Heritage Tourism: Where Public and History Don't Always Meet

Article excerpt

Recently I visited a Caribbean island. It is an island-state much like many others in this region of the world: Its beaches are white, its people are black, its skies and waters are blue, its mountains are green, and its birds and fishes and flowers are every color in the rainbow. Its roads were laid out when land transportation was by way of horseback or donkey cart or on foot. Its legislature meets in a dignified one hundred-fifty year old stone building painted the color of lime juice. Its school children wear uniforms and appear to the American visitor to be anachronistically neat and well-behaved. It is an interesting place.

Its history is interesting, too. Virtually the entire native-born population today is made up of the descendants of Africans, brought to the Caribbean in chains by European colonialists to labor in the mines and on the plantations. Europeans conquered the Caribbean islands in the 16th century. They established trading outposts, plantations, and mines throughout the region. The commerce that ensued introduced tomatoes to Italy, potatoes to Ireland, and sugar and horses to the Americas. It also introduced the plantation system of agricultural production based on African slavery to the Americas. (1)

After a series of slave uprisings throughout the Caribbean, the practice of slavery was ended on this island in the 1840s. In the twentieth century, the descendants of slaves gained in social and political strength; in the second half of the twentieth century, blacks came to control the government, and have done so for several decades. From these islands have come music, poetry, dance, and art that are known the world over. As I said, this is an interesting place.

Beyond these basic points, however, I knew little about the island's history. My historian's curiosity was aroused by this society that seems to have taken such a different course from that of the United States. So, I signed up for a guided tour of the historic sites.

To my disappointment, our tour guide was not a native islander, but a recent transplant from Minnesota! She began her tour by talking about the bravery and heroism of Christopher Columbus. She told us how he faced the cannibalistic Caribs--a name and description used for one of the native peoples in the region--and even lost one of his men to their attacks. She went on to tell of pirates and warriors and captains of agriculture and trade. She noted that when slavery was abolished in 1847, "hard times" followed. She pointed out that the colonial governor who ended slavery was recalled to his native Denmark, and that although he was later "exonerated," his ending of slavery "ruined his career."

Of the island's natural history, we learned that it has a natural deepwater port, and that many of the walls are made of a native stone known as "blue bitch," because it is so hard it is really a bitch to quarry. In the words of comedian Dave Barry, "I am not making this up."

Then we visited a house museum. It was the reconstructed home of a Danish banker who came to the island about 1820. A local historical society docent--a retired New Yorker--told us the story of the house. The story was all too familiar: The banker brought his family to the island to make his fortune. They braved the hostile elements and unfamiliar culture. He was shrewd but fair. He raised a large family. He grew rich from the resources and produce of the island and the labor of its people. He became a pillar of the community. The house (although reconstructed in the 1960s) represents the lifestyle of the merchant class of the 19th century. Some of the furniture and furnishings were imported; some made on the island. Most were collected and donated since the 1960s by historical society members, and have no provenance that connects them to this actual house. We were told that the house has high ceilings in order to catch the breeze. We learned that life was difficult, but the people were strong. …