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!)