The Prince's Island
On my way to Fishers Island I had sailed beyond the archipelago. In Buzzard Bay I met Bill Kornblum, who was bringing his catboat Victor back to Greenport, New York, and decided to accompany him.
Now I was by myself again, on course to the most easterly island in New York State, approaching it from Newport, Rhode Island with a strong southwest wind in a choppy sea. It was a cloudy July day, the gusty breeze changing directions at times while the boat cut through the waves like a threshing machine. Sailing south by southwest I had to keep the boat close on the wind, and Sojourn was leaning hard, straining my arms as I attempted to hold the rudder steady. Sailing close hauled isn’t the fastest way, but it was either that or fall off course and tack back to Point Judith, about twelve miles west of Newport. After finally spotting the lighthouse on the tip of Narragansett, I was relieved to change to a more westerly course, sailing half wind, faster and calmer. From here to the entrance of the Fisher Island Sound it was still another twenty nautical miles, which I calculated would take me another four-and-a-half hours if the wind remained steady.
Although these waters don’t technically belong to the archipelago of New York, in a larger geographical sense they are an essential part of the region. The most easterly islands—Fishers, Gull, Little Gull and even Block Island—are part of the end moraine that shaped the New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. Adrian Block, who explored, mapped, and named most of these islands was the first to describe them as a single archipelago. Fishers (Vishers) Island was named after one of Adrian Block’s crew members in 1614. With the borders between states ill defined, the right to the island remained the cause for many battles between the states of Connecticut and New York. In 1640, the provision that Connecticut remained Fishers Island’s rightful owner was crucial to the lease of the island being given to the son of the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founder of the city of Boston, John Winthrop. But the border dispute lasted until 1879, when a joint commission with representatives from both states declared it to belong to Southold, Long Island.
The entrance to Fishers Island Sound is a narrow channel through reefs and rocks marked by buoys with funny names like “Sugar” or “Lord’s Passage.” I was heading toward the third, the “Watch Hill” entrance, where a gong and a bell would help navigate even in the worst weather. Still more than an hour away from the island, the sky was clear and the forecast was good. But as I approached the southwestern point of Rhode Island, where the strait into Fishers Island begins, the clouds grew darker. Within a few minutes, the buoys at the horizon already in sight, I was in the middle of a torrential rain storm, drenched to the bone, and heavy gusts of wind were pushing me toward the rough waters of the Watch Hill passage.
I found myself in a dense fog. I could not see farther than a hundred feet, so I turned the boat into the wind, switched on the engine, pulled down the sheets, and went in narrow circles, waiting. It is amazing how fast the weather can change on the water. Sometimes unannounced, out of nowhere, dark clouds appear, the wind changes, and before you know it, you’re in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm. Sailing the archipelago of New York, experience has taught me that the whole thing often only lasts for half an hour, with the sun breaking through the clouds as if nothing had happened.
Being alone on a small boat in bad weather puts things into prospective for me. It forces a realistic evaluation of the situation and my own capability. There is no one to blame if I make a mistake, and so I have learned to question myself constantly before I act. Do I really know the right thing to do? This turns out to be one of the best things I have learned on the water: not knowing. Realizing my weaknesses made me stronger.
With that in mind I kept circling, studying the charts on my I-pad in its waterproof case as best I could in this weather. It was only 6 P.M. and there were still a few hours of daylight left to get to Fishers Island once this rain storm was over. Sure enough, within twenty minutes the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and I passed safely into Fisher Island Sound. Soon I was approaching the island’s small West Harbor. Looking back, the dark clouds still hung dramatically over the water, but in front of me the sun had started to set. I don’t imagine that the approach to the island has changed much since 1729, when a young boy named Broteer from Dukandarra, Guinea, ended his odyssey from Africa on Fishers Island. The oldest son of a prince, he and his family were taken prisoners after his father was murdered by an invading army and sold to slave traders who put the little boy on a ship to Rhode Island. Rechristened “Venture,” the boy was sold to George Mumford, who had rented Fishers Island from the Winthrop family and ran a commercial farm on the property. Venture spent more than thirteen years with the Mumford family, serving George and his son.
By the outbreak of the revolutionary war, more than 20,000 slaves served white farmers and rich families in New York, more than half of them on Long Island, making one of five people on the East End of African descent.
Of the twelve million African captives enslaved in America, only a dozen kept a personal journal. Venture, who grew up on Fishers Island, was one of them. In his memoir, entitled A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself, he wrote about his time on Fishers Island:
“One day in particular, the authority which my master's son had set up, had like to have produce melancholy effects. For my master having set me off my business to perform that day and then left me to perform it, his son came up to me in the course of the day, big with authority, and commanded me very arrogantly to quit my present business and go directly about what he should order me. I replied to him that my master had given me so much to perform that day, and that I must therefore faithfully complete it in that time. He then broke out in a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head therewith; but I as soon got another and defended myself with it, or otherwise he might have murdered me in his outrage.”
After the brutal violence Venture endured, he decided to escape, and with another man stole his master’s boat and sailed to Montauk Point, only to be captured and resold to Stanton Thomas of Stonington, Connecticut. Here he once more was exposed to severe violence, but Venture never succumbed to the brutal force of his oppressors; instead he complained to the justice of peace. Again Venture was sold, this time to a small business owner, Oliver Smith of Stonington, but his wife and daughter remained with Stanton Thomas. Smith allowed him to earn money on his own to eventually pay for his freedom. “I hired myself out at Fishers Island, and earned twenty pounds; thirteen pounds six shillings of which my master drew for the privilege, and the remainder I paid him for my freedom. This made fifty-one pounds two shillings which I paid him.”
Freed at last, Venture adopted the last name of the master that let him go and went on to become a successful businessman, eventually paying for the freedom of his wife and children as well. They lived and died in Connecticut; Venture never visited Fishers Island again.