History comes to life aboard Charles W. Morgan
Relatives relish chance to imagine Cape Verdean’s 1921 voyage
Crouching in the underbelly of the 19th-century wooden whale ship, taking photos at every turn, Frank Floyd noticed some things that were curiously familiar.
The wooden cabinet latches were just like the ones in the house his great-granduncle had built. The shelving and the pantries, the flat black stove, and the entire style and make of the Charles W. Morgan all brought Floyd back to the Duxbury house Julian Grace built after he came to America on the ship’s last voyage in 1921.
Grace had filled in as the ship’s cook for a one-way trip. Ahead of him was a new life. Behind him were the Cape Verde Islands, 300 miles off of the coast of West Africa, his home until he left at 19.
For Floyd, putting his hands on the ship gave him ownership of his history.
“I was in awe,” said Floyd, 40, who lives in Jamaica Plain and explored the ship with his mother and cousin on Saturday. “It really feels like a part of him that I know when I see the ship.”
The Morgan, built in 1841 and now restored, rests in the Charlestown Navy Yard until Tuesday, when it is scheduled to begin its trip home to Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport. This voyage, its 38th, marks its first since 1921. As the last surviving whale ship afloat, the Morgan represents an era now gone.
“He came over and made his life in America, and I’m a part of that life,” Floyd said. “Now I see the bridge from the old world to the new.”
Everyone was like family on Grace’s home island of Brava, Cape Verde’s smallest and most remote inhabited island, just 26 square miles and dense with flowers.
One day, a ship came to port, and Grace, gregarious and chatty, must have talked his way on board, said his grandniece, Floyd’s mother, on Saturday.
“When they said they needed a cook, he must have just raised his hand and said, ‘I can do it,’ ” said Sondra Grace, laughing. “I think he just said “I can cook,” and made his way through the recipes he knew.”
A cook would rise early to begin preparation of the day’s three meals, said Matthew Stackpole, ship historian and advancement officer for Mystic Seaport. Fresh food was scarce, so Grace would have had to do his best with salted meats and potatoes and hard tack biscuits. His recipes for codfish cakes and beans with salted pork still run in the family.
Life aboard the ship was difficult, with cramped quarters and no refrigeration. The risk was high and the pay low.
But Sondra Grace, chairwoman of the fashion design department at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, has a vision of camaraderie onboard. She sees her granduncle regaling the crew with stories, beguiling them with plot twists and tall tales.
She, her son, and her nephew, Anthony Grace, peered into the small bunk room where “Jule” slept each night, right next to the room where whales were cut up. They ducked their heads when walking down the steep stairs and marveled at the majestic masts. They said they couldn’t imagine the kind of life he lived, trying to cook for dozens of hungry sailors on a rocking boat in the middle of the ocean. When Sondra Grace first saw the Morgan, she couldn’t stop crying.
“I feel him,” she said. “When I looked into the kitchen, I could see him in there. He found what he could do to make a better life for himself.”
Julian Grace settled in Duxbury, where he worked as a cook before buying some land, building a house, and marrying a woman named Hilda from Puerto Rico. He farmed, growing strawberries, squash, and kale. Hilda made jam and worked in a mill.
They never had children, but he provided for his extended family, cooking feasts of bluefish or mackerel or cod. He was always working with his hands, Floyd remembers, whittling or making model ships or tilling the earth, which he insisted upon doing until his death at age 76.
He embodied that old-world, hard-work ethic throughout his life.
“He was a sailor on land,” Floyd said. “He was honest, and strong, and lived a straightforward life.”
His voyage is an archetypal tale of immigration, part of an early wave in which many moved from Cape Verde to Massachusetts.
“It’s the classic American story. It really reflects that part of our history,” Stackpole said. “It helps to define the character of the nation today.”
The culture remains strong on the South Shore and the Cape, Sondra Grace said, through music and food and, of course, storytelling. Anthony Grace, 28, has CABO VERDE — what those on the islands call their home — tattooed on the backs of his arms.
Floyd wants to venture to Brava, where he has never been, to close the loop. He is considering making a documentary about the Cape Verdeans who have come to America, about his family legacy.
“Hopefully my great-great-great-grandchildren will be thankful that I carried the story along,” he said.