St. Vincent: Modern Outlook, Antique Style

By Defreitas, Michael | Americas (English Edition), March-April 1990 | Go to article overview

St. Vincent: Modern Outlook, Antique Style


Defreitas, Michael, Americas (English Edition)


GAZING OUT THE WINDOW of the turboprop plane as it descended over St. Vincent, I remembered the pilot's announcement during my first landing on the island:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we will have

to circle around and make another

approach, apparently a cow has

wandered onto the runway." The airport at Arnos Vale has undergone some changes since then. It is now entirely fenced in and the main road to Kingstown, the capital, no longer crosses the runway. Although the traveler's safety has been measurably improved, I still miss the red and white bamboo poles that used to stop traffic when a plane was landing.

The nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is comprised of 36 islands nestled in the southeast corner of the Caribbean, about 100 miles west of Barbados. The 35 smaller islands have a total land mass of just 17 square miles; the main island of St. Vincent, 1 1 miles long and 18 miles wide, covers 133 square miles. It is rugged land. Narrow coastal plains rise quickly to steep ridges that divide the main island east and west,

Michael DeFreitas is a Canadian writer and photographer who lived and taught in St. Vincent for five years. His work appears in such publications as Caribbean Travel and Life, International Living, Traveller and The Best Report. and the landscape is dominated by the 4000-foot active volcano La Soufriere. Legend holds that the island was called Hairoun--Land of the Blessed--by the original Carib inhabitants. Today it is home to 99 percent of the country's total population of 105,000.

St. Vincent's daunting geography has sheltered it from the accelerated modernization occurring elsewhere in the Caribbean, allowing it to retain its antique charm and special character. Unlike St. Vincent, many Caribbean islands are capable of handling large international aircraft which disgorge hundreds of tourists per day. These islands have histories similar to St. Vincent's, but their accessibility has led to rapid commercialization and some are now showing signs of culture shock. Lacking a major airport, St. Vincent remains off the beaten tourist track and provides a welcome escape from overcrowded beaches.

Much of St. Vincent's uniqueness stems from the unusual blend of cultures which define the island's people. Today the population is primarily a mixture of blacks, East Indians and Portuguese, but the English, French and indigenous Caribs all have left an indelible mark as well. A look back through history reveals waves of immigration and a process of conflict and assimilation that converged in the small island territory.

Written history tells us that Columbus sighted the island during his third voyage in 1498 on January 22, feast day of the Spanish patron saint, St. Vincent. He named the island without the customary landing and moved on. The first recorded landing took place much later in 1675, when a Dutch ship sank off the windward coast. The survivors, mostly slaves, were welcomed by the native Caribs. Word of this "haven" soon reached Barbados and St. Lucia, and it wasn't long before escaped slaves from those islands found their way to St. Vincent. Over time, ex-slaves and indigenous people blended into a race known as the Black Caribs. By the early 1700s, however, animosity between the Yellow ("pure") Caribs and the Black Caribs led to the territorial division of the island: Yellow in the west and Black in the east.

Although England's King Charles I assumed official ownership of the island in 1627, it was the French who established the first European colony at Barrouallie on the leeward side toward the end of the century. In 1722, George I of England gave St. Vincent and St. Lucia to the Duke of Montague, who soon after dispatched a certain Captain Braithwaite to secure a hold on St. Vincent. The expedition came ashore in the great southern bay in 1723, but met with fierce resistance from both the French and the Black Caribs and ended in failure. …

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