For this former history teacher, it was flawed and frustrating. For a tourist, it was stunning, spectacular and sad. “This” was a recent 10-day cruise through several Caribbean islands. And there was an unexpected plus — discovering 8- and 12-year-old authors in the British West Indies who’ve written books many youngsters will enjoy.
Three family members and I started in Puerto Rico late in January and spent more than a week on a cruise ship that visited several islands, including St. Thomas, Dominica and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We saw lush forests, steep hills, stunning beaches and bright flowers. These were terrific treats for Minnesotans in January.
An unexpected highlight was visiting Serendipity Books and Toys on Tortola and finding two remarkable books. Amia Wheatley, a 12-year-old living in the British Virgin Islands, wrote “Hurricane Irma Through My Eyes.” Declan, her 8-year-old brother, wrote “My Favorite Beaches in the British Virgin Islands.” Both include pictures and are available from Amazon.
Their mother, Alfreda Gordon-Wheatley, has a Facebook page. She’s willing to ask her children questions other students have. Alfreda, Amia and Declan told me, among other things, that six months passed after the hurricane before electricity returned to their home and beaches fouled by raw sewage were clean enough for swimming, and that their Jeep was swept down a hill into bushes, where it still sits.
Tortola was the last stop before our ship returned to Puerto Rico.
Almost every night, from the ship’s stage, the cruise director told us about the islands that we would visit the next day. He often reported that Columbus discovered the island. As a former history teacher, I knew that there were people who lived on these islands before Columbus arrived.
On at least three islands, native guides commented about Columbus, literally within the first two or three minutes of our tours. They each said something like this: “Columbus did not discover this island. People lived here hundreds of years before he arrived.”
Columbus and people with him probably were the first Europeans to visit some of these islands. But the blanket statement, “Columbus discovered this island” is not historically correct. Our trip reminded me about the importance of students hearing multiple perspectives when studying history.
The cruise also made our family and me far more aware of the massive damage that recent hurricanes have done. In some areas, more than 90% of homes were destroyed or badly damaged. We visited places where roofs and doors were ripped off by winds of more than 200 mph. Sadly, there isn’t money to fix all the damage.
During the voyage, I talked with cruise officials about the islands’ history and recent damage. I asked if they thought it would be more appropriate to describe Columbus as probably the first European to visit islands where people were living. I suggested having someone living on the islands come on the ship to share their views of the island’s history. I recommended giving tourists information about how to help hurricane victims. More than two weeks have passed. The cruise line has not responded officially.
Alberto Monserrate, a former Minneapolis Public School Board member and Puerto Rican native, has recommended the El Fondo Boricua fund at St. Paul Foundation to help Puerto Ricans (see https://elfondoboricua.org/). I’ve contributed and hope others will too.
People like Amia and Declan added immeasurably to Caribbean history. I urge families and schools to buy their books. And I hope we’ll model the importance of multiple perspectives on events — whether they happened hundreds of years ago, or recently. — Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, Joe@centerforschoolchange.org.