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Anchoring progress in tradition.



Saint Vincent has been called the Caribbean's last frontier, one of the most undeveloped and unspoiled islands in the chain that stretches from Puerto Rico to Trinidad. And though modern-day Vincentians share their Carib ancestors' reputation for being fiercely independent, political changes in the larger world are increasingly affecting this remote archipelago.

Saint Vincent is home to nearly 99,000 people, with another eight thousand scattered among the Grenadines. Most Vincentians are of African, East Indian, Carib (a few full-blooded Caribs still live in the north), and Portuguese descent. Half the population is under the age of twenty. Saint Vincent is shaped like a kite, and its "tail" is made up of some thirty-two Grenadines islets, seven of which are inhabited.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines gained independence from Great Britain in 1979, and remain part of the British Commonwealth. Vincentians have integrated centuries of British heritage into a West Indian way of life: Boys and men still play impromptu cricket on the beach, and Queen Elizabeth's portrait still graces each denomination of eastern Caribbean currency.

Despite its rich soil, Saint Vincent has never had a surplus of food, notes Dr. Earle Kirby, formerly of the Ministry of Agriculture. The islands' topography has limited the development of a plantation economy; therefore, society never became stratified. Education is free through the primary level but not compulsory (most families need their children to work in the fields or on fishing boats) and available through the teen years. Few families can afford to send their children to Barbados or Toronto for higher education, though many would like to. No matter what their income, each family has its own home sitting on enough land to grow food to eat and to sell.

Like their ancestors, nearly all Vincentians are sailors and fishermen, whether by trade or daily necessity. Having never been "fished out" by industrial fishing boats, marine life still supports hundreds of men who transport and sell their catch (dolphin fish, tuna, lobsters, and more) to the large hotels of Saint Lucia and Martinique. Those who do not depend directly on the sea for a living become farmers or work in construction or for the government. The sea has become more crowded during this century, thanks to two of Saint Vincent's most important sources of income: bananas and cruising sailors.

Yachtsmen have long come here for some of the finest sailing waters the world has to offer. Live-aboard ketches and chartered boats from Saint Lucia pass through customs at Wallilabou Bay on the leeward coast, and fill--but rarely crowds--the dozens of anchorages throughout the Grenadines. The government, taking advantage of the sailors' need for local nautical and boat-building expertise, will soon open a new yacht harbor at Ottley Bay, north of Kingstown, to repair and refurbish oceangoing yachts.

A similar venture, also financed with Italy's help, is being talked about for Union Island, the southernmost Grenadine and entry point for South American boats. But local sailors and fishermen are quick to warn that a large yacht harbor would seriously harm the fragile marine environment on which they depend. As with so many other islands, the ongoing Caribbean battle of economy-versus-ecology is beginning to make itself felt! even in these remote islets whose names few people know.

At the colorful, chaotic dock in Kingstown, the enormous Van Geest Lines freighters are loaded each week with the "green gold" of Saint Vincent's banana crop, bound for Great Britain. But while Saint Vincent's 133-square-miles of soil are as immeasurably fertile as ever, its glorious mountain landscape has become its agricultural Achilles heel. Saint Vincent could be the "breadbasket of the Caribbean," producing enough to feed every island in the West Indies. But cultivation must be done entirely by hand, for farm machinery cannot function on the steep hillsides of Mespo.

The Mesopotamia Valley in southern Saint Vincent is as rich as its Biblical namesake; "even the rocks grow in Mespo" goes the local saying. Its endless peaks and valleys are covered in the thick green foliage of coconut palms, bananas, breadfruit, and arrowroot; farmers grow squashes called christophenes, tubers called dasheen and eddoes, plus nutmeg, peanuts, heliconia, bougainvillea, and hibiscus.

But the copra and sea island cotton plantations are gone, and exotic produce is highly perishable and impossible to export. The exception is bananas, the lifeblood of Saint Vincent's economy, thanks to subsidies from Great Britain. That country has bought every banana Saint Vincent can grow since 1948, paying more than the crop would bring in the flatter, more easily cultivated countries of Central America.

About 80 percent of banana farmers make a living from cultivating just two to five acres of land. It takes only nine months to harvest a banana crop from the initial plant; blue diothene plastic bags dot the acres of green, covering growing "hands," or bunches. The translucent blue bags block the sun's rays that might otherwise cook the bananas to mush, retain moisture, and prevent bruising--resulting in blemish-free, medium-sized, and therefore salable bananas. Because bananas spoil in days if cut too soon, radiobroadcasts advise farmers when to harvest the crop.

The tree must be replanted every three years with a cutting or sucker from the parent--no seeds are involved, since the banana is not technically a fruit tree but a large herbaceous plant.

Banana farmers are paid by what might be called the stagecoach method: Nearly half a million dollars in cash each week is count-ed into small envelopes, and the money delivered to the boxing stations in coffin-sized, padlocked wooden boxes that have been used for decades. Chit in hand,about three thousand Vincentians line up each week to collect the cash their harvest brings.

Today, however, as a result of the 1992 unification of the European common market, the profitability of Saint Vincent's banana economy is being threatened. Because other European countries have no reason to give special treatment to a member of the British Commonwealth, Saint Vincent's protected subsidy is being challenged. Despite the fact that Prime Minister James "Son" Mitchell has been assured it will continue until 1999, Germany recently took legal measures to keep Great Britain from continuing the subsidy.

Meetings were held in Dominica last summer in an attempt to resolve the issue. "It's quite a business just now," comments Kirby. "The banana business is very chancy at the moment; the drought this year seriously lowered production, and loss of the subsidy would be a terrible blow, as bananas bring in the majority of Saint Vincent's GNP."

Fortunately, a little-known plant is also widely cultivated on Saint Vincent: arrowroot, so named because the Caribs used it as an antidote for arrow wounds. Saint Vincent is the world's largest supplier of arrow-root, now used for a purpose the Caribs could never have dreamed of--as a coating for fanfold computer paper. Whether it can or will replace banana production remains uncertain.

Though most work the land or the sea, Vincentians sooner or later find their way to Kingstown for supplies or ferry travel. A new covered marketplace in the capital, near the outdoor bus terminal, draws locals from all over the island to sell their fruits, vegetables, fish, goats, and chickens. Many arrive on one of Saint Vincent's dozens of colorful minibus-taxis that crisscross the island, hand painted across the front with names like "Mad Dog II," "Stragglin' Man," and "Say Wha Yo Like." Kingstown is a bustling, growing town that manages sooner or later to supply everything necessary to run a business.

North of the city center is sprawling Saint Mary's Catholic Church, which looks rather as if a group of imaginative schoolchildren had constructed it, inventing all kinds of decorative brickwork as they went along. The result is an eclectic blend of Moorish, Georgian, Byzantine, and Venetian styles, surrounded by potted plants.

Saint Vincent's six other denominations, from Rastafarian to Mormon, all join in the celebration called Vincy Mas (short for Masquerade). Traditionally celebrated just before the Lenten season began, the carnival has evolved into a midsummer cultural celebration. Its elaborate costumes and African-calypso music hold their own compared with Brazil's and Trinidad's carnivals.

Kingstown's pride is its Botanical Gardens, founded in 1765 and the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. They include a descendant of the original breadfruit tree brought from Tahiti by Captain William Bligh in 1793, to provide cheap food for the slaves who worked the Caribbean's sugar plantations. (The mutiny on the Bounty had occurred four years earlier.)

Here on the Garden grounds is the tiny National Museum, founded, supplied, and run almost single-handedly by Dr. Kirby, who is the unofficial protector of Vincentian culture and history. Despite long occupation by French and British forces, he says, it was the Spanish who named the island, replacing the Carib word Youroumei (meaning "the beauty of the rainbows in the valleys") with the name of their patron saint, Vincent, a Christian martyr killed in Spain in 305 A.D.

The museum's collection includes implements of wood, stone, shell, and coral--little more survives, because the island's soil is too acid. Over centuries the island was continuously inhabited by various tribes and peoples, says Kirby, so pottery bits from many cultures became mixed up. It was the eruptions of Mount Soufriere, Saint Vincent's four-thousand-foot, still-active volcano, that served to separate them to some degree.

Kirby points out in the artifacts the influences from other cultures--Guatemalan textile motifs on clay bowls, suggestions of South American cultures, even an animal resembling a Native North American bear totem on a large cylindrical Carib vase. Other vessels are decorated with incised vultures, manatees, vampire bats, and howler monkeys.

Much of Saint Vincent's ancient and still mysterious history is preserved in its rocks. Symbols of the Hindu gods Siva and Parvati are carved on the walls of Buccament valley caves, and a stone carbon dated to 800 B.C. bears Celtic-incised writing. Shell implements in burial plots have been carbon dated to 4320 B.C.

Just north of Layou, a small fishing village on the leeward coast, is one of the island's many petroglyphs, or rock carvings. Thirteen centuries ago, on a Volkswagen-sized boulder, the Ciboney incised the image of the god Yocahu, credited with bringing cassava to the hungry tribe. Like the monuments at Stonehenge, the carvings were designed to be viewed best during the solstices or equinoxes.

The nomadic, ferocious Caribs were forced to be warlike, Kirby explains, since they were constantly on the move and had to protect themselves from European forces at a moment's notice. Staunch individuals, tribe leaders arose only during wartime. They gave the Spanish and English so much trouble, the island was finally decreed neutral after decades of bloody battles. Saint Vincent was the last island to be colonized, and the last outpost of major European expansion.

The Caribs' tenacity contributed several colorful words to the English language. The ritual chewing of their dead enemies' flesh and hearts was done, anthropologists now know, to impart their enemies' wisdom and valor to the Caribs. The word cannibal, the Spanish corruption of Carib, soon took on a more grisly general meaning. Hurricane simply means "big wind" in the Carib language, and hammock means the same in both Carib and English. Grilled meat was a favorite dish that French pirates borrowed from the Caribs; a boucan was the spit on which meat was roasted over the fire, and boucanier soon became buccaneer.

Only businesspeople in a hurry fly from Saint Vincent's E. T. Joshua Airport to the Grenadines; a sail or motorboat is the preferred means of transport. Locals and travelers also line up at the busy' ferry dock in Kingstown to board the M/V Snapper, the blue freighter/mailboat that delivers letters and cargo twice weekly throughout the Grenadines.

After a few hours on the sea, the quiet Grenadines make Kingstown feel as busy as New York City. Nine miles southwest of Saint Vincent lies Bequia, once the sole province of local people, seasoned travelers, and serious sailors who consider Admiralty Bay one of the finest deepwater harbors in the Caribbean. Home of Prime Minister Mitchell, whose boyhood home became one of the first guest houses, the island has only recently been developed for tourism.

Bequia first received electricity only in the 1960s, and until 1992 was reachable only by sea. With the opening of its airport that year, and the refurbishing of an old guest house into an upscale small hotel, the island is for the first time beginning to see tourists who arrive from the north in winter coats.

Well known for its highly skilled boat builders and seamen, Bequia is the last Caribbean island to practice whaling. Though controversial because the whales no longer need be killed for food, Bequia has been granted Aboriginal Whaling Status by the International Whaling Commission and never takes more than three whales per year. Only one has been captured since 1987. Athneal Olivierre, still fit at seventy-three, is perhaps the last Bequian who hunts in the traditional way: taking the whale by hand-thrown harpoon from a small, hand-built "two-bow" rowboat.

South on quiet Canouan, local people still sprinkle their patois with eighteenth-century words, and shepherd and goatherd remain career options. In the island's hilly interior lie the ruins of an old Anglican cathedral, battered by a nineteenth-century hurricane. White beaches on calm bays surround the island, and, as on the other Grenadines, most men are fishermen and boat builders.

Farther south is Mayreau, an arid islet completely dependent on the Snapper for supplies. But it was only a few years ago that a dock was built to receive them; previously, local men rowed out in their hand-built boats, unloading into them everything from farm tools to cases of Coca Cola. Farm animals outnumber citizens here, and the island's one phone was installed in 1990 in the Salt Whistle Bay Club. (So perfectly designed is this resort of low stone buildings, set back among sea grape trees on a remarkably beautiful beach, that it is invisible from the water.) A climb "over the hill" through cactus provides stunning views of the Tobago Cays, five uninhabited islets lying in the brilliant turquoise sea. Much favored by snorkelers, the Cays lie over one of the richest, shallowest reefs in the Caribbean.

On the other side of Mayreau, overlooking Saline Bay and the peaks of Union Island, Dennis sometimes plays reggae songs on his guitar for the sailors and locals who keep his tiny Hideaway bar and restaurant full.

Craggy Union Island, whose peaks remind every sailor of Tahiti, is Saint Vincent's southern port of entry. Chickens and goats wander on the airstrip behind the one hotel in the town of Clifton; the rest of the island seems hardly touched by time.

Perhaps the only well-known Grenadine is Mustique, once an uninhabited island and now an anomaly as a private playground for wealth and royalty. Also private, but as casual as Mustique is exclusive, are Palm Island and Petit Saint Vincent. They too were uninhabited, mosquito-infested specks in the southern Grenadines; about twenty-five years ago, two North Americans reclaimed and slowly transformed them.

Though they are now upscale, private hideaway resorts, both islands are evidence that in the Grenadines, as in few other places, one person can insist that development leave the environment and local people better off than they were before. Haze Richardson hired Vincentians to quarry native blue-bitch stone, a volcanic rock known for its hardness, and use native trees to build PSV's guest houses; John Caldwell planted so many hundreds of palm trees all over his adopted island that he was granted the right to rename it Palm.

Not very long ago the only evidence of "high tech" in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were the numerous fiberglass sailboats that anchored in the bays and coves. The need for progress and profit will inevitably push the islands into the twenty-first century; with luck, their untouched landscapes and Caribbean-as-it-used-to-be atmosphere will survive.

Joan Iaconetti is a New York-based writer and travel photographer who specializes in the Caribbean.
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Title Annotation:St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Author:Iaconetti, Joan
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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