Caribbean 2007 Part 2: St Kitts & Nevis: Admiral Nelson's Ex-Wife & Other Tales
From St Maarten, I flew to the island of St Kitts, the larger member of the twin-island Federation of St Christopher and Nevis. This is an independent nation with only 43,000 inhabitants and a total surface area of 261 sq km. The island of St Kitts, whose official name is St Christopher, has 35,000 inhabitants living in a spoon-shaped space of only 168 sq km. In 1623, the British established in St Kitts their first colony in the West Indies, and 2 years later, the French set up their first West Indian colony in the eastern and western ends of the same island as well – the British held the middle portion of this already tiny isle. From St Kitts, the British and French not only set up hugely profitable sugar plantations but expanded across the Caribbean. St Kitts thus became the "Mother of the West Indies" for the two colonial empires. And it was the wealth of the West Indies sugar, grown by the legions of African slaves, that powered the Industrial Revolution which transformed Britain and the world in subsequent centuries.
I visited the monumental citadels of Brimstone Hill Fortress, perched on the peaks of St Kitts' northern mountains. Today a World Heritage Site, this was once the Gibraltar of the Caribbean, where British forces attempted regional supremacy in its almost impregnable bastions. Surrounding islands such as Saba, St Eustatius, Anguilla, St Maarten, St Barthelemy and Montserrat can be seen on a clear day from its commanding heights – I saw only St Eustatius that day, but it was impressive enough.
Ten miles down the coastal road from Brimstone Hill is Basseterre, the ramshackle town that is the capital of St Kitts. Capital of the federation, a title that sounds more pompous that it actually is, Basseterre is so dilapidated that mini flash floods occur downtown when it rains heavily – which it did when I was there. Indeed, huge signboards warn motorists not to park on certain streets, which I suspect act as part of an improvised drainage network. Drunk and mentally deranged roam its streets, uttering strange messages to an unimpressed me. Something must be really wrong in this town.
Independence in 1983 didn't seem to have brought prosperity. Without deep anchorage and a large enough tourism infrastructure complete with enough restaurants, taxis, attractions and hotels, St Kitts couldn't attract the mass tourism cruise ships that have benefited many Caribbean states. Without the cruise ships, it couldn't get enough funding for the infrastructure, which becomes a chicken-and-egg story. Even then, there are some things it could have done better. Having gone to quite a number of Caribbean states, I have found the airport immigration authorities of St Kitts less tourist friendly than one would have imagined. I was asked more questions than elsewhere about my intentions in St Kitts by a rather grumpy officer, and the customs officers actually opened up everybody's luggage for examination, something that no longer happens anymore in major tourist destinations worldwide. I was slightly pleased when a toy snake bought in St Maarten startled the customs officer.
Unlike most countries of the world, St Kitts & Nevis has diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China. Micro-countries like St Kitts & Nevis has little economic links with neither and it's the story of who pays more and for what. Although most Chinese restaurants in St Kitts are run by Mainland Chinese, Taiwan has the upper hand here. Mini-flags of Taiwan and St Kitts fly side by side on street decorations. I saw quite a few logos of Taiwanese technical programmes on vehicles and farms. But Taiwanese and Chinese have no illusions about the loyalties of St Kitts and Nevis and other small states that play the game. A new politician who comes to power in these countries would demand for new financial commitments. After all, apart from the precious UN seat they possess as a sovereign state, they have hardly any natural resource to prosper on.
Apart from playing the Taiwan card, St Kitts & Nevis is a major player of sorts in the world of whaling. To drum up support for their cause, major whaling proponents such as Japan, Norway and Iceland got poor countries such as St Kitts, Tuvalu, Mauritania, Cambodia and even landlocked ones like Mongolia and Mali into the International Whaling Commission (IWC), so that they can "combat" anti-whaling countries such as Australia, US, and most of Western Europe. The one-country-one-vote system allows the poor nations to exercise their voting power in exchange for aid in a cause most people with an empty stomach do not care about, in order to help win causes for whaling nations, whose citizens who, ironically, apart from occasional nationalists and subsidy-driven fishing lobbies, do not really care much for having whale sushi and grilled whale burgers. Thus is the fact of economics.
A so-called World Gospel Extravaganza was taking place in St Kitts and the radio and TV had non-stop reports on it. Across the Caribbean, I have noticed the enthusiasm for Christian music. Often, I hear it the moment I stepped out of my hotel room into the hotel lobby, on taxis and at ticketing booths of tourist attractions. I can see how attractive religion is in downtrodden economies where people may have fewer hopes of a better life, but also wonder about the existence of any direct linkage between religious piety with economics, development and progress. Sure, religion is a positive force in encouraging hard work but narrow interpretation of religious texts tend to lead to more stifling intellectual and economic environment as well.
From St Kitts I did a day trip to Nevis, the junior member of the St Kitts and Nevis Federation with surface area of only 93 sq km. Nevis' 12,000 inhabitants have always maintained their strong sense of identity and strong support for independent status. The island, birthplace to an American founding father and first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, almost seceded in 1998, with 2,427 voted yes and 1,498 against in a referendum, but which failed to achieved the two-thirds required for independence. Today, the island relies mainly on tourism.
Nevis promotes its Nelson heritage – Admiral Nelson, the British war hero credited for defeating Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1784, Nelson, then a captain in the British Navy, sailed to nearby Antigua to enforce the hated Navigation Act that banned all trade with newly independent America. Nevis, which at that time had prospered as the chief British trading port in the Caribbean and Nevisian merchants had profited hugely from the American trade. Nelson seized four American vessels off Nevis, and Nevisian merchants, angered by the loss the action had caused them, sued Nelson, who was then forced to stay on his ship off Nevis for eight months while the court worked out the claims. But he managed to charm John Herbert, one of Nevis' richest merchants, and ended up marrying his niece, Fanny Nisbet, a match that Nevis' tourism authorities were proud to proclaim to every visitor today and even set up a museum to commemorate Nelson. What Nevisians do not quite highlight the marriage didn't last. Nelson was to divorce Fanny Nisbet and fell in love with the voluptuous Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples. It is this romance that the world remembers today.
I met a nice Antiguan-American family of Portuguese, or more specific, Madeiran descent, and they drove me around this pretty island, which is much cleaner and pleasant than St Kitts. Beautiful sugar plantation mansions dot the coastal plains of this round green island, which surround the Nevis volcano and its cloud-covered peak. These wooden mansions used to be the palaces of the wealthy sugar lords who drive the economy of the British Empire in its pre-Industrial Revolution days. Today, they are exquisite hotels and rated restaurants, where the rich Brahmins of New England relax in silent tropical pools, sun-shielded by the wide fan of the traveller's palm, while fiddling with the world economy through black berries and trading online on laptops connected via WIFI. As for us, we had tuna tikka wrap under swaying coconuts on the fine white sands of Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, the old property of the Nisbet family whose widow married Nelson.
And then, off I went to Antigua.