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I am not a beach bunny – even stretching way, way back to my bikini days. I love the ocean – being in, under or on it. But sitting on the sand, even with a book and a beer, palls very quickly. Walking along the beach though is a different matter. There is always something to gather.

My latest collections come from the beaches of St Croix. From one, the delicate little shells of palest pink to the deepest blush. Under candlelight on my dining table they take on a translucent beauty reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait. From another beach, I gather sea glass, or as my granddaughter calls them, gems, tumbled and tossed ashore by tides and waves beginning their journey from who knows where. What start as bottles discarded by careless souls from boats, end up recycled as smooth fragments of opaque glass often used for island jewelry. Or, as in my home, placed in glass bowls to glimmer in quiet simplicity.

I still kick myself for throwing out a cache of elegant little black and white shells. Classic shell shapes – each striation a marvel of nature’s preciseness. I can’t remember where I harvested them, perhaps Australia, perhaps Thailand, but I liked them enough to carry around the world for about fifteen years. And then in a fit of throwing out, probably before another relocation, I tossed them.

That is the trouble with, or perhaps the benefit of, frequent moves. Each item must be judged worthy of container space. We have a problem with books but I think have, on the whole, reached an amicable arrangement. My husband’s collection of Folio Society books, and those left him by my father, always get a free ride. Reference, history and travel books too. Some novels I refuse to be parted from, Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, or those which have struck enough of a chord to warrant a second, or third, reading also get a pass.

But beach novels get the heave ho – no ifs, no buts. Which, considering I am a writer attempting to break into the novel arena and know the agonies of bringing 90,000 words to publication readiness, is very hard to do. I feel I am letting the writerhood down but comfort myself with the thought at least the books will be available for others to enjoy, even if the author gets no royalties from the resale.

A truckload of fabric bought from markets around the world – saris, ikat, batik and so on – has also been a constant, with pieces showing up as curtains, tablecloths and cushion covers in other parts of the world.

And then there is a large box of Mexican tiles. Now they have been an ongoing bone of contention – with each relocation my justification getting thinner. Until St Croix.
Those tiles, lovingly collected over the years, now have a permanent home and there has been a certain amount of “see, I told you I’d use them somewhere!”

Our home in St Croix is in Christiansted. One day we will have a wonderful terrace and garden, but at the moment it is a quarry. We have enough stone to build our very own fort – never mind the one guarding the town and Gallows Bay. But it’s what is between the stones that delights me.

Chaney. Lots and lots of chaney.

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Now to people not acquainted with the islands these little bits of pottery and china might just look like, well, little bits of pottery and china. But they’re not! Chaney was currency. Broken shards of table and kitchenware scavenged by children who would then file down the edges, probably on a rock, and use it as money. “I’ll swap you two chaney for a stick of sugarcane” kind of transaction. Early day bitcoins! The term ‘chaney’ is said to be the words – china and money – conflated. Or perhaps, and I have absolutely no evidence of this, chaney came from the word ‘change’. “You owe me two chaney,” sort of thing.

In 2017, chaney is still valuable. This time wrapped in gold or silver and sold as jewelry to tourists and residents alike. Currency of a different kind. These little pieces of china, nearly always blue and white, have though a multitude of uses – all of them artistic. They embellish lintels, become tabletops, or cover vases.

There are four distinct types of chaney: shell edge, a slightly fluted design from mid 1700s England; mochaware, off-white sturdy kitchenware with linear designs from a similar period; flow blue, from mid 1500s Germany when during the glazing process cobalt oxide blurred the design; and lastly the ubiquitous blue willow design, imported from China in the 1700s, and adapted by Thomas Minton for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire. The willow design depicts the forbidden love between a Chinese Mandarin’s daughter and his secretary. Upon the lovers untimely death, the gods immortalised them as two doves, forever flying together.

And as St Croix once flew under the Dutch flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the blue and white fragments are Delftware.

As I wash each piece of chaney, I wonder about its story. These little shards of china and pottery – history found in our garden. History which will stay in our garden, to one day be incorporated into paving stones and risers. One collection which will not be moving on.

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Beauty and the Beast

January 3, 2017 — 4 Comments

I am fortunate to spend time on St Croix – the largest of America’s surprisingly unknown Caribbean islands. The raw beauty of her beaches and the capriciousness of the sea as it cycles from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to steel, depending on the clouds sent scudding by the constant Trade Winds, never fail to delight.

History emanates off the foot thick walls of the forts – yellow in Christiansted and rust coloured in Frederiksted – telling of the seven flags under which St Croix has flown. Originally known as Ay Ay, the island has been colonized, captured, lost, recaptured and bought, by the Dutch, British, French, Spanish, the Knights of Malta, and finally in 1917 sold by the Danish government for 25 million dollars to the US, fearful of German expansion during the First World War.

With the benefits of US laws and banking regulations, strong African roots from the days of slavery, a European heritage, and a lingering Caribbean charm, St Croix has much to offer both residents and visitors alike.

Green, hawksbill and occasionally leatherback turtles lumber up many of the beaches to lay their eggs, year after year. 50 to 70 days later, seabirds circle the skies watching with predatory interest as the tiny hatchlings surface through the sand and scuttle down to the ocean to start their journey north.

Cacti and scrub populate the eastern end of the island, with mahogany and genip trees towering high in the rainforest to the west. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora and the island flower, Ginger Thomas, splash colour along the roadsides and hide both million-dollar mansions and less palatial homes from prying eyes. Papayas, pomegranates, pineapples and figs – the delicious little bananas – grow with easy abundance. Mangos and avocados grace many local dishes, and the sea offers lobster and mahi mahi and snapper.

Tranquility and beauty.

The islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – like most places have community issues, with elements of society not content to follow the rules. There is domestic abuse, too many guns in the hands of the wrong people, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and larcenies of various kinds. All man made.

There is though a natural beast which lurks with vicious impunity along some of the shorelines. Known by the Spanish conquistadors as the ‘little apple of death’, the hippo mane mancinella, more commonly known as the ‘manchineel’, provides a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, ever a problem for areas facing Atlantic hurricanes. The tree, sometimes growing to 50 feet, can be deadly to most birds and animals though, for some unexplained reason, iguana seem impervious to its toxicity.

To mere mortals its small green fruit resemble crab apples and lie temptingly on the sands. Don’t be enticed. If ingested, savage abdominal pain can be expected, followed by vomiting, bleeding and damage to the digestive tract. Deaths have been reported. Don’t even pick that apple up. The leaves and bark produce a milky sap which cause blindness, mostly temporary, and scorching blisters. If scratched by branches not only do the wounds hurt but pulsating pustules emerge over the coming few hours adding to the misery. I have seen the pain.

If Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador intent on colonizing Florida in 1513, and later parts of the Caribbean, had survived a manchineel-tipped arrow piercing his thigh, he might have been able to attest to its ferocity. Some though accept the temptations. Carpenters covet the hard timber for furniture and a few risk the dangers, drying the wood naturally to neutralize the sap.

Most manchineel shrubs and trees are marked with red crosses and warnings, but signs can get overgrown. Beachgoers have been burned just by standing underneath the tree during one of the many squalls washing the islands and coasts of South America and Florida. The caustic sap can even burn the paint off cars parked under its branches. And, if burned, the air is filled with toxins causing respiratory problems.

Accepted as the most dangerous tree in the world, the manchineel is relatively rare and is considered endangered – remember, it does have some positive benefits. But really, the best thing to do, should you come upon a manchineel is to give it a wide berth.

Beauty and the beast – part of the allure of the Caribbean.

And, should your kite get entangled in the manchineel’s embracing arms, just cut the strings.

Yesterday the conch shell sounded. Its mournful cry carried on the Trade Winds to bounce off the thick, yellow walls of Christiansvaern Fort and echo around the mainly deserted streets of Christiansted. Blown by Senator Positive Nelson, it gathered those commemorating the road to emancipation 168 years earlier.

At 5 o’clock in the morning, the group of walkers, one by one, rattled the chains on the Fort gates before setting off to strains of reggae and rap, and the exhortations of Senator Nelson. Their destination, fifteen miles along the island of St Croix to Fredriksted Fort, where they would rattle the chain of those gates to proclaim their arrival.

A different atmosphere swirled on July 2nd, 1848 when slaves began congregating outside Fredriksted, the culmination of a year-long plan to demand their freedom. That time the leader was Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man. By the early morning of July 3rd numbers had swollen to about 2,000 and by 10 a.m. approximately 8,000 slaves had travelled from estates along the north shore and the northwest of the island.

Fearing aggression and fire, many estate owners from the West End sort sanctuary in Fredriksted Fort, begging Governor Peter von Scholten to come and talk to the crowds before violence erupted. The Governor was given until 4 p.m to free the slaves. Meanwhile, preparations were made by slave women to set fire to the fort, and the whipping post – that symbol of the barbaric treatment of recalcitrant slaves – was thrown into the harbour. Versions vary as to from exactly where von Scholten issued the proclamation but, upon seeing the masses, he announced, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”

Jubilation flooded the countryside, and it is Buddhoe who is credited with calming the situation, helping quell any rioting. Slaves in Christiansted, however, hearing of the rebellion but not the freedom given, began to rebel. With the situation spiralling out of control at Bassin Triangle, at the entrance to the town, Danish militia were ordered to fire a shrapnel-filled cannon, injuring and killing unarmed slaves. Panicked by rampaging mobs of former slaves intent on retribution, plantation owners sought refuge in Government House. By the time Governor von Scholten arrived in Christiansted on the evening of the 3rd July, the town had calmed and in the following days, with the cooperation of General Buddhoe, new norms were put in place.

The British abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies in 1833, which had intensified the discussion in the Danish West Indies and with government in Copenhagen. Von Scholten had long harried for better conditions for the slaves, and in 1843 had given slaves both Saturday and Sunday off in order they might work their tracts of land, and sell their produce in the towns.

After long discussions on abolition, starting in 1844, the Danish government made into law any child born to slaves from 1847 would be born free. The measures though were not enough and freedom was demanded, and given, on 3rd July 1848. The Governor was vilified by the West Indian government and slave owners who with one proclamation and no consultation had lost vast wealth. He was recalled to Denmark, and leaving his long time paramour, a black woman called Anna Heegaard, he left the islands.

Today, in the former Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands, another day of freedom is also celebrated – the 4th of July – a weekend of independence. There will be fireworks, but it is the clarion call of the conch shell which sends quivers of remembrance along the spine of this former colony.