Wednesday 5 October 2011

Down the Islands

“Maman Balaou, what is that?"
"Well that’s the local name for the Great Sailfish of the Indian Ocean” said Jean Baptiste Tardieu. The old man settled back in his rocker and sucked noisily on  his pipe. I knew a good story was coming.
“It was 1902 that a monster fish found itself in these waters. A monster, they said it weighed between 4 to 5 tons. It had a beak like a sword, 12 or 15 feet long, and a huge fin rising from its back almost twice as tall as a man.”
The smoke from his pipe made a wreath around his almost bald head. His bright boyish blue eyes sparkled in the lamp light. Outside the falling tide lapped against the jetty as I sipped my rum and waited.
“Bovril of Scotland Bay went out on the rising tide to fish ‘Paoua’ at Point Rouge, the north-east corner of the first Boca. Neither he nor his boat has been seen since. On the following Wednesday Jonas, of Teteron Bay, left there saying he was going to try for ‘Paoua’ at the same place. On Thursday his boat was found ashore at L’Anse Biscayen, and when we looked, we found that it had been perforated right through with some tremendous weapon.”
The old gentleman reach into his pockets for a box of matches and relit his pipe.
“Soucoyen, the brother of Jonas, his only brother, deeply grieved at his loss, went in search of the body in the Bocas. Three days later my nephew Galgitt Tardieu called his seine crew together and went towards ‘Dent Ma Teteron’ at the head of the first Boca, looking for a shoal of Cavalli, that had been seen there. Whilst grazing Point Rouge, he saw Soucoyen’s pirogue and ordered his men to pull for it. As they did so, a gigantic object hurled itself into the cool morning air, leaving the water, completely overshadowing the small boat and smashing it to smithereens. There was a scream and then silence. Galgitt searched the flotsam but there was no body. As the spring tide was running out fast and the remous was near at hand, this was not remarkable. As they were turning away they saw a huge object rise from the vicinity of Point Rouge. “Baleine! Whale!” they shouted and beat towards their oars, but as they neared they saw the huge, fan-like fin of a monster ‘Maman-Balaou’ or Ocean Gar, the largest of the Scomberoides.
Galgitt Tardieu in all his 40 years at sea had never seen such a fish. He turned his boat and made his way to Scotland Bay where he lived. Three men had lost their lives. They must now arm themselves with harpoons. He sent out a call to his cousins and nephews, to ‘Joseph Jolle-rouge at Grand Fond, Charles Carangue at Gasparee, Charles Tassard of Teteron and the young fellows, Galgitt Grande’Caille, Vent-Vieille and Fountain Fish at Grand Fond.
“These chieftains of the fishing clans now all met together at our Great House on Scotland Bay to plan the campaign.”
The old man paused, his eyes shone in the lamplight as the memory of those wonderful times passed before him. “Each one was to furnish a pirogue with four oarsmen and two harpooners, and in addition we hired the pirogue ‘Molung Babu’ under Captain Modeste with the veteran harpooners Mathieu and Joseph Tomar.”
Jean Baptiste Tardieu puffed his old black pipe back to life, its rich aroma filling the little room, before he continued to tell the story of the ‘Sea Fish of Trinidad’:
“At dawn on Tuesday morning, all the boats were at their stations, the three Scotland Bay boats pulling for Point Rouge to find the big fish. Captain Modeste’s boat lay off Roche Mathieu in Scotland Bay, Charles Tassard guarded Teteron by Gros Roche, While Joseph Jolly-Rouge and Charles Carangue cruised by Kenny’s Point and Point Baleine, respectively. The boat of Vent-vieille was the first to sight the mighty brute, calmly swimming between Dent Ma Teteron and Point Rouge, so going alongside it they plunged two harpoons into the fish, which turned slowly as if something had tickled it, and went straight for L’Anse Pecheurs, immediately below L’Anse Paoua, where it encountered the boat ‘Fountain Fish’.
Receiving two more harpoons which accelerated its pace to L’Anse Paoua, the two boats fastened on, but with plenty of slack line. Galgitt was waiting for it about fifty yards off L’Anse Paoua point and successfully put in three harpoons; but this lashed the monster into a fury that was terrible to behold, churning the sea with its tail casting vast clots of sea spume incarnadined with blood from its head and back. This blood had already attracted hordes of predaceous fish, conspicuous amongst them being the dreaded ‘tintorelles’ or spotted sharks, the most fearless and voracious of all.
Galgitt evidently thinking that now was the time to give it the death flurry tried to lance it, but at the psychological moment the pirogue sank in a chasm caused by a huge ground swell, the giant fish launched in the air, transfixing the gallant Galgitt with its iron beak, and completely obliterating the boat and crew with its huge body, which must have crushed and stunned the four rowers, who were seated at their oars.
The two harpooners managed to float long enough to be picked up by other boats, that had gathered near, but of the heroic captain and his sturdy crew, none else were left to tell the tale. Away went the sea devil, with its fin swaying on the waters like a great fan, away past Roche Mathieu, where that veteran whaler Roche Mathieu fastened another harpoon in it, past Teteron, where near Gros Roche Charles Tassard was waiting along with the boat of his cousin Jolle-rouge. “Chambé fort,” cried the wily Charles, and four more iron bolts were lanced into the fish’s body.
Still faster and faster, with five large pirogues training after it, and ten or twelve harpoons in its back, went the terror, past La Retraite and Gasparillo, heading straight for the floating dock. The people in the different villas in Gasparillo could not understand the cause of the commotion. They said it looked from their point of view like a submarine boat, towing a number of pirogues, but they could not comprehend the reason of the fearful pace. Chaguaramas Bay was now alive with boats and fishermen, conspicuous amongst them being the stalwart form of Harry Knaggs, who with his slogan of “C’est moen qui la,” vainly endeavoured to get near with a harpoon. Swerving neither to the right nor left, with a crash that shook the dock from stern to stern, and suspended all conversation amongst the watchmen on top, the great brute ran right into the dock at the southern end, and fortunately broke off five or six feet of its beak. The impact evidently stunned it, as it now went quite slowly in the direction of Hart’s Cut, which it entered, and the tide being low, it practically beached itself in the narrowest portion of the cut. The huge body of the fish is fixed so tight, that even at full tide it could neither move backward or forward. The days of the ‘Terror of Pointe Rouge’ were numbered, but what a fearful price to pay, in the lives of so many men!”
The old gentleman fell silent his story told. His trusty pipe grown cold. He glanced at me.
“In our family, we have many words of power, yes, a word to open all locks, a word to stop all fires, even a word for snake bite. I will relate this to you another time. Bon soir, garçon.”
He made his way to his room in the big old house above Grand Fond. I glanced at the Great Bay, the full moon had turned it to molten silver, flat and calm.

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