Archives For Fireburn

The Conch Calls

July 3, 2018 — 1 Comment

Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence. 

Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.

After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?

170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”. 

Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost. 

Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man. 

Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.

Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day! 

Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.

Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.

Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!

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I Promised Monkeys

March 13, 2018 — 2 Comments

We are a mixed bag! A family spread across the globe – Britain, the US, Trinidad and Tobago. My children were born in The Netherlands and Thailand. My grandchildren are bi-racial TCKs. My son’s girlfriend is Polish. We are archetypal global nomads. And we love it.

However getting together is never easy. We all lead busy lives in different time zones, with the added complication of a son working rotation in the North Sea. Fortunately my daughter is a firm believer in travel being part of her children’s schooling and so has no compunction about freeing them from the bonds of formal education.

This month, after a three year gap, we managed to coordinate our lives to have six days together on neutral ground – Costa Rica. A country none of us had visited and one we were all eager to explore.

I wanted a house Ava and Harley would remember. A unique property jumped off the screen. Way down south on the Peninsula de Osa, and 40 feet up a tree. There was even a ground -level bathroom for anyone not keen on conducting ablutions in the treetops. Perfect. What fun! Until the sensible partner of our marriage pointed out that a fearless-almost-four-year-old rampaging around a treehouse would not be conducive to a relaxed vacation. And one review did mention mahogany birds the size of playing cards. For those of you who have not read my novel, Fireburn, mahogany birds are not sleek and beautiful members of the avian family but are actually up-sized flying cockroaches. Seven of our group, whilst not being enamoured of the rather repellant insects, are pretty relaxed in their presence. The eighth member of our party would not have been quite so blasé and might well have taken flight herself.

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And so Sirena Azul was found. A funky house memorable for its shape and colour. Round and a vivid hyacinth-blue. Located a short way up a hillside equidistant from Domincal and Uvita, it ticked all the boxes. Large enough. Reasonably safe. A beautiful tropical garden and pool. A stream and waterfall. Birds. And monkeys.

Spider and howler monkeys to be precise.

As we arrived the dipping sun bathed the garden in dappled gold, and cicadas launched their evening chorale. Then from further up the hill  came a cacophony of deep-throated coughs. Though we couldn’t see them, the howlers were howling. A quick scan of the Costa Rica guide (we weren’t set up for internet) told us their voices can be heard up to three miles away, warning other troupes to stay clear of their territory. The children went to bed exhausted but happy with the promise of monkey sightings soon.

While most of us were diving for multi-coloured plastic turtles in the pool the next afternoon, Grandpa disappeared on a monkey hunt. Having clambered upstream and over boulders, he returned happy and victorious. A family had been found larking around in the treetops – spider monkeys – their prehensile tails acting as a fifth arm. He promised a trek up the hill the next day but we got sidetracked and so the only monkeys around were the girls.

We surfed, we zip-lined, we rode, we lazed. We played games. We were a family gathered. And all the while humming birds, so iridescent it looked as if they had sequins sown on their wings, sipped from heliconia around the garden, hawks hovered, egrets busied themselves, and euphonia showed off their yellow breasts with gay abandon. Toucans did not appear though we heard them high in the canopy. A two-toed sloth was spotted but fortunately not whilst I was arboreal, and also agouti. Iguanas eyed us with reptilian lassitude as we passed by. But still no monkeys though we heard them howling as dawn crept over the horizon and through the trees, or as darkness fell in a bruised blur of purple and black.

And then as four of us sat enjoying a quiet few moments on the verandah later in the week, I think with a beer in hand, a rustling attracted my husband and there, just a few trees away, was a skittering shape. Then another. With more still to come. A balcony surrounded the top floor of Sirena Azul and we raced up. There they were. Monkeys. The same family.

A quick message was sent to those absent. “Monkey sighting. Come home.” And home they raced, in time to see the troupe swing from tree to tree in playful chase. A family just like ours enjoying each others company.

Six days flew by. Who knows when we’ll all get together again? But in the meantime we will all treasure our memories of Costa Rica, and the promised monkeys.

Cherish the Ruins

December 31, 2017 — 2 Comments

The flurry of Christmas is over, and it’s that time of year. Time to reflect, but not linger, on the past.

It is a theme that has been much on my mind lately as I have been writing an article on an exciting joint USVI / Danish proposal, known as The Legacy Project, for St Croix This Week – which, as a Caribbean quirk, is produced bi-monthly. It is on the conservation of the past, the restoration of the present and the transformation for the future.

I am referring to the old Danish army barracks which, after their final iteration in the 1960s as a high school then police substation, were abandoned to asbestos and bush. It is a project dear to my heart and not only because it is IMBY (In My Back Yard) but, and this is a direct quote from the piece which I thought quite good even if I do say so myself, “Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad.”

The history of these aged barracks is etched into the walls built from ballast bricks and coral stone. The bricks were used to stabilise empty ships arriving from Denmark ready to load up with sugar and rum for eager consumers in Europe. The coral stone was cut by slaves, hauled ashore and used not only to be aesthetically pleasing but to help cool the buildings.

But this isn’t a blog about buildings – you’ll have to read SCTW for that.

No, I’m talking about me. In May 2018 I will reach the 60 milestone or, as miles were counted in Nigeria, the 60th pole – the telegraph poles strung along the dusty roads crisscrossing the country when I was a child.

It’s a bit of a shock. In my mind I am 35 but my mirror says, “Add 25 years, ducky”. 49 stitches down my back is a good start for counting the scars. My husband did suggest I get a zip tattooed over that one. And my face is running out of room for stitches, no matter how adept the plastic surgeons. But as I reflect on the past I comfort myself that the physical flaws are part of my heritage – the good and the bad. I’m sure I have mental flaws but can’t think of any at the moment!

I have been inordinately fortunate in my life. I come from a happy, if slightly unusual and nomadic background. I met a man in Papua New Guinea 40 years ago and still adore him, and our children and grandchildren bring great joy. Of course there have been tears, disappointments, frightening times and moments of ‘what the fuck’ but those are events that have etched themselves into my psyche and made me stronger, if not more patient. There’s a flaw!

I have wiffle-waffled around in various jobs in various countries – all of which have been great fun but none could have been called a career. Perhaps it is the fault of my Zodiacal sign. Geminis are notoriously fickle. That question, so often asked of me around the world, ‘what do you do?’ has invariably caused a seconds conundrum.

However the last ten years have seen me knuckle down. Expat Life Slice by Slice (Summertime Publishing 2012) was a memoir and, much as I enjoyed writing it, did not to my mind give me the right to call myself a writer. The words did not come from rigid discipline, interviews and research as non-fiction does – they came from my memory nudged by diaries and photographs. Or as in fiction, from allowing the imagination to float freely backed up by discipline and research.

But with the publication of Fireburn (OC Publishing 2017) – an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies of the 1870s, I have a label. No longer will those little tags at conferences, cocktails or coffee mornings merely give my name – I have, at the ripe old nearly age of 60, a bona fide career. Writer.

Oh yes, another mental flaw – procrastination!

As we head into the New Year, I’m going to stop dithering and write the sequel, Transfer of the Crown. And I’m not going to linger on birthdays and scars. Instead I’m going to return to those decaying army barracks and think of the words spoken by Danish architect, Ulla Lunn, as she passionately called for their restoration – “cherish the ruins”.

May 2018 bring you health and happiness – and wonderful stories to share.

Island Strong

October 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.

Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.

Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.

The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.

Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.

Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.

In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.

Just as fictional Anna did.

The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!

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Purchase Fireburn here!