Monday, July 2, 2007

Sugar's Bitter End

Tearing ourselves away from the beach and fish, we took to the mountains to track down some of the islands many ruins. It was an education in the darker side of paradise.

Laced throughout the forests of St. John there are stone walls, the old "Danish" roads that dead end at abandoned fortifications, half-buried foundations, stone flues and channeled floors. These are the remains of the sugar estates that once covered the island. What is now a green, forest-covered wilderness was, from 1720 to 1880 or so, one massive plantation factory with terraced sugar cane fields, sugar mills, and rum distilleries. It was a relentless and harsh industry that generated profits that some have likened to those of today's drug trade. Once Europeans had tasted refined sugar from sugar cane, it seems, their demand for it was insatiable. Given what happened next, you can't help but wish we'd had more diabetics in the Old World.

The sugar economy of St. John, like everywhere in the Caribbean, rested on the back of slave labor. Mostly from the area around Ghana, where Europeans played on ancient animosities between tribes to maintain a constant flow of captives, African slaves harvested and processed the sugar. It was a brutal enterprise. Field hands were not given clothes, so as to better the identify them should they run away. Slaves weren't given food, but rather were allowed "provision grounds" where they had to grow their all their own food in their "time off." Regular droughts caused the regular starvation of slaves. And to keep the slaves from running away -- known as "marooning" -- unmerciful laws were enacted mandating the amputation of arms, hands, legs and worse, torture, and painful executions. Even so, a slave revolt occurred in 1733 that lead to a slowing of interest in having plantations on this island. Finally, on July 4, 1848 the St. John slaves were emancipated. Today, the island's July 4th carnival marks that event.

Just to see for ourselves what the sugaring life was like, we hiked up to the remains of the sugar windmill at Catherineberg. This is where the cane was brought to be ground. One mill could grind over 75 cartloads of raw cane a day. Three men were required to run the massive grinding stones. Two would pass the cane back and forth between the stones and the third would stand by with an axe in case one man's hand was caught between the stones. If he acted fast enough, he could cut off the unfortunate slave's hand before all of him was pulled between the stones.

Today only the hollow foundation of the windmill is left at Cahterineberg. It's walls are four feet thick. Not even the intervening years of hurricanes could take down more than its blades. It is, as they say, horribly beautiful.


sanderling said...

Our mutual friend AK's blog (Fish Don't Sleep) links to yours, and since your blog takes its name from a location on St. John, and a photo of St. John adorns the top of mine (, I had to take a look. As it happens, I had rec'd some inquiries about the phot, so I wrote a brief bit on St. John. Like you, I was struck by the horrible contradiction between the island's beauty and its slave-era past. Long story short, hope you don't mind, but I've linked to your piece on sugar's bitter end, for your description of the conenction between sugar and slavery on the island.

Anne Kenealy Lindenfeld said...

Wonderful! I always like to be blog-linked with like minded folks -- especially when it comes to St. John.