Astrolabe

A Link to the Past

Newly discovered photos document an intriguing 1955 expedition to South Caicos.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith ~ Photos By Mendel Peterson

On a dreary winter’s afternoon in January while rummaging around for something else, I found a small box containing four rolls of black and white film marked “Air Shots, Turks and Caicos Islands 1955.” I remembered receiving them many years ago from a colleague at the Smithsonian. No one there knew anything about them so my colleague apparently “thought of you on the way to the dump” because he knew I worked in the TCI.

I can’t say I was ecstatic to receive them. Dealing with old film negatives is tedious to say the least—so I didn’t. I had a brief glance at one of the rolls before putting the box away on the “to be dealt with later when I have absolutely nothing else to do” shelf. Years passed, during which I would occasionally rediscover them, briefly consider tossing them in the trash, and decide it was easier just to let them lie. But this time my curiosity got the best of me and I ended the suspense.

The four delicate, easily smudged 35 mm film strips containing 36 frames each, were about four feet long. After spending the last 60 years tightly wound up in aluminum film cans (remember those?) they had taken a spiral “set” and refused to lay flat, acting more like springs than film strips. Donning white cotton gloves I fought them on the light table, examining them frame by frame with a magnifying loupe. The first several images were of the surface of the sea obviously shot from a low-flying aircraft, but there was nothing to indicate where they were taken. The next few shots appeared to be taken from a boat and were all of a nondescript, barren, rocky islet.

Then came images of a settlement with modest houses and animals all around. Finally, there was a shot of a man standing in front of a two-story building bearing a sign that read:

HUGH. R. SAUNDERS

LICENCED TO SELL SPIRITS AND SPIRITUOUS LIQUORS WHICH MAY BE CONSUMED ON THE PREMISES

So this was South Caicos in 1955. And that, I decided, was Mr. Saunders himself in front of his establishment.

This 1955 photo shows a boatload of dried conch headed out to native sloops at anchor in South Caicos.

This 1955 photo shows a boatload of dried conch headed out to native sloops at anchor in South Caicos.

Then came frames of people loading or unloading native-built sloops in the harbor, donkey carts loaded with salt, a huge iguana, people carrying strings of dried conch, and the like. One photo in particular caught my eye: a middle aged man, stripped to the waist, attending to some kind of machine or instrument on the ground that reminded me of an old-fashioned metal detector, to which he was connected by a set of headphones—very strange and out of place!

As I ran the negatives through my scanner to digitize them I wondered who the photographer was, what on earth he was doing on South Caicos in 1955, and what was his connection to the Smithsonian? From the photos it was clear that he was in the company of other people who weren’t Islanders, had access to boats and aircraft and a primitive, but nicely made metal detector. These clues took me to the Ships of Discovery Library to look for a copy of Sea Diver: A Quest for History Under the Sea by Marion Clayton Link, published in 1958. The author was the wife of the retired American inventor and industrialist Edwin Link, and the book is her account of the adventures they had in the early 1950s aboard a 65-foot diesel trawler they outfitted for diving and salvage in the Caribbean. The purpose of the 1955 expedition was to settle the issue of which island was Columbus’s first landfall in the New World, and one of the investigators was Mendel Peterson, then the Curator of Military History at the Smithsonian.

This 1955 South Caicos image shows a convoy of donkey carts “ . . . little carts hitched behind small, patient donkeys.”

This 1955 South Caicos image shows a convoy of donkey carts “ . . . little carts hitched behind small, patient donkeys.”

I began to compare the photographs with the chapter in the book that dealt with the 1955 expedition “On the Track of Columbus,” during which Sea Diver spent a considerable time in the Turks & Caicos, particularly South Caicos. I was surprised to find that some of the photographs before me could have served as illustrations for passages in the book. At one point the author lands on “a rough coral runway” on South Caicos and describes some of the scenes captured by the photos: “As we drove into town, I was amazed to discover that almost the entire community was built on salt. The road itself was salt, and heaps of salt like snowdrifts banked it on either side. As we neared the docks, we passed large open sheds, inside which black-skinned workers were attacking huge piles of the white crystals with heavy shovels. As they filled sturdy hempen bags, others loaded the bags into little carts hitched behind small, patient donkeys.”

Soon after she makes a statement that explains the images of the rocky coast and people in the bush on shore: “I found that Captain Weems was off on a trip in a sailboat with two of the town fishermen, to investigate at first hand the shores and inner waters where Columbus might have preceded him. Pete [Mendel Peterson] and Ed [Link] were in enthusiastic agreement that Columbus might have landed at South Caicos Island. In several trips between Turks island and Caicos they had had every opportunity to check the course which Columbus might have pursued. And in a cruise to the northeast, they had rounded the islands clear to the western side, landing and inspecting various areas as they went.”

This photo shows the Turks Islands Salt Co. Ltd. building in South Caicos. Note the “heaps of salt like snowdrifts” in the left corner.

This photo shows the Turks Islands Salt Co. Ltd. building in South Caicos. Note the “heaps of salt like snowdrifts” in the left corner.

By this time it was apparent that the mysterious photographer was the Smithsonian curator Mendel Peterson, and the place was South Caicos during the Sea Diver expedition of 1955. Mr. Peterson’s aerial and water-level photos were meant to document the geography of South Caicos so it could be compared with Columbus’s descriptions of his first landfall in his Diario, (also called the “Log” or “Journal” of Columbus). By the end of the expedition Peterson and the Links decided that, indeed, Columbus first set foot in the New World on South Caicos. This conclusion is, of course, only one of many theories, none of which have proven anything conclusively.

The problem is that Columbus’s original Diario was lost long ago. Fortunately, we have a paraphrase/abstract of the Diario composed around 37 years later by Bartolome de las Casas. Unfortunately, las Casas did not have access to the original Diario, but only to a copy (now also lost) of Columbus’s original and possibly some additional information from Columbus’s son, Fernando. The version of the Diario, in las Casas’s handwriting that was discovered in an archive centuries later, serves today as the most reliable copy, but we have no idea how faithful it is to the original. It is worth noting that las Casas complains that parts of the copy of the presumably original manuscript were illegible and that there are places where distances expressed in leagues and miles are confused. As a result there are many translations in different languages of the Diario—many different interpretations.

Not surprisingly, the theory most popular in the Turks & Caicos is that Grand Turk was the site of Columbus’s first landing. In her narrative Marion Link visits Grand Turk at one point during the 1955 expedition and meets a Commander Redmond at the US Navy base on the northern tip of the island, near the lighthouse. She then makes reference to something I never heard of before: “On a neighboring hilltop is the tall shaft which commemorates Columbus’s first landfall. I asked Commander Redmond if we might stop there before returning to Cockburntown. To my surprise he told us that it was impossible to reach it in the jeep, for there was no road part of the way, and it would be necessary to take a boat across one of the inland lakes. I wondered how the monument had been built in the first place back in 1891, and why the Chicago Herald had selected such an inaccessible location for it.”

It’s funny how one unexpected discovery leads to another. The mystery of the film cans is solved—but is there really a long-forgotten monument to Columbus on Grand Turk erected by the Chicago Herald in 1891? Let’s go find out!



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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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