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THE JOKE OF MADAME GEOGRAPHY (book “Da Breezee Belizee”).

PREFACE.
Some of my stories are salty. I call them so because they contain the salt and pepper of my discoveries that cast doubt on the official versions. I enjoy reading the fantasies of those who call themselves ‘historians’, and I am grateful that their fantasies motivate me.
The story I am going to tell you is based on facts established by the 17th-century naturalist Alexander Exquemelin, who spent many years among the pirates of the Caribbean. He was also a physician and, as a surgeon, took part in the piratical raid by the famous privateer Henry Morgan on the Spanish fort of Panama.
During his years among the pirates, the naturalist observed the flora and fauna of the New World, studied the habits of men and animals, and when he returned to Europe he wrote a book about everything he had seen. His book became a sensation, inspiring Daniel Defoe and Robert Lewis Stevenson to write some of their most famous works, and is still an important source of information for many other writers.

My second source of information is my observations, gathered over many years of an adventurous life as a seaman. After finishing my career I lived on the Caribbean coast for many years and my additional sources are family lore and the stories of those whose ancestors once pirated here. One such account, from an islander, Mayan fisherman, and eyewitness to many events, is included in this salty tale of mine. Welcome to the adventure!

***

AN ISLAND OFF A CORAL REEF.

I love geography. Unstable and changeable, it always surprises me with its game, driving me mad and making my heart beat faster. If I met a woman named Geography, I’d marry her. A woman without surprises is not my woman!
I once escaped to the Caribbean to get away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. My plane landed in a small country and I rented a jeep, intending to discover corners of an undiscovered paradise. I will tell you about them next time, believe me, they are there! And now I share with you the story of my adventure on an island called Ambergris Caye.

A speedboat took me to the island in an hour, where I was immediately immersed in a world of slackers. Thousands of tourists filled the sandy beach of the small town with their bodies. Exhausted from their hard work in the bustling metropolises, they came here to enjoy the freedom of slackers. Like a little puppy with its collar off, jumping and rolling on the grass, squealing with the feeling of freedom, all tourists are like this little puppy. Driven mad by the aromas of the tropics, the warm azure sea, and the rhythms of hot Caribbean music, they drink, chew, and dance all night. In the morning, the younger ones go snorkeling or diving. The rest lie in bed or try to burn off belly fat by writhing on the hot beach sand. And in the evening it’s more of the same. The aliens drink and chew as if tomorrow were their last day on earth. After undermining the last vestiges of health in this insane freedom, they dutifully return to their hell, where a collar and a kennel await them.
“Just another show,” I grinned, sucking down my rum punch. After all, I was no different from them spending my days in drunken idleness the same way.

Saturday was cloudy and rainy, the sea was grey. I was lying in a hammock, drinking tea with lime and leafing through tourist brochures. There are always plenty of them in all hotel rooms. Suddenly I came across a page that caught my attention. On this page, the authors of the brochure tried to explain the origin of the name Ambergris Island by saying that whales lived in the local waters and that the pirates were whalers. And they also did business with French perfumers, selling them a whale substance called “ambergris” from which the island got its name. That made me laugh. Here’s a paragraph from the brochure:

“…The story of how Ambergris Caye got its name is fascinating and somewhat mysterious. Spanish maps from the mid-1600s referred to the area as the “Costa de Ambra”. Literally, “ambergris” means an amber-grey substance that is a by-product of sperm whales. But “amber” has nothing to do with whales and is the fossilized, hardened resin of a pine tree growing on the Baltic coast. So what did the first Spanish navigators have in mind when they named the island? It turns out that the eponymous “ambergris”, associated with the whales and floating in waters around our island, was the dubious subject in question.
A mysterious substance with rumored mystical properties and hotly debated origins, no one knew where it came from in the pre-scientific era – the ambergris is a fragrant, volatile organic compound of a dull grey marbled color. Highly prized in perfumery before the advent of modern synthetics, ambergris was a key ingredient to preserve oriental fragrances and in high demand in Parisian perfumeries. The best part, however, is where ambergris comes from. Perhaps to the disappointment of those who once championed its mystical properties, we now know that ambergris is a secretion produced in the intestines of sperm whales. It’s often (inaccurately) referred to as ‘whale vomit’. Nice, eh? Incidentally, it’s thought that Ambergris Caye owes its name in no small part to the pirates who hid here in large numbers in the 1600s. These pirates are said to have cashed in on the natural bounty that was washed by the sea on the beaches of Ambergris Caye by selling ambergris to the perfume merchants of Europe…”.

Here I emphasized my interest in these things and decided to leaf through the other magazines. And in another brochure, I discovered something even funnier:
“… Ambergris Caye is the largest of Belize’s two hundred islands. The island got its name from the large pieces of ambergris that were regularly washed ashore…
In ancient times, the island was inhabited by Mayan tribes. They dug a narrow channel along the north coast of the island to create a trade route from Chetumal Bay to the Caribbean. After the Mayans, whalers, pirates, and fishermen came to the island… “.

This piece of someone’s imagination made me smile to my ears. Of course, I realized that it was just a travel brochure and that its authors were not historians. They trying to sell their service and love to intrigue potential customers with something. Okay, let’s assume that the authors of the brochures are out-of-knowledge people. But they found the above information in official sources, didn’t they? They simply repeated the fantasies of those who call themselves historians. A little lie always has large consequences. The lie of the politician begins with the lie of the historian. And when politicians lie, the whole nation lives in lies.

***

SO WHAT IS AMBERGRIS?

I am quite familiar with the colonial history of the region. I know it from the archives, where the information about the discoveries of Columbus, and Spanish colonizers is collected. I know it from the diaries of the pirates, and not from the pulp fiction stories of Hollywood. I also have first-hand knowledge of whales. In the seventies, I went on a whale hunting expedition myself and it was a nine-month circumnavigation across all latitudes and longitudes, including Antarctic waters. I know from experienced scientists who were with us as part of the crew, that whales have never come to the Caribbean, no man has ever seen them here. For more details you will read below. Please do not confuse the whale with the whale shark, they are two different creatures! The whale is a marine animal and the whale shark is a fish.

Now about the people. The inhabitants of this island were Mayans and a long time ago the island was a peninsula, the southern tip of Yucatan. Hurricanes are common in these waters and one washed away the narrow isthmus that connected the peninsula to the mainland. This part of the peninsula was separated from the mainland in the same way that the neighboring island of Caye Caulker was once split by the hurricane and this obvious fact you can see with your own eyes. The Mayans did not dig a canal for shipping and trade. They simply completed the work of the hurricane to separate themselves from their aggressive neighbors who were raiding them from the north. And the Mayan name for the island was ‘Sombale’.

Back to whales. There are two main types of whales: the whiskered whales and the toothed whales. The main whale in the whiskered family is called the ‘blue whale’. This whale’s family feeds on plankton by filtering tons of water through its whiskered mouth. And the toothed whale has teeth to catch giant squid at great depths. This type of whale is called a sperm whale. The giant squids are the main food of the sperm whale. The giant squid has a beak to get its food by crushing coral and pulling out the larvae, just like the woodpecker does in the forest. The squid’s beak is a bone, and the sperm whale’s stomach cannot process it. It sends the clot to the intestine or appendix. The sperm whale vomits the clot from the intestine into the sea.

Centuries ago, the Vikings hunted whales in the North Atlantic. After dragging the killed sperm whale into the shallows, they cut off the flesh and ribs, leaving the intestines, including the appendix. Those intestines gave off a pungent fecal odor that scared away even sharks, so the layer of slime lay on the shore for centuries, gradually hardening and turning a distinctive dirty grey-yellow color. Europeans called it “ambergris”, or dirty amber. It was not the “amber” they saw on the sandy shores of the northern seas.
For hundreds of years, rinsed with seawater and warmed by the hot sun, this hardened, solid remnant of the sperm whale’s stomach gave off a musky scent similar to that emitted by the organs of men and women during puberty.
In the 17th-19th centuries, some European dandies wore a piece of this ambergris in the folds of their clothes to attract beauties with its scent. This gave French perfumers the idea of using ambergris as a strong fixative for their perfumes. It was used for a long time until a chemical substitute was developed in the seventies of the last century and the need to kill whales was reduced to a minimum. But natural whale ambergris is still highly prized, and finding it on the beach can make a man rich.

The yellowish, muddy substance was discovered in large quantities by the first European explorers or pirates on the Sombale island’s sandy shoals. The substance resembled the sperm whale ambergris they saw on the shores of the northern seas. And they renamed the island, calling it Ambergris. And this is an example of how Madame Geography can play with people. When Christopher Columbus discovered the lands of the New World, he thought he had arrived in India. And he called the inhabitants as Indians He was wrong. But the name stuck! Modern historians continue to play with us by associating the name of an island with the ambergris of the sperm whale. This is their assumption without proof. Please, keep reading, I will give you the proof of their blindness. Without any assumptions “shouldy-couldy”.

***

LIFE AT SEA.

For many years I was a professional seaman and navigator, crossing the oceans on various types of vessels. I spent years in the commercial fishing industry and once my adventure was on a whaling expedition as a member of the crew of a whaling ship. This was in the seventies when hunting on whales was legal. It was a very dangerous adventure, some of the hunters lost their lives. The crew of our small whaling ship included a group of scientists. They were observing the life of the sea animals. We had search equipment on board to find whales at great depths. We hunted whales in the Central Atlantic, off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina, then moved down to southern latitudes and on to Antarctica, where we hunted for several months before the onset of winter. Through ice and fog, we followed our whales through Drake’s Passage into the Pacific Ocean, to the coast of Chile, and onto the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. Following the whales, we crossed the Indian Ocean through the stormy forties latitudes and reached the Cape of Good Hope. The whales returned to the Central Atlantic and so did we, completing our circumnavigation.

Our expedition lasted 9 months, during which we gained a huge amount of information about life in the ocean and its inhabitants. During those long months at sea, we made observations and in the evenings, over a cup of tea, we had interesting discussions. I learned a lot about the life of the giants of the sea. One of the main facts confirmed by our expedition was that whales love the open ocean waters, where they can move at great speed and dive hundreds of meters in a matter of seconds. Sperm whales can dive particularly deep. They hunt squid, and the substance in their blood called “sperm” has nothing to do with the substance that creates new life. This substance in the whale’s blood prevents the blood from boiling. It tends to make the whale’s blood thicker or thinner, depending on how deep the whale is. It is the best-proven ingredient for making cosmetic creams and the most effective remedy for burns or cuts. Purified sperm oil is used to treat stomach ailments.

The sea giants avoid shallow waters for the same reason as big ships. So the first doubt for me was the connection of the name of the island with sperm whales. Ambergris Caye is separated from the ocean depths by reefs and shoals. The second and equally important factor is the food the whales eat. There are no squids in the Caribbean, so there is no food for sperm whales. My question to those ‘historians’: “Why would sperm whales live and survive in a shallow puddle with no food for them…”? If those who invented the myth of whales and pirate whalers in the history of Ambergris Caye bothered to read some science work about these sea creatures, I think they would not risk exposing their names to ridicule.
But one question remained in my mind. I was eager to find out what was floating in the waters of the island that many had mistakenly for a whale stomach substance…? Here I had the feeling that Madame Geography was playing with us again, I swear on an uneaten crocodile’s tail!
Then I remembered the advice of a professional sunken treasure hunter who recommended in his book not to waste time in the archives looking for old charts and manifests of sunken ships. He suggested visiting a local tavern and listening to the stories of tipsy fishermen who knew more than you could find in those archives.
I took his advice and braved the rain to set off in search of my fisherman. The locals told me to visit the fishing village two miles south. I walked those miles in the rain until I came to a tavern that reeked of fried fish. There I found my fisherman.

***

AMBER-GRIS OR AMBER-BEES…?

We were drinking rum and the old man was telling me a story. All the men in his family had been fishermen. During the colonial wars, many of them became pirates. Legally, they plundered at sea under the cover of the local authorities, but with the truce between the warring crowns, they continued piracy at their own risk, combining night raids with day fishing. The Gulf of Honduras was an ideal area for pirates. There were many secluded islands where they could hide from pursuers and bury their loot. Many of these islands, called ‘cayes’, were in the path of the Spaniards, whose ships loaded with gold and silver brought treasures from their colonies to Cuba.
In secluded coves, the pirates could wait out storms and hurricanes, repair their schooner, and wait for the right moment to hunt new prey. Fish and turtles, animals and birds, fruit, fresh water – all these were in abundance in these cayes. And how many tragedies have taken place in these waters, how much gold, silver, and precious stones lie on the seabed… only the fish know. And fish can be silent.

Here an old man scratched the bottle with his rough nail. I took his hint.
“The pirates were watching the natives,” he continued, sipping his rum, “and the natives were collecting a sticky yellowish mass they found in the shallows for their needs.
“What do you think it was?” The old man chuckled.
“I’m just listening,” I replied, also sucking on my rum.

“In those days our land was densely covered with forests,” he continued, “and millions of wild bees inhabited the forests. They hung their honeycombs on trees where neither man nor beast could reach them. From time to time, strong winds broke the branches and tore down the bees’ nests and the rivers carried them out to sea, where the coastal currents carried all this mass to the shallows of our island. Here these washed-up nests or honeycombs, still full of wax, became the prey of our ancestors. The honey wax compress heals wounds and boiled honey mixed with herbs cures internal diseases. The wax was also used to make candles to light their dwellings. But the pirates quickly found another use for the wax,” he grinned.
“On our island, the closest to the open sea, the pirates repaired their schooners. They soon discovered that honey wax, added to boiling shark oil, made an excellent tar and protection to preserve their ships longer from sea termites. So what happened next?”

He paused for a minute and then continued: “…the Europeans liked our trees. They found that redwood sap was a strong dye for their textiles. They also liked the solid wood of our mahogany, which was excellent for building ships. And the huge demand for our trees was the beginning of deforestation. It paid well and many pirates became loggers. My great-grandfather worked with them, but not for long. He liked piracy better,” the old man laughed. “Well, the massive deforestation hit the wild bees hard. When they lost the trees on which they hung their honeycombs, the bees disappeared, they flew away. The forest was gone and so were the bees. No honeycombs were found on the sandbanks of our island anymore. All that remains is the name of the island, but even that is wrong”.

With a sad smile, the old man finished his story and put down the empty bottle.
I listened to him, but one thought kept nagging at me: somewhere I had read about these bees!

***

THE CLUE TO MADAME GEOGRAPHY’S JOKE.
My holiday was over. I flew home to Los Angeles, but the story continued to haunt me.

In my home library, I have some rare books written by naturalists and pirates of the time. The next day I turned the pages of these books, trying to find what I was looking for. Suddenly I felt the answer was close at hand. Here is what I found: “Ambergris Caye is the largest of two hundred islands in the waters of the small Caribbean nation. On old Spanish maps from the 16th century, the island is named ‘Costa de Ambra’, on others ‘Costa de Amba’. ..”

In these two spellings of the name, one letter, or rather its absence, caught my attention.
The missing ‘R’ completely changed the natural essence of the island!
‘Amba’ is the Spanish word for mangroves. Which are abundant on all the Caribbean islands. But ‘Ambra’ (or Ambra grisea) is an oily substance of a grey-yellowish color, a kind of hardened substance from the stomach of a sperm whale, its appendix. The appendix of a whale that was never here…

As I leafed through the naturalist’s book, I carefully read his descriptions of the flora and fauna of the islands and coasts, the description of species of many marine animals and fish he had seen in the Caribbean. Then I was searching for similar things in the books of other naturalists. None of them mentioned whales!
Then I opened the book, one of my most trusted sources of information on Caribbean piracy. The author of the book, Alexander Oliver Exquemelin, was a Dutch surgeon who spent years with pirates and even participated in the pirate raids of the privateer Henry Morgan, the legendary leader of all Caribbean pirates and buccaneers. The surgeon visited Ambergris Caye with the crew of L’Olonnais, a bloodthirsty French pirate. As well as tales of pirate life, the surgeon Exquemelin was an inquisitive explorer and naturalist who described the flora and fauna of the area. His journals contain many comments on aboriginal life. Here are some extracts from his book:
1) “…Our pirates had captured many canoes from the Indians of the island of Sombale (now called Ambergris Caye), five leagues from the coast of Yucatan. On this island, there are great quantities of substance looked like ambergris, which locals collected in the shallows, especially when a storm blows from the mainland…”
2) “…In the lands surrounded by this sea, there are great quantities of redwood, which is used for dyeing…”.
3) “…Pirates found a substance with which they could make the bottoms of their ships watertight. To make tar, they boiled the substance they found and diluted it with shark oil. This pitch is washed ashore in such quantities that the whole island was probably made of it. It is not the same as the marine pitch used in Europe, or a scum from the sea that naturalists call ‘bitumen’. In my opinion, it is bee wax, thrown into the sea by storms and rivers, washed ashore, and mixed with sand… In this clot, I found a large number of remains of bees, which hang their nests in trees, whence they are blown off by hurricane winds and the local rivers further carry this mass into the ocean, as mentioned above. There are large numbers of bees in this area and their honeycombs are blown down from the trees by hurricanes and carried out to sea. Some naturalists believe that water causes a separation in this honey, resulting in the formation of ambergris. This is easy to believe because when it is found, ambergris is still soft and smells of bee wax…”.

Here I closed the book and smiled in mind to my old fisherman: “…especially when a wind blows from the west…”. It was the wind from the forested mountains! Together we solved the mystery of Madame Geography. Now two people know the truth about the history of the name Ambergris Caye. An old fisherman and me. But, what about the whales? Oh, come on, they’ve got nothing to do with it…

© Copyright: Walter Maria. Certificate of publication No. 214061901183

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