Malaga Island: A Brief History

Posted in Anthropology, History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Social Science, United States on 2010-03-06 19:50Z by Steven

Malaga Island: A Brief History

Compiled by the Students of ES 203 Service Learning Project
Bowdoin College

Adrienne Heflich

Anna Troyansky

Samantha Farrell

Malaga Island is located in Casco Bay, near the mouth of the New Meadows River, and is roughly a half-mile long by a quarter-mile wide in size. It sits approximately one hundred yards from the mainland of Phippsburg. Malaga Island, which means “cedar” in the Abnaki Indian language, is heavily wooded, and has been uninhabited since 1912. The island is rich in archaeological deposits from its past residents. Remains from the pre-colonial Indian and Malagaite mixed-race settlements are largely unexcavated and are believed to be remarkably intact. Currently local fishermen use the island for lobster-trap storage.

Malaga Island was a very unique community. The black and mixed-race population of individuals and families was an anomaly in a state over 99% white. The concentration of minorities in the Malaga Island community caused fear and uneasiness in neighboring white communities on the mainland. Drifters and outsiders of mainland communities, both black and white, settled there in the mid-1800s. By 1900 the population had peaked at 42 individuals and interracial marriages were common on the island. Save for its racial diversity, Malaga resembled most other poor fishing communities on the Maine coast.

The Malagaites’ main source of income was subsistence fishing and limited farming. Tensions rose over issues of resource use as the Malagaites’ fishing directly competed with the economy on the mainland. More importantly, their dark skin, questionable morals, and apparent idleness (all thoroughly exaggerated in biased local and regional press) aroused suspicion and antipathy. In efforts to address the Malaga “problem”, in 1903 a missionary family established an informal school on Malaga in attempts to “reform” the inhabitants. The school was funded at first by private donations, and subsequently subsidized by state funding.

Tensions between the mainland and the island rose significantly at the turn of the century along with the burgeoning tourism industry on the Maine coast; Malaga was an eyesore for the mainland. Harpswell and Phippsburg disavowed jurisdiction over the community and the island was identified as “No Man’s Land,” becoming a ward of the state. In 1912, Governor Plaisted evicted the community of Malaga from their land and homes. Resettlement was prohibited and many Malagaites lacking the means to move elsewhere, were displaced to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded in Pineland. Some Malagaites strapped their houses to rafts and drifted up and down the river in search of a safe port. However, they were unwanted and stigmatized by the events of 1912. Private owners eventually bought the island, and possession shifted hands numerous times before it was finally acquired by MCHT.

The diaspora of the Malagaites remains a dark chapter in Maine and local history.  Descendents still bear the stigma of their infamous ancestors. An unspoken code of silence still remains, perhaps out of shame, perhaps out of ignorance. Myth still surrounds the factual events. It is hoped that in the near future, the Malagaite and precolonial Indian archeological remains will be excavated, undoubtedly unearthing a very fascinating history.

Read the entire paper here.

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