August 28, 2011

As Fort Monroe ends its long tenure as a military base next month, it is likely to take on new life as one of the most important historical spots in the country.

As the date for the transition approaches we are beginning to realize what an incredible position the fort and the adjoining Old Point Comfort occupies: the place where slavery in America both began and ended. That’s right, right here in Hampton Roads. And not many people realize this.

Much has been disclosed recently about how three escaped slaves sought protection at the fort and were deemed to be “contrabands of war,” and how thousands followed to Freedom Fortress, ultimately tilting the nation towards emancipation.

But what has escaped notice is the other part of this amazing story, complete with Colonial Era political intrigue.

It seems that Samuel Argall, one of the original Jamestown settlers and, at the time, governor, was part owner of a privateer, a ship that essentially had a license to steal. That ship, Treasurer, was seizing Spanish and Portuguese merchant ships and bringing the loot to Virginia to sell illegally.

Argall’s part in the get-rich scheme got him deposed and put on a fast ship to escape with his neck intact. He was replaced by one George Yeardley, he of Flowerdew Hundred – named for his wife, Temperance Flowerdew – a sprawling plantation along the James.

The Treasurer had lain in wait in the West Indies for a ship to pounce on when another privateer, the Dutch-flagged White Lion, happened upon the same waters and the two captains decided to share whatever booty they came across.

Now along comes the Portuguese slaver Sao Jao Bautista, loaded with human cargo from Luanda, a village in Angola. They capture it, grab the slaves and head for Virginia. The White Lion, with the fiercely competitive Captain John Jope (nicknamed “the Flying Dutchman”) in command, arrives at Old Point Comfort on Aug. 20, 1619 – four days ahead of the Treasurer.

Jope succeeds in trading the “20 and odd” – John Rolfe’s description – slaves for badly needed provisions. At the time, English law forbade slaves, so the arrivals were deemed to be indentured servants – even though some were indentured for life!

Guess who bought them? None other than old George Yeardley and a wealthy merchant named Abraham Piersy. Two other slaves who had received the Christian names of Antony and Isabell were acquired by William Tucker, commander at an early fort at the Point. Their son, William, is likely the first black child born in present-day Hampton – if not in America.

But the Treasurer, probably with an equal number of slaves, doesn’t finish unloading its human cargo. In fact, when the captain finds out that Argall, has fled, he quickly weighs anchor and sails to Bermuda – where he is able to dispense with the people on board.

How do we know all this?

Ever since Rolfe – the tobacco planter who married Pocahontas – observed the Africans being landed at Old Point, it’s been clear that that was the spot. But some historians have insisted that Jamestown was the actual location. Furthermore, who they were, how they got there and what became of them has been shrouded in mystery.

But recent research by California historian Engel Sluiter turned up Portuguese shipping records that tell the story in great detail – including the Point Comfort landing.

You’d think this was worthy of recognition. But so far, few Americans know about Hampton’s part in this crucial chapter in our history. All you’ll see on the Fort Monroe waterfront is a state highway marker with the sketchiest information. There should me more, a museum, perhaps, and certainly a monument. Who would not want to visit here?

That’s where Project 1619, a group headed by Calvin Pearson, the city’s former parks and recreation director, comes in. They sponsored a symposium at the American Theater in Phoebus and a ceremony commemorating the landing at Old Point last Saturday. Among the guests were several descendants of Antony and Isabell, those first arrivals. And the ancestors – at least figuratively – of every African American.

By the time of the 400th anniversary of the landing, the group plans to have a monument to the landing erected at this now lonely stretch of waterfront.

From the earliest arrivals, thousands more were brought to Virginia to labor in the tobacco fields. They gradually went, in the eyes of state lawmakers, from servants to slaves for life.

It would take several lifetimes – more than 200 years – during which, as Pearson observes, these unwilling immigrants had no legal status as citizens. “They lived here but it was not their country.” And then, finally, with tremendous courage, began throwing off their shackles.

It all happened right here.

“It was a sad beginning,” Pearson agreed, but not a sad ending.”

August 21, 2011

Painting by J.O. Davidson of the battle between the Monitor and Virginia. Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum. (Click to enlarge)

Here we go, up the aluminum ladder, through a hatch and into a round iron space. There’s a dank, rusty, metallic smell and something else – but it’s hard to place at first. Be careful as you climb in with those rubber boots; the floor is lined with railroad rails and you could lose your balance and stumble against something fragile.

There on the circular wall are large dents made by cannons during an unfortunate gun trial, and close by is an inward bulge made by . . . .

And now you realize what it is you sensed as you entered – chaos and fear.

This is the interior of the turret of the ironclad Monitor, briefly open as conservators at the Mariners’ Museum hammer away at the last bits of concreted material before returning it to a bath to remove more than a century’s worth of salt. July and August afforded the rare opportunity to see inside after thousands of gallons of water that had bathed the turret were removed.

I got a chance to step inside where crew members of this improbable ship underwent their baptism by fire on a fine Sunday morning in March 1862 as their iron ship clashed with its southern counterpoint, the Virginia.

Let me try to recreate what it might have been like.

First of all, it was a claustrophobic space, with almost no view of land or sea or sky. It was hot and crowded, with a score of men stripped to the waste, dripping with perspiration, bodies black with gunpowder and lungs full of smoke as they bent to the job of loading giant guns – ramming gunpowder and shot – running them out portholes and firing.

Each shot resulted in a tremendous, ear-ringing explosion and clouds of smoke in that confined space. Welcome to the new age of naval warfare in which sailors fired at each other from behind heavy armor and wondered if this, their first experience in this half-submerged contraption, could be their last, if this was to be their iron tomb.

When the turret received the first direct hit there was a sudden intake of breath as the shot struck eight inches of iron and, instead of penetrating, ricocheted off. So perhaps they would not be killed after all, at least not right away.

One sailor had the experience of a shot striking a few inches from his head. “The shock was so fearful that I dropped over like a dead man,” he would write. He had to be taken below until he recovered. Another man had been bracing his knee against the turret wall and found himself flying through the air “clean over both guns to the floor of the turret.”

Conditions on the Virginia gun deck were much the same. In one instance, when the Monitor fired at close range, gunners near the impact were stunned nearly senseless, eardrums bleeding from the concussion. The Monitor and Virginia battled for four hours before withdrawing. Miraculously, no one was killed and only a few were wounded.

A very different scene was enacted on the little ship off Cape Hatteras on the next-to-last day of that year. It was, as one officer remarked after climbing to the top of the turret and seeing men swept to their deaths, “a panorama of horror.”

In their haste, as they climbed around the guns and to the top of the turret, some of the crew shucked off boots and jackets so that, in case they landed in the water, they’d have a better chance of swimming. Some may have grabbed precious belongings, like engraved silverware, only to discard it at the last minute. A few who witnessed the scene below were frozen by fear and unwilling to venture down to the heaving deck.

And then there were two who had either gone below to retrieve personal effects or taken too long to seek safety; or who had stayed at the pumps too long and were staggering from lungs full of poisonous gas and smoke; or were passing up parts of a makeshift lifeboat – and were trapped as the ship suddenly rolled over and plunged to the bottom of the sea.

And indeed became their iron coffin.

The complete turret will be visible at the Mariners’ Museum for the next two weeks, after which the tank will again be filled with water. Those who can’t make it can watch through webcams at

August 14, 2011

I should’ve written this last month when Mal Vincent introduced his classic movie festival at the Naro. But I was on vacation then and missed the chance to muse about one of my all-time favorites, “The African Queen.”

Or I could wait until next year when the 100th anniversary of the beat-up old boat of the same name rolls around, but 99th is just about as good, right?

Besides, I just couldn’t wait. You see, fourteen years ago when she was in our presence, I got to ride in the wonderful, funky “Queen,” on the same seats Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn occupied in that “savagely thrilling,” Oscar-winning 1951 movie. In fact to steer her!

It was the very same boat, originally named S/L Livingstone, that was built by the British in 1912 to haul passengers and cargo on Lake Albert in East Africa. The legendary John Huston decided the it was perfect for his film and renamed it African Queen.

She was temperamental, of course, with a balky engine that Bogart had to kick to keep running, but seaworthy or lucky, enough to make it down some terrifying rapids and through leech-infested muck before delivering a torpedo to the belly of a powerful German patrol boat.

Bogart had played an uncouth, gin-swilling, cigar-smoking drifter named Charlie Allnut who, improbably, falls in love with Rose Thayer, the prim sister of a missionary in East Africa, all the while sailing to their fateful encounter.

Many assume the boat sank because it does so in the movie, but through a series of auctions James Hendricks, a Key Largo hotel owner, got hold of it and set it on display next to his inn.

That’s where Raynor Parker, owner of Tidewater Crane and Rigging Co. on Newtown Road, found her while on vacation in Florida. He convinced Hendricks to bring the boat to HarborFest in 1997 and paid all expenses.

After firing up the wood burning steam engine, which burped and belched contentedly, they took me for a ride on Cristal Lake.

There I was, Rosie, old girl, reliving every bit of your movie, especially the part where you take the Queen down the rapids and later, with a quavering voice, you exclaim,

“I never dreamed that any experience could be so stimulating!”

I hadn’t either, even on the placid waters of Crystal Lake. The next day they took the Queen to downtown Norfolk and offered rides to festival goers.

They took her elsewhere, including the Connecticut neighborhood where Hepburn lived. Parker says she was thrilled to pay a visit.

But that was just about her last journey. The African Queen is back in Key Largo, covered by an awning and resting on a cradle above the water. You can stop and see it for free, although a static display is a pretty sad affair. As one writer on Tripadvisor put it, it’s nothing special unless you’re a movie buff.

Another, writing in German, said it was inconspicuous, as one might expect. The headline is “Humphrey Bogart war nie hier,” which I think means he was never here. But you could argue that he was indeed.

Even though the boat’s not yet a centenarian, it’s the perfect time to begin planning for next year when the mother of all boating events, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, rolls around.

What a great spot for a joint celebration.

August 7, 2011

Solitary man standing amidst the ruins of Hampton after Confederates destroyed the town. Library of Congress.

In the dark of night a century and a half ago…

It was pitch black with a fresh wind out of the south as the few remaining residents of the old village were awakened by startled shouts and the tramp, tramp of marching soldiers. They were carrying torches.

Hampton, the oldest English inhabited place in America, had been a bustling port and population center in its heyday – the most important in Virginia – with tobacco warehouses, a custom house, taverns and blacksmith’s shops. The town declined when Norfolk took over as the major port, but, before the war was “a pretty little town,” as an admirer put it.

Until that night.

To the Confederate leadership, the problem was that menacing presence next-door, Fort Monroe.

The moated fort, now bulging with federal troops since President Lincoln sent them there, was considered impregnable. Furthermore, all along the outskirts of Fort Monroe were makeshift camps populated by former slaves who had taken refuge behind Union lines.

Hampton had been mostly evacuated after it became clear that the Union army would not be dislodged. Just a few months before, troops had ridden into town to disrupt the balloting on the question of secession. The intimidation hadn’t worked but townsfolk realized how vulnerable they were. They had fled, leaving only a handful of Union sympathizers and newly liberated slaves.

At this point thousands of Confederate soldiers, under Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder, were massing within a mile of town, cruising for a fight, probing for information about the Yankees and their intentions. Magruder had wanted to burn Hampton and got his excuse.

On the pages of a northern newspaper he saw what purportedly were plans by his adversary, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, for the town: to fortify if and allow the former slaves to occupy the houses where they had once worked for their owners.

In explaining his actions, Magruder wrote, “Having known for some time past that Hampton was the harbor of runaway slaves and traitors, and being under the guns of Fort Monroe, it could not be held by us even if taken, I was decidedly under the impression that it should have been destroyed before; and when I found from the above report its extreme importance to the enemy, and that the town itself would lend great strength to whatever fortifications they might erect around it, I determined to burn it at once.”

Now here’s the part that doesn’t make sense. Magruder claimed that he put the idea to “the gentlemen at Hampton, many of whom are in the army under my command,” and that they “seemed to concur with me” about the wisdom of torching their own town. In picking those to do the job, he chose companies of men who lived in Hampton and nearby Warwick County.

Maybe they went willingly to this task, but there must have been deep sadness as the hometown soldiers met at the corner of Queen and King streets and fanned out into the four quarters of the town. “And now the quiet of the night was broken by loud yells, the houses were entered and fired,” a Union soldier wrote. “And soon the whole town was enveloped in flames, casting a bright light over the bay, and revealing to our soldiers the forms of the enemy as they moved about the streets...”

When it was over, about 500 houses were gone, and except for a few charred remains, including the walls of St. John’s Church, nothing survived “but a forest of bleak sided chimneys and walls of brick houses tottering and cooling in the wind, scorched and seared trees and heaps of smoldering ruins…” according to an observer. “A more desolate sight cannot be imagined than is Hampton today.”

Within a few hours, the visible history of America’s oldest town had vanished.

Hampton would come back, thanks to oysters and crabs, NASA and the Air Force, but that other dimension was forever lost.

Ironically, the very town that was incinerated to prevent escaped slaves from occupying its buildings is now gaining recognition as the nurturing ground for “freedom’s first generation,” those who inherited the ashes and made a life for themselves.

At 5 p.m. today, the Hampton Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, St. John’s Church and the Hampton History Museum will present “Ruin and Rebirth: The Burning of Hampton,” including commentary by an actor portraying Lincoln. It will take place at St. John’s.