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Keywords:

  • Caribbean;
  • lighter;
  • sailing;
  • African diaspora

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The island of Nevis in the eastern Caribbean was until recently home to a unique traditional-built sailing lighter. The last two working vessels were hauled out for the last time only in 2001. The lighters of Nevis have a rich history and were built without plans, conforming to traditional proportions and practices. One of these vessels was carefully documented by the author in the grounds of the Horatio Nelson Museum in Charlestown before it completely succumbed to the elements. The vessels have since deteriorated and are gone. The maritime legacy of Nevis and the lighters are described.

© 2012 The Author

The Eastern Caribbean island of Nevis (Fig. 1) is home to a unique and unfortunately vanishing maritime tradition. For a documented 100 years and certainly a longer history which can be reconstructed, Afro-Nevisians carried on inter-island commerce and passenger transport using specialized craft known as ‘sailing lighters’ (Fig. 2). Although Afro-Caribbean mariners have had a long and rich tradition of seafaring and independent maritime trade, this legacy has only recently been appreciated, principally in the works of Julius Scott (1986; 1991; 1996), and W. Jeffery Bolster (1997). On Nevis, this tradition was best exemplified by sailing lighters and the lightermen who worked the vessels between islands. From 2000 to 2001 I undertook the recording of the last of these boats before deterioration and weathering removed it from the historical record. This article discusses the vessel's traditional construction, use, and significance in local island custom and Caribbean culture.

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Figure 1. Map of Nevis, and its location in the Caribbean.

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Figure 2. Photograph c.1910, showing a lighter arriving at St Kitts with cargo and passengers. (courtesy of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society)

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Lighters are generally defined as craft used for off-loading cargo from sailing ships for transhipment to shore, especially across shallows or where wharves are lacking. This was the case in Nevis, but Nevisian lighters performed duties far beyond these. Although their original purpose was carrying sugar-cane, they came to play a significant role in other areas of island commerce and social life, especially as transport between islands of the St Kitts-Nevis federation, Barbuda, Anguilla and Antigua (Fig. 3). Most lighters resemble barges more than boats, but not so the lighters of Nevis, which may trace their lineage to early colonial sloops. That sloops were common in the early colonial history of Nevis is evident in Oldmixon's account of Nevis (1708: 208), suggesting sloops came regularly from neighbouring islands.

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Figure 3. Photograph c.1975 of a lighter being loaded at a wharf. The cargo consists of general merchandise. (courtesy of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society)

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To date there is no evidence that archaeological remains of any lighters exist on Nevis or neighbouring St Kitts. However, historical records indicate at least two that were sunk after 1930, although the locations are vague, and one sunk at St Thomas (Virgin Islands) after 1914 (Hackett, 2003). The tasks carried out by these vessels have been supplanted by other means of transport and other craft. According to informants, these lightly-built vessels were worked hard and scrapped when use-life was exhausted. Even the vessels described in this paper no longer exist. A section of keel is all that remains for examination from the Pioneer, discussed in detail below. The lack of archaeological remains and the passing of many boatwrights who constructed these vessels underscores the fortunate opportunity I had to record the last lighter.

Small craft in Nevisian history

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Early references to small craft on Nevis are scattered and nearly all relate to plantation operations. Occasionally the term ‘lighter’ refers to short-haul harbour operations. Some 18th- and 19th-century documents refer to ‘droghers’ making regular trips to the bays and inlets of the island. Kerchove (1961: 245) defines a ‘drogher’ as a sea-going sailing barge (specifically from Trinidad) used for local trading. These are described as reaching 60 feet in length and open except for a forward deck. The rig consists of a single mast and a split lugsail. Allsop (1996) defines it as a West Indian ‘coasting’ vessel. Droghers are also mentioned in the context of the sugar industry and the word is occasionally used to refer to the crew of such boats. Some were occasionally referred to as ‘plantain boats’ (Scott, 1986: 103).

It is not surprising that Nevisian lighters may share common elements with droghers. Both were used in the sugar trade, as inshore craft, and for local inter-island trade. A depiction of the Basseterre landscape on St Kitts in Cokes's 1811 History of the West Indies illustrates the variety of vessels to be found in the waters off St Kitts and Nevis. Among these are small sailing vessels carrying hogsheads (barrels) of sugar out to ships. This seems appropriate as the term droguer applies to labourers who carry heavy packs. In contrast, a lighter is traditionally a flat-bottomed vessel used for transporting cargo between a sea-going vessel and the shore. Lighters and barges were once classed together, the distinction ‘more in the manner used than in form or equipment’ (Kerchove, 1961: 454). On Nevis, droghers brought hogsheads of sugar from windward plantations, such as New River and Coconut Walk, in the early 1800s around to the leeward side to Gallows Bay, Charlestown. The waters at New River are shallow and rocky, allowing only the shallowest-draughted vessels and most skilful mariners to arrive safely at the stone jetty. Such conditions call for a vessel not unlike the sailing lighter.

Merrill (1958: 123) mentions the lighter in his classic geography of Nevis and St Kitts, but his analysis of the craft as awkward and slow is as misleading as it is unjustified. While these vessels are indeed not very trim, they are designed for working in shallow water, and under full sail can be quite swift. Of greater value to understanding the history of the lighters is Merrill's comment that such vessels were still employed in carrying foodstuffs and other commodities from ocean-going ships which anchored a mile off shore, and his published photograph of lighters. There is some controversy arising from analysis of the lighter sail-plan as sloop-like. Indeed, as Professor Douglas Armstrong at Syracuse University (pers. comm) wondered, how is the Nevis lighter not a sloop? Both vessel-types have masts stepped far forward. Some scow-sloops have flat bottoms and are of similar dimensions to these lighters.

The dimensions Merrill provides for a typical lighter, 50 ft (15.25 m) long; keel 31 ft (9.5 m); beam 16 ft (4.9 m), stern breadth 10 ft (3 m), and depth 7 ft (2.1 m) fit well within the pattern established from the Shipping Registry on St Kitts. Types of woods used in construction are also discussed. He lists white cedar (Tabebuia pallida) pigeonberry (Hirtella tinidra), burrwood (Sloanea sp.) and sweetwood (Lauraceae sp.). Pitch pine (most likely Pinus rigida from the Eastern US, which has a high resin content which prevents decay) was imported for keel and planking, while the mast and boom are of spruce (Picea glauca), known for long straight trunks, imported from Canada (Merrill, 1958: 123).

The lightermen

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Many if not all lighters were operated by African slaves. Ruth Fisher's important reference work on sources for Negro history in British archives contains the remarkable statement by Barbadian Governor Parry that ‘so many Negro slaves were employed in Navigation in the trading vessels’ that it ‘throws many English Seaman out of Employment’, causing social problems in port cities in England (Fisher, 1942: 88; Scott, 1986: 106).This issue is thoroughly explored by Jeffrey Bolster, who found that by 1803, 18% of American seamen's jobs were taken by enslaved Africans (1997: 6). Documents relating to the capture and capitulation of Nevis to the French in 1782 offer a glimpse into both the types of small craft on Nevis and the men working them. The term ‘sailor negroes’[sic] appears in several documents (Watts, 1925; Bolster, 1997: 132). Common phrases such as these support the contention that not only were enslaved Africans on Nevis capable sailors and available, but, as suggested by Scott (1996: 133), were a significant factor in island maritime activities. Bolster provides statistics indicating that on Nevis 14% of the enslaved were mariners (1997: 19). Enslaved Africans were quick to the sea and seafaring ‘ranked among the best prospects for fugitives’ (Walstreicher, 1999: 256). Citing contemporary newspapers, such as the Kingston Daily Advertiser of 1791, and the St George's Chronicle of 1790, Scott (1986: 108) reveals the impact of deep-sea ‘sailor negroes’ on resistance to slavery on Nevis, as he describes the mutiny of the crew aboard the sloop Nancy, owned by a Nevis merchant. The crew is described as comprising a native of Nevis, a ‘sailor of the Congo nation’, and two ‘Virginians’. It was supposed that the crew sailed off to remote areas of the Caribbean or to Virginia.

It is sometimes difficult to realize how important ships were in the early history of the Caribbean, or that mariners often were a sizeable portion of local populations. It was not uncommon for hundreds of ships to visit Nevis annually, and Caribbean islands were hubs of international commerce. Official correspondence makes clear that the mixing of sailors and free blacks or slaves was viewed by authorities with considerable suspicion and by planters with apprehension. That Africans were capable mariners and even acted as navigators, boatmen, and deck-hands while enslaved has gained recognition in recent years (Scott, 1996: 104, 110; Bolster, 1997: 68–101). However, the extent to which slaves were employed in these occupations and the significance of this legacy has not been fully appreciated.

The memoirs of Olaudah Equiano (Andrews and Gates, 2000: 154–9) strongly suggest that it was commonplace in the Caribbean for African slaves to work vessels autonomously. Newspaper accounts and advertisements for runaway slaves frequently mention slaves as mariners, and that they might be sought ‘among the wharves and docks seeking employment’ (Scott, 1996: 136; Bolster, 1997: 149; Walstreicher, 1999: 250). The fact that laws were enacted adding additional punishment to slaves who might steal a boat to escape bondage not only suggests that the practice was common and had become a problem for colonial authorities, but that at least some slaves were well acquainted with the workings of small craft (Acts of the Assembly … of Nevis, 1664–1739, Nelson Museum Archives, Charlestown, Nevis. Laws on Nevis made the stealing of a boat by a slave sometimes punishable by death, but this did not stop everyone). Similar laws were enacted on Montserrat and St Kitts.

It is a compelling thought to contemplate the brief periods of autonomy and freedom experienced by enslaved mariners of African heritage working for the Caribbean plantations as they filled their sails on the open sea. The period in which they sailed between islands on plantation business must have been bittersweet joy. Away from overseers and land-based colonial law, they connected distant plantations with island capitals and carried on commerce at neighbouring islands on behalf of their white owners, returning, perhaps, only because they had families they did not care to leave behind. The accounts of the Brigantine Betsy in 1776 (Bolster, 1997: 19) and the sloop Nancy in 1791 (Scott, 1986: 108; Bolster, 1997: 148) suggest the Caribbean was a special environment wherein slaves could develop the skills to rise to and maintain positions of significance aboard ship. The Nancy worked between Nevis and neighbouring St Kitts. In each case the vessels were handled principally by Africans.

There can be little doubt that mariner-slaves would be an important vector for news among enslaved populations of the Diaspora. An Act on Antigua in 1814 declared that ‘by far the greater part of the flats or boats, now plying in the Harbour are owned wholly by slaves’ (Gaspar, 1985: 287). It is little wonder that nautical traditions should exhibit continuity in the Caribbean long after emancipation. Although some crossed the Atlantic or served further out to sea, most worked the droghers and sloops, hauling sugar, tobacco or other general cargo.

Construction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Nevisian lighters are traditionally-built vessels, constructed without plans. Boatwrights followed sea-tested traditions learned as apprentices, and adhered to a set of general principles guiding their design and production. Using templates and experience, boatwrights built lighters on three approximate scales. Vessels ranged from 42 to 56 ft long, with an average beam of 14 ft in smaller vessels, to as great as 20 ft. A middling size averaging 48 ft long was occasionally built, but extant records offer only few examples. The length-to-beam ratio for all vessels ranged from 2.5:1 to 3:1. Nevisian lighters were lightly decked fore and aft, with an open hold. With a transom stern, the rudder was controlled by a removable tiller rigged with a rope-and-pulley system (Fig. 4).

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Figure 4. Close-up of Fig. 3, showing details of the rudder assembly. The tiller has been removed and set on deck. (courtesy of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society)

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The vessels were sloop-rigged according to Hackett (2003: 13). They were capable of handling a good deal of canvas, which was locally sewn for the boats. Lighters carried a small jib and a mainsail with a ‘leg-of-mutton’ rig which facilitated handling by fewer hands than a standard rig, and is readily apparent in photographs of recent vessels. Hackett (2003: 13) cites E. P. Morris for the British origin of the rig, and points out that this arrangement was certainly in Bermuda by as early as 1671. Hackett was probably correct in this assessment. Such a rig is found in many historic illustrations. Another possible ancestry of the vessel might be a yawl or ‘Westinda yawl’ (a reference on a 1706 Admiralty drawing) or even a Bahama sloop (Hackett, 2003: 9).

Lighters were built at two principal boatyards on Nevis, at Newcastle at the northern extreme of the island, and at Gallows Bay in Charlestown. All framing timbers, knees, aprons, deadwood, as well as keel and keelson, were naturally grown and selected for their specific shapes. Planks, mast, and boom were imported. To obtain timbers, according to Hackett (1999; 2003), boatbuilders in Nevis relied on specialists referred to as ‘mountaineers’. Given a set of templates for floors, futtocks, breasthook and other framing elements, these men would then climb up Mount Nevis in search of the required timber—no easy task on the overgrown, nearly vertical and slippery rain-forested slopes. Felled trees would be roughly shaped and the timbers hauled down the mountain by donkey to the boatyards.

The natural environment of Nevis was transformed early in its colonial history, and nearly all the flora and fauna one observes today are imports. The lignum-vitae climax rainforest on Nevis which Captain John Smith reported in 1607 on his way to settle Jamestown, Virginia, was removed by clearing for sugar-cane up to nearly 2000 ft by 1675 (Sloane, 1707: 42). Only the upper reaches of the mountain, too steep and moist for growing cane, retained any native vegetation. According to Sloane, it was here that runaway slaves found temporary safety and ‘harbour themselves’ (Sloane, 1707: 42). The trees used by the boatwrights on Nevis were probably a species of pine common to the Caribbean, or Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), common there today, or West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) which is much rarer. Long timbers, especially for masts and spars, were imported from Virginia. However, according to interviews conducted by Hackett, keels were constructed of Purpleheart (Peltogyne sp.) imported from Guyana. This is a very dense wood and ‘would ensure a life of forty years’ (2003: 21). In this light, the Nevisian lighter was part of a trade system extending to the extreme ends of the Caribbean. In the light of Merrill's comments on wood-types used in construction it can be seen that sources and timbering types changed over time.

As lighters were built in accordance with tradition, the Registry of Shipping, archived on St Kitts, which began listing lighters in 1900, reveals considerable variation. While it is true that templates dictated the shape of the vessel, the availability of specific trees and limb-shapes influenced the dimensions and final configuration of the lighter. Templates could not easily be changed without upsetting the entire framing design, but the boatwrights were pragmatic and adaptable. To some degree this accounts for the variability found in the different vessels.

The boats were built entirely using hand-tools—awl, auger, various saws, adze, hand axe, bit and brace, caulking irons, and hammers. Marks from these tools are in evidence on both the Pioneer and Sakara, especially on frames and futtocks, where adze-marks are testimony to the work that went into shaping the timbers, especially frames. The shallow draught allowed some of the vessels to work close to shore, while the broad open hold permitted a great deal of cargo to be carried. As sugar-mills on Nevis ceased operating in the early years of the 20th century, lighters carried bundled sugar-cane from Nevis to St Kitts for processing, but also carried general merchandise, raw materials, livestock, and a great many passengers on market days. With the end of sugar production in the 1950s, lighters and their captains relied entirely on general cargo. Deep-water craft brought supplies into St Kitts and lighters sailed a consignment of goods over to Nevis, which lacked a deep-water port until 1998.

It was not unusual for lighters to sail as far south as Barbados or north to the British Virgin Islands. While I was on the beach at Gallows Bay measuring the remains of Sakara, an old-timer gleefully informed me about sailing a lighter back in the 1950s and beating a ‘steamer to Barbados’ that had left Nevis at the same time. Several people who had been ferried to St Kitts aboard the Pioneer informed me that it was a ‘swift sailer’, often beating the government-operated ferry—making the run between Charlestown and Basseterre in St Kitts, a distance of 11 nautical miles, in under an hour. This was with the steady trade-winds that blow incessantly from the south-east.

Only four vessels were reported in 1974 as still working (Pyles, 1981: 157). In 1990 the remaining two lighters, Pioneer and Sakara, were hauled out onto the beach at Gallows Bay. Sakara lost its transom between 1998 and 2000, but Pioneer was relatively intact, and had been removed to the grounds of the Horatio Nelson Museum, in Charlestown, by concerned members of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society. I first saw the lighters in 1997 and suggested to the NHCS that each should be fully documented: the only previous documentation of a lighter being a brief account of the Victoria in Pyles'sClean Sweet Wind (1981: 159). Victoria is long gone and cannot be examined.

The Sakara and the Pioneer were built by master-boatwrights Liburd and Huggins, both of whom are still alive and were available to consult. Retired Coast Guard Captain K. Jerry Hackett, working with the NHCS, intended to restore Pioneer to sailing condition as a symbol of Nevisian maritime heritage, and interviewed each of these men for his Of Lighters and Lightermen (2003). However, the condition of the vessel gave me reason to believe this might not be a realistic goal. I therefore undertook the recording of the vessel during the summer of 2000 while on Nevis conducting a separate archaeological survey.

The Pioneer

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Built in 1958 for the S. L. Horsford Company and sold in the 1980s to TDC (Island Trade and Development Company), a major construction and hardware firm on the island, Pioneer was worked hard (Hackett, 1999: 3; 2003: 16) and the wear is obvious. Because the vessel was beginning to sag and seams were separating, measurements taken have been corrected and lines faired to reflect as far as possible the original dimensions (for scantlings see Table 1).

Table 1. Partial scantlings of Pioneer (measured, as it was built, in feet and inches)
DimensionDetailsImperialMetric
Overall length 42 ft 6 inches12.95 m
Keel length 31 ft 5½ inches9.59 m
Keel top 4 inches102 mm
bottom 5½ inches140 mm
sided 5½ inches (rabbet to garboard strake140 mm
Deadrise 11 ft ½ inch3.37 m
Beam 14 ft 3 inches4.34 m
Stempostscarfed to keel, made of 4 pieces, boxing from keel to stem10 inches sided254 mm
Sternpostbutted to keel, made of 3 edge-joined pieces, bolted to inner sternpost7 inches moulded178 mm
Inner sternpostdoes not extend to keel; butts to stern knee above deadwood7 inches moulded178 × 203 mm
8 inches sided
Transom width 9 ft 4 inches2.85 m
Number of frames22 (with limber holes in 19), first full frame at #2, natural grown shape  
Floors 4½–5½ inches sided114–140 mm
4½–5½ inches moulded114–140 mm
Half floors same as above 
Futtocks same as above 
Room and space 19–21½ inches483–546 mm
Keelson length 17 ft 9 inches, from frame 6–175.41 m
Keelson 6 inches sided152 mm
5 inches moulded127 mm
Stringers 3 inches sided76 × 57 mm
2¼ moulded, rounded
Deck beamscambered3 inches moulded76 × 102 mm
4 inches sided
Ceiling planks ¾ inch by 5½ inches19 × 140 mm
Thick stuff 3 inches76 mm
Hull planksport side, 3 strakes above waterline; extreme variance in 8 strakes below waterline (spiked to floors and frames from exterior)9–11 inches229–279 mm
Transom planks 6–12 inches152–305 mm
Open hold Space between forward and aft decks 19 ft 6 inches5.94 m
Top wale 5½ inches moulded, 1½ inches sided140 × 38 mm
Mast-stepsection diagonally scarfed to aft section of keelson, and buttressed by 2 partial sister keelsons; angle of mast-step hollow up to mast ring 90°1¾ inch hollow in section45 mm
Sister keelsonsnotched to fit over floor timbers55 inches long1.4 m
6 inches sided152 mm
5 inches moulded127 mm
Mast length 46 ft 6 inches14.17 m
Mast diameterat step1 ft 8 inches508 mm
at 10 ft2 ft 11 inches889 mm
at 15 ft2 ft 10 inches864 mm
at top2 ft 11 inches889 mm
Boom length 47 ft (a second boom measured 45 ft)14.33 m
(13.7 m)

The keel length is 31 ft 5½ inches, with an overall length of 42 ft 6 inches (compare this with Merrill's dimensions above). Pioneer was probably the smallest lighter built, certainly the smallest recorded in the Registry of Shipping. The deadrise in the bow extends 11 ft ½ inch and at the stern 3 ft 6 inches. The keel is rabbeted to take the garboard strake at a sharp angle. Each plank is scarfed to adjacent planks like an interlocking puzzle below the waterline and simply butted to one another above the waterline. Care seems to have been taken to make the most of timber resources. The hull flattens rapidly and the sharp angle at the turn of the bilge gives these vessels a very hard chine. Oakum (tarred pieces of old rope), still present when I recorded the vessel, was pressed between planks, and seams were pitched. The light decking fore and aft offered no shelter to the crew (Figs 5–8).

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Figure 5. Bow of the Pioneer as propped up for documentation. (author)

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Figure 6. Starboard bow of the Pioneer. Note the hard chine. (author)

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Figure 7. Port bow of the Pioneer. (author)

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Figure 8. Transom stern view of the Pioneer. The vessel had been reconfigured slightly to accept an outboard motor, which caused wear leading to several repairs in this area. (author)

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These vessels were built quick and dirty. Merrill (1958: 123) states that they were built in four months. Hackett (2003: 19) reports one of 50 ft being completed in 80 days. Each vessel was built according to the financial resources and needs of the client. Under the decks the grown timbers used in framing still retained their bark, since there was no need for it to be removed, an expedient that saved time and labour. Shaping of floors and futtocks was only carried out in the areas of contact with other timbers. Limber-holes run stem to stern on either side of the keelson, but are not found forward of the fourth frame. Several repairs are in evidence indicating a hard life for Pioneer, and the efforts made to keep the vessel working show great ingenuity as well as economic expediency.

Chappelle (1951: 30, 239) illustrates a similar hull-shape for a ‘Moses Boat’ used c.1800 for lightering hogsheads of molasses, as well as a Bermuda sloop with a similar rig. The mast exceeded the overall length of the vessel, as did the boom. The mast-step was formed as a separate timber, scarfed diagonally directly to the keelson, and braced by short sister keelsons (Fig. 9). Fortunately both mast and boom of Pioneer and Sakara survived, allowing direct measurement (Fig. 10). Much of the hardware remained, although in a seriously deteriorated state.

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Figure 9. Interior view of the mast step in the Pioneer. (author)

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Figure 10. Booms and mast cast aside at Gallows Bay, Charlestown. These were equipment for Pioneer and Sakara which was beached a short distance away. (author)

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The masts measured 46½ ft long with a diameter at the mast-step of 1 ft 8 inches. It should be noted that the mast was squared at the step and gradually rounded up its length. The two booms measured 47 ft and 45 ft, tapering in thickness toward the ends. The booms were composite structures where they came in contact with the masts, formed by two shaped and bolted timbers attached to the boom to encircle the mast. I was informed that an extra boom was often carried aboard as a precaution. Booms were almost always longer than the masts. The boom permits the vessel to carry a lot of sail. Historic pictures of these lighters under full sail all depict the boom curving upward under the strain (Figs 11–12).

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Figure 11. Lighter on a postcard available on Nevis, from a historic photograph, showing the vessel under sail.

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Figure 12. Historic image of a lighter under sail, date unknown. Note the curve in the boom. (courtesy of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society)

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Procedures

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The vessel was propped up on blocks and stabilized with timbers bracing the gunwales. Once steady, measurements were taken at 6-inch intervals from the stern toward the stempost following a level line. This interval was especially critical in the stem section to record accurately the multiple timbers and joinery of the stem and its deadrise. The beam and hull-shape was determined at 2-ft intervals from a centreline running out to the interior of the planking at the gunwale. Measurements of exterior hull-shape were recorded by measuring to the hull from a plumb-line suspended from the gunwale to the ground at 6-inch intervals. This plumb-line extended 3½ inches out from the planking as it hung from the wale so as not to be in contact with the hull. All measurements used in generating lines drawings were made from the starboard side as it was the least deteriorated. Several variations, however, were noted between starboard and port, such as wales three deep and a different number of planks forming the hull.

The planking is distinctive and illustrates the use of available timbers rather than stock planks. Two characteristics of Pioneer's planking deserve mention. The planks are shaped and scarfed to one another, presumably to add rigidity to the hull and to extend plank-length (Figs 8 and 13). This pattern is reminiscent of brickwork, and the number of planks differed between port and starboard. This pattern was not observed in recently-built island fishing boats, nor was it observed by Pyles (1981—perhaps he was only seeing vessels in the water), but this does not mean that it may not have historical roots on Nevis. Both Pioneer and Sakara share this curious attribute. But as both were built by the same boatwrights after 1950 this may be unique to these individuals, or represent an economic expedient. Nonetheless this is an aspect which deserves further study.

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Figure 13. View of stern planking configuration. (author)

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Comparisons

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The keelson does not extend the entire length of the vessel, stopping short at frame 2 forward and frame 17 in the stern, and is only 17 ft 9 inches overall. In the Pioneer the keelson measured 6 inches sided and 5 inches moulded. By comparison, the keelson of Sakara, which was 4 ft longer, measured 5½ inches sided by 8 inches moulded. The beam of Sakara was listed in the Registry as a foot wider than Pioneer and I found this to still be true even though the transom stern is missing and the vessel had been allowed to sag outwards. The data in the Registry of Shipping has been rounded. Pioneer's beam is stated as 15 ft but direct measurement yields the figure of 14 ft 6 inches. Room and space of floors and futtocks range between 19 and 22 inches. Framing timbers ranged between 4½ and 5½ inches sided and moulded, only occasionally spiked to one another. At the turn of the bilge each floor consistently butted a futtock forward of a half-floor cut to the angle of the chine sided with it.

Interior construction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The mast-step was 28 ft forward of the stern. The forward deck stopped at this position where a recessed and iron-reinforced half-circle in the deck-beams and deck-combing would have supported the mast 56 inches above the step. There was no decking aft of the mast and its position, in essence, defined the dimensions of the bow deck. The step itself was lightly built and hardly more than a worn depression (Fig. 9). The keelson here was 6 inches sided, 5 inches moulded, as were sister-keelsons. The sisters were no more than 55 inches long, resting on three floors but butted against a forward floor-timber. The keelson supporting the mast-step was not one piece, but scarfed to the rest of the keelson 78 inches aft of the step, and bolted to floor-timbers.

Forward the decking was supported by naturally-shaped timber knees exhibiting adze-marks for final shaping. The breasthook was one piece of naturally-shaped timber (Fig. 14). The first frame was of two pieces. The first full frame was paired to the first futtock at position #2 adjacent to a half floor. Midship frames do not appreciably vary in room and space fore and aft although lengths vary considerably, and nearly all frames are floors paired with a half-floor, spiked together (Figs 15–17).

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Figure 14. Interior view in the bow of the Pioneer. The forward breasthook was made from a grown timber, shaped by adze. (author)

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Figure 15. The framing of the Pioneer. Note the rough-hewn timbers; in some cases bark remained on the frames. (author)

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Figure 16. Interior view at the stern. Nearly all ceiling planks, floors and futtock near the decking were roughly cut with bark still attached. (author)

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Figure 17. Lines of the Pioneer, taken in June 2001. (author)

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Social memory of lighters

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

As I was documenting Sakara, a young boatman on the beach described for me the proper use of an adze to construct frames. He was in the process of building a ‘mentally scaled down’ vessel for his own commercial use and was checking the beached Sakara for dimensions. What survived was serving as his model. He also pointed out to me the mahogany trees at the old Catholic cemetery (now a picnic ground) where he intended to get the wood for the frames. He also informed me about the last days of the Sakara, as TDC removed its rudder and pushed it around with a smaller motorboat. He went on to describe several vessels for me, all of which were listed in the registry—a strong indicator of local knowledge and social memory of these craft. The waterfront today in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, continues to be a scene of active boat traffic, as one might expect for a nation divided between two neighbouring islands. Government and private ferries, inter-island cargo vessels, fishing boats and tourist yachts all make for a busy scene. Still, on the beach can be seen traditionally-built vessels with hand-hewn frames and traditional forms.

With such impressive names as Vagabond, Valiant, Princess, Victoria, and Star of Nevis, the lighters were a significant feature of the Nevisian seascape and are an important facet of Nevisian popular culture (for a more complete list of names see Hackett, 2003: 52–5). The annual cultural festival Culturama featuring a Calypso King competition demands that contestants compose songs and orations. The winner of the competition a few years ago created a song about ‘the mystery ship’Sakara, relating the story of how the vessel and crew disappeared during hurricane Hugo, but eventually returned. This story was related to me by a passenger on a mini-bus after learning that I was interested in the vessels. In fact, the song conflates a real episode with the wrong storm. Sakara vanished during hurricane David in 1979 en-route to Nevis from St Kitts. The captain had to outrun the storm and fetched up in St Croix, dismasted (Island Administration brochure, 1996). The return of Sakara to Nevis some weeks later caused a sensation. Lighters were once fundamental to the cultural landscape of Nevis and linger in popular memory.

I reported in 2003 that the Pioneer was the last of its type and would soon be gone. Sadly this is the now the case. Sakara is also gone from the beach, a victim of tide, recycling and circumstance. However, if efforts by the NHCS to build a replica are successful the sailing lighter of Nevis will again be visible on the waterfront and will not fade from memory.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The author wishes to express his gratitude to the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society for access to the Pioneer and to relevant documents in the Nelson Museum Archives, and to the late Captain Hackett for his advice.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Small craft in Nevisian history
  4. The lightermen
  5. Construction
  6. The Pioneer
  7. Procedures
  8. Comparisons
  9. Interior construction
  10. Social memory of lighters
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References
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