Galveston and Galveston Bay is a long-standing shrimping area just south of Houston, Texas.
The rich marine resources of Galveston Bay and offshore waters were as important in the development of Galveston as its role as the best seaport between New Orleans and Tampico.Santa Maria, Coast Monthly, 2014
Shrimp in these waters came to be harvested by a fleet of small sailboats clustered at Pier 19. Their small size and spindly masts and booms — aside from a certain omnipresent factor in their environment — gave them together the name “Mosquito Fleet.” There were more than 100 of them by the turn of the 20th century.
Mosquito Fleet also refers to an African-American seafood boat community in Charleston, South Carolina which operated from the 1860s until the 1950s. But my story only touches on the Texas one.
Main characters Phoebe and Malcolm are the children of Pam and Irving Cohen. Irving’s parents are both Jewish survivors of the Kindertransport, which brought them to Barberry Lake, Arizona to escape the Holocaust (they are also the grandparents of Ruth and Simon).
Pam’s family, the Freemans, are black and from Houston, Texas. Pam’s grandfather sailed a boat that was part of the Galveston Mosquito Fleet. After Pam married Irving and moved to Barberry Lake with him, she had her grandfather’s boat towed to their new home. The family installed a gas motor and use it for outings in Barberry Lake.
When the kids decide to go on a boat ride, they pile 17 of them onto the old shrimp boat. A boat that looks very much like the Santa Maria, a 38′ long wooden vessel built in 1937. (Read the article for pictures. Below is a similar craft.)
Phoebe and Malcolm were born in 1983 and 1981, respectively. Irving and Pam were both born in 1959. That gives Pam’s grandfather a birth year around 1919. He likely would have bought his boat in the 1940s.
Unlike Charleston, the Galveston Mosquito Fleet wasn’t primarily African-American, but black families did own boats and fished the bay. In 1940 the population of Galveston was about 60,000. It’s unclear how many of those residents were black, but the black community was thriving.