The Graveyard of Ships

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Cape Cod juts off the coast of Massachusetts like a huge hook, which used to snatch sailing ships from any hope of reaching the Atlantic. May still do. When I visited Cape Cod last spring, I headed off Cape Cod’s southeastern coast, departing from Hyannis toward Nantucket, and left that hook alone.

My sister lives in Boston. Visiting her over the years, I’ve encountered the almost tropical lushness of rhododendron and huge malvas in her south Boston yard. Yet crossing to Nantucket last May felt as cold and dangerous as a sudden Minnesota snow squall. The seas, grey and venomous, dashed themselves against the steel bulk of the car ferry, making me realize that seasickness was a possibility.

I’m not a sailor, not anymore, but when I was growing up in Charleston, it was impossible to ignore tides and waves, beaches and shrimp boats, huge tankers and liners coming into harbor. One of the last times I sat with my mother in front of her home TV, we held our breath as a pleasure yacht foundered off the Carolina coast. Winds were high; the Coast Guard was called. But nothing could save the yacht: the passengers and their craft went down.

Nantucket is a queer blend of long usage and tentative perch. More exposed to open ocean than its close neighbor Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket boasts the most numerous stand of ancient elms, saved from Dutch elm disease, of any community in the United States. Many of its colonial and Victorian homes are stately mansions, kept from any hint of decadence by glossy paint and good “bones,” as we’d say of a face.

Offering obeisance to the sea, a whaling museum waits to educate visitors right off the ferry. Inside you can sit under the skeleton of a large whale. I’d like to say it’s a “right” whale, the kind originally hunted by Native people just off shore, but no, it’s a sperm whale that washed up on Nantucket’s shores in 1998. Whaling made Nantucket’s wealth, then its gradual demise, as its shallow harbor could no longer accommodate whaling ships as they expanded in size and depth. At least, that’s the story you’ll hear from New Bedford, whose deep-river harbor up the Achusnet River, lured the industry (odd word) to the mainland.

I came to Nantucket to learn what I could of whales, but found in addition a surprise: remnants of Nantucket’s pre-Civil War African-American community. Massachusetts was the first state to oppose slavery, which in itself was an inducement to runaway slaves. But maybe as compelling was the sea. Men like Frederick Douglass who escaped slavery by being secreted on ships might take that as a sign. Whaling crews were notoriously motley: remember Queequeg from Melville’s novel Moby Dick? A South Sea Islander. Native Americans and white New Englanders, and many men from the Azores, off the coast of Portugal and speaking Portuguese made up whaling crews. Atlantic whalers often stopped at the Azores to replenish stores and dump disgruntled crews.

In a small clapboard building, almost perfectly square with walls covered in canvas, I was given a short course in Nantucket’s African-American settlement. Early escaped slaves became seamen and sometimes married Native American Nantucket women. Many prominent sea-faring Nantucket Quaker families gave household slaves their freedom. As the African-American settlement grew, its residents established this church which also became a school. A few young African-American women studied sufficiently to enter the essentially all-white high school. Before the Civil War, some even graduated.

I watched an interesting video made about the story; then the friendly, well-informed guide, a volunteer and former teacher, but from New York, not Nantucket, then took me next door to the house where African-American ministers and teachers had lived from time to time. More than any other experience on the island, walking through this house felt like being led into the past. With its low ceilings and huge central fire place, added-on kitchen and secret spaces upstairs, the house seemed imbued with an anxious rustle of skirts, slow tread, and quick breaths hidden behind walls. Because as elsewhere, Nantucket was periodically invaded by slave-hunters from the South, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. Though the town might spread the word of danger, though constables might put the “dog” off the track and the fugitive be given refuge within the homes of mighty ship captains, there was no denying the intent and danger of these searches.

Nantucket’s “Guinea” neighborhood gives way to open lands where down a rutted road, one can find the African cemetery. Names on the graves match names in the story of education pursued and won, of sea-faring men who established families in Nantucket, and of ministers of the gospel. I’m always impressed into belief by the reality of gravestones. It was a fitting and kind conclusion to this brief education that my guide followed me in her car and now that it was raining, gathered me into its warm interior and drove me to my B&B. Later friends from Amherst would file off the ferry and we would lunch on chowder, possibly in the same street near the harbor where Queequeg and Ishmael from Moby Dick dined on haddock and oysters.
Then we’d walk in the other direction from the African community and eventually, winding up the slopes of town, discover in a wind-blown pasture the oldest dwelling, from the early 1686 , the Jethro Coffin House. It was still cold and squally. We did not linger but hurried back to the wharf and boarded the ferry to Hyannis, where only briefly when the sun shone weak as faded finery, did we sit on deck.

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