Categorized | Features, Take a Trip

Sugar Plantations Are Gone, But St. Kitts a Sweet Spot to Visit

Vervet monkeys

A somewhat surprising feature on St. Kitts is a population of green vervet monkeys.

By Victor Block

When Christopher Columbus sighted two small, adjacent islands during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he named the larger of the two St. Christopher, now St. Kitts. Because the single peak that punctuated the other island was, and still often is, hidden in a white blanket of clouds, he dubbed it Nuestro Senora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows), now Nevis.

English and French settlers followed Columbus to the islands in the early 1600s and established a lucrative sugar trade which spanned two centuries and accounted for an influx of slaves from Africa. England eventually wound up with control of the islands, which achieved their independence in 1983.

The islands’ history has left traces of British influence comingled with elements of African and indigenous cultures, providing a rich mosaic which touches many aspects of life. For example, vehicles are driven on the left side of the road, cricket is the most popular sport and some restaurant menus meld Caribbean and African fare with touches of England.

The romance of the islands with sugar began around 1640 at a time when its use to sweeten food was increasing around the world, along with the added benefits of producing molasses and rum. The rich volcanic soil and perfect climate prompted the proliferation of plantations which sprouted like the cane they cultivated. St. Kitts was blanketed by some 200 plantations that grew cane, which was processed at nearly 80 factories. But that heyday could not last forever.

Over time, overplanting impoverished the soil, competition increased and external economic conditions brought an end to the era of sugar. While some cane still is grown and processed, tourism and light manufacturing are the basis of the economy today.

Donkeys & sugar mill ruins

Visitors still may relive the heady days of sugar wealth by exploring the remains of plantations. Ruins of cone-shaped stone windmill towers, rusted steam-driven cane crushers and huge copper bowls in which the juice was boiled lie half-hidden in the vegetation and are among reminders of the thriving sugar economy.

A pleasant way to recall the sugar plantation life is aboard the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which offers a 30-mile, three-hour tour along the northeastern coastline. In the past, the train that rolled along the narrow-gauge railway, originally laid from 1912 to 1926, delivered sugar from the plantations to a sugar factory in the capital city of Basseterre. Now passengers in double-decker cars enjoy views of the sea, pass through tiny villages, skirt lush rain forest terrain and spot long-abandoned windmills and chimneys of former estates.

A somewhat surprising feature on the island is a population of green vervet monkeys; the monkeys were introduced by French plantation owners some 300 years ago as pets for their families. These endearing creatures, which are named for their golden-green fur, prefer to hang out at high elevations, peering inquisitively through the dense foliage at any intruders.

Some adventurous monkeys venture down to more populated low-lying areas, especially where there are sources of food and people to toss them an edible handout. While there’s no way to know how many of these simians share the island with their human cousins, some residents claim that there are more monkeys than people.

Given efforts by European nations to colonize and control the Caribbean islands and the sugar wealth of islands such as St. Kitts, it’s not surprising that forts were built to provide defense against attacks. Construction of the massive Brimstone Hill fortress was begun by the French in 1690 and completed intermittingly over a 100-year period by the British, using slave labor. The complex, perched atop an 800-foot-high rise, sprawls over 38 acres, and the beautifully restored structures include officers’ quarters, barracks and a hospital.

Brimstone Hill Fortress

References to British, French and other influences abound in town names and histories. The village of Bloody Point is where, in 1629, French and British soldiers joined forces to repel an attack by the Caribs. The town of Sandy Point is characterized by West Indian-style cottages.

Basseterre (“lowland”) and Belle Tête (“beautiful head”) are among place names reminiscent of the French era. Dieppe Bay is believed to have been the first French town, while Challengers Village was the first “free” town, where ex-slaves were permitted to purchase small parcels of land.

The story of the island’s villages, along with its history, culture and other aspects of life past and present, is told at The National Museum. The museum occupies an imposing Georgian-style structure which was completed in 1894 and since then has housed almost every government department at one time or another.

A personal favorite exhibit was a collection of phrases depicting traditional Kittatian dialect, which somehow provided me with an intimate introduction to the people. In that vernacular, “He ate the breadfruit” translates to “Is he eat d bread fruit” and “Let’s go to the movies tonight” comes out as “Le’we go movies tonight nuh.”

The National Museum and a handful of other small but interesting collections, plus the allure of casino gambling, are among the something-for-everyone array of attractions on St. Kitts. Then there’s the added choice of inviting palm tree-lined beaches, a multi-cultural history and the appeal of a sister island which, while geographically close, offers a different travel experience.

A St. Kitts Scenic Railway

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