The Caribbean Heritage

On a Sunday morning in Santo Domingo, music with a salsa beat pours from amplifiers at Caf¿ T¿o Juan ("Chinese-Italian-Criolla") and splashes into Columbus Square. Under the trees of the square, four or five young would-be guides wait to attach themselves to stray sightseers emerging from the cathedral.

The doors of the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor stand open to the humid summer air. They are heavy, ornamented with rows of rivets, distinctively Spanish. The mother church of Christianity in the New World, the cathedral was built between 1512 and 1540 by early Spanish colonizers of this island of Hispaniola. This was the church of Christopher Columbus's son, Diego, who was viceroy of the Indies.

Inside the cathedral the stone walls and vaulted ceiling are tight and clean, the murals softly glowing. Thanks to help from around the world, the cathedral, dilapidated only a few years ago, is ready for the thousands of visitors who are expected during this 500th anniversary year of Columbus's arrival in the Americas.

The restoration is only one of dozens of preservation projects recently completed or now under way in the Caribbean. The Columbus quincentennial has spurred some, but other efforts have nothing to do with that celebration. (It's hard to believe amid the hoopla, but there are a couple of islands where Columbus never set foot.)

Throughout the West Indies – on Dutch-, French-, and English-speaking islands, as much as on former Spanish possessions – there's a rising determination to protect the extraordinary heritage of the Caribbean. And 10 or 15 years after a number of island nations became independent, a new sense of West Indian identity is emerging.

Governments, citizens' organizations, and individuals are working to preserve the natural environment, archaeological relics, buildings of historical or architectural significance, as well as elements of the region's unique African-European-Amerindian culture: language, music, painting, sculpture, dance, storytelling, crafts, cookery, celebrations.

The most urgent effort is to save the islands' fragile environment from the mixed blessing of development, as I learned during several visits to the Caribbean last year. I met with preservers and planners, botanists and zoologists, historians, curators, architects, West Indians whose ancestors came from Africa, and others descended from Europeans. Some were more optimistic than others, but all were convinced that a greater effort must be made.

Among them was Laurent Jean-Pierre.

Near Anse la Raye on the island of St. Lucia, the road goes primitive, narrowing and roughening as it climbs above the sea, coiling like the snake called tete chien, and plunging into green gorges. This route along the wild, west coast of the island is short in miles, long in time, and endless in variety. Our way skirts a beach piled with wooden boats and basket-woven fishpots. It passes a roadside rum shop and a tin-roofed shack where a child's dazzlingly white first Communion dress swings from a clothesline. It lifts us into a dream forest of leather-leaved trees and eight-foot ferns.

Laurent Jean-Pierre is showing me some of the beautiful places that St. Lucia's fledgling national trust is determined to protect. A young botanist for the trust, Jean-Pierre has spent his life on this island and has walked, waded, or climbed over most of it. Now his work propels him from his office in the capital, Castries, into some of the island's smallest settlements. In gatherings at schools and community centers, he talks about St. Lucia's national treasures, shows slides, and enlists young people in the growing effort to save the island's priceless forests, reefs, and wildlife.

Since our van left Castries this morning, Jean-Pierre has fairly pummeled me with information. He has named riotous flowers in Latin, pointed out soursop, avocado, and mango trees, and cited doorstep medicinal plants. And he has told me the Creole name of the breadfruit tree, bwapen (from bois and pain – "tree" and"bread"), a colorful reminder of the long-ago French control of the island that remains in the speech of its people.

Now he reverts to Latin to identify a flash of orange he spots at a roadside dump. "Icterus laudabilis, St. Lucia oriole," he says, delighted, "very rare, very beautiful bird endemic to this island but now seldom seen." As he often does at such moments of joy, the botanist bursts into gospel song.

Thin and wiry in his black T-shirt and navy blue pin-striped trousers, Jean-Pierre carries himself as lightly as a man constructed of vines. He is as much at home in the forest as if he had, in fact, grown there like a flame tree. During this day he will plunge off a trail and yank brush in order to show me mysterious petroglyphs carved into hidden rocks. He will discuss the habits of the St. Lucia parrot, Amazona versicolor, and chat with people along the road, keeping his mental files up to date.

Once he stops to chide a man who is catching insects with a net. Rather patronizingly, the man identifies himself as a Smithsonian Institution scientist. Unchastened, Jean-Pierre tells him he should check with the national trust before pursuing any St. Lucian insects.

If Jean-Pierre seems overprotective, it is because he believes it's better to overprotect than underprotect, as islanders have done in the past. He and others in the trust are seriously concerned about St. Lucia's flora and fauna – not only the endangered St. Lucia parrot and the endemic orioles, but also the scissor-tailed frigate birds wheeling above the beaches, and the ferns and trees that provide habitat for the birds and other wildlife.

"This forest is being destroyed!" Jean-Pierre says. "Deforestation is taking place at the rate of 2 percent a year on this island. Erosion is occurring. Where once there were tumbling rivers and deep, clear pools, now there are mere trickles." He punches my arm for attention. "The people should cry out in anger: ¿Our patrimony is being lost.'"

Thirty-five years after I first came to the Caribbean, St. Lucia seems to me less changed than most islands. The air is clear, and the beaches on most of the island are empty. Fishermen still go out in canots hollowed from logs. In towns like Soufri¿re, wooden houses painted soda-pop grape, orange, and strawberry have not yet been replaced by cement bungalows. Slopes still froth with greenery. Traffic isn't a problem, because people still walk. St. Lucia's west coast road is a far cry from, say, the multilane superhighways of Martinique.

But even on St. Lucia, there are signs of change.

I'm staying at a new resort north of Castries where the slopes have been bulldozed and terraced to make room for long, motel-like rows of rooms. Raw red earth turns to red mud when it rains, and the water off the beach is fouled. No environmental regulations have prevented this insult to the landscape.

As we travel, Jean-Pierre points out spots where mangrove swamps have been filled. The airport on the north side of the island is being extended, and more hotels are planned. A developer has even built between the two peaks of the Pitons, the symbols of St. Lucia, which rise dramatically from the sea near Soufri¿re. Islanders who wanted to preserve the site protested the development but did not prevail.

The reason for the conflict between development and the environment throughout the Caribbean is simple economics. The old sugar-based economies fell, along with the world's demand for that commodity. Islands that once received help from the British government are now small independent nations struggling to meet the needs of exploding populations. With few options available to them, most West Indian countries are turning to tourism for needed income.

The challenge is to create jobs with minimum damage to the environment and the culture of the islands. St. Lucia, for one, is trying for balance. The national trust has succeeded in preserving several areas of outstanding historic importance and natural beauty, including the Maria Islands Nature Reserve and Pigeon Island National Park. More ambitious steps have been proposed. The trust has also submitted to the government a plan calling for a system of protected areas all over the island. If passed, it could be a model for other islands.

"Now we are trying to teach the young people," Jean-Pierre tells me as we travel the island road. "They are our best hope. ¿Look,' we say, ¿this is all yours. We must save it together.'"

Larry Armony is king of the hill. this modest, intense man doesn't say that, probably doesn't even think it. But he is, in fact, the general manager of Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, the first national park created by his nine-year-old country, the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. On this wind-washed, spring afternoon, we are standing in a cobbled courtyard overlooking Brimstone and the sea beyond. As I catch my breath, he points out features of the place once known as the Gibraltar of the West Indies.

The Caribbean is ringed with ruined fortifications, most of them reminders of 18th-century Britain's determination to protect its valuable Caribbean sugar colonies. Because of associations with colonialism and slavery, some West Indians have not been enthusiastic about restoring island ruins.

But Armony disagrees. He speaks admiringly of this architectural landmark, which includes one of the earliest polygonal forts. "Along with British artisans, African labor built this," he said, "not only unskilled labor but skilled as well." He strokes his palm across a band of decorative carving in the volcanic stone. "Utterly unnecessary, that beadwork. It was put there for aesthetic reasons, for beauty. I think it is quite remarkable."

Brimstone Hill was first used as a defensive position in 1690, when six cannons that had been dragged up its slope bombarded French troops below. Clearing and construction continued on and off for 100 years, creating bastions, barracks, officers' quarters, kitchens, catchments and cisterns, parade grounds, and powder magazines that were struck by lightning and blown up twice in 25 years.

The British and French fought frequently during that period, but perhaps Brimstone's finest hour came in 1782, when a greatly outnumbered British garrison held the fort for a month against an attack by 8,000 French troops and 31 warships. At the end, the victorious French showed their respect for the defenders by allowing the garrison to march out with drums beating and banners flying. "We know that Africans played a part in the defense of Brimstone Hill," Armony says. "This is a place that our people can take pride in."

But for years they did not. Brimstone Hill Fortress was abandoned by the British in 1853. Its wooden buildings and furnishings were auctioned off and moved; some of its cannons were sold for scrap and others just pushed down the slopes. For half a century the place was ignored. It was not until 1965, when the Society for the Restoration of Brimstone Hill was formed, that serious efforts to preserve the fortress began. The man who is generally given credit for making the restoration a reality is Lloyd Matheson, one of the pioneers of the society. A military history buff, Matheson had local and English friends with similar interests who helped move the restoration effort forward.

"The British and Canadian governments gave usmoney," Matheson said. "The OAS has helped us. And we've raised money through admissions and sales at the shop."

Most of the access road to the fort was paved in time for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1966. By 1971 there was enough money to restore inner walls, gun platforms, and some buildings. In 1973 Prince Charles arrived to open the restored Prince of Wales Bastion. Over the next decade more buildings were brought back, cobblestones repointed, arches stabilized.

Today Brimstone Hill is much visited by Kittitians as well as tourists. But this afternoon Armony and I are alone as we take in the view from the top.

He points to five islands that I can see and two I cannot. Below us, as we talk, an antique locomotive tugs a string of cane wagons across a field. The light railway was built in 1910 to haul cane to the sugar factory. These days sugar production continues in St. Kitts, subsidized by the government.

"It is important to keep these fields below us green," Armony says. "Not for ¿historical accuracy' but to prevent erosion."

Armony is interested in the environment, as well as regional history, architecture, and culture. I've heard he's also a calypso composer and musician. "That's in my other life, apart from my professional life," he says, sounding almost embarrassed. But I'm curious about his songs, and he promises me a tape. Then our talk turns to changing times in the Caribbean. West Indians who left for education and opportunity abroad are returning, because nowhere else is home, Armony says. But they're coming home to a different place.

"When I started secondary school, we were taught only British and European history. But by the time I completed school, my examinations were in Caribbean history. I think that the simple fact of learning our own history has helped give my generation a strong sense of our own identity.

"Now, we have completed our educations and are entering the professions. The rising interest in preserving our heritage is not coming from government officials so much as from the people. I believe that younger islanders are on the cutting edge when it comes to preserving our heritage. We are more conscious of what it means."

Later, he drops me at the inn – a restored plantation great house – where I am staying. True to his word, Armony hands me a tape. I don't play it until I get home, and then I play it over and over, especially to hear one song. It's called "The Caribbean," and it's about people leaving and returning.

"We are always migrating¿.Why go away?" Larry Armony sings.

Speaking for the exiles, he answers, "These islands were raped, their richness was scraped," and calls them "lands of slavery and piracy."

But then he sings a response: "Why don't you stay and repay your debts to your borning country?" And a chorus, "These are my islands and the sea between. These are my people; we share a dream¿."

Andrea gollop is corporate affairs officer of the national Cultural Foundation of Barbados. "This institution is only six years old, and in that time we have seen an explosion of interest in the visual arts, dance, music, crafts," she tells me at her Bridgetown office.

"Our major resource is our people," Gollop says. "We have no natural resources to support our economy, so we are concentrating on developing educated people." In Barbados today education is free all the way through the university level. Gollop believes that those who'll become the voices of a new West Indian literature are now attending island schools and universities. Derek Walcott – the St. Lucian poet whose work weds Caribbean themes and classical forms – will influence them.

Her comments remind me of two lines from his "Homage to Gregorias": "I saw history through the sea-washed eyes / of our choleric, ginger-haired headmaster."

"Derek Walcott is the Shakespeare of the West Indies," Gollop says. "You cannot imagine the impact Walcott's work has had on us."

I was in the first group to do a full course in west indian history in high school," Lennox Honychurch says. "Before that it was all Mary Queen of Scots and the wives of Henry VIII. The British set the syllabus for us in those days. Now that's all changed.

"I identify with Derek Walcott, who is, for me, a real mentor," Honychurch says. "My vision of the Caribbean has been much influenced by Walcott's work. The images of his poetry are so closely tied to the landscape that I love."

We're walking up a long hill in Dominica on a languorous Sunday afternoon. Honychurch is showing me some of the sights of Cabrits National Park. He was one of the prime movers behind the park, a 1,313-acre land and marine reserve that includes coral reefs, two sandy beaches, a sunken steamer from the early 20th century, a coastal cave, and the remains of Fort Shirley, which figured prominently in the Battle of Les Saintes.

"The 200th anniversary of the battle was in 1982," Honychurch says. "I thought one of the best ways to observe the bicentennial would be to begin restoration of Fort Shirley."

He stops to see how some masonry repair is progressing, and I check my notes. Lennox Honychurch is a native Dominican whose ancestors came to the Caribbean in the 1790s. I had been hearing his name for years from friends in the islands. I knew of him as an artist, writer, historian, folklorist, and all-around national treasure. A grand old man, I assumed. So it was a surprise to meet this rangy 38-year-old who looks like Errol Flynn.

Fort Shirley, a far more modest complex than Brimstone Hill Fortress, was disappearing in the brush when Honychurch rescued it.

"The Forestry Division, the park people, and the public all helped to do this," he tells me as we continue to the top of the hill. "I raised funds wherever I could." Volunteers and public workers hacked at brush and removed trees that had sprung up in the compound that 18th-century Englishmen had kept shipshape.

The project came along at the right time, Honychurch says. "We couldn't have accomplished this in the 1960s." Renewed interest in the cultural heritage of the Caribbean helped. So did the island's longing for tourist dollars.

"It's becoming apparent that tourists today want more than sun and sea," he says. "European visitors especially want to learn the history and culture of the places where they vacation."

At Cabrits National Park, Honychurch and I sit under a tall tree overlooking Prince Rupert Bay and the town of Portsmouth, where he was born. "I have never thought of myself as English," he says. "I am Dominican. I think the younger generation of West Indians, no matter what their color, feels at home here.

"The world has been coming to our doorstep for a long time," Honychurch observed. He reminded me how on March 24, 1607, ships carrying the first English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, stopped here to take on water.

Now they come for nature: to hike through the rain forest, to watch for rare birds, and to swim beneath waterfalls. In the heart of the island, Morne Trois Pitons National Park – one of the first national parks in the Caribbean – is chockful of rare plants, birds, high peaks, rivers, even a boiling lake.

As we rest near a 200-year-old building that once housed British officers, Honychurch talks about preserving more than forts and forests. "I know many people who think the islands should be turned into Miami," he says. "To me, that would be hell. I believe that after coming through so much adversity, so much strife, so much deprivation, the islands must not sell out now. We must somehow preserve our own identity, even as we welcome tourism."

Two small schoolboys are horsing around outside Alexander Hamilton's birthplace on the island of Nevis. To be more precise, the animal they are leading is not a horse, but one of the island's ubiquitous donkeys. And the house they are passing is not the actual house beside the sea where the American patriot was born in 1757, but a careful reconstruction built atop the original foundations.

Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States, was born here in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis. Hamilton's father was a Scot and his mother a French Huguenot. Although Alexander Hamilton was to spend part of his life managing the financial affairs of a new nation, his father had no business sense at all; he went bankrupt and moved his family to St. Croix, now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

From there, young Hamilton made his way to New Jersey and New York, eventually becoming an aide to George Washington, and witnessing Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. All this explains why Americans as well as Nevisians helped rebuild his birthplace, which opened on September 19, 1983, the day on which St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent nation.

The long, low house is much used. The island's governing assembly meets on the second floor. An enticing museum and a craft shop are downstairs. But, most important of all, the Hamilton house is home to the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, which restored the modest landmark.

Joan and David Robinson, former Peace Corps volunteers, are curators of the museum and full-time staff members of the society. In the welcome coolness of a basement room, David tells me that during the last five years the preservation group has shifted its priorities from saving historic buildings to saving mangrove swamps and beaches. "There are 29 environmental laws on the books, but many are not enforceable at present. We're working for stricter enforcement procedures and regulations." he says.

The preservation group is working to learn all it can about the island's environment. Six studies – on natural resources that range from marine life to monkeys – are under way, Robinson says. Water monitoring is a priority, along with a study of beach stability, because Nevis is one of many islands currently "mining" beach sand to use in construction.

Robinson worries about future development. "A push has begun to bring more large hotels to the island, which would mean upgrading the infrastructure. Our systems are so old that they can't handle any added load."

He believes that nature could be the draw for future tourists to Nevis. Society members are working to improve trails through the island's 6,000 acres of forest and up to cloud-draped Nevis Peak. About 500 people – both locals and friends from abroad – are involved. "People fall in love with Nevis," Robinson says. "They want to help save this extraordinary natural heritage."

Back on St. Lucia, Laurent Jean-Pierre, the gospel-singing botanist, echoes those sentiments. As our van slows to negotiate a hairpin bend, a young man materializes from the roadside greenery. He holds up two chunks of star coral for sale.

"Where did you get that?" Jean-Pierre asks.

The coral peddler tells him. Then Jean-Pierre delivers a lecture about destruction of the reef, loss of marine life, and the ruination of the beaches. The young man responds as others might anywhere in the world. "But this is what I do for a living," he says. "This is how I make money."

Jean-Pierre is adamant. "Then you must find another way to make money," he says. "We must not sell our patrimony."