Fort George Island

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012


I remember the Saturiwa, lost chiefdom of the Mocama, lost group of the lost people the Timucua.

I, first person.



I remember.

I remember 3,000 years.

I remember the places we hunted animals now extinct, the places now underwater. I remember prehistory.

I remember so much time so much unchanged, time with little change the opposite of history. This time was merely how things are. Were. Then history came.

I remember the Spanish. I remember Father Francisco Pareja. I was now no longer who I am. Was. The Spanish had made me hardly Timucuan. The Spanish had made me mostly Spanish.

I remember Father Pareja’s dictionary. I remember his work on the island. I remember his Spanish-Timucuan dictionary, and I remember what a dictionary did to our thousands of years of living among the people, the plants, the marshes. I remember when I knew how to live. I remember when we could live with ourselves and the marshes and the plants and the things that swam in the marshes, and I remember when the living knew how to live.

The Spanish called the island San Juan. A Quaker later called it St. Wans. Then plantations and African slaves and the English called the island Fort George. I remember what we called it before.

I remember, 1983, the white woman who told her son they were descended from the Timucua, but by 1595, Spanish missionaries had diminished the Timucua by three-fourths through disease, war, and proselytization.

By 1700, 1,000 Timucuans remained. The Spanish proselytized and enslaved the Timucua. And then the British enslaved the Timucua.

In 1752, there were 26 Timucua still living.

Sixty-nine years later, the land of the Timucua was annexed by the United States.

I remember one of the 1,000 Timucuans alive in 1700.

I remember one of the 26 Timucuans alive in 1752.

I have seen the ghost of a people, when a foreign country tentatively calls their nonexistent descendents its citizens.

By the time he reached adulthood, he had rejected his mother’s claim that they were of Timucuan descent. He understood by then that the last Timucuan had disappeared with the annexation of this peninsula by the United States, that the last Timucuans were exiled to Cuba.

The last Timucuan did not have a Timucuan name. The last Timucuan had a Spanish name. The last Timucuan was barely Timucuan. I barely remember him.

Juan Alonso Cavale, “the last Timucuan,” was taken by the Spanish, in cessation of the state of Florida to the British, to Guanabacoa, Cuba. Juan Alonso Cavale, died in Guanabacoa, in eastern Havana, Cuba, in 1767. Then today’s Seminoles count the Timucua among them as forebears.

Oh the things I remember!

Here on this island, I remember Father Pareja and his Spanish-Timucuan dictionary.

On this island, I remember that last will and testament. “That Munsilna McGundo and her daughter Fatima shall possess the use of her house and four acres of land—also rations during life, further consideration of affection.”

I remember how Zephaniah Kingsley, the wealthy plantation owner, deeded the house to one of his mistresses, or “lesser wives,” Munsilna, in 1831, but he never finished building it.

Lesser wives.

The house is so small, constructed of tabby. It has no roof and only open spaces where doors and windows should be.

Tabby was a cheap alternative to a local natural shell concrete called coquina, primarily composed of oyster shells. The shells would be burnt until broken down into lime. Then equal parts lime, sand, and fresh water would be mixed with unburnt oyster shell into an aggregate.

One hundred and eighty years later, the walls crumble into the ground, but the ground too is mostly oyster shell. The house seems to be the ground rising into a vague outline of shelter. Prickly pear grows up through the shell ground and out of the shell wall.

The slave mistress’s unfinished house sits on a rise in the marsh, merges into the landscape, and lies wide open to the cedar trees above it and the alligators and cranes that wander through it from time to time.

Time to time.

The road leading into the island toward the grand plantation, with its master’s house and its slave cabins, is called the Avenue of Palms. It may have been planted as such sometime around 1800, but I don’t remember just when it was. Before the dirt road evolves into the Avenue of Palms, the first structure you see is the oyster shell house the slave master began to build for Munsilna McGundo. It stands just on the edge of a small land bridge over the canes in the marsh.

In the summer heat, the mosquitoes, yellow flies, snakes, scorpions, the malaria and the yellow fever in the marshes made this house hell. The house is wide open to hell.

In a tropical storm, the winds blowing 60 miles per hour, the palm trees bent over the house, and in a small declivity beside the house, dipping down into the oyster shell ground and the roots of scrub oaks, a pride of peafowl stand together as though meeting clandestinely for some secret rite.

Did Fatima stand here and see something like this when she was a little girl? Did she ever imagine not being a slave? Who was she, other than the daughter of Munsilna McGundo? And who was Munsilna McGundo? They have hidden themselves from my remembrance.

An 1812 list of the African tribal groups of some of Kingsley’s slaves includes “Eabo,” “Calaban,” “Pongo,” “Soosoo,” and “Zinguibari.” Also on the list are “M Guindo” and “Cabo/Mouse.” The first two refer to the Ibo and Calabari peoples of Nigeria, the latter at least ironic in recalling the pseudo-African colonized antagonist in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Rio Pongo is in Guinea. The Susu live in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. “Zinguibari” probably refers to Zanzibar. The designations “M. Guindo” and “Cabo/Mouse” have not been identified, but perhaps the last name McGundo referred to the tribal group with whom Munsilna lived when she was a little girl.

Time to time.

I remember the boys in 1991 in the abandoned Ribault Club buildings here on the island where Northeast bluebloods drank up during Prohibition, but by 1991 the building was long left to rot, and I remember the boys drinking in the empty rooms before the renovation and before couples would book the buildings throughout the year for weddings, I remember the fires they set in the northern ballroom. I remember the blaze.

But who were you when you were a little girl?

Who were you when this land was branded American as though it were new?

Who were you when you were you?

Who were you before you had to say who you were—when you were just you? Who were you when you were Munsilna McGundo? Who were you when you were Juan Alonso Cavale?

Who were you 2,000 years before you had to declare to us who you are?

I remember, but I forget. All my remembrances are also erasures. I speak for myself, but I no longer know who I am / ever was. I ask you to speak for yourself then (now). Tell me who you are.

Selfishly, I’m asking you to remember yourself for me, selfishly.

—Tim Gilmore, 06/18/2012

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