SPRING 1948 – ABOARD THE VIGILANT
SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN
James Bond stepped carefully across the deck of the Vigilant, grabbed hold of some rigging and swung underneath as a wave slapped across the bow, spraying his face. He felt a bit queasy, the effects of his usual bout with sea sickness that made the early part of every voyage uncomfortable.
This was not his first trip to the West Indies, nor would it be his last, but as always, James Bond was on a journey that had both scholarly and professional ramifications. Bond had an insatiable interest in the origin, distribution and lifestyle of birds, particularly the birds of the West Indies, a subject on which he is recognized, among the international league of ornithologists, as the foremost authority in the world.
But this trip would be different from the others because it would end in death, the death of the captain, and the documentation of the voyage would later leave Bond open to suspicion that he was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Although unknown to him at the time, such accusations would only distract from his real mission, and despite his determined ambitions, his work as a world renowned naturalists would be overshadowed by the publicity that would make James Bond the world’s most famous spy.
By the time this particular expedition got underway, in the spring of 1948, Bond had already spent the better part of twenty years engaged in his life-long task of surveying the birds of the West Indies. Having been to the Caribbean on many previous occasions, Bond was leery about this trip for a number of reasons. Instead of traveling by his usual mode of transport among the usually inaccessible out-islands, aboard a tramp steamer or native fishing boat, he was traveling instead with a group of fussy individuals aboard a large, but confined yacht.
The Vigilant however, owned by Philadelphia millionaire and philanthropist Cummins Catherwood, was a convenient means of getting to the out-islands, and some of the costs were being funded by Catherwood’s philanthropic foundation that distributed money from his non-profit Catherwood Fund.
Encouraged to join this expedition by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, where Bond was the curator of Birds, Bond agreed to go along when he insisted, and the rest of the party reluctantly agreed, to visit three small islands that were off the main trade routes – Cayo Largo, St. Andrews and Old Providence.
Besides not being easily accessible, these islands had not yet been adequately or scientifically explored, and there was a high likely hood of finding rare species of birds, plants and other creatures that the scientific expedition would be interested in.
While there were other scientists aboard who shared his concerns, Bond was especially leery of Catherwood, the owner, who exhibited a domineering attitude earned only by his position of having bankrolled the trip.
Taking the ship owner’s routine watch at the helm, Cummins Catherwood enjoyed sailing, yachting in the old fashioned sense, complete with sails and a sense of mission. Independently wealthy, Catherwood and his sister, Mrs. Charles C.G. Chaplin, acquired a considerable inheritance and their lawyers established the Catherwood Foundation as a philanthropic fund for tax purposes.
In November 1947 the Philadelphia Bulletin, the city’s evening daily newspaper, announced that, "a petition for a non-profit corporation, to be known as the Catherwood Foundation, was filed in Common Pleas Court."
Located with an address in suburban Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the Catherwood Foundation was officially incorporated by Catherwood and his sister, and listed its directors as Catherwood’s wife, Mrs. Ellen Gown Catherwood, and their associates Othelia Aarnoldt, William Hamilton and I.F. Dixon-Wainwright.
As a Philadelphia Main Line personality, Catherwood was a blue blood society figure with a family that had strong Philadelphia roots. One ancestor, Frederick Catherwood, cut his way through the Central American jungles in 1839 to discover the ancient lost cities of the Mayan civilization. An artist, archeologist and explorer, Catherwood drew detailed sketches of the stone engravings that are now prized by collectors and exhibited by museums.
When Frederick Catherwood traveled to Central America he carried with him a letter certifying to his status as a "special confidential agent of the President of the United States," signed by Martin Van Buren.
Thirty years after the 1948 Vigilant expedition that included James Bond and Cummins Catherwood, it would be revealed that Cummins Catherwood enjoyed a similar status with the American government – that of a special bursar for covert operations of the CIA.
Catherwood’s yacht, the Vigilant, was built in New England to Catherwood’s personal specifications. 64 feet from bow to stern, paid for with money from his philanthropic Catherwood Fund, under private foundation laws, such funds could finance any number of educational, religious and charitable causes, and the 1948 trip to the West Indies was billed as a "scientific expedition." And that it was.
Besides his Columbian friend, Barraro, Bond felt most comfortable with the other scientists aboard – Charles B. Wurtz, who specialized in mollusks, Leroy H. Saxe, a parasitologist, and George R. Procter, a botanist.
A contemporary newspaper article on the expedition dryly reports that James Bond’s "main interest, is birds."
Bond got on well with the scientists, who readily appreciated the fact that after twenty years "in the field," Bond’s book Birds of the West Indies had recently been published.
It was Catherwood and the other passengers who made Bond uneasy. There was Mrs. Catherwood, whose duties included keeping a log as the expedition’s "official historian."
Then there was a young college girl on a holiday and an Austrian baron and artist from Connecticut, a carefree couple who would have the Captain marry them once they got to sea.
Although the jet setters on the cruise wanted to put into more civilized ports-of-call, the avowed purpose of the trip made it necessary to travel past the Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica, and get to the small, mainly disserted out-islands. Once they arrived, Bond gathered specimens of birds not yet in his collection while the other naturalists studied the various plants, mollusks and parasites native to those islands.
On Old Providence, a newspaper article reported, the non-scientific members of the crew were instructed to look for "traces of some unknown types of life, and for signs of the 16th century Puritan settlement that tried, but failed to colonize the island hundreds of years ago."
Legend has it that the Puritan settlers on Old Providence were driven away by Henry Morgan the pirate, but other reports say the Puritans eventually became pirates themselves. One reference to the Old Providence settlers claims that they were unable to farm the crops they brought form England, lost their religious faith, and began plundering the Spanish treasure ships. Some say they were eventually sought out and killed by the Spanish, or Morgan. Other rumors mention a treasure still buried somewhere on Old Providence.
The Vigilant expedition did not discover any doubloons, but it did take a scientific survey of the island. Saxe, the parasitologist, "remained behind on Old Providence to continue his studies," when actually he abandoned ship when given the opportunity.
Bond took specimens and notes for updating the next edition of his book, The Birds of the West Indies, which changed the way scientists understood bird habitats and migration in the Western Hemisphere. Having recognized many of the birds in the West Indies as species he knew from the backyard of his suburban Philadelphia home, Bond discovered that the birds of the West Indies were primarily of North American ancestry, rather than South American, as previously thought.
It was a theory he first proposed publicly before the prestigious Philadelphia Philosophical Society in 1933, and after a century of misconceptions, Bond’s theory eventually became a generally accepted fact among the scientific community. The academic classification of bird species in the West Indies now includes a mythical demarcation line that runs between Grenada and Tobago and as far south as Old Providence that is known as "Bond’s Line," which distinguishes birds of the West Indies from their more prevalent South American counterparts.
In the course of his studies among the birds of the West Indies islands Bond also discovered that the songs of birds play a more important role in their mating than the color of their feathers, destroying another long-held myth.
On August 20, 1953 James Bond himself married Mary Fanning Wickham Lewis, a writer, publisher and the widow of Philadelphia attorney Shippin Lewis.
A star field hockey placer in school, Mary Wickham, like James Bond, matriculated at Cambridge University in England. After serving as editor of On Leave, a USO publication during World War II, she became publisher of a weekly neighborhood newspaper, the Chestnut Hill Local. She also wrote several novels and poems, including a roman a clef and "The Petrified Gesture," a novel about a birdwatcher, for which James Bond acted as a consultant for scientific accuracy.
A newspaper review of another of her novels, "Device and Desire," notes that one of her characters is "an artist in a green smock who lives near 18th and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia, where at 1718 Cherry Street there lives on Agnes Allen, who is a portrait artist who often wears a green smock."
Mary Wickham Bond is not the only novelist who has used real people as a basis for fictional characters. It is a literary device that British journalist Ian Fleming frequently used in the course of writing his espionage thrillers. And it was Fleming who appropriated James Bond’s name and identity and made it an international cliché, much to the chagrin of Bond himself.