Skull Island
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Skull Island on Mermentau River

A Slave Ship’s Inhumanity

By W. T. Block

Back in 1949 my Uncle Austin Sweeney of Nederland, TX who was born and reared in Grand Chenier, LA., told me the story of a slaver captain’s inhumanity so bestial, that it is difficult for the human mind to comprehend it. It was the story of 200 starving African slaves abandoned on a marsh ridge on Mermentau River, where they were left to die horrific deaths.

Recently I have been in email communication with Butch Guidry of Big Lake, Cameron Parish, LA who told me the same stories had passed down through his family. Among the river’s old-timers, the island name was a racial slur, but Guidry noted that the location a century ago appeared on the river’s maps as “Negro Island.” He added that the slave ship captain had pondered going upriver to Lake Arthur, but fearing he might be arrested there, he chose to dump his “cargo” ashore and return to the gulf. For my own convenience, I have “renamed” the location as “Skull Island.”

In 1964 I carried my mother and some of her Sweeney siblings back to Grand Chenier for a visit. While there, I asked my Cousin Jim Bonsall, who owned a small store, if he had ever heard of that island. He quickly answered “yes” - that he could rent a boat and take me there if I so chose. Guidry described Skull Island as being located at the “north end of Grand Lake, where the Mermentau enters the lake...”

In 1968, while researching a graduate paper at Lamar University about the African slave trade, I learned that the last known American slave ship to leave the Congo River in Mar. 1865 was the Huntress, a topsail hermaphrodite schooner with a capacity of 200 slaves. Hence since the voyage from the Congo River of Africa to Louisiana would require over 2 months, it has always intrigued me whether or not the slave ship in the Mermentau might have been the Huntress.

Uncle Austin added that the slaver captain stopped at Grand Chenier in May, 1865, and sought to buy rice or cattle from Dr. Millidge McCall to feed to his African chattels. McCall told him that there were neither rice nor cattle to be purchased at Grand Chenier; the residents of the Chenier at that time, consisting of women, children and a few old men, were only a notch above starvation themselves as the Civil War had just ended. McCall told the slaver too that the North had just won the war, and the slaves had been freed. {The Texas Juneteenth did not apply in Louisiana.}

My uncle also told me that in March, 1867, my great uncle, John W. Sweeney, Jr., and my grandfather, James Hill Sweeney, had sailed a sloop up the river in search of a high marsh ridge, where they might put in a crop of cotton. When they anchored at Skull Island, they found scattered among the marsh grass countless skulls, skeletons, and leg bones, each of the latter still shackled by a rusting leg iron to the skeleton lying beside it. Sensing the aura of death which permeated the marsh ridge, the Sweeneys quickly hoisted their sail and returned to Grand Chenier.

Dr. McCall also told the slaver captain that occasionally an offshore Union blockader sailed up to Grand Chenier, seeking blockade-runners that were hiding in the river. McCall and the slaver captain each knew that if a slave ship were caught with Africans aboard, the slaver captain would be tried for violating the 1820 African Slave Trade Act, the penalty of which was a charge of piracy and death by hanging.

Without a doubt the shackled and starving Africans on Skull Island died quickly, abetted by the countless mosquito bites, and perhaps they were eaten by the numerous black panthers, which according to Grandma Sweeney, frequented the sea cane marshes around Grand Chenier during Civil War days.

For decades the site of Skull Island was avoided like the plague by the sailors who plied Mermentau River on the schooners and steamboats. And many superstitious people often repeated tales around the camp fires, that during a full moon  the slave ghosts  danced under the live oak trees on the marsh Chenier. And surely there is no greater tale of bestiality—of man’s inhumanity to man—than the story of those unfortunate Africans who died on that island.

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