Next stop on my Mini Solo Cruise after Little Chebeague Island was all the way the other side of Casco Bay at the mouth of the New Meadows River. Malaga Island, as you can see, is wedged between Bear Island and the village of Sebasco, which is part of the larger town of Phippsburg on the Cape Small peninsula. I know the east side of this peninsula, which is bounded by the Kennebec River, extremely well, but have only begun exploring the west side in detail since I started sailing Lunacy out of Portland three years ago. I was particularly interested in visiting Malaga because of its grim and unfortunate history, which lately has been discussed much more openly than in the past.
Malaga has been uninhabited for nearly a century now, but was once home to a unique community of white, black, and mixed-race families. The Malaga settlement was started during the Civil War when descendants of Benjamin Darling, a free black, moved there from Horse Island (now called Harbor Island), just south of Malaga. Darling, who is said to have been married to a white woman, had purchased and settled on Horse Island way back in 1794. His descendants were joined on Malaga by other racially mixed families from other islands in Casco Bay.
The Malaga community was never prosperous. Like most folk living on the islands of the Maine coast during the 19th century, the Malagites, as they were known, eked out a living fishing and farming and working for others on the mainland. The community’s two dominant personalities were James McKenney, a respected fisherman known as the “King of Malaga,” and John Eason, a carpenter and mason who preached to the islanders on Sundays when the weather was too rough to make it ashore to church.
During the late 19th century, as the coastal economy became increasingly dependent on tourism and summer residents, the Malagites became increasingly controversial. Stories circulated that they were descended from escaped southern slaves and West Indian and African concubines who had been marooned on the island by amorous ship captains. Several local newspapers denounced the islanders as inbred degenerates who were inherently shiftless and immoral.
The negative attention did inspire a reaction. A pair of progressive missionaries from Boston, George and Lucy Lane, started a school on the island in 1906 and also formed the Malaga Island Settlement Association to help support the islanders. In July 1911 Maine governor Frederick Plaisted toured the island with a group of state officials and he, too, pledged to support its residents. The following year, however, in an abrupt turn-about, Plaisted evicted all the islanders and demanded that all structures on the island be removed or destroyed. Eight of the 40 or so residents, including a healthy infant, were permanently institutionalized at the state School for the Feeble-Minded, where 17 bodies exhumed from the island’s graveyard were also reburied. Most of the remaining residents resettled across the way in Sebasco.
It’s not entirely clear why Plaisted changed his mind and suddenly decided to destroy the community at Malaga, but most likely it was an act of political revenge. Plaisted was elected to office in 1910, primarily on a promise to repeal the state’s alcohol prohibition law, but was unable to prevail in a public referendum on the issue the following year. Coincidentally–or not–many of the wealthy progressives behind the Malaga Island Settlement Association were also active prohibitionists.
These days the island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which has posted a few historical placards and maintains a trail that leads around the perimeter of the dense spruce forest that covers most of the island’s 42 acres. Several local lobstermen, some of whom are descended from Malaga’s former residents, also store traps and gear on the island.
I anchored Lunacy in the cove directly north of the island in 20 feet of water at high tide, close to the eastern shore of Bear Island. The bottom there is mud and offers good holding. Before going ashore myself I watched a group of kayakers descend on the shell beach at Malaga’s northwest corner. The group’s leader delivered a very brief lecture to his acolytes–presumably on the island’s history–then everyone suddenly climbed back into their slim little vessels and paddled off up the river.
After landing my dinghy on the beach, which I assumed is essentially a shell midden left by the Malagites, I quickly understood why the kayakers moved on so quickly. Marching down the trail through the forest, I was soon chewed to a pulp by swarms of hungry mosquitoes. By now it was also getting dark, so I quickly retreated to island’s north end, which is where all the Malagites lived back in the day. Besides all the broken shells on the beach, there is no palpable evidence (other than the small collection of placards posted by the MCHT) of their tenure there. Supposedly there are foundations and dug wells buried in the underbrush, but I wasn’t about to brave the poison ivy in an effort to find them.
After decades of neglect and denial, the world has at last acknowledged what happened at Malaga, which obviously is a good thing. An excellent radio documentary entitled Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold has been broadcast (you can listen to it online here), several scholars and journalists have taken an interest in the island, and even a children’s book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which won a Newbery Honor Medal in 2005, has been published.
But the fate of the Malagites is still a very loaded subject for many people in Maine. Their descendants evidently are still referred to as “Sebasco niggers” by some locals, and even the state government seems very ambivalent about the island’s legacy. Back in April of this year the state legislature passed a resolution officially apologizing for the 1912 Malaga eviction, but the state did absolutely nothing to publicize it. In making its so-called “public apology,” the government apparently still feels a need to keep secrets when it comes to Malaga.