Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wintering in the Bahamas for health

Frank R. Stockton
In the 1870s, if you suffered from a respiratory malady it is likely that your doctor would prescribe some rest and recreation in a warm climate. If you were wealthy and so inclined, you might decide to take a trip to the Bahamas, for its restorative powers, of course.

In those days, and for a long time before, people with the means, and the malady that made it necessary, often went to Italy or to the south of France to improve their health. However, many physicians, who were, of course, wealthy enough to be exploring such health measures first-hand, were discovering the health benefits of the Bahamas and Florida.

To get to the Bahamas, you boarded a steamship in New York or Savannah and settled in to enjoy the trip. The ship from New York went directly to Nassau. The one from Savannah made a stop in Jacksonville to take on passengers and to deliver or receive mail.

If you were an agent for the steamship lines, like Murray, Ferris & Co., you were interested in promoting the virtues of the Bahamas, so you published a travel brochure. A copy of one such brochure from 1877 or 1878 is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Although photography was in its infancy then, engravings were the preferred method of illustration. The cover image is labeled Royal Victoria Hotel Nassau, but really seems to be a view from the hotel of lush tropical growth and ships and boats in the harbor. The Royal Victoria was the first luxury hotel built in the Bahamas.

As might be expected, the booklet is full of glowing articles and letters (many from physicians) extolling the virtues of Nassau in particular and the Bahamas in general. At the back are several pages of advertisements from hotels (including the Royal Victoria), railroad lines and steamship lines. Students of Florida history will find interesting the ads for Florida House in St. Augustine, Carleton House in Jacksonville, and Brock House at Enterprise on the St. Johns River.

The brochure contains a reprint of an article by Frank R. Stockton that appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in November 1877, titled An Isle of June. The article recounts a trip Stockton and his wife took to Nassau. The title refers to Stockton’s impression that the weather in the Bahamas made it seem like it was perpetually June even though he arrived in February and stayed on into March.

Stockton discusses at some length the "negroes" he encountered in the Bahamas with observations that seem decidedly stereotypical today. His tone is not mean-spirited as much as it is simply condescending. Still, Stockton goes on to tell of meeting an African queen living in the Bahamas after being displaced aboard a slave ship. He learns enough of her West African dialect to speak a few words to her but doesn’t understand the reply. The exchange prompts an attendant to ask if he has visited her country, which, of course, he hadn’t. His account seems to indicate he was genuinely fascinated with the encounter.

Stockton was a successful writer who later gained attention for his children’s stories that had a Lewis Carroll feel to them. Among his best known: “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” (1885) and “The Bee-Man of Orn,” (1887) which was republished in 1964 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

Perhaps his most famous tale is “The Lady, or the Tiger?” (1882), which ends with a cliffhanger (There is a copy of the book in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA).  A man being punished for having a romance with the king’s daughter is sentenced to a difficult choice. In a public arena, he must choose between two doors. Behind one is a tiger that will eat him. Behind the other is a woman that he must marry instead of the princess. He catches the eye of the princess in the crowd. She indicates which door to choose. And there the story ends. Does the princess direct her lover to his death or to a lifetime of unhappiness? It was the subject of much debate in Stockton’s lifetime and ever since.

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