‘Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity.’ ~ Thich Nhat Hanh.
The first time I went to Key West, it still had the sleepy quality of a fishing village. I was immediately in love. Four years before I had been living in Jamaica, and Key West could have been somewhere off the north coast of Jamaica. The drive down there was intoxicating though scary at times. The two-laned Overseas Highway warned you not to pass (overtake, for the British!) unless you were in a designated passing zone. Signs would give you updates as to the nearness of that zone.
They say the road itself gives true Key West natives their approach to life. They are known as Conchs (in fact they declared themselves to be the Conch Republic many years ago). When there is only one road in and out of a place, and accidents can tie up traffic for hours, you have to develop an acceptance that plans can go awry. In Jamaica they would say ‘Suh it go’ (That’s how it goes) and shrug.
But Key West today is a tourist mecca; a stopping point for cruise ships, a destination wedding site. It is hard to remember how it looked before Mel Fisher hauled up his treasure from the ocean floor; before the Hard Rock discovered the place. But even the tourists slow down to the island pace. How can you not, when the photogenic roosters stop and pose and give you a hundred photo ops? How can you not, when each street beckons you to come and admire the architecture of the buildings, which even when not lovingly restored still have charm and style and character. Like New Orleans, Key West suggests it is a place outside of the US, dwelling in that meeting place of Europe and Africa, like Port Royal of old.
When you are born in a country like the UK, where centuries old castles and towns exist; where you can visit cities with walls originally built by the Romans during their occupation in the first century, and then reconstructed maybe more recently in the 12th Century, it is easy to scoff at a town like Key West with old structures that may be less than 150 years old. But just as Floridians learn to appreciate the onset of winter when the daily high dips into the low 80s, so you can learn to appreciate the age of the Key West buildings when compared to cities which are barely 100 years old. It is all a matter of degree.
But there is history in Key West which stretches back a few more centuries. There is the harder to find history of the first dwellers of the Keys and the Everglades, those Calusa and Tequesta Indians that managed to survive in the swampy, alligator infested islands of the Everglades and Florida bay. Later, Creek and Seminole Indians lived there, before the colonizers decided they wanted a piece. But the Keys, with their proximity to the Bahamas and Cuba, became a place where Africans escaping slavery landed; in time a village sprung up (before any connection by road or rail). Cuban cigar makers set up business; wreckers set up shop, making a living off the ships that wrecked off the coast.
Thanks to my friend the award-winning activist, I learned of the African cemetery at Higgs Beach. In 1860, after the abolition of the slave trade, there was still big money to be made in the trafficking of Africans. American owned ships were still sailing to the West Coast of Africa and purchasing human beings for $10 – $34, with a resale value of $1000. Naval vessels were sent to patrol off the coast of Cuba to try to intercept such ships, and suppress the slave trade there. Even though the importation of Africans for enslavement had been banned in the US in 1808 and by Spain in 1820, the trade continued in Cuba, and American planters continued to do business there. Three ships were boarded and their cargo (human beings held in such deplorable conditions that they were dying) was transported to Key West. Of the over 1000 Africans who survived the journey, almost 300 died shortly after arrival, and were buried at Higgs Beach cemetery. After some months of recovery, the Africans were repatriated, taken back to Liberia, and even though the conditions were much better, some did not survive the trip.
It took the work of a historian in the 1990’s to unearth this history and bring it to light. The graves were unmarked, there was no historical marker left to record this episode. Today, beside the West Martello Tower (a reconstructed fort turned into a beautiful garden by the Key West Garden Club) there is the historic marker, along with a floor painted mural depicting the Trans-Atlantic trips of the Africans, and columns with Ghanaian Adinkra symbols and their meaning memorialize those Africans. Inside the gardens there are various sculptures created by artists of African descent, and if you ask at the front desk the docent will provide you with a copy of the article written by the historian Gail Swanson detailing the sad yet hopeful story. For it showed there were those who tried to correct the centuries of wrongs and treated the Africans as fellow human beings. Unfortunately the site is not listed on one of the tourist maps of historical sites to see in Key West.
On this Friday morning, as I get ready to end my Spring Break and launch myself into a new semester at work, I give thanks for all the historians who dig deep to expose untold stories. Bob Marley sang that ‘half the story has never been told’, but I suspect it is way more than half. I give thanks for those who preserve the stories, the architecture and the culture of bygone societies so that we may learn from them. I give thanks that I can drive down to the Keys and feel my blood pressure drop a point with every mangrove island spotted. And I give thanks for the ever-changing mangrove, that help to bring balance to an abused planet.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!