‘Before a Raging Sea’: The Poetry of Alphaeus O. Norman

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Anegadian Alphaeus Osario Norman (1885-1942) may have been the most skilled poet of form these islands have produced. Unfortunately, his poems are not readily available for reading, most easily accessed in time capsule documents like 1834-1984: 150 Years of Emancipation published by the Ministry of Education and Culture or in books of devotional and autobiographical poetry by his granddaughter Andria Flax. Andria has been very gracious in sharing several of Norman’s poems while I pursue my doctoral degree, and his grandson Richard Courtney deCastro shared documents that clarified errors in other publications. With the hope of spreading both an appreciation and intellectual curiosity for Norman’s work, I have selected three poems here to focus on:the haunting ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’; a retelling of the 1733 St. John slave rebellion in ‘Amina Negroes’; and the anthemic ‘The British Virgin Islands Negro’.

View down the main street from the Grand Hotel, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island, Virgin Islands. 1941.
View down the main street from the Grand Hotel, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island, Virgin Islands. 1941.

But first some history. Norman was an engineer by trade and at the time of his death in 1942 worked in the shipping port at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. The closest thing to a biography that exists on the eminent local poet of the time resides in the memoir of another notable BVIslander – the entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Reynold O’Neal. O’Neal devotes about five pages to Norman spread throughout his memoir Life Notes: Reflections of a British Virgin Islander. According to him, Norman trained as a blacksmith through an apprenticeship with the Royal Mail Factory in St. Thomas – a skill which enabled him to travel to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico before settling in Road Town. Norman was also an accomplished seaman, having had two sloops (the Spider and the Pelicanus) built for him to sail goods for trade to and from the Leeward Islands and the Dominican Republic. When the United States joined World War II, Norman found work on St. Thomas manning earthmoving equipment, and it would be while working with one such machine that an accident brought his life to a violent end. Throughout his time resident on Tortola, Norman was known as a poet and historian, writing his poems in an exercise book he carried everywhere.

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands, 1940-1960s; Water Front Scene.
ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands, 1940-1960s; Water Front Scene.

A preoccupation with the sea and the Virgin Islands history submerged in it prevails in Norman’s work: the poems that I have been able to retrieve are ballads that are devoted to ships lost at sea, the evolution of the inhabitants of the islands from enslavement to autonomy, or exploring the mythic power and terror of the sea. Overall, inasmuch as seven poems can define a poet’s concerns and focuses, Norman is fixated on documenting moments of historical significance to these islands through his poetry. The sea appears universally in these poems, ranging in form from a metaphorical paradise for the marooned slaves in ‘Amina Negroes’ to an unyielding and tempestuous supernatural force in the sinking of vessels the HMS Valerian and the Fancy Me. However, the primacy of the sea in its roles in Norman’s work is its place in the storming and unrelenting tempest. Of the seven poems that can be read, four present the sea as such. No chronology exists for these poems, so it is difficult to surmise when they were written or if there are enough unseen poems to deviate from this particular presentation of the sea.

Norman’s poems are also submerged in biblical, literary, and mythical allusions when depicting the sea in this way – no doubt informed by his faith and voracious appetite for books. This seems to paint a deified intent into the tempests he describes. For example, he begins ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’ by describing the impenetrable darkness that plagues sailors seeking to navigate Horseshoe Reef off the coast of Anegada:

Egyptian darkness reigns supreme
from Horseshoe Reef to Sopher’s stream.

The phrase ‘Egyptian darkness’ is rooted referentially to the book of Exodus as one of the plagues that Yahweh besets upon Egypt in order to coerce the release of the Israelites in slavery:

Yahweh then said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven, and let darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt, cover Egypt’. So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and for three days there was thick darkness over the whole of Egypt’ (Exodus 10: 21-22).

This reference and its connection to emancipation obviously resonated with the poet. More ominous than the darkness for the sailor is the reef the sea conceals. The sea that Norman examines is consistently presented as a powerful force full of deadly phenomena. Reefs are hidden in waves and hurricanes materialise unexpectedly. The opening line of Norman’s ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’ owes much to the Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the sprite Ariel reports to Shakespeare’s good wizard Prospero how well the plan to incapacitate the King and his court has gone. Norman spins the line in question, ‘the still-vexed Bermudas’, into ‘Still vexed were the Bermudas / Still were they tempest tost / When the good ship Valerian / And most her crew were lost’. This overriding focus continues throughout this particular poem, at times comparing the wrecked Royal Mail ship to the Titans of Greek mythology while contextualising the loss of its British crew and their afterlife in terms of the Norse legend of Valhalla while comparing their entombment in the sunken ship with Viking burials. Norman’s poems are occupied by an awareness of the histories they record. Such a juxtaposition of various major events in the history of these islands against these myths so steeped in the supernatural infuses the local, smaller histories with an epic grandeur. Throughout the work that we have, Norman seems driven to use these mythical allusions to elevate the historical experiences of Virgin Islanders alongside Shakespeare and the finest Victorian ballad writers.

British war sloop “HMS Valerian” foundered in a hurricane off Bermuda in 1926.
British war sloop “HMS Valerian” foundered in a hurricane off Bermuda in 1926.

Besides the consistently mythically and supernaturally violent sea, ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’ and ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’ thematically position the sea as a burial ground, another consistent element of Norman’s poetry and its presentation of the sea. This framing of the ocean symbolically presents the sea, similarly to Walcott, as a crypt of history but also more practically of bodies and ships. In ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’, Norman writes that:

[a] hundred stately ships have found

their everlasting burial ground
upon the awful reefs and rocks
and from moles and graving docks.

The poem primarily bemoans the lack of a beacon to warn ships that come upon the reef despite being written hundreds of years after the first wreck. Norman, being a sailor himself, imbues a sense of a fraternity of the sea in his elegiac poetry. His lines grieving over the lives of the sailors lost with the HMS Valerian in 1926 off the coast of Bermuda were inspired by the fact that the same crew two years prior were in the British Virgin Islands providing relief following the devastation wrought here by a hurricane. A semblance of an account of their assistance can be found in the notes by Agnes Hancock, the wife of the sitting Monarch’s Representative in the islands at the time of the hurricane, Captain Otho Hancock, OBE:

On September 9th HMS Valerian arrived with the Acting Governor, Archbishop and other good friends. All the ship’s crew worked for two days, but even 60 of them couldn’t move a house which still completely blocks the road which had been floated off its foundations.

They brought us food and seven huge cases of clothing. These we have in the church and three of us are sorting and doing up parcels all day. Long lists are coming in from all parts of the island (Tortola) and outlying islands asking for clothes…some lists have things like the following example – “Have lost roof, trunk and three children”.

Given the severity of the storm, and the speed of the aid provided by the Valerian’s men it is unsurprising that Norman felt so moved to write in their honour.

In keeping with this sentiment, across several poems Norman constructs a fraternity of sea voyagers be they black or white, slave or slaver.

In ‘Amina Negroes’, a poem commemorating the revolt of enslaved Ghanaians on the neighbouring island of St. John in the Danish West Indies in 1733, Norman uses the types of descriptors expected in poems of great wars. ‘Amina’ was the term often used in the 1700s to identify Gold Coast Africans who spoke Akan. Interestingly, the insurrection that Norman immortalises was the first island-wide, well planned, and successful rebellion of enslaved peoples in the Danish West Indies lasting almost seven months between November 1733 and June 1734. The various Akan peoples arrived to St. John in a succession of Danish slaving vessels between 1730 and 1733 and were quickly identified as being the most unmanageable of those enslaved on the island. The Governor of the Danish West Indies at the time, only identified as Gardelin, in his appeal for military assistance to Monsieur le Marquis de Champigny, the Governor General of the French Windward Islands described the Amina as ‘the worst runaways of all Blacks’ (The French Intervention in the Saint John Slave Revolt of 1733-34, trans. And ed. A. P. Caron and A. R. Highfield), with the implication that this recalcitrant reaction to their enslavement is in part due to the specific belief ‘that at their death they return to their fatherland’. Death therefore, held no terror to the Amina, and this outlook would fuel the ferocity of the rebellion and seal its near mythical conclusion.

Norman’s poem begins in Africa and the men who would lead this rebellion are immediately identified as ‘[a] band of the Amina sons’, euphemistically juxtaposing them with European soldiers and the language that identifies them as noble defenders of something greater than themselves in Victorian and First World War Poetry. At times the lyrical qualities are reminiscent of Lord Alfred Tennyson and poems like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ especially in its attribution of nobility and bravery in what is ultimately a hopeless endeavour as well as its challenging of the reader to deny the same to them. The closing stanza in Tennyson asks the reader ‘[w]hen can their glory fade?’ which exhibits a similar sentiment to Norman’s penultimate stanza:

Who can forbid that prayers be said?
Or carols changed for the dead?
Or disbelieve that they shall rise
on angels pinioned to the skies?

The fabled conclusion to the revolt that Norman commits to verse according to the local legend is that ‘the rebels chose death by throwing themselves over a cliff rather than allowing themselves to be recaptured’. This particular slave revolt has become a source of islander pride as a counter narrative by demonstrating a historical tradition of self-determination and assertion by the people of these islands. The revolt has been revisited in the arts subsequent to Norman, having been interpreted through drama and dance by St. Johnians and this collective and communal memory has ensured that Fortsberg fort and premises remains one of the few parcels of land with historical importance to remain in local hands as opposed to the National Parks.

These elements seem to solidify this particular event as worthy history for a categorically disenfranchised people to take hold of, and since Mary Point, St. John (the cliff from which the vanquished Amina warriors are said to have leapt to their watery deaths) is in such proximity to Tortola as to be in plain view regardless of weather, Norman’s desire to share in this specific moment as a celebration of physical resistance to oppression is mirrored in his other works which celebrate the transformation of the islands’ black citizens from enslaved people to land owners, from disenfranchised to active political members of their society. One such text that charts this transformation is ‘The British Virgin Islands Negro’. In it, Norman assumes an almost celebratory tone from its beginning, echoing a cessation of the oppression wrought on the body by slavery represented by the literal burial of the white planter:

No longer rise the wails of woe
No longer bleeds the dark Eboe
The planter’s shell has ceased to sound
The massa’s in the cold cold ground.

There is however, a fundamental difference between the successes that Norman specifies the ‘British Virgin Islands Negro’ possesses versus the plight of the insurrectors on St. John. Severe droughts that persisted for almost ten years between 1837 and 1847 coupled with several severe hurricanes striking the islands in 1819, 1837, 1842, 1852, 1867, and 1871 made the two main crops of sugar and cotton unsustainable. Most planters had mortgaged heavily against their estates and found it difficult to recover from each unforeseen catastrophe. Thus defeated, many estates were sold, some were lost to unpaid taxes, and still more were abandoned having been destroyed by hurricane. The formerly enslaved, once freed, usually remained on the plantations they had worked for generations, which now provided a small wage as well as clothing and housing. These circumstances demonstrated the impracticality of the plantocracy being supported by anything other than free labour, while allowing Norman less than one hundred years later to declare that in the British Virgin Islands, ‘[t]he Black is lord of land and sea / And title-deeds assert his right’. Norman however inhabits a peculiar duality. Firstly, he enjoys the privilege of being able to use his work to speak back to the coloniser in a manner similar to Caliban’s retort to Prospero: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse’ (Act 1 Scene 2). Building on the celebration of the St. John rebellion – an event in which 40 white men, women, and children were killed – the white colonial ‘massa’ figure is the focus of much of ‘Negro’ as a contrast to the autonomy being enjoyed by Norman and his contemporaries:

No longer crack the driver’s whips
His sons go down to sea in ships
He never feels the oppressor’s hand
His sons are owners of the land.

No more he bows to lords he meets
His chariot rages in the streets
No more his plaintive beggar’s plea
He orders on both land and sea.

Simultaneously however, Norman seeks to embrace, identify with, and even claim ownership of the British construction of empire. Despite ending the previous stanza with the line ‘[f]or Hodge’s slave is Belle Vue’s lord’ (a clear reference to the infamous Arthur Hodge), he writes in the next stanza that ‘[h]is empire’s battles he has fought / ‘Gainst Prussian horde and Hottentot’. There appears to be a strident dissonance between the actual enslavement by the white colonials present on the island and the philosophical commitment to the idea of the British Empire symbolised by the distant crown. After Emancipation, some Virgin Islanders chose conscription in the West India Regiment and travelled to Jamaica for training. The most famous Virgin Islander to do so was Samuel Hodge. At the time, and indeed into the 1980s as evidenced by notes in Ye Yslands, it was believed that Hodge was the first black man to receive the Victoria Cross. This would have been Norman’s impression and those lines are clearly his honouring of the Virgin Islanders who served in both the Napoleonic Wars against the ‘Prussian horde’ as well as those who fought in Africa.

This recurring theme of those who were slaves now finding themselves in control of their own destinies and in ownership of their own land in the hundred years between emancipation and Norman’s day may gloss over what has been recorded historically as consistently desperate economic depression for most of the territory’s residents.

Norman’s devotion to and pride in local history is self-evident in his work, and it is this richness of his poetry that in my mind establishes him as one of the most important writers in BVI history and necessitates the unearthing of whatever work of his remains uncovered for the edification and education of us all.

One thought on “‘Before a Raging Sea’: The Poetry of Alphaeus O. Norman

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