Pirates, Pioneers and Progress. Part 1
Story by Julian Putley
Beef Island today is best known as the location of the Terrence B. Lettsome Airport, but it is also known for its fabulous beaches, luxury villas, shops, art galleries and eateries. In a multi-part series, author Julian Putley looks back at Beef Island's earliest days.
Beef Island has been so named as far back as the early 1700s. It is an unusual name, as unusual as the diverse catalogue of people, who worked, lived, played, schemed or just simply occupied this small gem of the British Virgin Islands.
In the 18th Century Beef Island was a fertile and a productive piece of flat land. It also possesses some beautiful beaches, bays and anchorages. In 1717 Captain Chandler of HMS Winchelsea visited Beef Island and recorded five families living there producing Indian corn, yams, potatoes and cotton. Chandler also recorded the existence of pirates and that many locals joined them in their raids. Black Sam Bellamy, after whom Bellamy Cay is named was mentioned by Chandler: "When we came, the pirates hid themselves in the rocks," He also noted that one Ham, a notorious villain living on Beef Island, was on board Bellamy the pirate's boat, "and as soon as they fired a gun at Virgin Gorda, he took himself to a Bermuda boat he has . . . and lurked about the creeks and islands until we were gone." Han's Creek, a quiet bay on Beef Island's southwestern shore may well have been named after the rogue, Ham.
Not only was Trellis Bay a protected anchorage but it was also a victualling point. The very first inhabitants were buccaneers from Hispaniola whose stock in trade was smoking beef (called boucan) for long voyages aboard ship. These "boucaniers" were likely responsible for the name Beef Island.
Bellamy was a voracious pirate; his time at Trellis Bay was short lived as indeed was his entire piratical career. From small beginnings in the BVI he became one of the richest pirates ever to sail the seas. In a matter of months he moved from a leaky vessel to a captured ship, the Sultana and finally to a new well found ship the Whydah. Records show that he plundered between forty and fifty ships but his notorious career was to be a brief one. On a voyage north to Cape Cod his ship the Whydah sank during a storm in 1717. It was loaded with millions of dollars worth of treasure and has only recently been found and salvaged.
Although this was the time of Bellamy no mention is made of cattle. However, a story still exists of an eccentric lady by the name of Catherine George who, in 1724, had a fair sized plantation and kept cattle, goats, chickens and ducks, many of which disappeared on a regular basis. There were pirates, buccaneers, brigands and beach combers infesting Marina Cay and Trellis Bay at that time so one day she decided to have a bacchanal; an open house where grog would flow like water. At the end of the day there was not one of the 36 attendees left standing; all had been poisoned by her witches brew. The bodies were carried off in two cane carts to be buried near Trellis Bay. Apparently Catherine George lived to a great age and finally died in 1754. The ruins of the Great House can still be clearly seen today. Looking down over the bluff to the south are the remnants of terraces where gardens were planted and further to the east are broken walls, possibly remains of cattle pens.
By 1745 the Quakers started arriving in Tortola and there is much evidence of them in East End but it seems they had little influence on Beef Island; after all there was no bridge and the first raft connecting Tortola to Beef Island was still two hundred years away.
In 1937 Rob and Rodie White bought the tiny island of Marina Cay and began a three-year tropical adventure that became the stuff of storybook legend. Several times during their sojourn they had occasion to visit Beef Island. For one thing the sand there was the best nearby that they could find for their building needs. According to them Beef Island seemed dull and uninteresting but one day contrary winds and seas suggested they land their boat on the sandy beach of Trellis Bay. They made their way through a growth of trees until "we were standing in the front yard of somebody's tile-roofed house with white paint and red trim. Before we could move, the front door flashed open and a little old lady with amazingly fat legs, a straw hat, long skirt and cowboy boots came zooming out chirping, 'Tea time! Tea time! – I'm Ms Bones (Brodie).'"
According to White the room looked like a museum with an amazing assortment of bric-a-brac including a dentist's chair with a foot pedal for the drill, silk and velvet gowns, two World War 1 helmets and a ship's brass binnacle. Apparently Ms Brodie was the only child of a well-to-do planter in Barbados. As a young lady she had made the roundtrip to England in a square-rigger "which is why I'm not afraid of dying and going to hell. I've already been there." She thought she would be happy in the Bajan social whirl… "until I got married." According to colonial records Ms Brodie had been the territory's dentist but by then was retired.
The above story might well be dismissed as a fanciful tale but for a similar story written by Hazel Eadie in Lagooned in the Virgin Islands. Her story relates to a day when she and a friend, Anne, swam to Beef Island from Tortola and after walking some distance saw "the roof of a house. We hastened our footsteps, half afraid that it would suddenly disappear before our eyes." A trail led to the house, they knocked twice, something stirred within, then footsteps, and slowly the door opened. There stood a white woman with unusually fat legs; she invited them in for tea. During their visit the following conversation took place, "I grow melons – hundreds of them, but just before they ripen the best disappear. I burn wood for charcoal, but in a night it is gone."
"Why do you stay?"
She leant forward and whispered, "Minerals." She then showed her visitors bulky sacks of various sizes, "full of minerals." I have all these samples ready to show a geologist, but he never comes."
These stories may have a whiff of fiction about them but a conversation with the almost 90 year old Obel Penn of East End confirmed that there was indeed a single lady living on Beef Island in a grand house that had at one-time been a plantation Great House. He explained that he had dental work done by the lady perhaps as far back as the 1930s. Ms Brodie died in 1942 at an old age and is buried close by the end of the runway. By this time most of Beef Island was owned by Milton Thomas who kept large herds of cattle, keeping up the traditions of old.
Eccentricity is no stranger to Beef Island, but neither is it a stranger to innovative pioneering adventurers. In 1949 a couple, Wladek Wagner with his wife Mabel sailed into the US Virgin Islands aboard their 77-ft ketch, Rubicon. They soon found themselves exploring the British Virgins on various charters and before long, after studying local charts looking for a secure anchorage Wladek excitedly exclaimed that Beef Island's Trellis Bay was perfect. By the end of that year the Wagners had purchased ten acres of Trellis Bay land from Haldane Davis of East End and Mabel had given birth to their daughter, Suzanna, in St Thomas.
The daunting task of making a living, maintaining a large wooden yacht, building a house, a yacht haven, slipway, resort and cottages as well as raising a family would have overwhelmed most people, but not the Wagners. Wladek had the dream, the vision, the tenacity and the perseverance. Step by step it became a reality and the story is related in the fascinating book by Mabel Wagner, Lest I Forget.
The first project in Wagner's mind was to build a slipway in order to generate funds for his grand scheme. There was a marine railway formerly operated by the steam packet companies of bygone days on Hassel Island, St Thomas. A businessman, Mr Paiewonsky, befriended Wladek and after some time during which the two men built up a certain rapport he told Wladek to help himself to everything he needed including many unique tools; the materials had been lying idle for years. It took several trips on the Rubicon to deliver the heavy loads and valuable components to Trellis Bay. In between this grueling work money had to be generated and the Wagner's trusty vessel was often employed in the charter trade, not just around the BVI, but often to all the islands in the Windward and Leeward chain. Obel Penn recalls many of the trips on the Rubicon, "She was a solid boat, but boy, was she slow." There were many extremely heavy 12 x 12 timbers, heavy machinery, and cast iron parts for the railway.
Sheds were to be built and a saw mill for cutting planks had to be erected. Help was vital and Henry Varlack and Glanville Penn from East End were industrious workers while Hubert Frett was the watchman. Meanwhile Mabel and daughter Suzanna were still residing on the Rubicon and secretly wishing for a cottage on land.
Charters were now coming thick and fast as many friends in St Thomas recommended them to tourists as a solid boat with an able crew. It was while Wladek was busy on a lucrative charter that Mabel gave birth to a baby boy, Michael, on April 3rd, 1951. In the summer of that same year the Wagners made a bid for Bellamy Cay. The island was a barren wasteland but Wladek Wagner's vision was not to be denied. It would become a yachtsmen's club – a presage of when Trellis Bay would become one of the BVI's most popular anchorages for bare boaters and cruising yachtsmen.