Tour Of The Caribbean - St. Kitts
( Originally Published 1925 )
EVERY reader of " Vanity Fair " will remember that from St. Kitts came Miss Swartz, " the rich, woolly-haired mulatto," who was a parlour boarder at Miss Pinkerton's Select Academy for young ladies on Chiswick Mall. Miss Swartz, by reason of her being an heiress, " paid double," but then she had the priceless advantage of learning the French tongue from no less a person than Becky Sharp. It will be recalled also that Miss Swartz, besides being woolly-headed, was acutely emotional, for it is, recorded that when she parted with Miss Amelia Sedley at the Chiswick Academy, her " hysterical yoops were such as no pen can depict, and as the tender heart would fain pass over."
Although St Kitts still produces woolly-haired young women, it is to be feared that few of them are heiresses, or are in a position to "pay double" at such a seat of learning as Miss Pinkerton's Academy. The island is distinctly prosperous, but the days for the making of large fortunes in sugar have long since gone by.
St Kitts will impress the visitor as being not only well-to-do but comfortable. Almost every available part of it is cultivated, for fields of sugar-cane climb far up the mountain sides. The island possesses excellent roads ; its villages are neat, while there is about them little of that squalor or air of dejection which is conspicuous in neighbouring settlements. After experience of such wild islands as St. Lucia and Dominica, St Kitts will be welcome, since it is, in a happy measure, free from the untidy tangle of the tropics, from the ever-repeated savage gorge and tree-bristling precipice. It is welcome to those who, in their journey among the islands, have become surfeited with the " everlasting hills " and the exigency of the restless and importunate jungle.
St. Kitts has much of the garden trimness of England, and something of the homeliness of the mother country. It is possible to drive for miles along a straight, white road, between fields which are not a little like fields of exalted corn, and by green slopes which might be covered by Brobdingnagian turnips. The road skirts the coast so that, ever and again, there opens out such a view of the sea and of long beaches as may be come upon within sound of the English Channel. By the roadside will be a little old stone church—such as the one near Palmetto Point—with a wooden tower, and in the churchyard the crumbling tombs of British settlers who died two centuries ago. Then in a dip among the trees will be a picturesque village of pewter-grey timber houses, with sun shutters and shingle roofs, shaded by palms, and half hidden by bushes of scarlet hibiscus.
The village women-negresses and mulattoes—wear bright-patterned gowns and a- turban or madras still more brilliant in hue. It is uncommon in the country, and even in the town, to see the coloured women disfigured by a slatternly imitation of European dress.
The main part of the island (as viewed from the sea) shows one immense central mountain which pervades the whole territory, and sends forth trailing ridges from which spring secondary hills, such as those of Middle Range and the South-East Ridge. The parent mountain is called Mount Misery. It is an extinct volcano, 4300 feet high, sour enough looking to justify its name. It keeps its dead crater hidden from sight, wrapped round by a shawl of clouds. All about the skirts of the hills are easy slopes and plains, cultivated to the last acre.
The general colour of the island is lettuce-green—the green of the sugar-cane. This will be mottled here and there with brown where the sea-island cotton is growing, or will be slashed with streaks of ivy-green where a gully, stuffed with trees, roams down the mountain side. Above the pleasant belt of lettuce-green are the dark hill summits and the clouds. Below it is the smooth blue of the sea.
Basse Terre, the capital, is, like the rest of the island, clean, orderly and well content. It lies at the foot of a shapely height called Monkey Hill. Most of the houses are of wood, some are of grey stone. There is little that is ancient about the town, except the tombs in the churchyard, because it has suffered much from fire. It is a healthy wind-swept place, with a reputation for salubrity as far back as the time when Francis Drake and his fleet spent a Christmas here " to refresh our sick people, and to cleanse and air our ships." To show that it is alive to what is expected of a chief city it has a public garden—Pall Mall Square —in the centre of which is the necessary insigne of greatness, a fountain.
St. Kitts—or, to give it its proper name, St. Christopher—was never colonised by Spain. The first settlers were English, who landed in 1623 under the guidance of " a man of extraordinary agillity of body and a good witt," one Thomas Warner, Gent. The chief trouble of the newcomers was with the Caribs. In 1625 a poor wreck of a French privateer crept into St. Christopher. D'Esnambuc, the captain of the battered ship, begged the English to give him refuge, and allow him and his crew of thirty men to land. He had been badly disabled in an engagement with a Spanish galleon, and for the moment had had enough of the sea. The English welcomed him as an addition to the force for fighting the Caribs.
Thus it chanced that the island became partly British and partly French. The English settled at Sandy Point, just beyond Brimstone Hill, the men from the privateer at Basse Terre. It is unnecessary to say that this arrangement—like the Box and Cox tenancy—did not make for peace. So long as there were any Caribs to murder the two peoples were quite happy, but when the supply of wild men failed, then poor St. Christopher came to the knowledge that she had no abiding city. The island was sometimes French, sometimes English, and in uneasy intervals it was neither or both. The English had the last move in the game, for since 1783 St. Kitts has been a colony of Great Britain.
Probably the most conspicuous feature of the island is Brim-stone Hill. The mound with this unpleasant name is some nine miles from Basse Terre by the white coast road of which mention has been made. An ancient church with a solid square tower is passed on the way, called Middle Island Church. Here will be found, in a dilapidated condition, the tomb of Thomas Warner, the founder of the colony. It would appear from the inscription on the stone that he bought an illustrious name " with losse of noble blood," and that having accomplished this purchase he died in March 1648. Brimstone Hill is an isolated precipitous mass of rock, 779 feet high, standing alone near the seashore opposite Mount Misery. It seems as if it had been tipped out of the crater of that mountain, for there are those who say that it would just fit into the cavity of the volcano. It belongs to no ridge nor range, and has the appearance of a wandering hill that has lost its way. Some portion of it is bare cliff, while the major part of the rock is covered with scrub. The hill was easily made a fortified place, and as such it was the centre around which the island fighting raged.
As it at present stands every available portion of the rock is covered with defensive works and military buildings a century old. A steep, winding road leads up to the main gate. Within are steeper ramps and precipitous stairs, endless walls and parapets, roving passages, lines of barracks, gun embrasures by the score, redoubts, bastions, ravelins, sally-ports, stone-roofed magazines, officers' quarters, and a maze of cellar-like chambers. It is indeed a little town on a hill, a town of stone, whose walls have been blackened by years, while upon the whole of the rambling fortress has fallen the ruin of long emptiness and neglect.
It is a purgatorial place to visit, especially on a hot day, and as a penance for those of uneasy conscience there can be nothing more satisfying than a climb to the solid mass of loopholed and battlemented masonry that crowns the summit of the height. Here at least is the fort impregnable, the all-defying rock stronghold. To reach to even the drawbridge is to pass through more obstacles than ever beset Christian in the "Pilgrim's Progress." Indeed the fortress on the peak might be that Doubting Castle whose owner was Giant Despair and whose chatelaine was Madam Diffidence. The massive door is just such an one as Mr. Greatheart knocked at, and at which he parleyed with the porter.
I am afraid that this heavily armoured giant of a fort—in spite of all its bluster—must rank with the parlour warrior, for it has seen practically nothing of fighting. It was built in 1793 (as the date over the gate testifies), but by that time St. Kitts had passed through its many troubles and had entered upon the present long spell of comparative peace.
The view from the summit of the works is very fine. At one's feet are the Caribbean coast of St. Christopher and the village of Sandy Point, where was once the capital of the English half of the island. A little way to the north are two sleek volcanic cones rising out of the sea. These are the strange and curious Dutch islands, Saba and St. Eustatius.
High up on Brimstone Hill, on a ledge of the bare cliff, is the graveyard, where will be found the only chronicles of the fortress that are preserved among the ruins. From the tombstones it will be seen that the 9th Regiment was here in 1790, the 25th Regiment in 1808, and the King's Own Borderers in 1811. It will appear also that on the hill lived women and children, for many are buried here. Death came quickly to some, as is shown by a monument to two boys aged respectively nine years and two years, the sons of a major of the 25th Regiment, who died within a few days of each other.
Not the least interesting stone in the small cemetery bears the following curious inscription :
MEMORIAL SACRUM OF JOHN BOREHAM LATE SOLDIER MY 9TH REGIMT OF FOOT DEC 1790 AGED 38 HE LEFT HIS WIFE ISABEL AND 4 CHILDREN SHE ERECD THIS STONE AS HER LAST DUTY
Should the ghost of the soldier's wife ever return to the island and to this little niche in the cliff where she fulfilled her Last Duty, she will find that, although the fort is abandoned and the barracks of the 9th Regiment are roofless and silent, the plot of ground is still carefully tended, the Memorial Sacrum " is still intact, while by its side, as if it were Isabel's spirit, is an English rose in bloom.