domingo, 15 de enero de 2012

The Sad History of Isla de Flores

One spring Saturday, I went on an excursion to Isla de Flores with a group of photographers I met on Flickr, a photography website. Just two people alternate living on this very small island every two weeks: the lighthouse keeper and his helper.
Until a few years ago, a private boat provided the only transportation to the island aside from the boat used by the Naval Prefecture responsible for the change of shifts and delivering necessary provisions for the upkeep of the lighthouse and those responsible for it. More recently, however, the eighteen passengers longboat Alba began offering trips to the island from Montevideo’s Port of Buceo for tourists or sports fishermen interested in visiting this desolate, almost dismal landscape.

What is certain is that Isla de Flores, with its rocky and wild beauty, has a dark history that  shares with many of the world’s other islands. It brings with it a very interesting ecological, historical and cultural legacy, despite its abandonment by man and the ravages wrought by weather and the passage of time, which have converted the island into a sad proliferation of ruins. Visitors are advised not to enter the few buildings that still have roofs, as they run the risk of collapse.

Located halfway between the coast of Montevideo and the much-feared “English Bank,” which has been the site of more than 160 shipwrecks, the island lies ten nautical miles from the Port of Buceo. Isla de Flores captured the interests of governments and sailors alike during the colonial era because of the growing importance of the ports of Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

The last viceroy of the Río de la Plata Vice-Royalty attempted to build a lighthouse on Isla de Flores, but he was overthrown by the era’s winds of independence before he could fulfill his mission. Nevertheless, the lighthouse was eventually constructed. The Portuguese began building the structure and the Creole government celebrated its completion. Chronicles of the time tell us that on January 1, 1828, the night of the lighthouse’s inauguration, the people of Montevideo traveled jubilantly to the coast en masse to celebrate that faraway light in the sea. The lighthouse is essential to navigating the dangerous Río de la
Plata waters, which are an entryway for numerous river ports. Today it is the only construction on Isla de Flores that remains in excellent condition. The stocky shape of the lighthouse is typical of those made by the Portuguese; it measures 12.5 feet high, which on top of the rocky promontory on which it is built, places it at 121 feet above sea level. It emits two beams of light every sixteen seconds.

Isla de Flores is made up of three islets, which separate and unite according to the winds and the tides. The highest islet, on the extreme west, houses the lighthouse and most of the other buildings; it is the only islet to which public access is granted. The captain of the Alba, who took us to the island, also acts as our guide; he offers a guided tour that includes the history of the island. With the three islets combined, the island measures 5,577 feet long and less than 1,214 wide. At the turn of the 20th century, Isla de Flores served as a quarantine space for immigrating boat passengers who were headed for Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Small pox, yellow fever, cholera, and other epidemics devastated the island’s inhabitants before the existence of vaccines and antibiotics. On occasion, the health authorities of the era would declare a boat free of illnesses within 24 hours, but most of the time the passengers had to complete the quarantine’s customary forty days of isolation.

For this reason, an “immigrant hotel,” which opened in 1869, was built near the lighthouse, as well as a “hospital for the healthy ones,” euphemisms used to distribute the almost all healthy passengers between the two buildings according to their pocketbooks. The installations were austere and men and women lodged separately. The boilers used for disinfecting the clothing and suitcases of those who were sick can still be seen, now oxidized and covered with guano.

The further east we go on the island, the sadder the history. The pavilion for the sick was located on the second islet, and whoever arrived there knew the chances of leaving the island were slim. There is a chapel and a cemetery on this islet, and on the third and last islet, you can see, from the vantage point of the first islet, the ruins of the autopsy room, the doctor’s quarters, and the crematorium.

What must the island have been like when it was populated by hundreds of people arriving on big transatlantic ocean liners? It’s difficult to imagine in the midst of today’s inhospitable loneliness. I suppose back then there weren’t so many seagulls, who are the irrefutable current owners of the place, disturbing visitors with their incessant flights and cackles. Everything is covered in guano. You can find nests full of eggs. The chicks are cute gray fur-balls that arouse tenderness, but the adult birds inevitably evoke the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds; they bring about a threatening, uneasy feeling, and it’s difficult to take a photo without one, two, or a thousand seagulls appearing in it.

It’s not difficult to conjure up the feelings of frustration the immigrants must have felt on Isla de Flores. They could just make out the profile of the promised land on the horizon, inaccessible, always on the other side of some ocean. I can imagine the overcrowding and the squalor, the cold and desolation of the long windy winter, and the perception of the sea suddenly becoming an unconquerable obstacle after having been the road to salvation during the long crossing from Europe. I also see the other side of the coin: the “dolce far niente” for the healthy ones during the summer days, with the ever-refreshing sea breeze and the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks surrounding them as they played cards, and wove romances, making plans for the future. It was not only poor immigrants who passed through here, but also notable Creoles returning from trips to the old continent, like Andrés Martínez Trueba and Alfeo Brum, who later became president and vice president of the Republic of Uruguay. Legend has it that even Gardel slept on Isla de Flores and sang in the hotel. In 1935, with the advance of medicine, the health authorities officially declared the closing of the quarantine hospitals.

Like many other islands of this type, Isla de Flores has also served as a prison. The first detainees registered here were prisoners from the 1904 civil war. There were also more than 150 political prisoners held here during the dictatorship of Gabriel Terra (1933-1938). Some of these detainees wrote  a letter denouncing the prison’s conditions: “Those confined to this inhospitable craggy rock want to document, by the strict expression of truth, the humiliating condition of deprivation and abuses to which we are submitted (…) Lodged in vast and desolate quads, where we remain rigorously cloistered, under the threat of being shot, without the recreation that is tolerated even for those who have committed atrocious crimes, thrown on straw mattresses from the quarantine hospital, disgustingly stained, without beds, blankets or sheets, we let the interminable hours flow very slowly by, with the healthy ones mixed together with the sick.”

The captain of the Alba told us that during the last dictatorship, several union leaders were imprisoned on the island for a couple of months after an uprising at the state telephone and electricity company. He was mistaken about  he date: the event took place in 1969 before the coup d’état, when president Jorge Pacheco Areco’s government declared “emergency security measures,” a set of measures that suspended constitutional rights in response to the political and social agitation of the time. A strike at the state company ended with the union managers going underground and over fifty union members being confined on Isla de Flores.

During the past decade, there has been no lack of diverse proposals for what to do with Isla de Flores. One suggested creating a rehab center for juvenile delinquents; another suggested building a five star hotel. In 2006, the national government included the island on its list-protected areas, categorizing it as a National Park under the jurisdiction of the National Environmental Department (Dirección Nacional de Medio Ambiente). This past October, the Proyecto Isla de Flores was declared a national landmark. The island’s incorporation into the National System for Protected Areas is imminent.

With the unfortunate times now behind us, we hope the future of Isla de Flores offers only pleasant moments, and a tribute to the immigrants who stayed on the island and those who were detained there, many of them our ancestors, who contributed to forging the Uruguay we know today.

Protected Area

Isla de Flores contains flora and fauna of conservational importance, especially the numerous birds, thirty-one species of which have been documented. Given the encroachment of human presence along the coastal areas, the creation of protected areas for these avian populations is necessary. Sandy beaches predominate along the Uruguayan coasts, but a certain type of rocky area is also found. The majority of these areas are exposed and unprotected systems. Isla de Flores is home to halogenous vegetation with conditions that permit the development of habitats favored by crabs in the middle of a grassy type of vegetation. Diverse types of lichen can be found in the rocky substratum, as well as important communities of mussels and other invertebrate. Algae populations including isopods and other crustaceans such as crab and mollusk species are known to develop. As far as fish, the Corvina, Pescadilla, Red Cod, Liza, and the Silverside stand are found on the island; other seasonal fish are also important economically and for sports fishing.

As a protected area registered in the National System, the historical as well as architectural value of the island’s buildings will be considered in future development projects. Protected area status mandates that a visitor’s information center be established if it tourists are expected. The visitor’s center should include maps, visitor regulations, trails, signage codes, audiovisual exhibits, a museum, café, restrooms, and temporary shelter for inclement weather.
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