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Cactus Jack Calder

The Great Jamaican Treacle Flood of 08

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This is a short story I wrote many years ago. I happened to stumble across it in my files and with the recent proliferation of storytelling I thought it might receive a welcome. You may recognize one of the characters.

I will post it in 3 parts so as not to tax the wire.

 

Cactus Jack Calder

 

 

It was 1808, at least that’s what my Grandfather told me. His Grandfather, my Great-Great Grandfather, John Calder, was enrolled as First Mate aboard the Gertrude L. Theaboad, a three masted Brig out of Mystic, Connecticut. The Captain was Jacob Campbell, a canny Scotsman and part owner of the Theaboad. The ship was bound for the Horn of Africa and then the South Pacific Ocean. There they would harvest whale oil for up to two years. The normal course to the Horn was not a direct southeasterly sail. Those old square rigged ships needed to follow the “Trade Winds”, and that meant sailing south along the North American coast to the Caribbean. Then sailing east across the Atlantic to the coast of Africa. Next south again to the Horn. The trick was to get the timing right. First Captain Campbell had to catch the Trade Winds going east off the Caribbean Sea, then arrive at the Horn when the winds and weather allowed a passage to the Pacific. The passage from west to east across the Atlantic and south down the African coast was short on safe ports of call. To resupply with fresh water and fruit, the usual course included a stop at one of the leeward islands in the Caribbean. In 1808 Captain Campbell chose to stop at the British Colony at Jamaica. There the ship encountered the strangest set of circumstances ever seen by man.

 

Before I tell you of what the ships crew encountered I need to provide a little education in weather phenomena. I am sure in today’s day and age you are aware of the tropical depressions that move off the West African Coast from June through October that can result in a Hurricane along the East Coast of the Americas or into the Caribbean Sea. What isn’t commonly known is that during the period from late March through April there are occasional “Mini Depressions” that move east from the West Coast of Africa. These depressions are normally pushed further north than the later seasonal tropical depressions of the “Hurricane Season” and may reach the northeast coast of the United States. There the resulting precipitation is know as the, “April showers that bring May flowers”.

 

Well in 1808 there was a freakish occurrence that brought these “April Showers” in a more southerly course. The result on the Island of Jamaica was an almost continuous series of gentle showers interspersed with beautiful sunshine. Now Jamaica was known for it’s production of Sugarcane. The sugarcane plantations covered much of the island with the major habitation being settled along the island’s coast. With the unusual weather pattern the plantation owners anticipated a bumper crop of sugarcane. Anticipating a tremendous return on their investment the plantation owners added substantially to the cultivated land area. 

 

The sugarcane grew and grew until the cane fields were so chocked that access roads were closed and the plantation owners and laborers were forced to retreat to the coastal towns. Still the sugarcane grew until the coastal towns and villages were surrounded. The only way the people were not pushed into the sea was by regularly chopping back the encroaching vegetation. The situation was at a stalemate, the sugarcane kept growing and the villagers kept chopping. What the people of the island didn’t know was that, up in the hills where no one could observe, things were going from bad to worse. 

 

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The rains had stopped, the islanders thought the sugarcane would begin to dry up and stop pushing into the inhabited coastal area. They were correct, along the coast the situation stabilized. The plantation owners began to plan how they might harvest this incredible abundance and become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. All they had to do was wait for the sugarcane to reach the right stage and then begin the harvest. You need to know that the process of harvesting sugarcane involves burning the fields to get rid of all the leaf mater, leaving only the cane stalks. Then the laborers are sent in to chop down the canes. The canes are then squeezed to extract the syrup. This syrup is called “Black Treacle”. The treacle is then refined and mixed with water to produce “Molasses”.

 

Mean while, as I was saying, things in the inaccessible hills were going from bad to worse. While the sugarcane along the coast was maturing the cane in the hills had not only matured but had begun to reach a state of dryness not normally found in the tropics. The cane leaves were tinder dry. The intense heat of the sun caused the leaf mater to spontaneously combust. As the cane burned the treacle syrup began to seep out of the stalks. This allowed the stalks to dry and burn, intensifying the heat. The more the fire spread the more treacle began to collect in pools, then flows, finally streams and rivers of treacle headed for the coast. As the flow of treacle approached the coast it began to cool slightly and build up into a wall of slowly advancing syrup. The first the islanders became aware of the situation was when this wall of syrup appeared at the edge of the jungle like cane fields surrounding their towns. The syrup wall was now advancing on the population with slow but inexorable certainty. 

 

Several of the plantation owners immediately organized their workers to attempt to harvest the treacle. However, while the syrup had cooled off to some degree it was much to hot to handle with any equipment at hand. In addition the wall kept advancing. Soon villages were being over run and people fled to the beaches. Some of the islanders took to fishing boats and small craft heading out to other islands. However, there were no where near enough boats to evacuate the entire island. Desperate people began to swim out to sea to escape or climb trees to get above the flow. Anything to avoid the still hot treacle flow. 

 
Edited by Cactus Jack Calder
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This is when the Gertrude L Theaboad arrived along with several other ships bound for the high seas. After rescuing most of the population of the island the various ships Captains held a conclave. These ships were all merchant enterprises, the Captains bound to by their oath to make every effort to produce a profit for the owners. In addition, several Captains were part owners in the enterprise. Common decency and “Rules of the Sea” bound these ships masters to aide the islanders. This was a conundrum. Most Captains opted to make a stop at another island in the area, to deliver the rescued Jamaicans and resupply for the continuation of their planned voyage.

 

Remaining in Jamaica, Captain Campbell and his First Mate, my G-G-Grandpapy, devised a plan. Whaling ships were equipped with large boilers, used to render whale blubber for the oil. They also have very large vats for storing the oil and very long handled knives to slice the blubber into manageable pieces. By using these knives, known as “Flensing Knives”, the crew could harvest chunks of the now nearly solidified treacle to refine it into Molasses and store the product in the oil vats. The Theaboad and two other whalers spent most of a normal whaling season harvesting the treacle. This allowed the islanders to reclaim their towns and villages. The ship returned to Mystic at least a year earlier than planned. Having been the first whaler to make land in Jamaica the Theaboad was the first to fill it’s holds with fine Molasses and the first to make the market in America. The cargo was sold for a handsome profit and all hands received a healthy share, better than if the voyage had gone as planned. Soon after the Theaboad returned the price of Molasses dropped severely due to a glut on the market.

 

Having decided that the sea was not his vocation John Calder took his shares from the voyage and headed west. However, that is another story.

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Well that’s the story as my Grandfather told it to me, with no embellishment by myself. I hope you enjoyed it.

 

Cactus Jack Calder 

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The way your grandfather told it, it doesn't seem to need any more embellishment.

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Thanks Alpo. That’s what he was going for. He loved to tell me whoppers. :lol:

 

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