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The Queen of Cuba, Mermaids and a Far-Swimming Slave October 2, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

***Thanks to Invisible for the gem below***

7 August 1871 this appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle, having apparently been excerpted from the Richmond Dispatch. The story’s title was Saved by Mermaids: A Story which Lacks Confirmation, one way of being polite about an enjoyable farrago. Apologies ahead of time for the racist tone of parts of the report: we are in less happy times here.

Some time since mention was made in this paper of a colored female who, purporting to have just escaped from Cuba, was advertising to find her mother. Her story was so marvellous that it was regarded by many to be the fanciful and rackless [sic] utterance of a disordered mind, while others believed her to be an imposter wishing to practice fraud upon the credulity of her race. Thus she received but poor encouragement and was at times treated with an indifference and coldness that were calculated to repress any sane female in the practice of a little game. She, however, has persisted in her story and adhered to it strictly, even as to minor details. She recently applied to the deacons of the First African Baptist Church for the use of their lecture room in which to recount the story of her trials in the form of a lecture. This request was refused, but she was told she could visit the church on Wednesday last – the regular meeting night – and tell her story, and if the congregation chose to help her it might. She accepted the proposition and, although in her address she gave a graphic and stirring account of her years of slavery and miraculous escape, the pecuniary recompense therefor [sic] was not very encouraging, being variously estimated at between thirty-five and forty cents.

So much for the background now to the tale:

She represents that her name is Rosa Brooks, alias Grandison, the last name being given her from the family name of her former owners. Sixteen years ago, she says – just before the close of the late war – her young mistress, then living in this city, married a Mr Grandison of Havana, Cuba. They moved to his home, and she (Rosa), being only 1 year of age, was taken with them and thus snatched from the very threshold of emancipation that soon followed.

It is here that the story starts to cause dizziness:

She grew up in the service of her new master and his family, and some time in June last became involved in a difficulty with one of the children that came nigh losing her life. It seems that in the altercation with the child she lost her temper, and in an unlucky moment slapped its jaws. She says her act was considered such a high crime that the Queen [wth?] was informed of it, and her royal majesty decreed that she should die. She was seated in the kitchen the next day, when the Queen, in all her pomp and pride, entered and seizing a large carving knife, began sharpening it for the dread execution. Making one desperate effort for her life, she sprang through the door, scaled the walls of the city and plunged into the ocean. The struggle with the waves had scarcely well begun when the royal troops in pursuit fired upon her and she was wounded in seven places. Worn out with her fatiguing run, and exhausted with the loss of blood, she continued to battle for life, when, having swam some nine miles (being seven hours in the water), and on the point of giving up the ghost, she was rescued by a band of mermaids.

Finally, some non-human kindness:

These fairy creatures, she represents, bore her to their homes in the rocky caverns along the seashore, and showed her every attention, nursing her until she had entirely recovered; that they live like ordinary human beings and are as gentle and kind as possible. When she was well they took her out into the ocean and placed her upon a vessel bound for Galveston, at which port she arrived safely, and thence made her way to Richmond in search of her mother, Sarah Brooks. She is a good talker and has an air of earnestness about her and dresses very neatly. She proposes giving an exhibition of her swimming abilities, and says that she will swim in the river for some six or seven consecutive hours.

Beach loves the idea of the swimming exhibition, which presumably points to unkind folks suggesting that Rosa’s exploits in the water were impossible. So was Rosa really a victim of slavery from Cuba? What was her end? Did the ‘queen’ or the ‘royal troops’ catch up with her? Does anyone have access to Richmond newspapers from July, August, September of 1871? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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4 Oct 2012: KR writes in this fascinating note that gives us some of the back story here. ‘Possibly Ms. Brooks (note that the name Brooks also relates to water) is relating a spiritual experience and/or belief with her story of her harrowing escape. While her story might seem very farfetched and fanciful to the reporter, it might have contained a message quite familiar to Santeria [this is Beach’s word, KR prefers not to use it as it has negative connotations for some, I use it here for general understanding] followers, who might have been her intended audience and her hoped-for connection  in her immigration. (Note that she says she is looking for her mother: perhaps she is also looking for her Mother and ‘Mother-church’.) I am well aware that Wikipedia is sometimes seen as a poor choice as a source, but at least this brief article will give some information about Yemaya as relates to the Queen of the Waters, who was most often in the shape of a mermaid. Although, of course, the word ‘maid’ is not entirely apropos with it’s connotations of “young-and-relatively-powerless female” and perhaps Yemaya would be better described as a ‘mer-queen-mother-goddess-most-omnipotent,’ rather than a mere mermaid.  Here is another brief link for you…   it also occurred to me that the queen she mentions might have been a high priestess, and this would fit the scene she describes, the knife being sharpened in the kitchen, better than to imagine any European queen in a kitchen sharpening a knife. The “queen’s troops” then, being male enforcers and followers of the priestess, might well have given chase. Ms. Brooks story of her salvation by the merpeople might be her attempt to say to the fellowship she is seeking “the high-priestess condemned me, but the goddess herself has pardoned and saved me.” Note also the repetitions of seven in her story, seven days and seven miles with seven being a number sacred to Yemaya. All just conjecture on my part, of course. But, it seems to fit the tale: perhaps the intelligent Ms. Brooks was sending a coded message that she was in search of fellow-believers in America, or maybe she was even seeking a following herself. A fascinating subject. ‘ Thanks KR!