Windward and Leeward

After our escape from Devil’s Island, we sailed north, bound for the Windwards.

If you’re already confused, Dear Reader, allow me to set you straight. 

Mandatory Geography Lesson

The islands in this part of the world are called, for no good reason, “antilles.” If you will consult your map—or your globe, should you own such a princely object—you will see a line of giant antilles running east-west. They are named, from left, Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. These are the Greater Antilles. They form a ridge that walls off the Atlantic Ocean, to the north, from the Caribbean Sea, to the south.

Now, look to the right side (east) of Puerto Rico and there, hanging down like the tail of a large west-facing chameleon, you will note a north-south string of teensy antilles with names like Antigua, Martinique, Saint Lucia, and so forth. These would be your Lesser Antilles. They do not wall off, but do demarcate, the South Atlantic, to the east, from the Caribbean, to the west.

So now you know.

The Greater Antilles, across the top; and the Lesser Antilles, down the right side. From Google Earth.

None of this, Kind Reader, applies to the Dry Tortugas, so get that out of your mind right away. But let me ask you, in all candor—what good is a wet tortuga?

Getting back to the Antilles, I regret to inform you of one further development: Some of the lesser ones are known as Windward Islands, whereas others are called Leeward Islands, on account of the lamentable tendency of sailors to chalk everything up to the wind. Because the Trade Winds, in those latitudes, blow from east to west, therefore the southern islands of the Lesser Antilles are windward and the northern ones are leeward. 

There you go. Don’t ask me. It is what it is.

Now, Back to Our Story

Two long, rolling, sea days after not landing at Devil’s Island, we came to Bridgetown, the principal city of Barbados—which may be a Windward Island or may not, depending which way the wind is blowing. Barbados is technically in the Atlantic Ocean, yet it seems Caribbean, for what that’s worth.

Not yellow, but our submarine nonetheless. Jo Sommers photo.

Barbados is the birthplace of rum, and it still makes some of the best. English is the main language spoken there, along with a local patois that is also part English. After centuries as a British colony, Barbados gained independence in 1966 and is still a member of the British Commonwealth. 

We visited a pineapple farm and later saw the coral beds of Barbados from the viewports of a real submarine!

Our next port of call was Castries, the main port city of Saint Lucia, which is for sure one of the Windward Islands. Between 1660 and 1814, France and Britain fought fourteen times for control of the island. Seven times it came out French and seven times British. Finally the French, exhausted after the energetic reign of Napoleon, gave up. Saint Lucia, like Barbados, is now an independent state in the British Commonwealth.

Saint Lucia’s caldera–the low spot between the lumpy mountain on the left and the two craggy pitons on the right–looms over the fishing town of Soufrière.

I found Saint Lucia lovely and appealing. It is volcanic. The southwest shore of the island features two great stone spires, called Petit Piton and Gros Piton, and a caldera or basin formed by a gigantic blow-out more than thirty thousand years ago. Hot steam still oozes skyward from the unhealed wound in the earth. 

Thirty years ago, after Gabriel, a tour guide, was burned by steam, the government built a safe viewing platform that overlooks the steam vents. The platform is safe, that is, until the next eruption. But geologists hope the Earth will give warning before that happens. I hope so too. 

The steam vents.

For the present, I can only report that I am happy to have escaped alive.

On we went, ending our voyage in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As a young man, I had paid a brief visit to San Juan. A fellow passenger on our ship asked me how long ago that was. “Oh,” I replied, “it was about thirty years ago. No, wait . . . forty . . . uh, no—make that fifty years ago.” 

Time sure sneaks up on one, does it not? 

San Juan astounded me. Gleaming white buildings stretched along the shore as far as I could see. Old San Juan, the place marked by a pair of famous old Spanish fortresses, is still there. But the city now spreads out over the countryside. Those gleaming white buildings are hotels, apartments, and condos with price tags up to and beyond a million dollars apiece. 

Puerto Rico’s residents are exempt from U.S. income tax, and the island recently passed legislation cutting its own corporate tax rates. As a result, a lot of folks from the U.S. mainland are moving to Puerto Rico, establishing residency, and bringing their businesses with them. No doubt there are still many poor Puerto Ricans, but the new prosperity is not to be sneezed at. 

We had only a little time on Puerto Rico, for our airplane home was waiting. And it was great to get back to good old Madison. Who doesn’t love zero degree weather and foot-deep snow? 

It beats a wet tortuga any day.


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

What the Devil!

We sailed out the enormous maw of the Amazon River and headed north.

Our good ship began to roll with the waves of the broad Atlantic. I headed for sick bay and picked up a few tablets of meclizine for myself and my wife. That was a good move, because crossing the ocean from Brazil to French Guiana becomes a long haul. 

Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, photographed by Aron Gerschel. Public domain.

On the morning of our third day at sea, we stood a few hundred meters off Devil’s Island.

And there we stood. 

Our cruise itinerary noted a brief excursion, on foot, over the grounds of the now-defunct penal colony, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been imprisoned from 1895 to 1899.

The French Army’s counter-intelligence section discovered a leak of military secrets in 1894. Suspicion quickly settled on Dreyfus, the only Jew on the general staff, and he was convicted of treason. Even after another officer confessed to having been the spy, it took years for Dreyfus to regain his freedom and clear his name. So “the Dreyfus affair” became France’s most celebrated case of miscarried justice—justice colored by more than a tinge of antisemitism.

As background to our projected trek on Devil’s Island, Viking Cruises had shown us the film Papillon—the 2017 film starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, not the 1973 classic with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman—which was based on a mostly fictitious memoir by Henri Charrière, one of the few Devil’s Island prisoners ever to make a succcessful escape.

Our disappointment was palpable when, after this buildup, we were not permitted to land. The only way ashore was by ship’s tender. We would have had to step from the large, stable ship into a small lifeboat bobbing on the tremulous sea. Had we been a shipful of young Olympians, Viking might have chanced the maneuver, but hardly a passenger aboard was under seventy. The captain’s decision was undoubtedly correct; the swells were too great.

Émile Zola in 1902. Self-portrait. Public Domain.

The thing is, Dear Reader: We cannot know precisely what we missed. No guided tour was planned—only self-guided exploration of some ruins, perhaps bearing explanatory signs. But would we have been exploring the real Devil’s Island, the place where Dreyfus languished until a nationwide campaign led by literary lion Émile Zola prompted the reconsideration of his case?

The answer is not clear, Gentle Reader. “Devil’s Island” is one of those terms that has several varying degrees of precision. 

For example, if you say, “Mâitre Renard, convicted of stealing cheese from Mâitre Corbeau, was shipped off to Devil’s Island”—you may be referring generally to French Guiana. The whole colony was a large penitentiary, to which more than 80,000 prisoners were banished over the 101-year period from 1852 to 1953. Devil’s Island, the most notorious part of this penal colony, has come to stand in common parlance for French criminal punishment in general.

Mâitre Renard prepares to grab Mâitre Corbeau’s fromage. Public domain image.

One small part of this large penal system was the group of three small islands—the Îles du Salut or Salvation Islands—collectively known as “Devil’s Island.” The three islands are Île Royale, Île Saint-Joseph, and Île du Diable. All three of these islands held prisoners, but only one of the three was the Île du Diable—Devil’s Island. This island was originally the colony for prisoners with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. Later, it was reserved for political prisoners, of which Dreyfus was one.

Devil’s Island seen from Île Royale. The small cottage at right is where Dreyfus was imprisoned. Photo by Christian F5UII, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Our cruise director, David, called our planned excursion site “Devil’s Island,” but he also called it “Isle Royale.” I conclude that, had the excursion happened, we would have been landed on Île Royale, which appears to have a pier where our tender could have dropped us. From there, a short hike would have taken us to the back side of the island, where we could see Île du Diable across six hundred meters of water, as shown in the photo above. So we would not have set foot on Devil’s Island, but only on “Devil’s Island,” in the plural sense.

But we’ll never really know, will we? 

The best thing about Devil’s Island would have been the simple opportunity to set foot on land after three days at sea.

The second best thing about Devil’s Island—speaking more generally—is the 1955 movie We’re No Angels, a wry comedy in which three Devil’s Island escapees—desperadoes played by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray—come to the rescue of a bumbling shopkeeper and his family in the mainland town of Cayenne at Christmas. 

If you haven’t seen We’re No Angels, do yourself a favor. Pop some corn, put your feet up, and make a highly enjoyable two-hour escape into Devil’s Island.

Next week: Up the Caribbean.


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)