A Phantasmal Project

Saving the Ghost Fleet of the Caicos Islands.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, President, Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation

Unbeknownst to most residents of these islands, a fleet of ancient ships has sailed the Caicos for more than 200 years. A ghost fleet of sorts, almost invisible. Hundreds of people have looked right at them—and seen nothing! Don’t bother gazing out to sea because they aren’t there. No, they’re on dry land, hiding in plain sight in dozens of different places, dark corners where you would least expect to find them.

This graffito is on the kitchen building at Wades Green, North Caicos.

This graffito is on the kitchen building at Wades Green, North Caicos.

My first glimpse of a small part of this fleet came in 1987 when TCI Museum Founder Grethe Seim showed me images of the ships that she and Countess Helen Czernin encountered at St. James Plantation on North Caicos. They were full-size tracings made directly from fine lines someone etched or engraved into the plaster covering an interior wall. The old home, now in ruins, is thought to have been built by the first Loyalists to settle in the Caicos Islands following the American War of Independence. Helen, an artist, was curious about how the etchings were made. She concluded that they were done while the plaster was still soft, like doodles that people make today in wet sidewalk cement. If so, they were done at the same time the house was built in the 1790s! Grethe, an avocational archaeologist, loved a good mystery and was puzzled by the ships’ location on an interior wall near a window. Knowing that I was a maritime archaeologist, she showed them to me in the hope that I could shed some light on the lingering questions of who made the ships? When? And what did they mean?

There were seven images, rendered in remarkable detail, of different types and sizes of vessels, all but one proudly flying Union Jacks at their mastheads. Some ships were so clear it was tempting to speculate their type and even nationality, but others were faint and eroding to invisibility. The longer I looked, the more detail I could see. It was obvious that whoever did this had more than a passing familiarity with sailing ships. Sail shapes and configurations were faithfully represented, along with the myriad of stays, shrouds, halyards, and other ropes that controlled them. Parallel lines on the sails show that they were made of long, relatively narrow canvas strips sewn together. Curiously, lines representing the masts were shown passing through the decks to terminate on the keel. The artists attached particular significance to the flags flying at the mastheads—almost certainly Union Jacks.

Ship graffiti in archaeology

As an archaeologist, I was aware that ship depictions, or graffiti, on walls, structures, and geological features are not uncommon at coastal locations all over the world. Some examples date back more than a thousand years.  Maritime archaeologists treasure these representations as potential sources for tracing the evolution of ship types, sail configurations, and construction details. At the same time, because there is always the ambiguity associated with simple artistic attempts to represent complicated objects, they are cautious about the conclusions they draw. Still, I was intrigued by the potential the Ghost Fleet of the Caicos Islands might have to reveal some tantalizing clues to the Islands’ maritime connections to the rest of the world 200 years ago. I thought it was a subject that should be brought to people’s attention, particularly because many of the ships in the fleet must have been created by the ancestors of people who live here now!

This is a tracing of a two-masted schooner found on the walls of St. James Plantation in North Caicos.

This is a tracing of a two-masted schooner found on the walls of St. James Plantation in North Caicos.

The range of identifiable ship types found so far in the Ghost Fleet appears to be fairly narrow, consisting mainly of single- and two-masted vessels: schooners, brigantines, sloops, ketches, and skiffs. “Typing” ships can be very confusing. It tends to key on features such as the number of masts, their heights relative to each other, where they are located along the length of the deck, whether they carry square or fore-and-aft sails, and the configurations of those sails. Another layer of confusion is added when you consider that ship types evolve over time, whereas the names used to describe them stay the same. As a result, a “Bermuda Sloop” of 1800 bears little resemblance to the vessels we call by the same name today. Regardless of the nautical information contained in the fleet, the questions of who drew the ships—and why—remain.

Over the years as I continued to ponder those clues and as similar graffiti turned up on the walls of other plantation buildings on Providenciales, North, Middle, and East Caicos, I realized that it was not just a TCI phenomenon. People in the Bahamas were finding the same type of ship graffiti in association with plantation houses from the same period—and asking the same questions. There were even unsubstantiated reports of their presence in Haiti.

Ship graffiti in the Bahamas

I am aware of only one scientific publication dedicated to the study of this type of phenomenon, Ms. Grace Turner’s 2004 M.A. thesis titled “Bahamian Ship Graffiti,” in which she examines numerous examples found in the Bahamas as well as two from the Cheshire Hall Great House on Providenciales, and six from the Wade’s Green complex on North Caicos. Ms. Turner’s research led her to advance several hypotheses as to who created the ship graffiti, when they did it, how they did it, and even their purpose.  After demonstrating that most of this type of ship graffiti is associated with the Bahamas’ 19th-century plantation and slavery period, and that it was not the work of a single person, she observes:

“An assessment of the various locations where ship graffiti were documented in the Bahamas suggests a very high correlation of this cultural phenomenon with Bahamians of predominantly African heritage. The presence of ship graffiti at several sites not associated with any specific ethnic group implies that instead of being a cultural phenomenon practiced exclusively by Blacks, the creation of Bahamian ship graffiti was actually a tradition among Bahamians of lower socio-economic status.  Since Blacks were predominantly represented in this category they would also be the majority of practitioners engaged in any activity limited to this social class.”

She further concludes that the creators were most probably male, that the graffiti was etched into hardened plaster rather than applied when it was wet, that it was sometimes drawn in stages rather than all at once, and that the graffiti may represent some type of non-literate record-keeping rather than just an idle pastime. This last conclusion is apparently drawn from the fact that many of the depictions, such as those seen at St. James Plantation, appear in places offering vantage points from which ships could be seen and sketched in “real life.”

Others have speculated that this type of ship graffiti had some sort of mystical or magical significance for the people who created it or, for people of African descent, that it harkens back to an indelible racial memory of the horrific Atlantic crossings aboard slave ships. At the very least this type of graffiti demonstrates the fascination—bordering on reverence—with which ships were regarded by people living in small, relatively isolated island groups.

Loyalist period ship graffiti in the Caicos Islands

The questions of who made them and why are still a matter of speculation, but perhaps the best clues are where they are found. At Cheshire Hall on Providenciales two ships appear on an exterior wall bordering a ground level patio, one at more or less eye level, and the other much lower. At Wade’s Green, the structure with the greatest concentration of ship graffiti is the kitchen adjacent to the Great House. Here they are found on the walls, in the window sill, and even high above the level of the ground floor ceiling (no longer present). These locations appear to conform to Ms. Turner’s hypothesis that there is a correlation between where the graffiti are found and places frequented by workers, but in the absence of any hard evidence of a motive, the question of “why” remains unanswered.

How do we save them?

The Ghost Fleet is disappearing, fading and crumbling away as the limestone walls they are on erode and eventually collapse. Undoubtedly many of these ship representations have already suffered the ravages of time and are now irrevocably lost. The old plaster surfaces holding the graffiti cannot be preserved in situ, and they are too fragile to attempt physical removal or even moulding and casting. How can the remainder be saved?

What is needed is a careful and exhaustive survey to thoroughly document the known ship graffiti and locate those that have not yet been found. Ultimately this would mean inspecting every square inch of the plastered surfaces of the Loyalist plantations in the Caicos Islands, many of which are difficult to access. “Documenting” includes photography of course, but also tracings or rubbings (if the surface is smooth enough), accurate measurements, sketches, and written observations. The exact locations of the graffiti must be recorded with GPS coordinates and more precise descriptions such as “interior wall of NE corner of kitchen 1.5 meters from floor.”

Useful photographs of the Ghost Fleet are rare. After examining scores of photos taken over the last 30 years it is clear to me that casual snapshots are of little use. What we need are long exposure photographs taken with raking light, which together make even faint etched lines show up more clearly and in focus. Additional macro photos of the lines themselves will help determine if they were created when the plaster was wet or after it hardened.

The bigger picture

Perhaps such a survey could be combined with an overall condition assessment for the ruins of the Loyalist plantations themselves. These ruins are more prevalent and extensive than one might think—and also virtually uninvestigated. Most of what we know about the Loyalist period in the Caicos Islands comes not from archeological investigations but the excellent historical research conducted by Dr. Charlene Kozy. She identified 92 land grants in the Caicos made by the Crown between 1789 and 1791. Not all of these grants were consummated, but the numbers give us some idea of the extent of the first Caicos Islands “development boom.” While more than 20 plantation ruins are known to exist scattered throughout the Islands, there may be many more, long ago lost in the bush. Limited controlled excavations by professional archaeologists have been conducted only at Wade’s Green Plantation on North Caicos and to a lesser extent, two plantations on Middle Caicos. Given the singular importance of the Loyalist period, when the ancestors of many of the people who live in the Caicos today first arrived, it is surprising that so little actual archaeological research has been devoted to it.

The Caicos Ghost Fleet is still shrouded in a fog of much speculation and very little hard data. A thorough investigation of the remaining Loyalist structures in the Caicos Islands will likely discover many more ship graffiti examples. An analysis of them, compared with Grace Turner’s findings for similar sites in the Bahamas, could enable us to answer the questions of who created them and why. Several new hypotheses occurred to me while working on this article:

• It is clear from the best examples that the artists were very familiar with the intricate detail of different types of sailing rigs. Could at least some of the ship graffiti been used to teach neophytes the art of rigging and sailing?

• During the Loyalist period, American and French privateers were a constant threat. Could the grafitti have been aids for vessel identification like the “friend or foe” ship and aircraft silhouette charts used in World War II?

• Are some of the drawings specific ships that visited the Caicos regularly, or are they just “generic?”

• Most ships are depicted under full sail rather than at rest. This suggests that the artists themselves were sailors or at least had been to sea, and were drawing from their experience rather than just landlubbers sketching ships at anchor with the sails furled.

• Determining if the graffiti was created while the plaster was wet or after it hardened is a critical factor in dating it. Grafitti created in wet plaster is more likely to date to when the wall or building was constructed, whereas grafitti etched into dry plaster could date to a later time.

When the last ship in the Ghost Fleet erodes to dust will the best, most accurate ship graffiti recordings ever made in the Caicos Islands still be the seven ships traced by Grethe Seim and Helen Czernin almost 40 years ago?  Will the Ghost Fleet become the stuff of legend? If so, our questions will remain forever unanswered. Or will someone come forward now to do what needs to be done? The choice is ours. Time is running 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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