Philip Nanton
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Civilisation and wilderness
The St Vincent and the Grenadines context

This chapter explores colonial and postcolonial strategies for implementing civilization and banishing wilderness in St. Vincent. These strategies involve attempts to ‘improve’ nature, including controlling the ‘savage’ black population and pragmatic interventions to improve public utilities as well as more recent postcolonial strategies of nation building.

There is a longstanding debate among analysts of the Caribbean about the notion of ‘civilisation’ and its meaning for the region. In the Caribbean, civilisation, work and language have been linked, admittedly in different ways and with different priorities, from colonial-through-postcolonial analyses from Anthony Trollope to George Lamming. Ian Strachan’s Paradise and Plantation offers a rehearsal of the contradictory European metropolitan notions of civilisation and how they were visited on the Caribbean. He points out that work, however brutally organised, was equated with order and civilisation. He analyses in considerable detail the contradictory links, explored by Thomas Carlyle, Anthony Trollope and James Anthony Froude, among them the presumed laziness of slaves (embodying the ‘wild’: nature, chaos and that which needed to be tamed); the planters’ and intellectuals’ fear of the land returning to bush; and, in contrast, a growing lyricism in response to the beauty of the environment in its wild state.

At a practical level, the colonial authorities in St Vincent were anxious to improve the society and protect it from contamination by wild nature.1 As historian Richard Drayton has shown, colonial government in the Caribbean has long been concerned with ‘nature’s government’. He points out, for example, that in 1765 St Vincent’s Botanical Garden was the first of many overseas scientific gardens to function as a laboratory for cross-pollination experiments and was part of the perceived role of the colonial State as ‘improver’. He observes: ‘The rational use of Nature replaced piety as the foundation of imperial Providence, government became the Demiurge, and universal progress, measured by material abundance, its promised land’ (Drayton, 2000: 80).

In colonial consciousness, this necessary ordering not only included flora and fauna but also encompassed, firstly, the Kalina and Garifuna populations who opposed imperial intrusion, and later, the enslaved and freed population of African origin. In his post Brigands’ War euphoria after the British routed the Garifuna, for example, Charles Shepherd, chronicling the fighting, describes the Kalina as ‘children of nature’, and refers to the Garifuna at times as ‘sanguinary monsters’ and at others as a ‘doubly savage race’ (Shepherd, 1831: 65, 22).

In his journal John Anderson presents in a stark manner the dilemma, as he saw it, of the post-slavery relationship between civilisation and wilderness in St Vincent. A well-read scholar of his day, Anderson asks bluntly: can civilisation overcome the wilds of St Vincent? It is in his view a dilemma that is highly skewed against St Vincent with its mass of black population. He is in no doubt that St Vincent’s black population is characterised by laziness, deceit and cunning. Nature, he declares, is the island’s main provider: ‘Nature has done everything for this beautiful isle, he – [man] nothing’ (McDonald, 2001: 153). However, intellectually, Anderson recognises that he is part of what was known at the time as ‘the Great Experiment’, which posed the question: can the black population learn to labour voluntarily? In his journal he acknowledges, however reluctantly, that the mass of the population’s attendance at church and their efforts to turn out in their best finery are early indications that the civilisation process has begun. However, he opines that civilisation faces insurmountable odds in favour of the wild, particularly in the form of inadequacy of labour and the poverty of language. Using St Vincent as his example, he suggests that it may take three generations more for the West Indies to ‘possess’ an ‘enlightened and industrious peasantry’ (McDonald, 2001: 118).

The concerns that civilisation might be halted, or even backslide, continued to be echoed by the colonial administration well into the nineteenth century. For example, in the late 1880s a major preoccupation in implementing the anglophone Caribbean’s first land settlement scheme in St Vincent was a fear of labour regressing into ‘African livelihood patterns’ if settlement programmes were unsupervised. As Bonham Richardson points out: ‘It was, of course, fear that was decades old, reinforced by contemporary discussions of releasing the region’s black labour force from its subservient plantation existence’ (Richardson, 1997: 220).

The change from a slave-based to an emancipated society did not change the underlying assumptions of white superiority among the colonial and planter elite. In contrast there was among the oppressed a keen awareness of the need to attain freedom and full participation in a society structured along class and colour lines. These contrasting perspectives could only result in periodic direct opposition and violent clashes when ‘rights’ and freedoms were seen to be challenged or impeded. As mentioned above, throughout each decade of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century in St Vincent, there were riots or protests in which race or colour played a prominent part as a spur to conscious opposition when these rights were understood to be denied. From the white elite perspective these challenges were perceived as a weak character trait, a form of illogical behaviour characterised by the notion of the ‘excitability’ of the black masses. Whenever direct physical conflict threatened, the term ‘excitable’ – with its euphemistic assumption of a lack of self control leading to violence, that is ‘wildness’ – was a common feature of nineteenth-century colonial office reports on black and coloured crowd behaviour in Kingstown, and determined the actions to be taken for its suppression. One island administrator, while discussing the threat of the withdrawal of a number of eastern Caribbean island military garrisons, explained its manifestation in the following way: ‘Everyone acquainted with the West Indies must admit that the negroes are highly excitable, and that in any disturbance the women are among the most prominent rioters.’2 The tactic often used by the colonial elite in response was to delay negotiation to allow passions to cool before the local colonial office representatives met with protesters. In the face of the island’s many riots throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, it is clear that Kingstown was for the elite a place of only partial civilisation, where the ‘wild’ could also be encountered. In other words, a frontier.

By the turn of the twentieth century the notion of colonial civilisation that was on offer in St Vincent became more prosaic, associated with the spread of modern public medicine and education. From 1700 to 1850, the West Indies was commonly described as ‘the cradle of fever’, where it was not unusual for visitors to fall ill before they became ‘acclimatised’ or ‘seasoned’, and St Vincent was no exception. For many years fever had exacted a deadly toll on troops stationed in the islands. Between the years 1817 and 1836, for example, mortality rates for troops stationed on St Vincent were 11.2 per 1,000, caused by a variety of fevers (Boyce, 1910: 9). Island ports were described in Rubert Boyce’s report as ‘overcrowded, drainless, foul smelling collection[s]‌ of huts, amongst the inhabitants of which fever was always present’. In addition, in St Vincent, smallpox, leprosy, tetanus and mal rouge were common (Boyce, 1910: 6).

In 1910, in the wake of the discovery of the yellow-fever-carrying mosquito, Boyce reported on the outcome of an active campaign of fever eradication in the region as nothing less than a civilising achievement. He asked: ‘Why have malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and many other pestilences decreased or died out in the West Indies? The answer is: Civilisation with its attendant reforms, among which stand out education and hygiene: these have produced the beneficial changes’ (Boyce, 1910: 34).

In the twentieth century, ‘civilisation’ became part of the ideology of Caribbean nation-building. For example, with the aspiration to promote a regional understanding of the term, undergraduate courses, to this day, are regularly taught on ‘Caribbean civilisation’ at all the main sites of the University of the West Indies.3 The recommended texts in the manuals focus attention on issues of type and categorisation of ‘civilisation’.4

St Vincent’s postcolonial political leadership has not been immune to this desire to capture a notion of civilisation and to offer an interpretation of the term, albeit in the form of improving nature. Ralph Gonsalves, the country’s Prime Minister at the start of the twenty-first century and an outspoken promoter of ‘Caribbean civilisation’, has taken a more direct approach, presenting it as a form of national collective solidarity. He suggests: ‘The true measure of our civilization is not in the individual efforts of our distinguished persons but in the community and solidarity of the people as a whole in the process of nation-building’ (Gonsalves, 2001: 34).5

The notion of civilisation in the Caribbean, and specifically in the Vincentian context, has had a long and tortuous life. The more recent, postcolonial understandings of civilisation appear to have distanced themselves from the notion of the ‘wild’, consciously or otherwise ignoring the fact that they remain in an unspoken dialectical relationship with it. However overlooked or implicit, wildernesses are not difficult to locate. For the modern Caribbean state, as I have suggested elsewhere, the contemporary wilderness includes substantial acreage of land where illegal drugs are grown, or sea and air routes through which illegal substances are navigated. In the urban context it is found in places ineffectively policed by the State: for example areas with high crime rates, illegal drug associations and illegal shootings (even though police stations may be located in these areas). When these ‘wild’ areas are policed it is predominantly with the intention to subdue; the role of the police is not dissimilar to that of the pre-emancipation (white) citizens’ militia (Nanton, 2004).

The important point here is that whether the analysis focuses on frontier, civilisation or wilderness it is apparent that the use of each of these terms has shifted conveniently, perhaps to convey a different emphasis or meaning at different times in the region’s history. But the notion of the frontier, whether or not recognised as the locus for negotiating equilibrium between civilisation and the wild, remains very much alive. How might the frontier be located in early-twenty-first century St Vincent? The following section first discusses the waning of the frontier. Chapter 4 provides four examples of its resilience in what is now the island state of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Three examples are of frontier resilience by individuals, while the fourth is an illustration of wilderness as a frontier remnant.

The waning frontier

In 1891 the British imperial Government decided that St Vincent, which they considered more remote than Grenada, remained a sufficiently distant place to which they should expel King JaJa of Opobo, the palm oil middle-man trader who threatened their West African palm oil trade. However, despite this colonial acceptance of St Vincent’s remoteness, Kingstown modernised slowly during the nineteenth century. And with this modernity, signs of frontier wilderness dissipated to some extent. Indications of this slowly growing modernity included the building of a local police barracks (started in 1873 and completed in 1875) – a building that also housed treasury and customs and excise departments. A colonial hospital was built in 1878 and the provision of street lighting for a few central streets was begun in 1891. In 1907 the island’s Carnegie-donated public library in Kingstown was opened (Archer, 1932). In the late twentieth century, with increasing political autonomy and the achievement of political independence in 1979, the island saw itself no longer as a periphery or, to use colonial parlance, a ‘minor colony’, and by the end of the twentieth century the term ‘city’ began to be used to describe the capital. Other major features of modernisation included land reclamation by dredging along the Kingstown harbour in the 1960s and, to the east of the town, the construction of a deep-water harbour; a central bus station and new markets for fish, meat and vegetables were provided by donor countries during the tenure of James ‘Son’ Mitchell as Prime Minister.6

Kingstown, the capital and frontier town, continues to offer a mixture of modernity and dilapidation. Make an imaginative leap to twenty-first-century Kingstown and you quickly discover a hot and hard urban space with business or party politics on its mind. There has been a gradual exodus of residents from the town centre, first to Edinboro to the east of the capital in the late nineteenth century, followed by housing developments in the surrounding hills of Montrose to the north- east, and Cane Garden to the west of Kingstown, all former plantation lands. Montrose, now a suburb of Kingstown, was acquired by the State to house public servants. Cane Garden was sold to private buyers in lots of varying sizes.

The city centre is dominated by a covered vegetable market and the House of Assembly. From off shore the backdrop of mountains and green hills is dotted with houses, but very few green areas soften the town centre’s poorly maintained and foot-buckling cobblestones, asphalt and concrete. Instead, there are signs of attempts to banish nature from the town. Photographs from the 1930s show a town with trees lining the front of the bay as well as on the outskirts of the town to the east known as the ‘Frenches’. They were all cut down. Vivian Child, a Vincentian historian, suggests that this was on the advice of the local health inspector who, she notes, ‘seems to have imbued a whole generation with a mistrust of trees near habitations … for “Health” reasons’ (Child, 2004: 30). The cobble-stones in the town centre are now frayed, leaving gaps and divots between the stones. Main roads are clogged with cars either parked or searching for parking spaces, at rush hour forming long queues to enter or leave the capital.7 Along the centre of the capital’s main roads men push hand-made wooden barrows six to seven feet long at walking pace to and from the port or supermarket. They transport for their customers weekly shopping, coconuts, sacks of potatoes or gas canisters. Cars give them priority as they walk in the road. A mid-twentieth-century experiment in establishing town centre traffic lights failed. At first they worked intermittently, then not at all. They stand ignored and rusting on road sides or suspended above the main roads.

Though the purpose-built covered market hosts around 350 vendors, another 150 or so prefer to take their chances outside (the rates are cheaper, collectors easier to avoid). Some erect temporary bivouacs of canvas that cover as much ground as the vegetable market, or sit in the shade of every permanent overhang. They display on camp beds or rough wood or plastic tables their small-scale items for sale: heaps of fruit, ground provisions, braziers, sports trainers, telephone cards and boot-legged DVDs and CDs. A few self-styled preachers with clanging bell, Bible, tambourine or squeaking microphone stand at intersections and shout warnings of hell fire or extol the benefits of repentance. The wide drains of the main streets are open. It is not difficult to spot a rat or two scuttling along the shaded side of these drains.


1 For Valentine Morris’s eighteenth-century ideas about how to ‘civilise’ the Garifuna (that is, impressing them by building forts, trading with them offering what he called ‘baubles’, and sending a few Garifuna chiefs to London to show the might of the British navy), see Waters (1964), 39–40, and Fabel (2000), 202–203.
2 Francis Hincks to Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle, Public Record Office, London, Colonial Office military confidential report no. 49, 7 September 1861.
3 I know of no comparable course on the ‘Caribbean wild’.
4 See for example the worksheets Journeying after Arrival, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados.
5 His government strategies to implement ‘civilisation’, along with those of his predecessor, Sir James ‘Son’ Mitchell, are discussed in the context of their autobiographies in Chapter 5.
6 For a full personal statement of Mitchell’s ‘civilising’ achievements during his three terms of office in the role of Prime Minister see Mitchell (2006).
7 There certainly exists an official belief that the wilderness has been banished from twenty-first-century Kingstown. For example, an official sign at Kingstown’s ferry terminal, where boats between Kingstown and various Grenadine islands dock, proclaims: ‘Welcome to Kingstown, you are entering a hub of commercial activities.’
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