Yesterday I was in Savannah, the last stage of a Southern road trip that first took me to Charleston and to several antebellum plantations. Unfortunately, the weather did not encourage tourism: what started out as a light drizzle swiftly turned into heavy rain which gusts of wind drove every which way, making umbrellas almost useless. Between the moment when my friend and I took refuge in a coffee shop for a late breakfast and the moment when we dashed into the “Bayou Cafe”, dripping wet and more than ready for steaming plates of jambalaya, the rain only let up for two short hours – a respite we hastened to take advantage of.
Armed with a map and carefully avoiding the larger puddles, we made our way to the waterfront, walking from square to square: Monterey Square, Calhoun Square, Lafayette Square, Madison Square, Pulaski Square, Oglethorpe Square…we saw them all, with their monuments to American patriots, to Southern writers, or to James Oglethorpe, the eighteenth-century founder of Georgia. It is Savannah’s squares that make her beautiful: gigantic live oaks spread their twisting, sprawling branches almost to the ground, creating a dense, quasi-Amazonian canopy. Bunches of small emerald ferns grow along the bark and grey Spanish moss hangs in tattered ribbons from every branch. The waxy flowers of huge magnolias glow against the dark shiny foliage, and through the trees you catch glimpses of ochre or chocolate facades and delicate black ironwork. In fact, the recent rainfall accentuated the impression that the city had been hewn out of the primeval swamp: the brick paths glistened, the Spanish moss dripped, and it did not require a great leap of the imagination to picture an alligator slithering into the dark steamy undergrowth as an eighteenth-century plantation owner rode by in frock coat and tricorne.
Further away, on the waterfront, tall brick warehouses (now converted into souvenir shops and trendy restaurants) recall the city’s past as a busy trading port, while enormous grey cargo ships still make their way up and down the river, dwarfing the old-fashioned white river boats, like the “Savannah River Queen”, which promise tourists dinner, music, and a cruise. This was the place that reminded me of a passage I had come across in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which I am reading, as per everyone’s recommendation):
In Treasure Island, Savannah is the place where Captain John Flint, the murderous pirate with the blue face, has died of rum before the story begins. It is on his deathbed in Savannah that Flint bellows out his last command – “Fetch aft the rum, Darby!” – and hands Billy Bones a map of Treasure Island. “He gave it me at Savannah,” says Bones, “when he lay a-dying.” The book had a drawing of Flint’s map in it with an X marking the location of his buried treasure. I turned to the map again and again as I read, and every time I did I was reminded of Savannah, for there at the bottom was Billy Bones’s scrawled notation, “Given by above JF to Mr W. Bones. Savannah this twenty July 1754.”
Like the narrator, I read Treasure Island as a child and could recall the thrill of danger and adventure aroused by the treasure hunt. Yet I had never noticed this tiny exotic detail, which linked these very English pirates to the pre-Independance world of the American colonies. I used to think of Savannah only as the elegant playing-ground of crinolined Southern belles, who flirted from behind their fans while black-skinned slaves ran to do their bidding. But of course, as a bustling port, Savannah welcomed a constant flow of people from all walks of life, and was probably the ideal hiding-place for a pirate who needed to lie low for a while. No doubt Captain Flint had not banked on the climate and his nasty little drinking habit getting the better of him…
© Florence Berlioz 2013