Fighting the good fight for the past 339 years

People who’ve never visited the Vineyard think it's-to-laugh that we have our own Occupy Movement. In fact, a sneering tee-shirt has just turned up from one of our local vendors. It features a beach scene with palm trees for crying out loud! under the Occupy Martha’s Vineyard banner.

Do you know what would happen if we planted an actual palm tree in, say, Lambert’s Cove? Over a frigid winter – and don’t forget we’re not far south of Nova Scotia – the poor sapling would spit out a few coconuts the size of dried kibble, then roll over and decompose back into the frozen ground like an old cast-off, black garden glove.

But guess what? We’ve had revolutions here before, and we’ll have ‘em again. As the French say, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” and, btw, that ‘ca’ needs a French cedilla, but I don’t know how to make one on the computer; used to be easy on a Selectric, just back up and type a comma over the c. For those of you who were smart enough to take the easier Spanish language classes in high school, the above comment means “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

So it is with Vineyard revolutions.

It all started (and ended, don’t worry, this won’t take long) with the Dutch Rebellion of 1673. Had it stuck, we’d all be walking around in wooden clogs, with canals and bicycle paths everywhere you could shake an aardappel, and every coffee joint would sell legal hashish and marijuana brownies. Hmmm? Ever think we got saddled with the wrong ancestral influences?

So during the decades of the late 17th century on this Island, an English transplant named Thomas Mayhew bought up the whole kit and caboodle of Martha’s (sometimes in those days referred to as Martin’s) Vineyard for all of forty pounds of sterling. The original package included Nantucket, which he unloaded for fifty pounds and two beaver hats, one for himself and one for his wife.

There were all of twelve white settler families on the island and thousands of Native Americans, but Mayhew made himself “Governor for Life and Lord of Tisbury Manor,” and packed the tax collection agency and the court with family members named, guess what? Mayhew. Or anyone married to a Mayhew of whom T. Mayhew approved.

Other settlers resented that they paid a disproportionate share of taxes yet had no say in government.

Has anyone ever heard of so outrageous an imbalance of power taking place anywhere at any time?!

People, this was 339 years ago (I just did the math on my calculator), and we’re still fighting for the same fairness?

So Thomas Mayhew’s authority had been granted by the Duke of York, whose power was vested in British possession of the city bearing his name. But suddenly, in 1673, a fleet of Dutch ships glided into New York Harbor and claimed the place for themselves.

Back on Martha’s Vineyard, two reps from oppressed white families (now there’s a concept!), one Simon Athearn and one Thomas Burchard, got up a petition. Yes, signing petitions is about as ferocious as people get on islands in frosty oceans. Some of the petitioners had names you’ll see today in ancient cemeteries. They're still churning out progeny in current times, as well as donating surnames for local street signs: Norton, Skiff, Pease, Butler, Luce, Smith, Trapp and Nadler (ha! just threw that in for an lol moment).

Those early Vineyarders mailed their own humble Declaration of Independence to Governor John Leverett of Massachusetts. And what did this noble gentleman do about this call to justice? He rejected it flat! “The differences betwixt your selves and your Ancient and long continued Governor . . . is very grievous to us but . . . how to help you we know not.”

Why are we now attached to this stupid Commonwealth?

The rebels formed a rump government, but it had no more influence over the powers-that-be than our present-day palm tree tee-shirt has exerted on winter apparel sales. A year later in 1674, the Dutch reached an agreement with the English, which entailed returning the little island betwixt the Hudson and the East rivers that would one day make Woody Allen’s career.

The Vineyard mutineers were s.o.l, solidly out of luck. The Lord of Tisbury Manor levied fines and arrests, driving some of the complainants from the Island for all time.

Mayhew continued to rule with a rod in one hand and a nepotistical anointer in the other. He died in his late 80s after decades of mis-rule. He and his wife are buried under a grassy knoll some seven feet from the sidewalk on South Water Street in Edgartown. Six members of his immediate family have ragged Colonial tombstones set back against the existing house (oddly enough, the bodies themselves lie under the guest bedroom; when this addition was tacked on some century ago, the tombstones sans remains were moved.)

Legend has it that the Lord of Tisbury was interred without a marker to prevent his enemies from digging him up and slapping him.

That’s the way Islanders express their ire. We don’t hold back.

Maybe our next political action could be to plant a row of palm trees? Just for the summer? Just as a way of saying we’re still mad as hell and not going to take it any longer? Please? Who ordered the quahogs? 

Cheryl Burns February 06, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Let us not forget the 1977 movement to secede from the Commonwealth when proposed redistricting would have left us without a representative.
Holly Nadler February 06, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Cheryl, you bet! I still have the tee-shirt! (It's a little small these days . . .)
Citizen February 06, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Betty Two comments: We could get those palm trees that are made of lights. Kitschy but they might last through the winter and brighten up the place. Don't forget Daggett and William. BTW, I was told it was William after having called it Williams for too many years. Now someone has put a little s on the street sign at Church and William.
Cynthia Mascott February 06, 2012 at 04:00 PM
My bf's mom in Eugene kept a palm tree alive for about 5 years. Whenever it got to cold she'd wrap it in a millions of covers and comforters. She cried when it unexpectedly died one winter
Holly Nadler February 06, 2012 at 05:30 PM
That's the saddest story I've ever heard.
Mathea Morais (Editor) February 06, 2012 at 05:36 PM
We could be really 70s and plant avocado seeds...maybe if we wrap blankets around them they'll become something other than sad window saplings
Holly Nadler February 06, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Mathea, an avocado plant was the only living thing my (recent) ex-husband brought to our brief marriage and, get this, he'd rescued it when his ex-wife, some years before, had tried to throw it out!
Holly Nadler February 07, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Shall we organize a flash tour of the Mayhew graves on South Water Street?


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