A Story Told
Sun shining, the wind blowing, the air filled with salt, Malaga Island sits in the ocean, alone and empty. The shoreline is riddled with lobster traps from local fishermen. It looks as though no one had ever lived there. You wouldn’t know it existed unless you set out to find it: you wouldn’t know its history unless you set out to find it. I was guilty of not knowing this history myself. A few years back while taking an English thesis course on New England and Slavery, I first encountered the history of Malaga Island. I had brought it up during a conversation with my grandparents. They told me my grandfather’s family was from there. He’s a descendent: I’m a descendent. I never knew, but then again, I never asked. I was already determined to do as much research as I could and to give the people who lived on the island remembrance, but now it felt different. My determination was driven by something else.
At the time, I wasn’t able to access the island. You can only get there by boat, and you can only do so during certain times of the year. Instead, I had to view it from a distance. Although it is nestled quite close to shore, it still seemed so far away. As distanced as my ancestors are. You can’t find any information unless you want to find it, at least I certainly didn’t. A seafood restaurant, Anna’s Fishing, located directly across the island has a small plaque with historical information as to what had happened over a hundred years ago. It seems that this plaque is there as a sort of tourist attraction: while you eat your seafood, you can read about it. Other than that, you are on your own.
In the late 1700s, Captain Darling arrived in Maine after traveling from North Carolina to establish salt works in the town of Phippsburg. Benjamin Darling, an enslaved African man, was said to have been given his freedom in 1794 after saving his master Captain Darling during a shipwreck. With enough money, he bought Horse Island, now known as Harbor Island. Over the years his descendants settled on the surrounding islands, including Malaga. According to documents from the Maine State Museum, Fatima (Benjamin Darling’s granddaughter) and her husband, Henry Griffin, were the firsts to build their home on Malaga in the 1860s.
From there other residents began inhabiting the island, including the Murphy, Griffin, Dunning, Johnson, Marks, Darling, Eason, McKenney, Tripp, and Parker families. The residents of Malaga all relied on marine resources, and even though lobster is considered an exquisite and quite expensive dish today, it was considered a “poor man’s food” then. Many residents grew vegetables like potatoes and corn or picked berries in the summer. Some of the residents even worked on the mainland on farms or resorts. During the winter months, relief packages from Phippsburg were given to the islanders due to fishing being less productive. However, it wasn’t a response to help the community but in fact was a tactic used to prove that the community was helpless.
Some individual residents on the island stood out. Because of his leadership qualities and abilities as a spokesperson, James McKenny was considered the island’s best fishermen and referred to as “the King of Malaga.” John Eason, a mason and carpenter, had served as a preacher when the weather prevented the residents from attending the Nazarene Church on the mainland. Donna Chapman, my great-aunt, after gathering information and doing years of research, stresses, “Everyone was happy and not causing problems. They built a school. But it wasn’t enough because a wealthy Governor thought it would bring profit from Massachusetts.”
At a time of interest in eugenics from 1913–1930, the people of Malaga Island were thought to have posed a threat to the people of Maine due to their identities. Kate McMahon from Howard University explains that eugenics was the forced sterilization of those who were considered “imbeciles, idiots, or feeble-minded.” After suspicions continued to grow at the end of the Civil War, the people of Maine and the town of Phippsburg were concerned about the intermarriages of people of color, natives, and whites on the island. Even though Eli Perry had bought the island in 1818 for $150, Phippsburg and Harpswell deemed the resident’s wards of the state at the turn of the 19th century.
Many newspapers created fictionalized stories and reported false accounts about the Malaga Island residents. The Maine State Museum depicts such headlines: “Homeless Island of Beautiful Casco Bay—Its Shiftless Population of Half-Breed Blacks and Whites and His Royal Highness, King Mckenney” and,“Queer Folk of the Maine Coast.” In 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted visited the island for the first time and remarked with haste, “Burn down the shacks and clean the filth.” Everyone was deemed incompetent, despite their incredible connection to the land and their adaptability over many decades.
That year, about 45 Malaga residents were forcibly removed by the state of Maine. This action was driven by racism, nativism (the protection of American citizens from foreign threats), eugenics, and the tourism industry. Some residents were forced to move to the mainland or nearby islands, while eight were remanded to the “School for the Feeble-Minded,” now known as Pineland Farms. My great-great-grandmother, Ida May Darling, was institutionalized for a short period because she was seen as “feeble” due to the loss of hearing in one ear. It’s not certain whether it was at Pineland or Baxter’s “Feeble-Minded School.” These institutions opened with the intent to stop the spread of mental incapacities through forced sterilization, while those with the “best” genes would continue to reproduce.
As such, in December of 1912, Jacob, Abbie, Lizzie, Lottie (17 years old), Eta, James, their grandson William Marks, and Annie Parker were deemed incompetent by a judge. Jacob and his son James both died early in the following year. The three daughters Lizzie, Eta, and Lottie were all competent and well-educated. Lottie Marks was eventually released from the school. Lizzie and Eta, however, died in the 1920s while still institutionalized. Lottie Marks passed on July 9, 1997, at 103 years old. Her obituary made no mention of her connection to Malaga Island. The University of Vermont states that 327 sterilizations were conducted in Maine between 1925 and 1963.
After the forced removal of the residents, the state moved the Malaga School to another island. They then dug up 18 graves that were on the island and placed them into nine coffins, which now remain at Pineland Farms. All the buildings that were not removed were burned down. The state purchased the island for $471 to prevent people from resettling it. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust notes the island was sold in 1913 to Everand A. Wilson, someone who was close to Governor Frederick Plaisted.
Since then, no one has inhabited the island, and all that remains are lobster traps and a few stone drinking wells hidden by tall grass and tree roots. The island was purchased in 2001 by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust to protect it from being developed and to create a place for low-impact recreation.
For many generations, some descendants have been afraid to discuss what had happened. The Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold,a radio documentary, states most Phippsburg residents “would rather forget the incident—a story best left untold.” Despite their feelings, I believe it should be told.
Donna Chapman realized her connection to Malaga, as with my experience, by chance. After reading an article written by Bill Nemitz in 2010 about Malaga Island, she questioned, “Who am I really?” It wasn’t long after she realized Marni Voter-Darling was her cousin, someone who is seen as the spokesperson for the descendants. Ida May was the oldest sibling and Elma Darling, Jr., was her brother. It was then she realized that our family was direct descendants of Benjamin Darling. Donna explains that “at that point, I just wanted to see the island.” So, she contacted the Maine Heritage Trust, and along with her siblings, Tory and Gwen, and some cousins, including Richard Waterhouse, she embarked on a trip to the island.
“We all went out there, and it was just so surreal what had been done. It made me angry,” Donna comments. Afterward, she organized a clean-up day, where she, along with others, spent hours cleaning up the island. They filled three boatloads full of trash like broken traps, toys, Styrofoam used by fishermen, and other junk that washed up from the ocean and left by local fishermen: that was only one side of the shoreline. Donna believes a boat launch should be built so that the descendants can access it easier. She also expresses her concerns about trash on the island. “I don’t mind that the fishermen store their traps there but clean up your mess. Leave the island the way you found it.”
Donna explains to me that Grammy Ida didn’t want to talk about the past and her connection to Malaga out of fear of what had happened. In 2017, former Governor Paul LePage resurrected a memorial located at Pineland Farms, for those who had died at the “School for the Feeble-Minded” and for those who were relocated from Malaga Island. Donna explains at the unveiling of the memorial that she was surrounded by others who were family and that they were all there for the same reason: to give those who had once lived on the island remembrance. Donna also mentioned that many residents of Phippsburg are ashamed of what their ancestors had done, which is why it’s not discussed. “It was the Governor and the support that he got that was the scariest” Donna exclaims. “And this kind of thing hasn’t really stopped. It is up to the next generation to accept people for who they are”. Donna believes, “You can’t hide history.”
Author’s note: This reflection on the history of Malaga Island is from the perspective of my family’s experience. Not every person who was relocated off the Island was interned at a “feeble-minded institution” or faced similar discrimination. I wish to give all the residents of Malaga Island who were relocated, and their descendants, recognition for their varied experiences.