Sandwich Town Harbor

The guy looked a little out of place, sitting there on the crab pots at the slip for the Mary Elizabeth in Sandwich Town Harbor. He looked a bit like a history professor at a mid-western land-grant college. Neatly dressed and smoking the requisite pipe, with features somewhere between noble and craggy, he was probably about 6o years old. A bit overweight with salt & pepper hair, he was wearing a wool sweater and Greek fisherman’s cap.

He looked quite serene and philosophical—a great street portrait. I walked up and was about to ask if I could take his picture when he said, “Yeah sure—go ahead—take all the pictures you want.”

I nodded respectfully and took four or five shots from various angles—the long, warm, afternoon light coming across the harbor was perfect.

I was about to thank him when he said, “You’re welcome.”

“It’s nice here,” I offered—“quiet.” “Seems like a good place to clear your head.” I extended my hand and introduced myself.

He knocked out his pipe—put it in his coat pocket and shook my hand. “I’m Darvis Hancock,” he returned with a wispy, patient smile. I felt like I was back in college checking an assignment with my instructor.

The name startled me. “There’s a statue of a Darvis Hancock in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse.”

“My great, great grandfather—I was named for him—I’m the fifth. He was a great grandson of one of the original Plymouth colonists.”

“He founded the Hyannis and Sandwich Glass factory back in the 1800s here in Sandwich—they produced lead-based glass.  For years they were the biggest employer in the county—went out of business after the civil war due to heavy competition from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Great great grandpa couldn’t compete with soda-lime glass—it was a much cheaper process.”

“But—I’m pretty sure he was actually glad when the glass factory folded. He disliked manufacturing and didn’t turn much of a profit even before Soda-Lime competition. Everybody said he paid his workers too much. Not a real practical guy—and a bit of a loner. People who knew him said he was a pleasant man but had some odd ideas.”

I asked why, if he didn’t like manufacturing, did he open a factory.

“He was a spiritual guy”—he explained—“not especially religious—but quite spiritual. He said he had been “called” to do it—so he did. Lot of people had jobs because of his calling I guess.”

“After the factory closed he was a bit adrift for a few years. He spent a lot of time reading—the Bible and a lot of other spiritual books. He had a son he admired very much who was a captain in the old U.S. Lifesaving Service stationed on the North Carolina Outer Banks. He went down a number of times to visit and observe their practice drills—on one occasion he got to see an actual rescue.  Great great grandpa was a bit on the dramatic side and very proud of his son’s heroic work. He was fond of quoting the Life-Saving Service’s unofficial motto, “The book says you got to go out—it doesn’t say you got to come back.” Then he’d smile and say with pride—now that’s a calling.”

That was his problem at that time I think—he needed a calling. Finally one day he announced he had found one.

“Darvis hated slavery—lot of people around here back then did.  But unlike a lot of people, he decided he would do something about it. He always was a bit of a character but after his wife died many folks thought he really wasn’t playing with a full deck—if you know what I mean.”

Between what he got selling the factory and some other assets, he had more than enough to buy a boat and hire a crew. He used to tell people he was getting old but he believed he had one last good fight in him.

He was a bit old to go adventuring but great great grandma had died a few years before, the kids were grown and once the business was gone he had no serious obligations. So he bought a three-masted schooner he named The Mary-Beth—his wife’s name. She was based here—this harbor.”

 I should first explain—in 1807 and 1808 slave trafficing was outlawed in the United States and the United Kingdom—not slavery—slave trafficing. After those laws were passed all slave traders were declared pirates and therefore outlaws. In effect, anyone could attack them and seize their ships.

“Great great grandpa decided he was going to put at least one slave-trader out of business—sink them while they were in port in Africa or wherever—before the slaves were loaded. That was his calling, he decided.”

“Maybe you’ve heard of the Henrietta-Marie—out of Jamaica—or the LaRochelle,—out of Okracoke?” he said pulling his pipe out his pocket.“

I said I hadn’t.

Great great grandpa had. He’d made an extensive study of slave ship names, histories and routes. He said he had his sights set on either of them—as they were the most notorious.

“So did he?—sink a slave ship?” I said.

Darvis left from here in March of 1874,” he said, “and never came back. But my great grandfather found out years later both the Henrietta-Marie and the LaRochelle were burned to the waterline in Alagoas, Brazil—8 months after Darvis left here. There’s no definitive proof but everything points his being behind that.”

“No one ever heard what happened to Darvis?” I asked. “That’s so sad.”

Drawing on his pipe he looked out across the harbor to where ships entered from and left for the open sea—the place where great great grandpa was last seen sailing away to his destiny—over two hundred years before.

“I don’t think he’d have thought it was sad,” he responded, “I think he’d have said something like, “Well, the call says you got to go out—it doesn’t say you got to come back.”

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