The Lesser Antilles
( Originally Published 1904 )
OUR first travels through the West Indies shall be in the Lesser Antilles. We are nearing them now. That island at the front over the prow of the ship is Barbados (bar-ba'dos), belonging to England. It is our first port of call. As we come closer we can see the cocoanut trees lining the shores. We observe that the island is of coral formation, and we sail carefully to avoid the coral reef, through a break in which we enter the harbor of Bridgetown.
The moment our steamer casts anchor it is surrounded by boats filled with negro men and women bringing tropical fruits, shells, and other things for sale. We land, and find ourselves in one of the quaintest towns we have yet seen. The buildings are of wood or of coral rock. Many are of two and three stories ; some have awnings over the streets, and we can walk from store to store in the shade.
How bright everything is and how dusty! The white coral roads are dazzling under the sun, and we are warned to buy smoked glasses to shield our eyes during our rides over the island.
See the sugar ! There are hogsheads and bags of it on the wharves ; there are barrels of rum, and the rich smell of molasses fills the air. This little island is one great sugar plantation. It is only about twice as large as the District of Columbia, but it has thousands of acres of sugar fields, a large number of sugar mills, and some distilleries which make rum.
Barbados is as thickly populated as any island we have visited, and the most of its people are negroes. The streets are filled with blacks and mulattoes, nearly all dressed in white. The men wear white shirts and trousers and white straw hats, and the women white or colored dresses and bright-colored turbans. How straight the women are ! There come two with bundles on their heads. It is this way of carrying things that gives them their erect figures.
Farther on is a black policeman with a white helmet. There are black soldiers and black merchants, lawyers, and doctors. This is the case with most of the Lesser Antilles and also of Jamaica and Haiti. The blacks were brought as slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations. They were afterward freed, and they now form an important part of the island population, and on many of the West Indies the most important part. The sugar estates of Barbados are largely owned by colored people, although the island belongs to England and is ruled by a governor sent out from that country.
Leaving Barbados, we sail for Trinidad, stopping at Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent, and at St. George in Grenada, another English island below. Both Grenada and St. Vincent are volcanic. They have a rich soil and raise all sorts of tropical fruits, including spices and the cacao from which chocolate is made.
Trinidad is the largest of the Lesser Antilles. It is a rectangular island lying so close to the South American continent that we could cross over in a very few hours. It is thickly populated, having about three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants.
The island is devoted to sugar, and among its people are eighty-five thousand Hindus who have come here to work on the sugar estates. We see Hindus and Chinese among the blacks and whites at the wharf of Port of Spain, where we land ; the vegetation is like that of Ceylon, and we wonder if we are not off the coast of southern India, instead of off South America.
Port of Spain is the capital of Trinidad. It is a well-kept little city with all modern improvements. It has places where we can hire automobiles, and we ride about over the country, visiting the sugar, coffee, and cacao plantations. Now we stop to gather flowers and ferns by the roadside, now to watch the butterflies, which are so beautiful in this part of the world, and again to laugh at the monkeys, which angrily scold at us out of the trees.
Our most interesting trip from Port of Spain is to La Brea, a little peninsula on Trinidad about thirty-six miles away. Upon this peninsula is an asphalt lake, whose contents have furnished the pavements of many an American city.
We have all heard of asphalt, and many, of us have walked or ridden upon it. It is a sort of pitchlike sub-stance, mixed with sand, which melts when heated, but when cold is as hard as stone. This stuff can be spread over a road, making it perfectly smooth. It can be put upon paper or other material and made into roofing, or it can be used for walks and floors.
Near La Brea, in the top of a hill about 130 feet above the sea, there is a lake of such pitch. It is a mile and a half in circumference, and in it there are several million tons of asphalt.
We go to La Brea by sea, smelling the pitch as we near the peninsula. The beach is coated with hard pitch, and there are grayish black pitch pebbles upon it. We make our way up the black road to the top of the hill, and at last stand on the border of the lake. It looks somewhat like a great sheet of asphalt pavement, dotted with little islands of grass or stunted trees. It has cracks filled with water, and in some places gas is coming out.
We see men on the lake digging pitch, and start across it. At the center our boots sink in almost to our ankles, and we hurry on, fearing we may get fast in the pitch and not be able to pull ourselves out. Nevertheless our feet are comparatively clean. There is so much water and oil in the asphalt that it does not stick. We take up some and wring the water out of it with our hands, and are told we might knead it an hour before it would become sticky.
Vast quantities of this asphalt are. shipped away every year, but the stuff gradually rises and fills the places dug out, so that one really does not know how much there is. Near the lake there are places for "purifying the asphalt. It is boiled in huge caldrons and then run off into barrels, in which shape it goes to the markets.
Returning to Port of Spain, we are at a loss to know where to go next. We might visit Tobago (to-ba'go), a mountainous little island belonging to Great Britain, peopled by negroes, or sail along the northern coast of South America to visit Curacao (koo-ra-so'), belonging to the Dutch, and other little islands of that region. We wish, however, to continue our explorations of the Lesser Antilles, and hence make our way northward to St. Lucia, belonging to Great Britain. We go by the Pitons, two mighty rocks of the shape of gigantic cones two thousand feet high, and call at Castries (cas-tre'), the capital. Our steamer goes right up to the wharves, and we watch the ships taking on coal while we wait. The island is volcanic and wild in the extreme. Castries is an excellent coaling station, but otherwise of little importance.
Our next stop is at Martinique, where we land at Fort de France and climb Mont Pelee, the terrible volcano which ruined the town of St. Pierre and a great part of the island a few years ago. The volcano is less than a mile high, but it periodically bursts forth into awful eruptions, which deluge farms and villages, destroying multitudes of people.
Martinique has many fertile valleys, and its appearance is somewhat like that of Tutuila in Samoa. It belongs to France and is governed by that country, although its people are chiefly mulattoes. They look much like the natives of Barbados, save that the women wear dresses of brighter colors and have great hoops in their ears. The products are sugar and cacao, and the fruits of the tropics.
From Martinique we go north to the British island of Dominica, so named because Columbus discovered it on Sunday. It is volcanic and is chiefly noted for its sugar. Farther north still is Guadeloupe (ga-de-loop'), an island shaped like an hour glass, belonging to France, and above it the British islands of Montserrat, Antigua, Nevis, and St. Christopher, all small and of little importance. On Nevis, Alexander Hamilton was born. St. Christopher was named by Columbus after his patron saint, but it is more often called St. Kitts, Kitt being the nickname for Christopher. During our stay there we climb Mount Misery, a half-dead volcano, and afterward visit Brimstone Hill, close to the shore, which looks as though it had been thrown out of the crater.
After leaving St. Kitts, we sail northward to visit St. John, St. Croix (croi), and St. Thomas, three little islands which our Government bought of Denmark in 1916 for $25,-000,000. Their population is, for the most part, colored.
Although small, the islands are of great value to us, because they lie right in the track of vessels running between Europe and Panama and South America. The island of St. Thomas, which has one of the best harbors in the West Indies, commands one of the chief passages from the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea, and fortifications built there will enable us to prevent any hostile ships from going through in time of war.
We pass through a narrow opening into this harbor and land in the little town of Charlotte Amalie, which runs around the shores. Its houses are of yellow stucco with roofs of red tile; they are surrounded by gardens of tropical plants and trees. We climb the hills above the harbor and, looking westward, can see our big island of Puerto Rico, which is only about forty miles away.
We then go back to the harbor and watch the ships taking on coal. Charlotte Amalie is one of the chief coaling stations of the West Indies. Some of the coaling is done by machinery, but a great deal is done by colored women, barearmed and barefooted. The women sing as they carry great baskets of coal on their heads up the gangplanks into the steamers.
A little later the steamer toots out its warning to leave, and we hurry on board. Our ship sails to the westward.
We pass the little islands of Vieques (ve-a'kas) and Culebra (koo-la'bra), belonging to the United States, and in the course of a few hours find ourselves in front of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, and under the shadow of the dear old American flag.