Tour Of The Caribbean - St. Kitts in all its Glory
( Originally Published 1925 )
CERTAIN letters written from St Kitts by Christopher Jeaffreson between the years 1676 and 1686 serve to give a graphic picture of the island in its heyday. Christopher was born in England in 1650. His father, a Suffolk gentleman, was a friend and neighbour of that " man of extraordinary agillity of body" Thomas Warner, who founded the West Indian colony. In this enter-prise the agile Warner was joined by Christopher's father, who ultimately built a large house in St. Kitts and established a plantation there.
Thomas Warner was a remarkable man, and his wife, in the matter of courage and devotion, was certainly no ordinary woman. She and her boy of thirteen left a comfortable home in East Anglia to join the pioneer party who were bent upon establishing a colony in the unknown West Indies. When the Warner family sailed from out of the English Channel into the open sea they had no idea where they were destined to land. The spirit of adventure must have been strong upon them, for a voyage of 4000 miles in such a sailing ship as dared the seas in 1623 would have made faint the hearts of most.
Christopher Jeaffreson on his father's death inherited the property in St. Kitts, and paid his first visit to the island in 1676, when he was twenty-six years old and, it may be added, already a widower. He left Billingsgate on February 16, 1676, in the Jacob and Mary, a vessel of 150 tons, carrying sixteen guns. He took with him four servants and reached St. Kitts on May 24, with no more than moderate adventures. His journey home, some ten years later, was more expeditious for it occupied only nine weeks. It was so tedious a voyage, however, that his joy was excessive when, after sixty-three days on the high seas, they came at last to an anchor in " Westcoat Bay a few miles above Margett." In his account of the wearisome home-coming he only regrets that they were a little too lavish of their liquors at first."
It appears from Christopher's letters that trade in the island was very brisk. There was no actual handling of money. Every-thing was paid for in sugar, indigo, or tobacco. Servants' wages were paid in sugar. A skilled artisan, after four years of free service, received 4000 lbs. of sugar per annum. This curious salary he exchanged for goods sent out from England. He must have found it difficult to save money in the island, for 4000 lbs. of sugar are not to be kept in a money-box, while the income of a few years would fill even a roomy cabin. Slaves were bought and sold in sugar. The purchaser of an estate could pay for it either in sugar, indigo or tobacco according to choice. Shopping, if conducted on the usual lines, must have been not only cumbersome but bared of much of its charm. For example, the wife of the Captain-General set her heart, writes Jeaffreson, upon a piece of Smyrna carpet which is described as being both "large and fine." The price of it was 1700 lbs. of sugar. The lady obtained the carpet, but how the sugar was weighed out and who handed it over the counter is not stated.
If there was a tavern in the town, and if refreshments were to be paid for in cash, the winebibber must have taken a cartload of sugar about with him, together with a shovel and a pair of scales. Even if he trundled a wheelbarrow full of the commodity down to the inn, it may not have met his wants on a thirsty day, and in any case he would, when tipsy, have more than the usual difficulty in counting his change. As collections in church must needs be made in something less messy than sugar, or less apt to stain the fingers than indigo, it would be left to the worshipper, it may be supposed, to place tobacco leaves in the plate as the only available currency.
St. Kitts, even in the younger Jeaffreson's time, was exceedingly fashionable. The ladies were as modish and as elegant in their dress as were the belles of Lincoln's Inn Fields or Soho. The gentlemen, for their part, were equally exquisite and as devoted to point-lace and gilt sword bands as were the gallants in the Mall or Spring Gardens. Elaborate entertainments were in vogue, especially fine dinners, where the guests were waited upon by a crowd of negro servants in serge liveries, and where there was much drinking of madeira. Indeed Mr. Jeaffreson in a business letter remarks that the best "commoditie" in the island was " Madera wine."
Close to St. Kitts is the island of Nevis. The two are so near together that the channel, as it sweeps between Windy Hill and Scotch Bonnet Head, is barely two miles in width. Nevis was destined to eclipse even St. Kitts as a mirror of fashion and as a resort of the most polished society. It was already the seat of what may be termed the court, since it had pleased the Captain. General to make his headquarters there.
Now the lady who bought the Smyrna carpet for 1700 lbs. of sugar had a sister living with her at Government House. Her name was Mistress Frances Russell. She was fifteen years of age, and would receive on her marriage 1500 pounds (not of sugar but of English gold) and four negroes. The age at which most ladies married in West Indian circles was sixteen, and Christopher Jeaffreson, although now thirty-one years of age, gazed amorously upon Miss Frances Russell and determined to make her his.
To go a-courting in a refined community like that of Nevis one must needs be well dressed. So Christopher wrote home at once for " a demi-castor hatt, a good perrewig, a laced cravatt and cuffs, a douzaine yards of ribbons for cravatt and cuffs, a fashionable and handsome sword belt, a payer of silke stockings, and enough silver and gold lace to lace my hatt round." It was an expensive order, but the lovesick widower was a man of affairs, for he remarks, in a later letter, that if the clothes failed to reach him in time " they will not be lost but will come to a good market."
Any agent can buy a demi-castor hat and a periwig, but there are articles of apparel which need a finer taste and a more cultured knowledge of the latest creations of fashion than a shipping agent could be expected to possess. Fortunately Christopher had a sister who lived in the very heart of gayest London. Her name was Madam Brett, and her address " Channell Row, Westminster, near the Mum House." Such a prize as 15001., together with four negroes and Mistress Frances Russell in person, was not to be gained without cost, so Christopher writes to his worldly sister, " I praye you send me an embroidered and fashionable waist-belt and let everything be modish and creditable, for the better sort in these islands are great gallants."
It is easy to picture the hopeful widower, in his demi-castor hat decked with gold lace, his silk stockings, and the killing waist-belt of Madam Brett's choice, being rowed over to Nevis on the first fine day after the ship came from England. He would have stepped ashore very daintily, and after arranging his periwig, sword, and cuffs on the beach, would have walked with a swagger up to Government House. He might have proposed to the lady kneeling on that very piece of Smyrna carpet which was so " large and fine." As a merchant he is almost sure to have figuratively expressed the weight of his devotion in pounds of sugar ; as a passionate suitor he might have damaged the new demi-castor hat by pressing it to his chest.
All which, however, is pure surmise. What we do know for certain is that Mistress Frances Russell, aged fifteen, gave this poor gentleman, who had spent so much on his clothes, " brisque denyall." There was an end of it.
It was a heavy shock, and as Christopher was rowed back in the small boat to St. Kitts he must have gazed ruefully at his new stockings already spotted by the sea, and might have calculated to what amount in indigo he would have to debit himself for this laceration of his feelings. The published letters are silent as to the fate of the decided Miss Frances, but from the same source it is to be gathered that Mr. Jeaffreson never quite recovered from this " suddaine check in his progresse."
St. Kitts as it advanced in prosperity continued to keep ever before it—heedless of hot suns and hurricanes—the resolve to be, at all costs, fashionable. In entertainments, in displays of silver plate and liveries, in dress, in gewgaws, in pure dandyism, the island outdid the old country. On Nevis certain hot springs were discovered, close to Charles Town. Now a hot spring was the one thing needed to make the islands a fitting resort for people of quality, for at the commencement of the eighteenth century the life of a man of taste and breeding could not be supported without a spa.
At Nevis, therefore, a spa was established ; and here, to this Tunbridge Wells of the Caribbees, came all the fashionable of the West Indies—the rich merchants with their wives and daughters, the planters, the majors and captains who were invalided or on leave, and the officers of any ship of war that could make an excuse to anchor within sight of Booby Island.
The great people arrived in schooners, with heaps of luggage and a tribe of black servants. From early to late they whirled round in one unending circle of gaiety. There were morning rides to the hills, picnic parties on Mount Pleasant, fishing expeditions to Newcastle Bay, dinners where heated men with loosened cravats proposed the toast of succeeding beauties, and dances which were kept up until sunrise, and indeed until the ponies were brought round to the door again.
This led to many things—to strolls along the sands by moon-light, to many a saunter to the woods to look for fireflies that were never found, to many a whispered invitation to come out on the hill to see the Southern Cross that was forgotten before the hill was reached. Most memorable of all was the full-dress parade after the church service on Sunday ; for then the Clarindas, Belindas, and Elviras of the period swept along, patched and painted, hooped and farthingaled a outrance with fly caps, top-knots and commodes, tight-laced bodices, laced aprons, and flounced petticoats, accompanied or followed by the ' pretty fellows,' who wore square-tailed silk and velvet coats of all colours, periwigged and top-hatted, silk-stockinged, and shoed with red-heeled shoes, their sword-knots trailing a most on the ground, and their canes dangling from the fifth button."
Alas ! all this has passed away. The spa is silent and in ruins. The roof of the great building has fallen in, while the balconies and verandahs, which witnessed so much simpering and such play of fans, have vanished to build cart-sheds. Still to be seen are the ball-room, the dining-hall, the overgrown Italian garden with its stucco statuary, and the court where the dowagers and chaperons gossiped and talked scandal.
Most pathetic of all is the mounting stone by the door where the ponies waited ; a stone upon which many a satin-covered foot has rested until two strong arms outheld could lift a soft little figure down to the ground.