Tales from South Caicos

The “Big South” has a strong tradition of songs and stories.

By Oliver Mills

South Caicos is an admired and cherished island. It is often referred to as the “Fishing Capital” of the Turks & Caicos. It is now growing into a formidable competitor in the hospitality industry. The island has produced many prominent politicians including the current (first female) Premier Hon. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, and ministers of government. South Caicos has a quiet, peaceful environment that produces calm and friendly people. Because of its rich history, particularly with its connection to Bermuda and the Bahamas, many tales have emerged which portray life in the form of songs and stories.

South Caicos is the Fishing Capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

One popular song includes the lines, “Bonefish bite me, nobody knows, every married man has his own bonefish. Throw out your line and catch your bonefish.” This song deals with the sacredness of having a wife, and when you do see a female, likened to a bonefish, that attracts your attention deeply, you should approach her and express your interest in her. The bonefish is a delicacy, and a beautiful female is described in delicate terms, and is treated kindly and respectfully. So the wife becomes a bonefish, with all the niceties. The song is played with musical instruments such as the drum, guitar and accordion, the latter locally referred to as “music box.” It is a song of joy.
And there are songs of justice. One named, “I Call the River,” is about a family where a sibling took food from the cooking pot and won’t admit it. The nearby river was seen as nature’s way of dispensing justice, or setting a person free. The mother took her three sons down to the river, where each had to wade in, stop when the water reached his waistline, and sing, ‘‘I call the river, I call the river, I call the river no more, and if I eat my mother’s rice, I call the river to swallow me.’’ The first two boys went in and sang, but the river did not rise. The last boy approached the river crying while he sang the song, his voice trembling as he did so. And as he sang, the river kept rising until it covered his neck, which brought a quick admission and an apology. Justice was about to be served, but was kind. The lesson is not to steal and if you do, admit it and apologize, or the river will decide your fate.
The sea plays an important role in the lives of residents of South Caicos. There is a traditional fishing sector, and “jumping turtles” was a strategy to capture this food source. The fishermen would go out in their fishing vessels with eyes trained on the sea for turtles that might come to the surface. When one did, a fisherman would quickly jump from the boat on the back of the turtle and turn it over, so that its underside was on top. In this state, the turtle is helpless. It was then carried to the boat and lifted in with the aid of the other fishermen. This was not as easy as it appeared, since a large turtle could put up a fight, and escape.
A South Caicos song called “The Kaiser” came from these experiences, which described really huge turtles, likened to the power of the Kaiser in Germany. Loggerhead was another name given to huge turtles. Part of the song says, “Go ahead and hit pa, we going jump the loggerhead. Give me my dagger, we going kill the Kaiser.” Pa is a cultural term for dad. This was a highly popular song, with a great melody enjoyed by the young and others alike. This song represents power, how to confront and defeat it, and prevail.

The Anglican church in South Caicos is the country’s third oldest building.

Religion is an important element in South Caicos life, with confession before a priest required for forgiveness. There is the story of a believer who remained behind at the altar in church after everyone else had left. He was approached by the priest and gently told confession was over and he could now leave. But the man looked inquisitively at the priest and said, “But Father did you not say that when we pray we heap coals of fire on our enemies’ heads?” “Yes,” replied the priest. “Well,” answered the parishioner, “I have an enemy down the road and I want to burn him down to a stump!” The reaction of the priest is not given.
And there was the tailor who once a year, at the middle period, always took to drinking heavily. He worked for six months and consumed alcohol every day for the remaining six. It was a personal tradition, and South Caicos looked forward to it. But there was an issue. The tailor suffered from hypertension and his doctor warned him about his drinking. In no uncertain terms, he told the doctor, “You don’t want me to drink, because you want all the booze for yourself. Furthermore I pay your salary, so I’ll drink whenever I want to, send up my blood pressure, and come to you to bring it back down, because I pay you to do it!” He was totally unrepentant and lacking self-forgiveness.

The story of the fish vendor demonstrates the value of remaining calm.

There is the episode of the fish vendor. She walked around different areas of the island with a square pan on her head, filled with bonefish which she sold to fish lovers, and was called Aunty Martha. She never walked in a straight path, but used her tall lanky frame to almost skip from side to side, a little to the left, then to the right, with eyes gazing downward as she hopped along. Along came a schoolboy, playing in the street as they do while going home from school. Aunty Martha did not see him, and neither did he see her. “Boom!” They collided. The schoolboy fell sideways on his elbows. The fish in Aunty Martha’s pan flew separately through the air and landed at different spots along the road. Aunty Martha stood firm, wide-eyed and shocked, not seeming to realize immediately what had happened. She quickly collected herself, picked up each fish carefully, brushed the sand off and walked away unperturbed.
These tales from South Caicos portray the soul of the island. The song “Bonefish Bite Me” teaches a moral lesson about the dignity of marriage, and the cultural expectation to act with respect. “I Call the River” shows how karma steps in to level things off and right wrongs. The song “The Kaiser” depicts power and strength, and the spirit of overcoming challenges.
The tale of religious confession presents two conflicting positions. Confession is supposed to free the individual of blame and wipe the slate clean. But here, the objective is to bring greater harm to the individual who committed a wrong against another! Finally, the tale of the alcoholic tailor represents determination even when danger lurks, and a resentment to feeling deprived of something even though it will cause harm. Stubborn resistance is the feature here. The fish vendor story tops it all with a display of calmness, being unruffled and moving on despite personal challenges.
Each of these songs and stories is wrapped in the spirit of South Caicos, indeed the entire Turks & Caicos Islands. As you pay careful attention to the folks around you, see if you can see this truth.

Oliver Mills is from the island of South Caicos, and is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica). He holds a BA (Hons.) UWI, an M.Ed. Dalhousie University, an MA University of London, and a Post-graduate Diploma in HRM and Training, Leicester University.
He is a former PS Education with the Turks & Caicos Government, and has published chapters in four books, and two book reviews in the Caribbean Journal of Education. He currently contributes a weekly column to “Caribbean News Now.”

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