Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Skull Island on the Mermentau River

One of the strangest folklore mysteries of our state is possibly one of the most haunting.   Inside Cameron parish exists a rather large lake known as Big Lake.  If you travel north towards the mouth of the Mermentau River, you'll pass along an island on the right side, listed on the maps as "Negro Island", which we'll call "Skull Island".   It's a marshy uninhabited island, not much different than any of the other ones around the parish near the gulf coast. The name given to it maybe part of a larger story.

Before 1819, much of the area between the Sabine River and the Calcasieu River was no-mans land.  The Spanish government and the United States couldn't agree on who controlled and governed the area.   For quite some time, the low lying area, dense forest and meandering bayous provided good cover for pirates, vandals, and other unwanted criminal activity.   It wasn't until after 1819 did the area finally become part of Louisiana yet it took several decades before the surrounding region was sufficiently settled and managed.   It wasn't uncommon to have illegal activities flourish until after the Civil War.

The story of this island begins with author W.T. Block's uncle telling him a tragic story that dates back to the Civil War.   In 1964, he carried his mother and some of her Sweeney siblings back to Grand Chenier for a visit. According to Block:
While there, I asked my Cousin Jim Bonsall, who owned a small store, if he had ever heard of that island. He quickly answered “yes” - that he could rent a boat and take me there if I so chose. Guidry described Skull Island as being located at the “north end of Grand Lake, where the Mermentau enters the lake...”

Skull Island located on the north shore

Back in 1949, he had heard of a story from his uncle who was born and raised in the area.  A story of a slaver captain’s inhumanity so bestial, that it is difficult for the human mind to comprehend it.  According to the story, a slave ship captain had pondered going upriver to Lake Arthur, but fearing he might be arrested there, he chose to dump his “cargo” ashore and return to the gulf.   The cargo was 200 starving African slaves abandoned on a marsh ridge on Mermentau River, where they were left to die horrific deaths.

Negro (Skull) Island
It goes back to 1820, when the United States passed the Act to Protect the Commerce of the US and Punish the Crime of Piracy.  It stated that:

"That if any person or persons whatsoever shall, on the high seas, commit the crime of piracy, as defined by the law of nations, and such offender or offenders shall afterwards be brought into or found in the United States, every such offender or offenders shall, upon conviction thereof ... be punished by death."
This included the section 5 detail:

"attempting to confine, deliver, or sell a negro or mulatto (similarly qualified as "not held to service", etc.) is also declared piracy punishable by death"

In March of 1865, Block's great uncle grandfather had sailed a sloop up the river in search of a high marsh ridge, where they might put in a crop of cotton. When they anchored at Skull Island, they found scattered among the marsh grass countless skulls, skeletons, and leg bones, each of the latter still shackled by a rusting leg iron to the skeleton lying beside it. Sensing the aura of death which permeated the marsh ridge, they quickly hoisted their sail and returned to Grand Chenier.

According to Block's uncle, a slaver captain stopped at Grand Chenier in May, 1865, and sought to buy rice or cattle from Dr. Millidge McCall to feed to his African chattels. McCall told him that there were neither rice nor cattle to be purchased at Grand Chenier; the residents of the Chenier at that time, consisting of women, children and a few old men, were only a notch above starvation themselves as the Civil War had just ended. McCall told the slaver too that the North had just won the war, and the slaves had been freed. 

Both knew that if a slave ship were caught with Africans aboard, the slaver captain would be tried for violating the 1820 African Slave Trade Act, the penalty of which was a charge of piracy and death by hanging.

Is there a link between the bones found on the island and the "African chattel" the captain needed to feed?   What possible ship could this have been?

In 1968, Block learned learned that the last known American slave ship to leave the Congo River in Mar. 1865 was the Huntress, a topsail hermaphrodite schooner with a capacity of 200 slaves. Hence since the voyage from the Congo River of Africa to Louisiana would require over 2 months.   This would have put the ship in the Mermentau around the same time.  According to Block:
It intrigued me whether or not the slave ship in the Mermentau might have been the Huntress.
Other records show that a Huntress type vessel landed a cargo of enslaved men and women in Cuba in 1864.  If so, without a doubt the shackled and starving Africans on Skull Island died quickly, abetted by the countless mosquito bites, and perhaps they were eaten by the numerous black panthers, which frequented the sea cane marshes around Grand Chenier during Civil War days.  

For decades the site of Skull Island was avoided like the plague by the sailors who plied Mermentau River on the schooners and steamboats. And many superstitious people often repeated tales around the camp fires, that during a full moon  the slave ghosts  danced under the live oak trees on the marsh Chenier. And surely there is no greater tale of bestiality—of man’s inhumanity to man—than the story of those unfortunate Africans who died on that island.

NOTE: The material from this article came from W.T. Block's website.

  1. http://www.wtblock.com/wtblockjr/skull_island.htm

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