Part I

Perhaps some of you have heard of Malaga Island, known as the “Shame of Maine.” Malaga Island, sitting off the coast of Phippsburg, was home to a racially-diverse community of people of European, African, Native American and mixed-race heritage starting in the 1860s. For many years the term “Malagite” was used as a racial slur on the Maine coast. The entire community was forcibly removed from the island by the state of Maine in 1912.

For decades the history of Malaga Island was purposely overlooked as an uncomfortable story of yellow journalism (journalism based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration), racism and eugenics in the whitest state in the country. This began to change in 1989 when University of Southern Maine archaeologists began field research on the small island. Subsequent research started to reveal the picture of a community of mixed-race people who, in many ways, lived the same lifestyle as other fishing communities living on the islands that dotted the coast in the 19th century.

Former Maine governor John Baldacci issued a formal apology to the descendants of the island in a ceremony held there in 2010. In 2012, the Maine State Museum curated “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives.”

Residents of Malaga Island in the 1800s. From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September, 1882. Courtesy photo

South Portland has a surprising connection to this dark chapter in our state’s history. Current Ferry Village residents Lorna Kierstead and Carol Darling are sisters who, along with their cousin Marnie Darling Voter, trace their heritage to some of the people who lived and labored on Malaga Island.

They also trace their lineage to a free man of African descent, Benjamin Darling. Marnie became aware of this family connection while she and her late husband were doing genealogy work back in the 1970s. Excited about the discovery, she shared the information with her family. When Marnie tried to convey this new family history to her parents, her father stopped her. He told her and her husband that if they ever brought up the topic again, they would be forbidden from entering his house. His reaction was typical of the way in which the story of Malaga Island was denied in Maine for many years.


Only one of the Malaga families married into an African heritage family. Most of the other former inhabitants of Malaga married into white families after their eviction, in an effort to hide their African, Indigenous and mixed-race heritage. Of the Griffin, Tripp and Eason families from Malaga, only the Tripp family married into a Black family.

According to the book, “Maine’s Visible Black History,” Benjamin Darling arrived in Maine in late 1773 along with a Capt. Samuel Dalling who was a “merchant seaman who ran goods between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the West Indies.” He owned a chandlery (a store that specializes in sailor’s tools and goods for boats and ships) in Strawbery Banke, the historic waterfront neighborhood of Portsmouth. According to Marnie and her cousins, Capt. Dalling also owned a cotton plantation in North Carolina and sailed frequently to Barbados. It is possible that Benjamin was enslaved by Samuel and later given his freedom.

A Boston Globe article from November, 1911. Courtesy image

Once he arrived in Maine, Benjamin married a white woman named Sarah Proverbs and ran a salt works in Phippsburg. Although “Maine’s Visible Black History” states that Benjamin Darling was the first inhabitant of Malaga, Marnie says this is not accurate. “The information in the book was what they thought was true at the time it was written,” said Marnie. In fact, Ben settled on nearby Horse Island (today known as Harbor Island) in 1794. Marnie continued, “He must have made some good money, it was a big deal for a Black man to own an island back then.”

Ben’s descendants settled on some of the other islands in the New Meadow River. Three of Ben’s granddaughters moved to Malaga Island.

The community on Malaga Island began in the 1860s. Henry Griffin and Fatima Darling Griffin (one of Ben’s granddaughters) are thought to have been the first inhabitants. Residents eked out a living from clamming, lobstering and fishing the surrounding waters. The women of the island also took in the laundry for tourists, called “rusticators” at the time.

“The women of Malaga would do the washing of the ‘rusticators’ in the salt water along the shore,” said Marnie. “They would tie up their dresses so they wouldn’t get wet and would therefore have their legs exposed.” Local newspapers latched onto this, printing sensationalized yellow journalism articles about the scandalous showing of exposed skin on the island.


Lurid and scandalous newspaper articles in both the local and national press described drunkenness, intermarriage, and incest on the island. For example, a brief article from the Oxford Democrat published in 1906 asserted, “The people of Malago [sic] Island at the mouth of New Meadows River, are reported as in destitute circumstances. The island is inhabited by a colony of half whites and blacks who never work until it becomes absolutely necessary. They gain a living by fishing and make little preparations for winter.” Other articles decried the islands many dogs, the conditions of the houses, the lack of legally-married couples, and the fact that the island’s residents were a combination of European, Indigenous, and African heritage.

By 1910 the island had become infamous throughout New England. An article from the Boston Herald on Aug. 7, 1911, stated “Their mode of life is not unlike the Indian. The men are shiftless, lazy and ignorant. They prefer to have the women do the hard work and the latter find it necessary to do so if they would subsist without too great a hardship. They go lobstering, clamming, fishing, and hunting for driftwood when the mood takes them. The men have shown a fondness for strong drink and the women crave tobacco and smoke their old clay pipes as regularly as the men. They love sweets and little realize the value of money. If they receive a day’s pay, they are likely to row over to the mainland and spend it all for candies and tobacco instead of the necessities of life.”

Malaga Island was considered to be part of nearby Phippsburg. In the late 19th century, residents of Phippsburg, suffering from the collapse of the wooden ship building industry, decided that they didn’t want their taxes going to assist the inhabitants of Malaga. A headline from the March 28, 1902, edition of the Daily Kennebec Journal stated, “Selectman Minott of Phippsburg defines Malaga’s status. To what town the island belongs puzzles all investigators.” A variety of ongoing articles in Maine newspapers speculated which nearby mainland community was responsible for the residents of Malaga Island. Some argued that the islands in the New Meadow River sat in Cumberland County and Malaga was part of the town North Yarmouth while others argued that the island was in Sagadahoc County. Some asserted that the island was under the jurisdiction of Harpswell. An article from the Kennebec Journal from 1911 concluded, “… it is safe to say that none of the towns involved will accept the troublesome legacy of Malaga Island without a protest.”

At this time, the tourism industry was rapidly developing in Maine as the state’s other industries, like the harvesting of lumber, granite and ice and shipbuilding, dissipated. Large casinos and hotels were opening throughout the state and colonies of summer visitors from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were starting to vacation in places like Boothbay and Bar Harbor. Some individuals thought that Malaga’s mixed-raced inhabitants were bad for the state’s image and that tourists would be discouraged from visiting. Others thought the island could be converted to a recreational destination if the current residents were removed.

We will continue with the story of Malaga Island next week, along with some of the connections to South Portland, including John Murphy, the King of Malaga Island, who later lived on Pickett Street in South Portland.

Note: A reminder that author Jean Flahive will be at the Cushing’s Point Museum at Bug Light Park on Sunday, Nov. 27, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jean’s books are available for sale in the museum gift shop.

Seth Goldstein development director for the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the director of the society’s Cushing’s Point Museum. South Portland Historical Society volunteer Jackie Dunham provided research for the column.

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