by Karen Rubin
There is so much going on at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort, it is tempting to stay put. But when you are ready to adventure or explore, to experience a foreign country with a storied past, you have only to venture out the door.
We have been hiking through the rainforest to the top of Mount Liamuiga, a volcano that fortunately hasn’t erupted in centuries. It is challenging, strenuous, and so very exhilarating, and brings us to the heart of St. Kitts, had a thrilling time on the new Skyline Safari, ziplining above the treetops, on the site of the Wingfield Estate which was the first English settlement in the Caribbean, where we get to see the remnants of a centuries old sugar processing plant, which is an archaeological site. It provides the entree to St Kitts’ fascinating history which unfolds for us this day:
Romney Manor and Caribelle Batik
Our next stop is Romney Manor, a highlight of any visit to St. Kitts. We are here to see a demonstration of batik-making at Caribelle Batik, which is housed at Romney Manor, a magnificent manor home and gardens that was owned and managed by successive Earls of Romney over the centuries.
In this magnificent setting, we get to see batik-making – how each color is a separate process and it can take nine days from start to finish to make a five-colored batik. We get to spend time in a marvelous shop which offers everything from dresses and beach covers, scarves, to purses, boxes, notebooks, photo albums and photo frames (prices seem fairly reasonable; for example, $15 for a pillow cover).
Another attraction here is a 400-year-old Saman tree.
You need at least 30 minutes to visit, and even more time to shop.
For me, though, St Kitts fascinating heritage crystallizes here, at this magnificent former manor home high on a hillside.
Though Christopher Columbus sighted the island on his second journey, in 1493, European colonization did not begin in earnest until 1624, when the Englishman Thomas Warner colonized the island in 1624 and became its first governor. St Kitts became England’s “Mother Colony” –its first outpost in the West Indies.
The French arrived a year later, in 1625, establishing their first permanent colony in the Caribbean here, as well.
Initially the British welcomed them but the harmony was short-lived.
When the English arrived in the 17th century and were allowed to settle between the two rivers (Wingfield and East Rivers) at Old Road, the Caribs were concentrated in the area around Wingfield River.
By 1626 both the British and the French settlements were expanding at such a rate that the Carib community felt threatened. Joining forces with Caribs from a number of other islands, Chief Tegremare prepared to attack the European settlements.
The English were tipped off that the Carib Indians were planning a revolt to reclaim their land. Governor Warner rallied the British and French militia and led a surprise attack that resulted in the massacre of 2,000 Caribs along a ravine of the Pelham River at a place known today as Bloody Point. Later the British and French divided the island and signed a treaty in 1627.
Romney Manor dates from 1628, following the massacre of the Carib Indians.
This site was where King Tegreman, the Carib Indian leader, had his settlement. After the massacre, Sam Jefferson, one of original British settlers of St. Kitts (and the great, great, great, grandfather of Thomas Jefferson), claimed the land for himself.
Sam Jefferson established Red House and created Wingfield Estate. Wingfield Estate received the first land grant in the English West Indies, in 1625, it was the first working estate, producing tobacco and indigo from 1625 to1640, and later, sugar and rum, from 1640-1924.
By the mid 17th century, part of the estate was sold to the Earl of Romney (I don’t even want to contemplate the irony of a Jefferson and a Romney associated with the same place.). Successive Earls of Romney owned the land until the 19th century.
In 1838, slavery was abolished and the former slaves became sharecroppers. Poorly paid for their labor, they owed more to the property owners than they earned.
But in 1841, the white plantation owners, not able to make the same profit as during slavery, simply left the island, leaving their lands to their mulatto children, who became the new overseers.
Brimstone Hill Fortress
St. Kitts’ dramatic history is made profoundly clear when we visit Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site (the only man-made UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Eastern Caribbean) that is impressive and imposing. You drive up very narrow, twisting road and our driver proves his skill in making the 90-degree turn through narrow archways.
“Over the course of 100 years, it became an almost natural outgrowth of the 800-foot hill from which it emerged; a monument to the ingenuity of the British military engineers who designed it and to the skill, strength and endurance of the African slaves who built and maintained it,” the notes say.
“The steep slopes of Brimstone Hill had to be tamed by the disciplines of engineering and architecture, and at the risk and probable loss of human lives. The walls of the structures are predominantly of stone, laboriously and skillfully fashioned from the hard volcanic rock of which the hill is composed. The mortar to cement the stones was produced on site from the limestone that covers much of the middle and lower slopes.
“Begun in the 1690s, the Fortress finally took shape as a complete military community in the 1790s, and as such is it is a veritable time capsule of international significance. What’s more, the prominent Citadel is one of the earliest and finest surviving examples of a new style of fortification known as the polygonal system.”
I climb the steps to the top where the cannons guns seem curiously to be pointed at the interior of the island – as if to defend against its own occupants – rather than the sea against invaders. Indeed, that was its purpose.
The British and French shared St Kitts between 1627 and 1713, when it came under sole English control through the Treaty of Utrecht, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Known as the “Mother Island,” St. Kitts provided the model and the springboard for English and French colonization in the Caribbean.
African slaves were brought to St. Kitts from the earliest years of European settlement, and it was on St Kitts and the other early colonies that the plantation system, based on sugar production and slavery, had its roots.
A chart in the small history museum within the fortress describes the sugar plantation system and slavery: In 1645, there were 7000 whites and 3000 blacks; by 1775, there were 1900 whites and 23,000 blacks.
I notice this commentary: that Christopher Columbus brought the first sugar cane plant to the island, in 1493. But I cannot corroborate this anywhere, and it seems suspect since Columbus did not actually land on the island in 1493; he is said to have sighted it.
“For 120 years the French and English squabbled and fought, making numerous occupational exchanges, and in 1782, the British withstood a vicious French attack at Brimstone Hill. Afterward St. Kitts was declared solely British but that didn’t stop the French. For another 30 years they continued to launch intermittent naval assaults.”
The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 (which granted independence to the 13 colonies in North America) restored the island to the British and a period of intensive reconstruction and investment began. St Kitts became known as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean.” It successfully drove off an attack by the French navy in 1806. From this time onwards the British navy was able to ensure the security of its island colonies in the Caribbean.
The fortress was abandoned as a result of British defense cuts in 1853. The wooden buildings were auctioned and dismantled and masonry buildings were plundered for their cut stone; natural
We do not spend nearly enough time here – there is a video which explains the history, and the modest museum deserves some study (plan on 1 1/2-2 hours to visit; $20 admission).
These were just the highlights of our too-short visit to St. Kitts – enough time to realize there is so much more to do and to explore. There are scores of other heritage sites, attractions and activities. (Check out the St. Kitts tourism website, www.stkittstourism.kn, for more suggestions.)
One suggestion is to hire a guide (around $80/day, or $30/hour).
Contact St. Kitts Marriott Resort & The Royal Beach Casino, 858 Frigate Bay Road, Frigate Bay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, 800-228-9290, 869-466.1200, fax 869-466-1201 or visit www.stkittsmarriott.com.
For more information about St. Kitts contact the St. Kitts Tourism Authority toll free from the US at 1-800-582-6208 or from Canada 1-888-395-4887, e-mail email@example.com, visit www.stkittstourism.kn, or connect on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
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