Tour Of The Caribbean - The Environs of St. Kitts
( Originally Published 1925 )
THERE are some very curious islands round about St. Kitts. On the voyage north from Domenica, for example, the steamer passes close to the great rock Redonda, a smooth, pale fabric of stone rising out of the sea, like the dome of some immense submarine hall, whose span is a mile. It reaches to the height—according to the Admiralty chart—of woo feet. It is as bare as a pebble, but has boasted of as many as eighteen inhabitants at one time, the same being engaged in the exporting of phosphate of alumina.
Close to the rock is the very beautiful and healthy island of Montserrat, colonised by the famous Warner, of St. Kitts. It is a peculiarity of this island that the negroes speak with a rich Irish brogue. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that in the seventeenth century the colony was peopled almost entirely by Irish. The pious care with which this attractive dialect has been preserved for over 200 years is illustrated by Ober in the following incident.
An Irishman fresh from Donegal arrives at Montserrat, and leaning over the steamer's rail addresses himself, in the following terms, to a coal-black nigger who has come alongside with provisions.
" Say, Cuffee, phwat's the chance for a lad ashore ? "
" Good, yer honor, if ye're not afraid of wurruk. But me name's not Cuffee, an', plase ye, it's Pat Mulvaney."
" Mulvaney ? And do yer mean to say ye're Oirish ? " " Oi do."
' The saints dayfind us. An' how long have yer been out here ? "
A matter uv tin year or so."
" Tin year! An' yez black as me hat ! Save me sowl, I tuk yez for a naygur."
To the east of the great rock Redonda is Antigua. This charming island is said to be pleasant to live in and to possess scenery very like that of England. It was here that Bartholomew Sharp in The Most Blessed Trinity ended his great but most unsanctified voyage (page 55). The history of Antigua is full of interesting incidents. Not the least curious of these is associated with the life and times of Daniel Park, who in the days of good Queen Anne was her Majesty's representative in the island. That there was " something against " this gentleman, and that he failed to win the affection and esteem of the islanders, may be inferred from the following allusion to his arrival at Antigua. This event is spoken of as the occasion when " that abominable and atrocious governor, Daniel Park, arrived to blast for a time with his unhallowed breath this beautiful island."
An exhaustive estimate of Park's character is hardly to be deduced from the accident of his " unhallowed breath," but is rather to be based upon a study of his social qualities as a whole. These were quite remarkable. He was a Virginian who, having committed murder at a gambling table, deserted his wife and fled to England. Here, listening to the promptings of his heart, Park realised that he had so far mistaken his vocation, and that he was by nature fitted to become an English country gentleman. Under this conviction he at once purchased an estate and was by the honest electors of the district returned as their member of Parliament. It would seem, however, that he was not destined to be a politician, for he was promptly expelled from the House of Commons for bribery. Feeling that he was still misunderstood he fled to Holland, incidentally pursued by a captain of the Queen's Guard whose wife he had dishonoured. He here joined the forces of the Duke of Marlborough, and was so highly appreciated by that general that he appointed him his aide-de-camp.
Circumstances arose which made it necessary that this versatile man should be dismissed from the British Army, and, to render the process as little trying to his feelings as possible, he was sent to England with the news of the victory at Blenheim. Whether he was met by a deputation of his late constituents and tenants headed by the captain of the Queen's Guard is not known, for no ballad records " How Park brought the good news to London." Queen Anne, however, was so gratified by the announcement of the victory that she forthwith made the much-travelled Daniel her governor in Antigua. Here, in Government House, Park seems to have developed the " unhallowed breath " which for a time at least was destined to blast the island. His career as a colonial administrator was short, and is summed up in the following words, " he lost no time in provoking a riot in which he was killed by a mob who, exasperated by his crimes, literally tore him to pieces in the street." If Park was a man who had yearnings for a quiet and simple life his ambition was never attained.
The traveller on his way from St. Kitts to the next port of call, St. Thomas, will pass close to the islands of St. Eustatius and Saba. St. Eustatius—generally called Statia for short—is a little Dutch island with a remarkable past. It consists of two crater cones with less hilly ground between them. The main mountain is 1950 feet high, is wonderfully symmetrical, and, being all-predominating, gives to the island its gracious pyramidal outline. The symmetry of the hill would be complete were it not that the southern slope is broken off abruptly at the sea margin, leaving a bare white cliff, 900 feet high, called the White Wall.
The only town is Orange Town, which lies partly on the beach and partly on the cliffs adjacent. The two divisions communicate by a long, steep, sloping road. On the brink of the cliff stands an ancient and ruinous fort, Fort Orange, where still, it is said, a few rusty and dismounted cannon are to be found among the cactus and acacia. Recent visitors to the island speak of the town as poverty-stricken, dilapidated, and melancholy, its church and chief houses as decayed, and its business as well-nigh invisible. Along the beach in its whole length, are the ruins of warehouses and stores, together with other relics of what must have been an immense shipping trade. These scattered ruins, as the West India Pilot remarks, " attract attention on first landing."
Now it will scarcely be believed that this barren rock of an island, with its sleepy and dejected town, once rivalled the prosperity of Tyre and Sidon. Yet the biographer of Rodney states that such was its state for at least some glorious months. Still more astonishing is a statement in the " Annual Register" that at the foot of this crater cone standing out of the sea, was once held " one of the greatest auctions that ever was opened in the universe." If the Auctioneers' Institute have not the island of St. Eustatius as its crest, it is only because the members of that body have failed to realise the crowning magnificence of the sale of goods once held at Orange Town.
Statia became the rival of Tyre and Sidon and the paradise of the auctioneer after the following manner. Just before the outbreak of war between England and her American colonies commercial affairs in the West Indies were so hampered by enactments that trading of any sort became practically impossible. The Dutch, with a ready eye to business, made St. Eustatius a free port. The result was to throw the whole of the trade between England or her West Indies and the American plantations into the market-place of Orange Town. When the French sided with the Americans their merchants also made all haste for the astonished island.
Statia, however, did not draw the line at legitimate buying and selling. It became the great depot of contraband of war, a smuggling centre and an arsenal for both the American and the French forces. Dutch men-of-war convoyed American privateers ; American cargo ships carried Dutch papers. Goods poured in from Europe every day in the week, while planters on the neighbouring islands, both French and English, thought it well to hurry their possessions off to Statia for safer keeping.
The result was that the island became such a storehouse as the world has never seen. All day long and for most of the night boats were toiling through the surf which ever breaks on the little beach before Orange Town. More than a hundred merchant ships at a time would be swinging to their anchors in the once deserted roadstead. Warehouses were erected line after line along the sands. The carpenters' hammers almost drowned the shouts of the seamen, stevedores, and slaves who struggled in a mob along the water's edge. Bags, boxes, and bales were stacked in the street for want of room in the sheds. Merchants and clerks, hot and perspiring, were busy from sunrise to sundown. A pile of tea chests in the road had to serve as an office table, while every pocket was stuffed with invoices, bills of lading, letters, ship chandlers' accounts, and miscellaneous samples.
Jews flocked to the fray. The market-place was made deafening by voices, yelling in Dutch, English, French, and Spanish, until the great pyramid that rose above the roofs might have belonged to the Tower of Babel.
This abnormal development of the island was not appreciated by the English, and so, on February 3, 1781, Rodney came down upon the dismayed Orange Town and possessed himself of it and all that it contained. It contained a great deal—goods to the value of four million pounds sterling, to say nothing of the 150 merchantmen lying in the bay. " The Jews were stripped to the skin and sent packing. The Dutch had surrendered at discretion and were treated after the manner of Alaric. To the French, who were open enemies, Rodney showed more consideration. They were allowed to go with bag and baggage."' Then began the great sale, the sale of four million pounds' worth of goods without reserve, the great auction of the universe. In this wise St. Eustatius became the scene of the apotheosis of the auctioneer.
After all the purchases had been cleared away, after the last ship had set sail, and after the streets had become empty and still, the exhausted inhabitants returned to the selling of yams. As they gazed down from the cliff upon the long row of deserted warehouses, and upon the awful litter on the beach, they must have felt that the little island had at least had its day.