Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass March1998

Jacks Boat Ahoy!
By Telfor Bedeau


The jack fish is a small fish about 10 inches long when mature. We Grenadians call it "jacks". Jacks swim in large shoals and are caught in long nets on the western side of Grenada and in the Grenadines.

Jacks are transported to all parts of Grenada by vendors using vehicles, and the arrival of one of these vehicles in a village is usually an exciting event which is announced by the blowing of a conch shell. At that sound everyone gets on the alert and people can be seen running with containers to the spot where the vehicle is parked. They buy, and comment about the size of the jacks. Whether big or small, the jacks end up either fried or as jacks broth which is one of the most popular recipes in Grenada.

Before 1980, the town of Grenville on the east coast of Grenada used to receive its supply of jacks from vehicles as well as boats which came from the Grenadines. They were long open boats with a large spritsail and jib. They carried a centerboard and were fast and seaworthy. Everyone called them Jacks Boats. Whenever one of these boats arrived in Grenville there was high drama. If fish was in short supply, the drama was multiplied.

One day I was in Grenville when there was a shortage of fish. The local fishermen could not go to sea because the northeast trade wind was in a really bad mood. Huge waves were breaking on the barrier reef and the narrows at the eastern entrance of the channel were like a boiling cauldron. Everyone was of the opinion that no boat could put to sea on a day like that. At the fish market the vendors, called "dry land fishermen", were playing cards, while others were discussing the state of the weather. A few real fishermen were arguing as to who was the best sailboat captain. Another group was sitting on a derelict boat drinking rum and talking as loud as if they were addressing someone a mile away.

Many people from the countryside were also at the fish market waiting to see if a miracle would take place in the form of a boat arriving with fish of any type. One man told me his family had eaten no flesh for many days and he was longing to have some fish to go with his vegetables. Businessmen, labourers, housewives, farmers and others were all waiting, but at one o'clock in the afternoon there was not much hope.

Suddenly, someone shouted, "Sail ho!" In a split second all eyes turned eastward and there, at the end of Telescope Point, was the white sail barely visible as it competed with the white foam of the breakers. The sail sped southward, disappearing at times as it descended into the trough of the huge Atlantic waves, but advancing all the time towards the entrance of Grenville Channel. Soon it was heading for the shore, where preparations were being made to receive it.

While the boat was sailing towards the land, everyone on the shore became active. The dry land fishermen left their cards and prepared for business. Many people were running to and fro alerting their friends who were shopping in other areas of town, or who had gone to the rum shop to take a drink. Small business people and tradesmen who had no attendants closed their shops and ran to the waterfront to get their supply of jacks. Young men prepared to help haul up the boat and get free jacks. Pickpockets got ready to do business. The weak men and women gave their money to strong guys who would brave the battle and buy jacks for a commission.

The boat arrived and was immediately surrounded by dozens of men including the dry land fishermen who climbed on board to "buy the boat". They argued for a few minutes before the cargo of jacks was sold to the highest bidder. The boat was then hauled up above the high water mark as easily as if it were made of feathers, by the host of young men. While this operation was taking place, the crowd at the beach had grown to several hundreds and surrounded the boat so the only thing that could be seen was the mast.

Everyone in the crowd was trying to get jacks first. This resulted in great turmoil. People were pushing, pulling, shouting, cursing. Several fights broke out and police from the nearby station had to come and make arrests. A few guys tried to climb up on the heads of the crowd and were promptly dumped on the ground. One guy grabbed a woman's purse and ran northwards along the beach, but was overtaken by three others who caught him behind the Anglican church, retrieved the purse, beat him well then ducked him in the sea. A more clever guy worked his way to the side of the jacks boat with a stick, the end of which he had dipped in tar. Every now and then he inserted the tarred end into the container where the vendors were putting their money as they sold the jacks. Money stuck to the tar and he made a little pile before retiring to boast to his friends on the outside of the crowd.

In spite of the commotion, the vendors calmly sold their jacks to the people who were buying the most, like businessmen and other rich people. However, a fairly high percentage of the masses got jacks before it was finished. The others felt cheated and while most of them drifted away, a few remained to curse and insult the dry land fishermen, who were too busy counting their money to worry about them.

Eventually the dry land fishermen and regular inhabitants of the fish market were by themselves once more. Some were richer, and the men operating the nearby rum shops were aware of that fact. They waited patiently for the business they knew would soon come.

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