I was much closer to my maternal grandfather, who died in 1957 at the age of 62 when I was just ten years old, than to my paternal grandfather, who lived into his nineties. But in the present case, there’s a theme in my column which links my two grandfathers. It has to do with how life was like for sea folk and fisher folk in Belize sixty, seventy years ago at some of the cayes along our coast.
Things were slow, relatively lazy, in those days. Most of the boats were sailboats. Those few boats with engines used inboard, diesel engines. They were not fast boats. Outboard engines using gasoline on the backs of speedy skiffs did not enter the picture here until the middle 1960s. Just my personal sense. Outboard engines speeded up caye life a lot.
If you were a fisherman or a lighthouse keeper who lived on a remote caye with your family in those days, you could go for weeks, even months, without seeing any strangers, especially in seasons like the Christmas season when the blustery, cold north winds often overpowered the warm easters and southeasters. North weather reduced sea traffic.
My paternal grandfather told us this story of one such fisherman or lighthouse keeper on a remote caye with his family when a sailboat with two fishermen arrived at the bridge. It may have actually been Christmas Day itself, but for sure it was the Christmas season, which lasted for many days back then. The man of the caye invited the two visitors to have Christmas dinner, and so the fishermen sat down around their host’s rough, unpolished dining table.
Rum and the sea life have always been inseparable companions, so I am sure (with no evidence) that “bottle pan table, draw di cork” immediately became the order of the day. But I don’t remember my grandfather including this aspect of the socializing when he told his story. My grandfather was said to have been a drinking man in his younger years, but after some wild escapades he had given up the fire water in his more mature years. He did not encourage any of his grandchildren to view alcohol with any kind of adventurous romanticism. This is not to say that we, his grandsons, did not so view alcohol, because every day across Bolton Bridge we watched flamboyant street personalities living the life. We knew that alcohol was raising their energy level, and that rise in energy level was exciting.
In any case, it appears that the host became impatient or uncomfortable with the fact that his two guests were taking too long to dig into the Christmas food, or perhaps they were half-hearted. So, our host blurted out, “Eat man, eat, no mind unu no gat education!” One of the guests took this to heart, as we would say, and stopped eating. He took the host’s joke personally, and a joke it was, because the host himself had no kind of school education. Eat man, eat, no mind unu no gat education. And one man took the host’s joshing literally. He missed the point.
At Spanish Caye, which is about nine miles southeast of Belize City, maybe three miles due west of English Caye, and a stone’s throw past Robinson’s Point, where my family spent many Easter and summer holidays when I was a child, there was a man who passed the caye on his way sailing from Tobacco Caye to Belize City at least two or three times in my memory. His name was Joe Garbutt, and he and my maternal grandfather, Wilfred “Pa Bill” Belisle, were good friends. In fact, they were similar in appearance, especially since both liked to wear khaki clothes and usually used hats. This is my childhood memory.
So Mr. Joe would stop in at Spanish Caye and spend a couple hours with my grandfather. Mr. Joe would be traveling alone in his sailboat; this was a common thing in those days. Since Tobacco Caye was fifty, sixty miles away from Belize City, Mr. Joe would be sailing all day from very early in the morning until dark.
The culture of the sea in those days in Belize emphasized silence, and the careful, considered use of words. In the first place, children were not allowed to participate in conversations. All Belizean children were told, often, that “children should be seen and not heard.” As children, our role was to fetch things or run errands for adults, and learn to think before we ran off our mouths. On a voyage like Mr. Joe’s from Tobacco Caye to Belize City, and back, a man had to learn to be comfortable with himself for company.
There is a famous section of the Garbutt family (which includes the teacher recently turned politician – Walter “Wally” Garbutt), from Monkey River I think, and I wonder now if Mr. Joe was related to them. In the winter of 1979, I took a train from New Orleans to New York City, where I spent three weeks. I’d traveled to New Orleans with Rufus X, but then he flew back home. In New York, Rufus’ first cousin, Raiford Wade, linked me with Stanley Garbutt, an insurance salesman in Belize City who was living in a small apartment in the South Bronx, a rough section of the City. I stayed with Stanley, a nicer guy you couldn’t meet, for the three weeks before I took the train back to New Orleans, and it never occurred to me to ask him if he was related to Mr. Joe. Stanley and Walter are brothers, I am willing to wager.
I’m near retirement these days, and I am more prone to nostalgia. In 1979 in the Big Apple, Mr. Joe, dignified and self-assured in his clean sailboat, for sure was not on my mind. It is in the nature of nostalgia, when you fall into its clutches, for you to remember the past as all beauty and groove and happiness. But, there were dangerous aspects to sea life.
In front of Spanish Caye in those days, all you had to do was paddle west 150 yards, at the most 200, and you would meet deep blue channel. Huge sharks roamed right there. Sometimes these sharks actually came close to land in order to feed, such as when rotting fish was thrown into the sea offshore. In our family, the first member I knew of who began to dive into the sea for lobster and to spear scale fish on a work basis was Karl Belisle, one of my maternal granduncle’s sons. A year or two before I left for the States in 1965, a man named Lincoln Young had come up from Placencia to do this kind of fishing around Spanish Caye, and after I was gone two of my younger brothers, Nelson and Michael, began to accompany Lincoln. This is a story Nelson would better tell.
I know that Nico Coye, I saw him, used to dive for conch on the “edge” from Spanish Caye going northeast up to Middle Rock. But diving for conch is not as dangerous as spear fishing, which involves blood in the water and wounded fish. Blood and wounded fish excite and infuriate sharks. And I have seen sharks twice my size in the blue in front of Spanish Caye. I would not have wanted to meet any of these monsters in the water.
Pa Bill was not a spear fisher. Neither was Mr. Joe. Things have changed massively in Belize’s fishing world since my childhood. When I pass the Swing Bridge and watch the sailboats from Sarteneja in the mouth of the Haulover Creek, I remember my youth. The only thing I can see different with the Sarteneja fishing boats today and back then is the fact that they now carry outboard motors on their sterns. And, it seems to me, almost all these fishermen today dive into the sea to do their work. This is the modern way. In my day, we were, as they say, old school. Those were good times.