A Tribute to Athneal Ollivierre
People always are perceived in two different ways. They appear one way in their own culture and in another way to those outside that culture. As an outsider from afar I can only speak of Athneal as he appeared to me, although my wife and I had the advantage of spending many years in the islands gaining informal instruction as we came and went.
In 1924 I witnessed the last active American whaleship, the Wanderer, break her back on Sow and Pigs Reef in Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. Later I rowed in her salvaged whaleboats. I lived in an ancient whalerman's house. I had ancestors who were whalers. I loved the sea. Later I met Dwight Long who had visited Bequia in the late twenties, and mentioned the whaling there. Still later I met Fritz Fenger who had visited the islands years before in his sailing canoe. He talked of "Old Bill" Wallace, the founder of whaling in the islands. I determined to go there and fitted out a small schooner for the purpose, but the war came on and put a stop to that and it was not until years later that I was able to trundle over from England to Tobago and work my way up the islands. We were in Carriacou talking to Dean McFarland when a young boy came in and announced, "They kotched de whale in Bequia." Fifteen minutes later we had "opened sail" and were off. But when we arrived the whale had already been attended to.
We were directed to talk with Louis Ollivierre who said nothing about his brother Athneal and it was only by accident that we discovered the quiet, thin man with the hat was Athneal the whaler. When we did finally approach him he was always polite, non-committal, and quickly moved away. After more than two weeks watching the boats "push out" in the morning and helping to haul them ashore in the evening Arlington Richardson, the boat steerer known as "Second", took pity on us and persuaded Athneal to take me aboard. Next morning he said, "You can come." That evening he elaborated, "You can come anytime. You like a sprat in the boat," which was one of the most satisfying comments I ever heard about my aquatic ways. From that time on for over ten years I stuck to Athneal like a pilot fish and he taught me, not only whaling and its history in the islands but about Bequia life as well.
Old Bill Wallace had spent years at sea, much of it in New Bedford whalers, and had even spent time in New Bedford learning to build the thirty-five foot whaleboats used to harpoon the whale. And which subsequently became the boat of choice for all Bequians. When he retired from the sea in 1870 he returned to Bequia and set up whaling "companies" consisting of four whaleboats and about 26 men per company. Each company was given a name, "Old England", "St. Hillary", South Side" and so on. The crews were given uniforms which included a walking stick, a lunch box and a floppy hat. It was said one could tell the time by the sound of the whalers' walking sticks as they tap, tapped past in the dark on the way to the boats. He taught them how to approach the whale, iron it, bring it ashore, butcher, render and eat it. He also taught them how to share the profits based on the American share or "lay" system.
Whaling became so popular that there were whaling stations on nearly all the islands and some say as many as eight, certainly four companies on Bequia. But whaling in the islands was not profitable as a modern geographer, John Adams, has pointed out and it soon died out except on Bequia where it continued to flourish. Unfortunately for the economist and the geographer and fortunately for the rest of us, profit is not always counted in monetary terms. Because of whaling the people of Bequia became known as the best seamen, the bravest and the most honest of all the islanders. Bequians recognized this and made every effort to keep their star bright.
Foremost among the whalers was the harpooner and among the great harpooners the name of Ollivierre stands out. Josie and Napoleon Ollivierre were ancestors of Athneal's and their feats of skill and derring-do are still talked about all over the Caribbean, as are other members of this family, originally from France, who chose to be sea captains rather than whalers.
Young Athneal chose the big ship legacy and became skipper of a large schooner, the Turtle Dove, trading amongst the islands as far down as South America and up beyond the Virgins. At that time nearly all freight was carried by sailing vessels but the small freighter had begun to make an appearance. "Engine boats" they were called and began to make inroads until today scarcely a freighting schooner can be found. While captain, young Athneal established a reputation throughout the islands so strong that years later old heads when asked will say, "Captain Athneal of the Turtle Dove? Oh I knew him well" and proceed to tell stories about him as a seaman or as a trader.
During his career in the schooner trade the dashing young captain met a lovely young woman from Venezuela who was related to the Hazell family of Bequia. Having been orphaned she came to her relations in Bequia initially speaking only Spanish. She and Athneal fell in love, married and formed a union that had had far reaching effects over the years for both of them.
Not long after their marriage the Turtle Dove was coming north to leeward of the islands when she ran into heavy weather, was driven even further to leeward and started some of her seams. It was all hands to the pumps as the wind abated and then fell calm. The water gained on the pumps but Athneal stuck with the vessel and slowly managed to beat to windward. The crew became exhausted but her skipper kept nudging her to weather. Eventually they sighted land which they slowly closed. She was floating on her timberheads when they finally left her in the shore boat and she sank moments later taking most of the captain's fortune with her. All hands reached shore. And Athneal went home.
After World War II the Norwegians established a whale factory on Pigeon Island off Grenada. It is said that the first year they took 700 whales, the next 400 and the third less than 70. Since 70 whales was not enough to support a factory, the station was abandoned and the Norwegians went home. It was 11 years before the people of Bequia saw another spout. The fishery there, already in trouble, collapsed after the Norwegians left.
Gradually the number of whales increased until the Ollivierres decided to start whaling again and Athneal threw in his lot. The gear was all there. Uncle Joey, an old harpooner, was still fit for sea and there were willing hands. There was Lincoln "Bluesy" Simmons, the sailmaker and the only man who still knew how to butcher the whales, very much alive and ready to go. And there was a ready demand for the oil, the meat and even the bones of the whale. There was now only one company, two boats instead of four: the Dart and the Trio. Athneal named the latter, indicating he was willing to try again. Athneal went as harpooner in her and his brother Barton went in the other, but Barton, sitting in the fig tree lookout stand on Mustique island, spied a whale, lost his balance, fell, was caught in the crotch of a limb and broke his neck. He survived but never was able to whale again.
The harpooner was a man with endless qualities in his character. He was immensely powerful although he merely appeared lithe. He could throw a 40-pound harpoon with line attached as easily as an athlete could handle a javelin. He could sink that harpoon 3 feet into a whale and once fast it was not long before he was on the whale's back driving the lance 6 feet into its vitals. And Athneal was also a man of great courage.
Only a fool is fearless. Ordinary people have many fears, some brought on by personal revulsion, some engendered by culture, some real. Those who confront these fears when there is an alternative are courageous. When they confront them to aid others they are heroes. Athneal fits all the criteria. In Bequia there is a firm belief in "jumbies", spirits that can destroy you. One moonlight night Athneal was walking through Lowbay Gutter, a spot believed to be infested with malevolent spirits. Suddenly there was a weird squalling and down the track toward him hurtled a dark and white shape. "I thought it was a jumbie come to destroy me so I pick up a heavy stick and say to myself, `it may destroy me but I must give it a lick to remember.'" While others would have fled he set himself and gave the object such a lash it fell apart. It was a feral ram cat attached to a small white goat. The goat survived.
One day far out in the channel they got fast to a whale. The whale sounded, the line fouled the loggerhead and the boat went under, bow first. The crew were thrown out but Athneal was tangled up forward and went deep before he could cut himself clear. Just as he surfaced he looked down and saw a large shape rising toward him. Thinking it was the whale coming to attack he readied his knife and dove to attack it. It was the whaleboat, clear of the whale and clear of its ballast, rising bottom up to the surface. Once on the surface Athneal gathered the crew, turned the boat over, collected the drifting gear, bailed her out and limped home.
Athneal was a man loyal to his friends beyond reason, for which I am eternally grateful. On one occasion my engine had given out and it was necessary to replace it. The engine was ordered and arrived in St. Vincent where it immediately became involved in red tape, and the harder we struggled to unravel the difficulties the more complex they became until it looked as if the engine would belong to the government. I mentioned this to Athneal and the next morning he had vanished. Late that afternoon he arrived with the engine in a crate. I asked him how he got it. "Why I tell them I must have the engine and if I must come back again I will come with my whale gun and bomb the place."
Athneal had a natural grace that put him on easy and equal footing with everyone. He was as easy and comfortable talking with Princess Margaret, a business tycoon or the poorest wretch on the island. Somehow he even managed to suffer fools without rancor or scorn. One day a young female tourist asked if he had just returned from whaling. "Where are your whales?" "In the sea, madam." "No whales? I don't see any whales. I don't think you are a whaler. If you are, where is your net?" "Madam, whales is not sprats in the sea. Have a good stay in Port Elizabeth."
In a society that put great store on children. Hilda and Athneal were childless but both loved children dearly and the house was always full of them, some sleeping, some pushing "rollies", others eating a snack while others listened to stories told by Athneal or Hilda. Despite the fact that Hilda was childless, she held an important place on the island. She was the best cook on the island and her cakes and other delicacies were sought after throughout Bequia. (Over the years she gave my wife more than a hundred recipes all excellent including robins, "dove whale", frigate bird and delicious wedding cake.)
But Hilda was also a confidante for the women of the island and her advice was often sought out. Beyond this she was believed to be able to interpret dreams, had second sight and was able when the circumstances demanded to bestow a curse. Certainly it is true that nearly every whale that Athneal caught had been foretold by Hilda and when one of the captain's relations lost a hand in an illegal explosion she wished that the person who peached on him would suffer the same injury and so it came to pass. The two made an impressive team and when she died Athneal was long in recovering.
In the islands envy and revenge are bitter fruits and Athneal was often the recipient of them. Perhaps the most galling thing to the whalers was the "lay" provisions in how the profits from a whale would be divided. Some profit went to the boat, some went to the harpooner, some to the boat steerer and the rest to the crew. And it was seldom that someone was not dissatisfied with his portion. In one case a crew member left his share of the meat outside the rum shop and when he came out he discovered dogs had eaten it. He demanded his share be replaced and was upset when it wasn't. Others felt Athneal was too successful and took pains to discredit him. When he planted mahogany trees they were cut down but Athneal held his tongue and his temper.
And then there were the tourists and the environmentalists. Some of the tourists came to watch a whale hunt. Fearing they might miss something they rushed in and interfered with the hunt. Others, desperate to save the whale, either tried to drive it away or interposed themselves between the boat and the whale.
Despite the fact that the whalers averaged only about a whale and a half each year and that the numbers of whales had increased in 1972 to a hundred and eleven sightings, this did nothing to dissuade the whale lovers from the conviction that Athneal would exterminate the species. They did everything they could to stop the hunt and were not above distorting facts and printing scurrilous reports which the whalers had to endure. Fortunately whaling in Bequia was very good for the coffers in St. Vincent, since it was an unique tourist attraction. The St. Vincent government was slow to restrict or outlaw it but restrict it they did, each year making whaling a little more difficult.
More formidable for the whalers was the change taking place in Bequia. When we first arrived the only way to get there was by island schooner or sailboat. The roads were few and poor. There were more donkeys than cars. Today there are no donkeys but plenty of autos. One can helicopter to Bequia. Very little of the island had electricity when we first came. Now the island is electrified and television takes precedence over conversation in the rum shop. The standard of living has gone up and people can earn more serving tourists than they can chasing whales.
Through all this Athneal carried on. He had been injured in a whaling accident. His sight was failing and he had cancer and was given only a short time to live. Whaling, it was said, was finished. Yet he gathered himself together and 2 years ago put to sea and caught a whale.
In November of last year, swells from Hurricane Lenny hit the island from the back side. They did great damage to Port Elizabeth and destroyed the whale factory on Petit Nevis. The whaleboat Why Ask? was in the shed which fell on and split it down the middle. Somehow Athneal repaired the unrepairable boat, survived long enough to go again in the boat last winter and taught his nephew Bentley how to hunt the humpback. Under his failing eye Bentley struck and killed two whales. Having passed a tradition and the harpoon on into younger hands Athneal had done all he could to ensure whaling would live on. Having done his best he turned his face to the wall and passed away.
As we look at the old whaler's life one thinks of a poem by Rudyard Kipling called "If ". It encompasses Kipling's measure of a man. Who could better fit the ideal than Athneal Ollivierre?
If you can dream and not make dreams your master;
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count you with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And which is more you'll be a Man, my son!
Horace Beck is the author of Folklore and the Sea, published for The
Marine Historical Association, Inc., Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., Mystic,
Connecticut, USA, by Wesleyan University Press, 1973. Mr. Beck resides
Sign up now and never miss an update from Caribbean Compass. We'll email you a copy of our monthy magazine, as well as other timely updates!
Copyright© 2000 Compass Publishing