Tuesday, August 11, 2009
It occurs to me that it's been some time since I've exposed my foggy yet all too quintessentially American lack of knowledge of world geography.
This is not because that knowledge has improved.
A week or so ago, a friend of mine departed for a vacation in Tortola. On Tortola, I must amend, as it soon emerged that Tortola was an island. I cleverly deduced that it was not an American possession, as she had some last minute scrambling to do about a passport. Among other things that came to light was that it was remote, without a lot of glitz, and possibly few amenities.
It was also a long way from California.
So, when I learned that there was a place called Tortola that I had not actually ever heard about, did I rush home to find my trusty atlas? Or at least rush to the nearest computer to home in on it with Google Earth?
Even though this is pure fodder for this blog, I did not. I said, have a nice vacation. See you when you get back. That was it.
As a mental space filler, I came up with a mental image of a lone, barren island, rising out of the water like the back of a whale, with maybe a few goat trails to roam upon.
It wasn't till another friend asked, where is Tortola, anyway? that I even began to think about the fact that I didn't have a clue. And that I had somehow been mixing it up in my brain with Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga, which, needless to say, I don't have a clue about either.
My friend posited that Tortola was in the British Virgin Islands, and this turns out to be right. And it is fairly sparsely populated. At least roughly 24,000 people on 21 and a half square miles of land would seem so to me. But that's all I got.
I suppose we should start with the name, as word origins are a popular feature of this blog, or at least I like to pretend that they are. There doesn't really seem to be a definitive answer, unfortunately. Some say that Christopher Columbus himself named it after the turtle dove. Another theory has it that after the Dutch settled it they named it Tor Tholen, after a small island off the coast of the Netherlands. And one I must say ingenious theory has it that as Columbus named the whole archipelago in honor of St. Ursula, the name may actually be a misreading of the inscription "ft. Urfula" or "St. Ursula", the old scripts being difficult like that.
Well, people, your guess is as good as mine. Okay, probably better.
Tortola, though my vacationing friend probably has not had recourse to this, is a tax haven. Its chief industries are 'financial services', and we can only wonder whether it too has been the site of some of the shell games of recent days that have played such havoc with people's savings.
If so, though, it probably shouldn't surprise us. Pirates, after all have hunkered down here before. The notorious Blackbeard actually used the west end of the island, a place called Soper's Hole, as a base to lie in wait in. Let's just say that it wasn't pretty for the trade ships that happened by.
Ironically, what finally drove the pirates out was not some benign force, but colonization in the form of sugar plantations, which were viable largely because of an active slave trade.
Slavery was abolished in Tortola in 1838. Oddly enough, many European residents chose exactly this point in time to leave.
Tortola was not done with the encroachment of western civilization yet though. (Come on now, you didn't really think it was?) In fact, an iconic name of American capitalism would grace these fair shores before too long. Laurence Rockefeller imagined tourists on its white, sandy beaches, and founded the Dix Resort here in the sixties. I suppose the 'financial services' industry was not long in following.
This is getting to be a rather long post, so I suppose I'll have to save the whereabouts of Tortuga for another day.
Besides, I'm an American. I have to get caught up on Mad Men before the new season starts.