casadra' (made from roots and today called cassava) parrots, cocks and hens and other things, which they gave us in exchange for iron hatchets saws, knives, rosaries (not the devotional kind but a coin of the least value) and other similar trifles which they esteem very highly, and of great usefulness to those who carry with them in like voyages."
The natives, Carib Indians, would have come alongside in hollowed log canoes, much like those of native people in North America. In the 1970s, log canoes-often from the large straight ceiba tree-were still common. We saw several being cut and hollowed in the forest with only hand tools. These have a longer bow than the native 17th century Chesapeake canoes, with slim and solid wood to better resist splits.
On 20th century versions of these crafts, planks are added above the level of the log like the later European Chesapeake log canoe versions, which increases capacity and seaworthiness.
We found one capsized at sea off the Dominican coast, her hull, barnacle-covered. When I visited, log canoe skiffs were still working in the inter-island passages, exposed to the sea and lying to under oars as they set and recovered fish traps.
Before our anchor was even set, boats were alongside us selling fruit, pinwheels of woven grass, conchs and spiny lobsters. Night fell, finding us afloat in a glimmering sea of luminescent plankton dinoflagellates.
The next morning, we took a dinghy up Indian River, a languid jungle stream with small fish darting over rocks tumbled round by rushing torrents from the mountains. The convoluted prop-roots of tall forest trees formed a bulkhead along the banks. We portaged several small riffles finding clear, fresh water about two miles inland, where in a rocky niche, we pulled up the boat and bathed in refreshing 70-degree water. Hummingbirds flashed among the trees. Imagine how the Virginia adventurers felt bathing in such places after many weeks at sea.
Farther inland, we found thermal baths. Sulfur springs lie on the side of Morne Trois Pitons, which rises 4,672 feet just 3.6 miles from the coast.
Two boys showed us about half a dozen vents from which hot gases and sulfuric acid vapor poured forth. The largest bubbled thunderously through gray mud in a 6-foot deep pit rimmed with tiny reddish mineral stalagmites. One fumarole vented through a chicken yard. A cave, walls streaked with deep green, red and white thumped and rumbled, spraying out hot water. A stream literally boiled as it flowed over rocks multicolored from the heat. Nearby, content with some proper soil micronutrients, wild orchids bloomed.
Some plants, like the orchid Oeceoclades maculatum considered naturalized to islands as far west as Hispaniola, are actually African in origin, their incredibly light, furry seeds having blown across the ocean on winds similar to those we encountered during my trans-Atlantic voyage last year.
That's probably also how the cattle egret, now spreading far into North America, arrived by stages, first to the Cape Verde Islands, then perhaps to way stations like St. Helena, then to the east coast of Brazil. Making some assumptions about favoring trade winds, the birds could survive such leaps of faith by flying just 30 hours or so.
Dominica 32 years ago was the wildest place I'd ever seen; incredibly rugged and sparsely populated, with most of the interior uninhabited rain forest.
Bamboo, 5 inches in diameter, rose many yards above the forest floor amid tree-ferns several yards high, liverworts and bird of paradise plants.
At the base of a thundering 30-foot waterfall, we swam in a cool emerald green pool ringed by forest canopy a hundred feet above.
A native told us about their endemic sisserou parrot, a seasonal tree-top fruit feeder, and the manicou, a resident Dominican and Trinidadian opossum, which is slow enough that it can be caught on the road at night when "frozen" in a car's headlights. A virtual Dominican national dish (which we were later served) is "mountain chicken," one of the world's largest frogs, Leptodactylus fallax, which has declined 80 percent in the last decade from the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis.
The Carib people in 1976 were largely confined to an Indian territory on the Island's east side. Their outbuildings were of grass matting similar to those used by the Chesapeake Algonquin peoples. The Caribs we met were light-skinned, with high cheekbones and fine features, presenting an almost oriental look.
Newport took his fleet northwest up the Leeward Island chain. John Smith, looking back in 1624, wrote: "we traded with the savages at Dominica; three weeks we spent refreshing ourselves amongst these West India isles. In Gwardalupa (next island north of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles) we found a bath so hot as in it we boiled pork as well as over the fire."
Ming also sailed to Guadeloupe. At Basse Terre, we climbed up Guadeloupe's active volcano, Soufriere. Somewhere above 3,287 feet, the vegetation radically changed, becoming almost alpine in character, with temperatures falling from 83 F at the base to 59 F-which didn't include the substantial windchill.
John Smith wrote: "at a little Isle called Monica we took from the bushes with our hands near two hogsheads full of birds in three or four hours; (possibly the bridled quail dove, which is reluctant to fly and thus easy to catch) in Mevis (Nevis, adjacent to today's resort island St. Kitts) Mona and the Virgin Islands...we spent some time, where with a loathsome beaste like a crocodile, called a "gwayn" (iguana), tortoises, pelicans, parrots and fishes we daily feasted."
Iguanas are a group of lizard species, many of which are endemic to specific Caribbean Islands. Biologist Catherine Malone suggests they may have arrived in the Caribbean tens of millions of years ago, and have since evolved in isolated habitats, some on islands as small as 4,000 feet in length. Many species and subspecies are endangered because of habitat destruction and introduced predators such as the Asian mongoose, dogs, cats, rats and even raccoons. Iguanas were also good meals for meat-starved mariners in the early 17th century.
I encountered one iguana species, the Allen Cays iguana on the sandy beach of Allens Cay in the Bahamas during the winter of 1986. Out from the low brush appeared many huge lizards-rock iguanas-which grow up to a meter long and weigh nearly 11 pounds. They came directly toward me, clearly looking to be fed. I brought food scraps from the boat and they were easy to feed, except that in lunging, they went for the hand not the food scraps. This species is listed as threatened in its entire range and lives on only three small islets, one of which has only seven adults.
Smith's "tortoises" were probably the red-footed tortoise. Modern adult males reach 13.25 inches, but in Smith's time, the males from an undisturbed population on a remote island like Mona could grow to 17.75 inches, a healthy meal to say the least.
The course Newport's three ships followed from the Virgin Islands seems straightforward. Inspecting a Caribbean map, one can deduce that they would have gone around the south side of San Juan (today's Puerto Rico) because that's the only way, sailing through the sometimes rough and contrary Mona Passage, that they could have stopped, as Smith reported, on Isla Mona for their last easy diet of tropical plenty.
Bypassing a landing on Puerto Rico, they set a course northwestward, keeping off the shallow and dangerous banks around the Bahamas Islands and seeking to intersect the coast of North America near the Chesapeake.