Archives For Frederiksted

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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Christmas Treats

December 24, 2017 — Leave a comment

For many years my treat at this time of year was The Nutcracker, either performed by whoever my daughter was dancing with, and latterly, The Houston Ballet. This Christmas, I’m on St Croix and despite living opposite a dance studio, Tchaikovsky’s ballet is not on the dance card. And so I’ve found something else to satisfy my cultural thirst – and not just one performance.

There’s something about Sundays and music that goes together – whether it’s a church organ or, as has been my pleasure a couple of times lately, an afternoon of Colombian Cumbia, Brazilian Choro (street music), jazz compositions from the greats and original pieces inspired oftentimes by this remarkable music duo’s mode of transport. Their 43’ sloop – S/V Catherine.

This treat has been on offer for the last month at the Caribbean Museum of Culture and Arts in Frederiksted on the western end of St Croix. The venue is perfect for an afternoon of sometimes fierce, sometimes haunting, sometimes lyrical music – none of which it is possible to sit through without moving, at the very least, your toes. The music adds another layer to this elegant building exuding history through the thick walls which surround an inner courtyard. Art covers the walls of the upstairs gallery – at the moment a fascinating exhibition celebrating gay pride.

Through the open windows the hulking outline of the cruise ship housing FEMA, Red Cross officials and others who have responded to the call of St Croix’s need after the devastation of Hurricanes IrMaria, sits at the end of Frederiksted pier. Palm fronds, slowly straightening and growing back, sway in time to the music it seems, with the occasional bird flitting by as if curious to hear the freely floating melodies.

The current artists-in residence at CMCA are a husband and wife team, who play the piano until the historic walls positively quake, and who make a flute sing so sweetly as to bring tears. I believe their daughters are also musically-minded but I haven’t heard them perform yet. They are sometimes joined by local musicians – this last week by Junie Bomba on the conga drums.

Jarad and Christel Astin, aka Stell & Snuggs, met at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts over twenty years ago and, until relatively recently, followed individual musical careers. Their life changed, dramatically, just as so many Virgin Islander’s lives have changed recently – due to mother nature. It was Hurricane Sandy who tore into the fabric of their existence but rather than bemoaning their misfortune, this intrepid couple turned their back on conformity and began their nomadic lives, making music wherever they happen to moor.

Their daughters are homeschooled afloat – and I’d hazard a guess, are getting an education that will stand them in wonderful stead. Resilience and adaptability being two traits that will get them through any number of adventures as they find their own feet, or maybe fins.

As I watched Jarad, so at one with the grand piano in the upstairs gallery, his fingers skimming, pounding or fluttering along the keys, I wondered whether he missed having access to such an instrument as he sails from gig to gig. And I would think traveling with an accordion has issues all of their own. Christel’s work tools would seem far more portable – a flute, a ukulele and her voice.

What did traveling minstrels do before iPads? A quick swipe and notes appeared – maybe Wayne Shorter’s Little Waltz – slow and haunting, or a lively salsa straight from Santiago de Cuba. “Music,” Jarad said when describing the Afro-Caribbean beat, “ which all came out of a trip taken on a boat that they didn’t want to take.”

The power might have fluctuated and then gone off but there was no fluctuation in the power of the music. An original composition, Love Piece, soared up then thundered down – perhaps a description of a brief but intense affair or maybe a long marriage.

Jarad’s comments between pieces continued to be thought provoking – “Jazz brings people together from all over the world, regardless of colour or race or creed” – if at times as odds with his slightly rakish look of shaggy hair cut and porkpie hat!

The final composition was another original written as he sailed across that notoriously rough stretch water along the west coast of France, without Christel. Called Sans Romance de Bay de Biscay, it brought to mind loneliness and longing, before moving into a lilting crescendo as presumably he neared home.

The Astins are not only talented musicians but actively involved in encouraging youth to express themselves through music. I truly hope they continue to moor up at St Croix both for what they can teach and for the pleasure they bring.

I might not have listened to Tchaikovsky or watched The Nutcracker this Christmas but I certainly didn’t miss out on a cultural musical tour.
Merry Christmas, and may 2018 bring magic and treats to you and yours, in all its forms!

Moths, Maggots and Mould

November 13, 2017 — 8 Comments

Here we are in St Croix! The sea is an ever-changing panoply of brilliant blues and glorious greens and is a ready distraction as I glance from my study window. I’ve just watched the ferry depart – it’s rather odd four-hulled shape making smooth headway across the channel to St Thomas. It is a constant on an island that has few constants at the moment after first Hurricane Irma skipped to the north, followed a week later by Hurricane Maria who skimmed the southern shores creating merry hell.

Power being the least constant of them all. Most of St Croix is still powerless though the hordes of beefy-looking linemen from the mainland, and our own crews, are steadily making their way across the island installing new poles and lines. March, or at the latest April, is the month being touted by Governor Mapp – I think that’s called “hedging one’s bets”!

Arriving on Wednesday after relatively stress-free flights considering we travelled with Bonnie, the cat and her partner-in-crime, Clyde, the dog, we were astounded to find we are part of that small percentage who do have light and therefore water. Along with the delight was a momentary pang of guilt – assuaged by offering ‘power and shower’ to people we know who are in need of a top up.

Hurricane Maria stripped the island of vegetation. Stately mahoganies tumbled. Elegant palms may be upright but their waving fronds have fallen or dangle impotently, providing little or no shelter. The genip tree across from our sturdy West Indian home is showing signs of life but until a few days ago was naked – it’s branches skeletal against the ocean backdrop.

But life is to be found. In our house it is in the crevices of old brick walls, or sending tendrils across walls and furniture, or in the fridge.

Moths emerge on a minute-by-minute basis. They had taken up residence in the pantry, managing to invade tightly sealed packaging to leave mounds of sawdust on the shelves. Bleaching and repainting have helped but still they flutter out to be met by a barrage of Raid.

Mould is an unsightly web of varicose veins across walls covered with anti-fungal paint, and wood furniture polished with wax. Diluted vinegar has been sluiced over every surface, left to dry, rinsed and then sprayed with eucalyptus anti-mould magic. We’ll see.

And maggots inhabit every nook and cranny of the fridge and freezer. The saving grace. Power came on the day before our arrival and so instead of a seething mass of blancmange-like grubs there is a bucketful of dried oat-like particles coating every surface and deep within the fridge’s innards. I will never look at muesli the same way again.

Drawers, rails, the ice-maker, and various screws, bolts and important parts line the gallery catching every skerrick of sunshine as vinegar and lemon do their part in eliminating odours. I have a minor concern that there will be one vital part missing when the fridge is reassembled, and I believe it is an unacknowledged concern of the man who will be putting it back together. It has been a back-breaking endeavour and why, I have been told, my husband never went into the plumbing business. A tall man in a confined space is not a pleasant work environment. We have spritzed, we have poured, we have scrubbed, we have dug into every possible fissure with toothpicks in order to rid our cooling device of it’s unwelcome, though thankfully dead, visitors. Baking soda and a constantly rotating fan are now doing their job and one day, soon, we will have a functioning fridge.

There are many small jobs which need attention. Shingles have been rudely cast aside by Maria’s wrath exposing the inner structure of our home. A few shutters now swing forlornly on broken hinges in the intermittent trade winds but the windows held true as did the roof, hurricane clipped at every conceivable point. An enterprise I, at one time, considered excessive but for which I am now grateful.

But we have it easy. Blue tarpaulins dot the landscape in FEMA’s effort to keep the daily squalls out. Many have lost much. Piles of debris litter the road sides – mostly organic but sofas, mattresses and televisions are seen in some areas. There is a recycling centre but it is overwhelmed – it’s dumpsters out and about around the island trying to corral the odiferous detritus left in Maria’s wake.

Frederiksted, on the western end of St Croix, took the brunt of the hurricane as she spumed her way to Puerto Rico where she inflicted even greater damage and hardship. This end of the Caribbean chain has been hard hit this year so we are receiving cruise ships who normally shun us. St Thomas, Tortola and many other regular cruising destinations are unable to host great numbers of tourists and so St Croix is grateful to be able to receive them – albeit offering limited delights but each day is better than the last, and the spirit of resilience is ever present.

These islands need tourism, and to those who have made plans to visit, or are considering a Caribbean adventure, please come. All are welcome. But please be patient if your credit card does not immediately work, or cell phone reception is patchy, or if the power fluctuates – this is what islanders have been managing for many weeks, and in some instances will be coping with for months to come.

Moths, maggots and mould are easily dealt with and do not dampen the warmth and friendliness of the Caribbean, and remember it is always about the people.