Friday, April 19, 2013

Metamorphoses: St. Kitts, St. Martin, and Puerto Rico

Christopher Columbus had quite the Caribbean cruise the year after first "discovering" America by landing within the Bahamas Archipelago: In 1493, he also "discovered" three beautiful islands, known today as St. Kitts, St. Martin, and Puerto Rico. Sadly, his advances for Spanish Imperialism marked the beginning of the demise of the islands’ peaceful native inhabitants. The eventual global greed for sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton brought slavery and resource depletion to these beautiful and self-sustaining islands.

Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.

                                                                                      —Jalal-Uddin Rumi

Fast forward 520 years. 

As I listen to classical music inside a butterfly farm on the French side of St. Martin, I feel like Alice in Wonderland among hundreds of fluttering exotic species of butterflies and moths. On many of the exotic plants caterpillars engage in their eating binge, which yields better results for them than it would for a human. The Butterfly Farm [] protects the chrysalides from predators so the newly minted butterfly can emerge and safely dry its wings before taking flight. Reflecting on the 500-year turbulent history of these Caribbean islands, I think the peaceful butterfly farm, illustrating the caterpillar’s transmutation, poetically symbolizes the triumphant story of these islands’ metamorphoses.

St. Kitts: From Sugar Cane Trains to Scenic Railroad

St. Kitt’s is the affectionate name for the island originally known as St. Christopher. 

Conflicting stories emerged regarding the name’s origin: Columbus named it after either himself, or the patron saint of travelers. He never stopped at this volcanic island with the fertile soil, fresh water, abundant forests, and salt. Starting in 1643, when sugarcane had the same worldwide commodity status as oil does today, this West Indian outpost juggled settlements from Spain, England, and France, which were not without bloodshed. Eventually the British had complete control, and St. Kitt’s became one of its wealthiest possessions until sugarcane prices dropped. 

This downturn in economics led to the 1926 construction of a narrow-gauge railway around 

the island to bring in the sugarcane from the outlying estates for processing. Through economies of scale, the railway allowed sugar production to continue on St. Kitts much longer than on other islands. The island’s sugar production ended in 2005 after 350 years.

Not all was lost with the railway, though. Starting in 2003, the St. Kitts Scenic Railway
currently shuttles tourists around the entire island. The double-decker train allows for canopied panoramic views of the island on top, and enclosed viewing down below. The conductor broadcasts the history of the island along with points of interest while the free-flowing adult beverages enhance the vacation feeling. The islanders give friendly waves as the train whistles through the dry or lush landscapes, depending on the side of the island. Also visible are many remnants of the old sugarcane industry, including the old windmills.

St. Martin: From Slavery to Tourism

Columbus also did a "sail by" of the Isla de San Martín, on November 11, St. Martin Day. Spain was never that keen on this island until after the French and Dutch created trading settlements, and the Dutch stronghold threatened Spain's salt trade. Then, after years of war and changes in the trade, Spain abandoned it in 1648. After some bickering between the French and the Dutch, they split the island [not exactly 50/50] into its current respective boundaries.

The Spanish first imported slaves to the island, but not in large numbers. The cultivation of cotton, tobacco, and sugar, however, caused the importation of mass numbers of slaves to work on the plantations. The French finally abolished slavery in 1848, and the Dutch

followed suit 15 years later. After slavery ended, St. Martin experienced an economic depression until 1939, when it was declared a duty-free port. Today, it serves as a tourist playground for all nationalities, with its beautiful beaches, diving, and of course, butterfly farm. The beaches beckon, with their beautiful cream-colored sand and dreamy-blue water. On both the Dutch and French sides, massive complexes of beachfront resorts are situated between stretches of vacant land, that unfortunately serve as a wasteland for discarded beer bottles. Overall, though, to continue the butterfly analogy, the island appears to be in the final stages of emergence from its chrysalis. It is clear what type of butterfly it is, after it has had time to dry its wings and fly.

Puerto Rico: From Agriculture to Manufacturing and Tourism

Columbus actually visited this island, which he originally named San Juan Bautista. The natives who greeted him probably regretted their decision to show him gold nuggets in the river and tell him to take all he wanted. This discovery for Spain must have been like Spindletop to the Texas oil industry, and the island was renamed Puerto Rico ("rich port"). Like the other islands, slaves were imported from Africa as Puerto Rico began producing cattle, sugarcane, coffee and tobacco. The slaves were emancipated in 1873, and in 1898 that Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States under the Treaty of Paris. 

The decline of the sugar industry also affected Puerto Rico’s economy. Operation Bootstrap, a plan by the U.S. government, developed Puerto Rico’s economy into a leading manufacturing and tourist destination. While walking the narrow brick streets of Old San Juan, one can see the juxtaposition of events with the colonial and modern architecture alongside one of its many forts. The afternoon siesta time in the port town had a heaviness from the heat and felt hollow–like the real life was somewhere else. Perhaps the butterfly had already taken flight.

Circumstances change, and are often beyond our control. Hope emerges from the possibility for transformation.

What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly...

--Lao Tzu




All photos by ndm