Thursday, 9 August 2012
Traveling Through Tropical Isles
This article was found tucked in a copy of Isles of Spice and Palm that I recently purchased. We are considering island hopping down the Caribbean Isles from Puerto Rico for our next Winter trip./drf
Traveling Through Tropical Isles
Through the Lesser Antilles (Fifth Article)
JOURNAL OF EDUCATION September 24, 1928
By L. H. PUTNEY Boston
ANOTHER day will soon be behind us, for the shades of night are falling with that swiftness which is so characteristic of the tropics —at one moment it is broad daylight and at the next full night with nothing in between that resembles the twilight of the more northerly latitudes. In front of us stretches the Savannah which serves the people of Port of Spain, the capital of the little British colony of Trinidad, both as a broad grassy park and as a field for their sports and horse races. A half mile or so away we can glimpse the outline of Government House, which is made doubly impressive with its rich setting of tropical foliage, and far beyond rise the densely forested slopes of the Northern Mountains.
Since our last letter we have slowly threaded our way through that long chain of islands to which the ancient geographers gave the name Lesser Antilles from the mythical land "Antilla," located on the pre-Columbian maps somewhere in the unknown West. Starting with the Virgin Islands, just to the east of Porto Rico, it stretches southward for almost five hundred miles to the very delta of the Orinoco. So close are these islands to one another that only once or twice on the entire trip was the steamship Dominica out of sight of land. By the old Spanish sailors the more southerly of the Lesser Antilles were known as the "Windward Islands" because they were in the path of the prevailing northeasterly winds, and those farther north as the "Leeward Islands" on account of their more sheltered position. The hundreds of islands comprising the group vary in size from Trinidad, which is slightly larger than our own Long Island, to tiny islets of only a few acres.
Although many of these islands are near neighbors to the Virgin Islands of the United States, few Americans even know the names of the largest and fewer still have looked upon them. This is true even of those whose business calls them periodically to Porto Rico and St. Thomas. Although St. John's on Antigua, the capital of the confederation of northern islands to which is now given the name Leeward Islands, is only a night's run from St. Croix, and Roadtown, the seat of government of the British Virgin Islands, is distant only a dozen miles or so from St. Thomas, for all practical purposes they might as well be hundreds of miles away, for were it not for the monthly inter-island steamers from New York, the only means of communication would be an occasional sloop.
So different are these islands that it is extremely hard to generalize. Most of them are under British sovereignty, but two of the largest—Guadeloupe and Martinique—belong to France, while St. Eustatius, St. Martin, and Saba with her precipitous walls rising to such perilous heights, owe allegiance to the Netherlands, being attached for administrative purposes to Curacao, which is hundreds of miles away, off the Venezuelan coast. All excepting Barbados are of volcanic origin and from time to time are subject to eruptions and other titanic disturbances. On practically all of them may be seen numerous old craters, living reminders of their igneous origin. The farther south you go the more abundant becomes the rainfall; and the greener and more tropical the islands. As a result, while the Virgin Islands and even St. Kitts may be suffering for water, Dominica and St. Lucia, and the islands beyond, will be contending with torrential rains. Although Barbados is only the sixth in size, it the most densely populated of all the Lesser Antilles, having 942 persons to the square mile; this means that few regions anywhere may be compared with it for density of population. Except for one small corner it is wholly of coral formation, to which it owes its peculiarly low appearance as seen from the sea. It is unusually fertile, due to the fact that much of the soil is dust which has settled over the island after eruptions of Mt. Soufriere, a live volcano over on St. Vincent.
For all practical purposes all of the islands are "black" lands, although in both St. Vincent and Dominica there are still a few remnants of the original Carib inhabitants living in remote villages far back in the mountains. That these natives have survived, while none of the Arawaks of Porto Rico and the other Larger Antilles have done so, is explained on the ground that they were a much more warlike people than the latter. In all the islands there is a small pure white element, but no census figures are available to show the exact number, due to the fact, we were told, that many who would be classified mulattoes in the United States or England here are considered whites. However, the largest percentage is undoubtedly found in Barbados, and the French and Dutch Islands. In the first-named island estimates vary from ten to twenty-five per cent, of the total population (156,312), and judging by what we have seen on the streets of Bridgetown on our several visits, we would say that they are not unreasonable. While the pure whites, nearly everywhere except in the French islands, draw rigid social lines, officially no such ostracism is practiced as exists in the Virgin Islands of the United States. As a result the blacks seem well satisfied with their situation and you hear no grumbling against the government or any demands for independence.
In Trinidad at least one-third of the population is East Indian, principally Hindus, with a small sprinkling of Moslems. Nowhere else in this part of the world, except in Demerara or British Guiana, over on the mainland of South America, two hundred fifty miles to the south, are these people found in any number. One result of this large East Indian population is a monthly line of steamships between Port of Spain and Georgetown, the capital of Demerara, and Calcutta, with a large passing to and fro, although to do it involves traveling more than half-way around the world. It seems that after Britain abolished slavery in the West Indian islands in 1834, there was a great shortage of labor. To alleviate this an act was passed by Parliament authorizing the importation of East Indians as indentured servants. Although provision was made for their return to India when the term of service was up, most of them seem to have preferred to stay. Many of those one meets today belong to the second or even third generation, in spite of the fact that the importation did not cease until about ten years ago.
The presence of so many East Indians lends to life in Trinidad a very different color to that found in the other islands. Not only does one meet on the streets old negro women, with long skirts trailing in the dust and gaudy-colored turbans on their heads to serve as supports for huge baskets filled with live chickens or fruits, or for trays of home-made candies, but also many Indian women, dressed in loose flowing white robes and with their arms, feet, and heads bedecked with gold and silver jewelry according to their wealth. Indeed, it is not unusual to meet one of the latter with as many as twenty or thirty heavy silver bracelets on each arm, a headpiece and perchance a necklace of beautiful workmanship frequently studded with gems, and handsome gold rings in both the nose and ears—a veritable exposition of the Indian silver and goldsmith's art. We understand that many of the poorer coolies keep all their wealth in this form, with this advantage, at least, that they know where it is.
In general, it may be said that the Lesser Antilles possess local autonomy. Omitting the Dutch islands, which, as we have already seen, are attached to Curacao for administrative purposes, all of them have representative assemblies, or at least councils including a number of elected members. In this connection it is interesting to learn that, excepting the House of Assembly in Bermuda, the Barbados House of Assembly is the oldest legislative body in the British Empire outside of the Houses of Parliament themselves.
Trinidad and Barbados are practically self-governing colonies, although the governor and the higher officials receive their appointments from the British crown. Since 1871 St. Kitts, Antigua, including Anquilla, Dominica and Nevis, Montserrat, and the Virgin Islands have constituted the federation of the Leeward Islands, the capital of which is located at St. John's on Antigua. There is a federal council presided over by the governor to legislate on matters affecting the entire federation, and in addition each of the five "presidencies" has its own administrator, also appointed by the crown, and a local council, which is partly elective. It is interesting to find that there are two sets of postage stamps in current use in the Leeward Islands—one, a set of federal stamps; the other, a local series sold only in the particular presidency. Because the latter are rather large, most of the local residents are said to prefer to sacrifice advertising their own island for convenience, and employ the Leeward Islands stamps. Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia are united under a single governor, who bears the title "Governor of the Windward Islands," but they are not federated.
Neither the Windward nor the Leeward Islands enjoy the autonomy possessed by Barbados and Trinidad, for before any work of consequence can be started by their local governments permission must be secured from the Colonial Office in London. With such a millstone around the neck, it is not surprising that the material development found in the southern islands is entirely lacking here. For example, it was only a few weeks ago that Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts, reached the dignity of electric lights. Everywhere we found considerable discontent voiced by the better classes, especially the big planters and business men, because the crown insists on sending out as governors old army officers, who are about ready to be retired. Not only do they usually know nothing about administering civil affairs, but since they reach the age for retirement while serving the islands, according to English law their pensions must be paid by them.
In only one respect is there anything resembling union in the British portion of the Lesser Antilles. They do have a single supreme court, which consists of the chief justices of the Leeward Islands, Windward Islands, Barbados, and Trinidad, together with the chief justice of British Guiana. This is said to be a very able court; certainly law and order prevail wherever you go, although there is not the disposition to meddle with private matters so apparent of late in our own country.
[To be continued.]
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.