gall and gumption

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sailing Home

The Carib Gli Gli sailing canoe arrives in Charlestown, Nevis, en route from Dominica to the British Virgin Islands. Photo courtesy of Nevis Island Administration.

For centuries, they made voyages like this the way you and I might drive a hundred miles to visit relatives." They were as completely at home on the sea as on land.

In May of 2003 I flew to Dominica for a long weekend. There are places that I have what I call a “draw” to; India, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, some of the more peculiar parts of South America, and Dominica. In the Caribbean, I’ve heard people say that Dominica is the only island that Columbus would recognize if he came back. That's what I wanted to see, and also, in case you haven't noticed, heaven, for me, is a Caribbean mountain landscape.

Here is what I wrote the day I arrived in Dominica:

From the air St. Kitts is brown. From the air and on the ground Antigua is brown and bare. Antigua is northeast of St. Kitts. From Antigua you fly straight dead south, passing high over Guadeloupe. You are then flying for just long enough to become tired of straining to see what the next island will look like and you don’t see Dominica until the plane is dropping over it and instead of the dark blue of the sea this intense eye-popping green is suddenly spreading on all sides beneath you, hillsides deep in green and you are falling slowly into it, dropping below its surface. You know that for as long as you are there you will be under that green.

Why was Dominica so much greener than the other islands? The question is answered with two words: no cane. You don’t have to be much of a geologist at all – and I’m the total opposite of a geologist -- to recognize that these islands didn’t all emerge through the same processes. Anguilla, long, narrow, and flat (its name comes from the French for “eel”) is a coral island. Its soil is basically the dead bones of ancient coral reefs, slowly accumulated and still accumulating. The Grenadines, the hundreds of tiny islands that belong to St. Vincent, are also coral. But the volcanic islands are really different, steep, rocky and sudden. The islands where sugar cane is grown in the Caribbean will vary in size but have a similar basic geography: a central mountain range, densely forested, and spreading below it like a skirt, a more or less broad coastal plain, sloping gently to the sea. In parts of Jamaica you can still see what this plain would have looked like once upon a time; the area called Caymanas, west of Kingston as you travel towards Spanish town, looked like this in places when I was a child. It was flat land with enormous trees at a respectful difference from each other. South of Caymanas a vast mangrove swamp fringed the coast. I suppose some of Jamaica’s coastal savannas have lasted so long because of luck. I am sure that what remains is considerably less wooded than it was before the Europeans arrived. But in the smaller islands none of this land could be spared from the planting of sugar cane. One consequence of the giving over of every inch of flat land to cane cultivation is that Antigua is in a state of almost constant near-drought and there are parts of the island where the ground looks like some of those awful places in Haiti, bare and furrowed with erosion. St. Kitts and Nevis have water worries also, though not as severe. St. Croix also was in a state of chronic water shortage: when I went to school there in the 1970s, every house had a cistern for collecting water, and you didn’t flush when you peed.

Nevis got its name from the Spanish for “snow.” A thick cloud sits on top of those mountains, so that for days at a time, weeks at a time, you don’t see the peaks. It’s not snow, but I suppose to a homesick sailor it could look like snow, from a distance.

The offshore night breeze in Jamaica, the dreaded “Norther” of my childhood sailing adventures, results from the cooling of the air under over the mountains there too. The cooler air comes rushing down, and when the southeastern trades have slacked off in the evening and you’re trying to get back to shore in a sailboat without an engine, you’re beating against that offshore effect.

St. Kitts and Nevis capture the rainwater before it leaves the mountains and distribute it through its government water system. As you travel around St. Kitts you will notice that most of its villages are along the main road that rings the island, often situated at the intersection of the road and a dry water-course called a ghaut (pronounced gut). These old riverbeds only have water when there has been a severe storm; then water, mud, and all sorts of accumulated debris -- tin cans, old tires, old old appliances, plastic bottles, tree branches, etc. -- come rushing downstream.

At the mouth of one ghaut, near the village of Old Road in St. Kitts, is a place called Bloody Point. It was the site of the massacre of the last Carib Indians on the island of St. Kitts (St. Christopher). I never went there. I never wanted to see it, such a shocking and cruel thing that was done there. The killing off of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples is a horrible tale. You can get a sense of it at this Trinidadian site and still be able to sleep nights.

My favorite story about the Caribs comes from this invaluable book by Richard S. Dunn: Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713.

It appears that the Caribs traveled from South America, crossing the narrow straits between Trinidad and Venezuela, and made their slow way up the chain of islands, all the way to Jamaica. But what is certain is that they were adventurous. What would have prompted them to leave the abundance of that whole continent at their back, to go exploring among those little islands without any idea where they might fetch up at last? And they knew the sea. By the time the Europeans arrived they knew it very very well, better than these English settlers imagined anybody could know the sea. So when I think of people who talk about how the enterprising Europeans made it all happen here I think of the enterprising and shrewd Caribs. It’s anything from a few hours to a day’s sail to travel from one of the Eastern Caribbbean islands to another. That is, in a big comfy sailboat, with good maps and a compass and two-way radio or a cell phone and running lights and channel markers. The Caribs sailed up and down the islands in their sailing canoes.

An early disaster in St. Christopher was reported home in a London pamphlet of 1638: News and strange Newes from St. Christophers of a tempestuous Spirit, which is called by the Indians a Hurrin-cano or whirlwind. The excited author told how some of the colonists hid in caves, some lashed themselves to tree trunks, some climbed into hammocks suspended between two trees where they swung to and fro “like a Bell when it is rung.” The force of the wind tossed men into the air “as if they were no more but rags, clouts, or feathers.” The pamphlet was illustrated by a crude woodcut showing a coal-black Carib Indian pointing to strange circles around the moon (the sign that a hurricane was coming)….This particular storm sank five ships and killed seventy-five men; damage would have been worse except that the Caribs warned the English to batten down their hatches. Even so, the Caribs were to blame. If barbarous and sinful Indians had not lived on St. Christopher, God would not have punished the island.

Thirty years later the English were still deeply suspicious of the Caribs’ ability to forecast hurricanes. St. Christopher and Nevis were hit in 1657, 1658, 1660, 1665, and 1667, aqnd every time the Caribs on Dominica and St. Vincent sent a warning ten or twelve days in advance – obvious evidence that they practiced witchcraft and consorted with the devil…

Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1972

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. For daring to be competent, for daring not to be docile, the Caribs were slaughtered or enslaved, or, in the case of the St. Vincent population, shipped off to Honduras. And so the devastation went on, on just about every island.

Except Dominica. For the simple reason that Dominica has no flat land to speak of. Not enough to make any kind of return for the amount of sugar cane that you could grow there. Because there’s really no getting rich from growing a little bit of sugar cane. It’s all about scale with cane, and there wasn’t enough land in Dominica to make it worthwhile to even begin. And so, for Europeans (and, to tell the truth, for a lot of Dominicans), it has been an economically unprosperous place, undeveloped and, at least in money terms, poor. Although it is economically poor it is an environmental marvel of a place, lush and green and fertile, with rivers and streams flowing abundantly everywhere. You never seem to be far from the sound of running water; some of the streams are hot, too, as you travel the island from one gorge to another. No doubt the difficulty of getting around the island was another bit of good luck. Here, where there was nothing for anybody to want badly enough, the Caribs have been able to hold on. But they didn’t go to sea like they used to.

And so it’s with that background that that image at the top of this post makes sense, you see. Because this group of Caribs is sailing in a traditional sailing canoe from Dominica to the British Virgin Islands. This weekend they stopped in Nevis, to play a little music and to talk about their culture and their efforts to reconstruct it. They’ve traveled into Guyana and connected with other indigenous tribes there to learn something of the culture where they began their journey. What would that be like for you? Finding the descendants of remote relatives, the ones who didn’t leave the Old Country, or who didn’t leave the Even Older Country. Meeting these distant relatives, the relatives who didn’t take to the sea, and learning a little bit of something about yourself from them. Why? To remember who you are.

Photo courtesy Nevis Island Administration

...Paulinus Frederick, Head of the Carib group, chief musician and lead spokesperson, explained that the exposition through the Leeward Islands which will culminate in the British Virgin Islands, served to raise the consciousness of the role played by the Carib people in the development of the Caribbean.

“Our ancestors were the first inhabitants of this entire region and we too played a role in the development of this region. We have been protecting our islands and we have also been protecting our culture. Some of the main things we are really doing are to preserve and to maintain the Kalinago culture.

“Some of it has disappeared and through research and contacts with other groups especially in Guyana, we were able to rediscover some of the aspects of our culture that had been forgotten and we are very grateful to have it. We are here to raise the consciousness of the Leeward Islands and to make persons be aware of the role that we have played in the development of this entire region,” he said.


At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Please publish your book on the islands.
--A Fan

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Kia said...

By the way, if any of you are going to Dominica, bring me back a basket. A Carib basket like the one I gave away thinking, "Oh, I'll just hop back to Dominica and get another one." Four years ago.

At 6:45 PM, Blogger Jennifer Miller said...

I live on Dominica and really enjoy your blog. I am putting a link to you at


At 11:58 PM, Blogger Scott Simmons said...

Cool story keep up the writing.

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