Anguilla’s Secrets

December 5, 2006

I snorkled along after the parrotfish until it ducked into a nook in the coral and then let a little school of sergeants major lure me into shallower water. Smaller fish succeeded smaller fish, drawing me closer and closer through the dappled shallows to the Anguillan shore, until I had nearly beached myself like some Devonian sea creature contemplating adaptation to dry land.It wasn’t a bad evolutionary move. The sandy perimeter of Anguilla is scalloped, nibbled by the Atlantic and Caribbean into a skein of some 30 crescent bays that vie for perfection in serenity and an easy, human scale. For a connoisseur of beaches, the island is an all-you-can-eat buffet.There are beaches where you are alone, and beaches with hotels attached; beaches with fishy inshore reefs, and beaches with a rousing surf; beaches where you can dine by candlelight while listening to Nat King Cole, and beaches where barbecue sauce dribbles down your chin while you listen to a local band.Somewhere between Limestone Bay and Upper Shoal Bay, between Cove Bay and Sea Feather Bay, I began to get the idea that on Anguilla, sheer will and a compliant natural environment had finally managed to create a place where the more unruly aspects of history and geography have been eliminated, leaving a perfect sunny beachscape where the only thing to think about is whether to get in or out of the water.

Take Scilly Cay – or Gorgeous Scilly Cay, the nom de commerce used by its proprietors, Eudoxie and Sandra Wallace. Scilly Cay is an islet about the size of a baseball diamond, just a few hundred yards out from Island Harbour and accessible via the Wallaces’ ready-when-you-are motor launch.

It is a beach with a restaurant and bar attached, a place with hardly any walls and absolutely no need to change attitude or attire from one moment, when you are looking a live fish in the eye, to the next, when you are addressing a broiled lobster. (A grain of salt is recommended, though, when listening to Eudoxie, a man who claims he swims in Anguillan waters only from August 15 to August 20, because “the rest of the year it’s too cold.”)


I ate my lobster, then settled back with one of Eudoxie’s rum punches. These are sneaky devils, which he crafts with a healthy dollop of amaretto and a heroic belt of rum. Two put reality nicely in perspective, and a third would knock you on your Scilly Cayster.

Actually, five or six of Eudoxie’s potions could hardly enhance the lotus-eating attitude that all those beaches inspire. But six or seven beaches into my stay – it must have been something I read – I threw my snorkel and towels in the back seat of the jeep and started looking around.

What I found was that Anguilla is a place with a lot more texture than I had initially appreciated, a necklace of beaches attached to a singular inner landscape, held together by some remark-able individuals.


Anguilla, a long, irregular coral outcropping that doesn’t seem to fit its name (“eel” in the language of its discoverers – Spanish, French, or Italian, according to conflicting stories), lies at the northern tip of the Lesser Antilles. It is an island with a history quite unlike that of any other in the Caribbean: Aside from a couple of abortive French attacks during the 18th century, it was never dislodged from the British colonial orbit.

The island even staged a bizarre anti-independence revolution 30 years ago, when Britain tried to cut the apron strings.

So arid that plantation agriculture was never really practical, the 35-square-mile island could not support a slave economy. Which is not to say that there were no slaves, simply that those on Anguilla didn’t have enough work; by some accounts, they had four days a week off so they could tend their own small garden plots and attend church on Sunday.


Forty years ago Alec Waugh wrote that Anguilla “has never known prosperity.” But accurate as that observation may have been at the time (the island still lacked electricity and telephones in the late 1960s), the opposite was also true: Anguilla had never known the sort of poverty associated with overpopulation (the census hovers at around 10,000), urban slums, or crashes in the sugar market.

Anguillans fished and farmed, built boats, and took off-island jobs so they could send money home. Other islands may have had an underclass; on Anguilla, just about everyone belonged to a hardscrabble yeomanry.

The landscape left by 350 years of such unentrepreneurial settlement has been capped in the last three decades by carefully planned tourism centered upon a dozen or so luxurious but discreet low-rise resorts. But beyond the beaches, beyond the dooryard gardens of folks who by now must all have at least one desk clerk in the family, extends what botanists call “evergreen bushland.”


Evergreen bushland is what the rest of us might call “scrub,” and scrub the interior portion of Anguilla has probably always been. There were no dense forests here to cut for shipbuilding orto clear for plantations; the soils that overlay Anguilla’s limestone foundation were too shallow ever to allow trees to grow very tall. Mahogany was introduced here and failed. Scrub it was, and scrub it has remained.

So I made my way into the evergreen bushland along whatever rutted tracks wandered inland. On Anguilla the ticket seemed to be to head north out of the capital, a loosely strung, centerless center called The Valley, and then veer into the bush on a dirt road just south of where kids hawk beach chair rentals at Uncle Ernie’s bar on Shoal Bay. My route even included an archaeological destination – a cave called The Fountain, once frequented by Anguilla’s native Arawak, a peaceful people now extinct.

As soon as I got off the blacktop, the indicators that I was on a wild goose chase were all around me. Or maybe a wild dove chase: Anguilla’s national bird, celebrated in a “Love Our Dove” campaign, is the turtledove.

Posters give dove-friendly advice about not cutting brush, not filling in ponds, and not releasing cats and goats in the wild. (Maybe the souvenir shop I saw giving out free goatskin key chains was a pro-dove operation.) But this back road, like so many others on Anguilla, was lousy with doves.

What the doves accompanied me through, and to, was¿more scrub. The brush was impenetrable on both sides of the narrowing road, now little more than an uneven slab of exposed coral rock. No side trails led anywhere. It was a landscape that might have pleased Brer Rabbit – thickety, thorny, scrubby brush, carpeting a terrain that rose and fell hardly at all.

I thought of a conversation I had overheard, about a proposed golf course for this end of the island, and threw my remaining environmentalist credentials to the breezes by deciding that this was the kind of landscape that would be vastly improved by 18 holes and a clubhouse.

Then I stopped and got out of the jeep, and in all that green scrub I saw the damnedest thing: a perfect white blossom eight feet up on a gnarled, leafless shrub that otherwise showed absolutely no sign of life. The solitary flower was proof that even the dreariest, most monotonous landscape offers its epiphanies, jewels best appreciated at a walker’s pace. I recanted my golf-course heresy and drove back to the main road.

I never found The Fountain, but I didn’t have to delve into the scrub to see Arawak relics. I simply had to visit Colville Petty, who has assembled a number of pre-Columbian artifacts as part of a museum of Anguilla history, adjacent to his home, which he plans to open to the public.

Petty is a tall, bearded man, a historian who was once the island’s acting deputy governor. He has spent many years putting together his collection, a systematic Anguillan mini-Smithsonian, which starts with the Arawak and the days when the island was known by its native name, Malliouhana, and continues through the tumult of Anguilla’s unusual, fatality-free revolution.

The collection includes conch shell knives, coral tools, and fragments of pottery found at The Fountain and at several other places where the Arawak lived a life based on agriculture and fishing. Not surprisingly, those activi-ties were also the primary pursuits of the people who left behind the 19th- and 20th-century artifacts now in Petty’s possession.

“Even before emancipation, some Anguilla plantation holders gave up and sold parcels of land to their slaves,” Petty told me. “So Anguilla had a jump on becoming a free society.”

A free society, but one that long lived at a subsistence level the Arawak could have understood. It was fascinating to poke through the household odds and ends Petty had amassed and realize that the age of kerosene and raw muscle ended on Anguilla barely 25 years ago.

Items as commonplace as postage stamps and a license plate cue the most interesting part of the Petty collection, having to do with the events of 1967 through 1969. Until that point Anguilla had been lumped together with St. Kitts and Nevis as a British colonial unit – an arrangement that was to have continued with the grant-ing of independence in 1967.

“The ¿CN’ on an old Anguillan license plate stands for St. Christopher [St. Kitts] and Nevis,” Petty told me. “Anguilla wasn’t even recognized. It was the same with the postage stamps you see here.”

Fed up with the third-class status that they anticipated in a St. Kitts-led federation, the Anguillans rebelled, setting in motion a complex and sometimes almost farcical chain of events in which Great Britain and St. Kitts never looked good, and which climaxed with a bloodless, unresisted British invasion of Anguilla in March 1969.

The Anguillans finally got what they wanted in 1980, when their separation from St. Kitts and Nevis and ratification of their colonial status became official. But even before then, de facto separation and an influx of development funds began the orderly transformation from a subsistence economy to one based on tourism.

The whole story unfolds in Petty’s exhibits. The centerpiece is a rifle confiscated from the Kittitian police, who were rousted from Anguilla in 1967; the surrounding walls tell the tale of a festering resentment against St. Kitts that dates back at least as far as the 1820s, when Anguilla first petitioned Britain against being lumped in with the larger island.

A progression of handbills, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other revolutionary paraphernalia culminates fittingly with a British soldier’s caricature of a member of his regiment, with golf clubs slung alongside the rifle on his shoulder. (Anguilla, however, still doesn’t have a golf course.)

Since the anguillan revolution happened so recently, there are plenty of revolutionaries around. One of them is Jeremiah Gumbs, whom I found relaxing, his impressive white beard flowing down his broad chest, on the veranda of the hotel he built nearly 40 years ago at Rendezvous Bay.

Jerry Gumbs was in the thick of the fray back in 1967, sometimes pleading his native island’s case at the United Nations in New York. Meeting him was like being able to talk with Samuel Adams, before he turned into a beer.

“The first goal I had in mind, when the revolution came along, was improving the lot of the women and children on the island,” Gumbs told me in his slow, deliberate baritone.

“They had it the hardest in the old days,” he went on. “The men went away to work on the other islands or in the United States; the women and children were left with the menial farm tasks. Every family had a cow, some goats, and a fishing boat.”

The octogenarian knows the story firsthand: He left Anguilla to work in the Aruba oil industry in 1929, when he was only 16; later, he emigrated to the United States, where he raised his family and founded a successful fuel oil business in a part of central New Jersey where many Anguillans have settled.

The Anguilla to which Jerry Gumbs brought his family in 1956 was much the same place he had left years earlier. His wife, Lydia Gumbs, recalls ironing clothes with a charcoal-filled iron called a “goose,” a device that might easily find its way into Colville Petty’s museum. “But when I got here,” she said, “I thought I was in heaven.”

Jerry Gumbs began building his hotel “with a pick and shovel and the island’s first stone crusher” in 1959 and opened it three years later as the first real resort on Anguilla. It is a serenely old-fashioned place, compared with the sleek new properties that have followed, but it is bright and cheerful still: As I talked with the old man, a worker rolled sunny yellow paint onto the airy veranda’s stucco columns. Along with the newer places, the hotel still fits Jerry Gumbs’s vision of economic development as a goal of the revolution he once helped steer.

Anguillan agriculture has also taken a turn from the days of the one-cow farm. One day as I was heading back to The Valley from the harbor village at Sandy Ground, I saw a row of low, arched, tentlike structures, like see-through Quonset huts, and drove over to investigate.

I had stumbled onto an operation called Green Cuisine, a hydroponic farm that ships lettuce not only to most of the better restaurants on Anguilla itself, but also to other islands in the northeastern Caribbean.

As we walked between rows of crisp, blemishless Bibb and curly-leaf lettuces, proprietor Noureddine Salouane related how he and his wife, June, raise their crop in long trays of circulating, nutrient-enriched water and about how they plan to add cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, and herbs to their line.

Hydroponics is popular in Salouane’s native Morocco, but it wasn’t lettuce that brought him to Anguilla.

“I was trained as an artist,” he told me. “I’ve worked for the king of Morocco and on restoration of the Alhambra in Granada.”

I mentioned that there was extensive and elaborate Moorish-style plasterwork at my Anguilla hotel, which had originally opened under the name Casablanca.

“I did that,” he said.

“You used molds, right?”

“No. I did it the old way.”

I had a vision of Salouane supine, Michelangelo-like, beneath the arches of the hotel’s public spaces, incising the intricate geometry of his ancestors into fresh plaster. Then I looked around

at all that lettuce. Few of us get to make such drastic career jumps.

Later I visited another artist, a 28-year-old Anguilla native named Cheddie Richardson, at the classic, wooden Caribbean-style studio he built near the island’s west end.

Cheddie is a woodcarver. He works in mahogany and walnut and even casts some of his works in bronze; but his favorite medium is driftwood, usually buttonwood or cedar.

“It takes a while to decide what to carve from a piece of driftwood,” Cheddie told me. Looking at some of his pieces, I wondered if perhaps the wait depended on how long the wood took to tell the artist what it wanted to reveal. Birds, fish, mythical sea maidens all leap almost alive from the complex sinews of the flotsam he chooses to carve. It was impossible, after leaving his studio, not to see living shapes and faces in every dead tree and tide-tossed knot of cedar I came across.

Just down the road from Richardson lives David Hodge, an artist who works with wood in quite a different way. Using white pine, Douglas fir, Grade A marine plywood, and epoxy – no metal fasteners – he turns out the lovely, single-masted sailing vessels that evolved in the Anguillan fishery and that now are prized as racing craft. Sometimes, he captains his boats himself.

A lean, serious man with a black goatee, David Hodge has been building boats for 25 of his 39 years and doesn’t mince words. He calls his business David’s Art Gallery. Who’s to argue?

“I am always trying to exceed what I’ve done before,” Hodge says, taking a moment out of a 12-hour day to relax in the cool shade of his building shed. “If I have a boat that wins races, I try to build one that will beat it.

“Sailing before the wind is easy¿,” he tells me before going back to work. The unvoiced conclusion is that one does not always sail before the wind.

Toward the end of my stay in Anguilla, I made another attempt at getting off into nowhere – not into the strange desolation of the evergreen bushland, but to a nowhere with snorkeling beaches.

I followed a road that paralleled the coast along the northeast extremity of the island, and after I passed the last cluster of new villas, the last goats browsing in dooryards, the road dwindled down to a single track. When I found a place to pull off to the side, I followed a short path to a blue crescent bay where there was no one.

The snorkeling wasn’t up to the splendid standards of the rest of the island – what I’d thought was a reef was really a patch of kelp – so I body-surfed for a while and then, drying off, noticed a little green building, barely more than a shack, near the tip of the next point of land.

It turned out to be the Palm Grove Bar and Grill at Junks Hole Bay, the archetypal Great Good Place at the End of the Trail, where proprietor Nat Richardson understands that a fellow likes a couple of johnny cakes with his Red Stripe while he is waiting for his red snapper. That snapper, served whole and aswim in its garlicky pan juices, may have been the single best fish I’ve ever eaten.

The plain little room was open to the sea air and a view of the beach, just a few feet away, where two or three people were snorkeling on a shallow reef. After lunch I joined them for a half hour or so, then hopped back in the jeep, content that food and beer were served at the end of the world but still a little curious to see what lay beyond.

After Junks Hole Bay, the terrain began to resemble high moorland.

I was reminded of the beautifully desolate bayberry-covered dunes on the ocean side of Cape Cod near Provincetown. But the landscape soon turned Hebridean, and I switched into four-wheel-drive. Finally, by the time I was nearing Anguilla’s northernmost extreme at Windward Point, it was almost a moonscape. The low, scrubby vegetation gave way to nothing more than scatterings of Turk’s cap cacti, their sweet, pink, corn-kernel-shaped fruits nipped clean by unseen goats.

I got out of the jeep and climbed over jagged coral to the top of the hill. At the flattened pinnacle, perhaps 75 feet above the point where Atlantic and Caribbean waters merge, stood a ruined steel light tower. Looking back across the island I saw the mountains of St. Martin and, beyond, the distant hills of St. Barts.

I lowered my gaze to the foreground, to the scalloped bays and interior scrub of Anguilla, a place conjured up yesterday out of unprepossessing yet sturdy resources, a place where dead trees grow blossoms, where peaceful revolutionaries build hotels, where sculptors work in driftwood and artists build boats, and where the man who grew your salad knows the ornamental secrets of the Moors.


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