Philip Nanton
Search for other papers by Philip Nanton in
Current site
Google Scholar
Frontier retentions

Frontier retentions are examined at the collective and at the micro level. Forms of frontier retention discussed include the ideological through revisionist history and managerially through the conflict over managing a marine park. Frontier retentions are also illustrated by tracing the history of a number of frontier characters including a dame-school teacher, an isolated surgeon and a woodcutter.

Managing (and not managing) ‘wild’ frontier remnants: the St Vincent Grenadines

In this chapter I wish to tease out the different, more contemporary meanings of the frontier in the southern extreme of the collective thirty-two-island state of SVG. To the south of the St Vincent main island lie the Grenadines. They stretch over some 60.4 km (37.5 mi) and have a combined area of 45 km2 (17.4 mi2). Roughly two-thirds of these islets belong to SVG and the rest to Grenada. Seven of the larger St Vincent Grenadine islands have permanent inhabitants. They include Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Palm Island, Petit St Vincent and Union Island. The remaining islets comprise uninhabited smaller rock formations of various sizes and shapes above the water line. What frontier issues might a small sovereign state with such a porous and variegated southern boundary (peripheries of a periphery) experience?

Before 1792, concessions to settle the Grenadines were given to colonisers by both French and British governors. Most of the islands that were large enough to support a small population became associated with single landowning families: for example the St Hillaires of Mayreau, the Snagg family of Canouan, and, in the twentieth century, the Eustace family of Mustique and the Tobago Cays. They operated simple social systems that tied the populations, of no more than a few hundred on each populated island, to the land through sharecropping, keeping of animals and fishing. In the twentieth century a small proportion of the men, many of whom were good sailors, obtained half-yearly employment working as seamen on ocean-going bulk transport ships registered in Liberia or Panama.

Until the late twentieth century neglect and degradation have been the historical experiences of each tiny populated Grenadine island. This neglect took the form of a lack of basic amenities as a result of mainland uninterest from successive Government administrations, both colonial and postcolonial. The island of Canouan illustrates the common experience of neglect and resource shortages. Located near the middle of the chain of the Grenadines, Canouan comprises a mere 1,832 acres (741 ha). In a period of about 100 years – that is, until 1986 – the island’s population crept up only to 800 people. Before 1955 there was no police station, and although it had a small fee-paying primary school dating from 1897, the first government school was opened in 1928. A medical doctor and dentist might visit monthly, depending on weather conditions. The first political elections were superficial events that offered ineffective representation. The first representative for the Grenadines region never visited the island. Residents remember that the next representative couldn’t be bothered to visit, even when in 1958 Hurricane Janet hit the island destroying most of the buildings. With regular droughts from 1930, drinking water had to be imported each dry season for fifty years. In the early 1990s the island remained without so basic an amenity as electricity. One past Prime Minister, Sir James F. Mitchell, a descendant of a Canouan islander, summarised the longstanding plight of the Grenadines through the experience of this island. He described Canouan as ‘a remote island, with a small population encircled by hostile winds and currents, lacking both strategic importance, and voting power, [that] did not consequentially, at any historical point in time draw the attention of the various administrations – who remained indifferent to its infrastructural and other developmental needs’ (Mitchell, 1996: 194).

Neglect has reinforced strong island loyalties and led to occasional attempts at secession. The most recent was in 1979, when a small group in Union Island, SVG’s most southern dependency, led by Lennox ‘Bumber’ Charles, failed in an attempt by military arms to separate that island from the then fledgling State of SVG.1

This historic frontier status, characterised by central Government indifference and neglect, has, in the past twenty or so years, changed dramatically. The reason is the lure of the ‘exotic wild’ for the wealthy yachting tourist or foreign homeowner. Bequia has established an international reputation as a destination for yachting enthusiasts. In 1958, for a sum of GBP45,000, Mustique was acquired on a long lease by Colin Tennant. By 1993, the Mustique Company had built seventy-five foreign exclusive homes and another twenty-five people had bought development lots (Vaughn, 1994: 28). In 1995 two-thirds of Canouan was leased to the Italian-Swiss developer Antonio Saladino, who headed the company Canouan Resorts Development Ltd (CRD) (Lewis, 2010). The modern frontier appeal these atolls hold is their remoteness. Fed by year-round warm breeze, sunshine and substantial foreign capital expenditure, these features conspire to turn frontier remoteness into frontier exclusivity and exoticism.

Firstly, for the newly arrived entrepreneur who plans to invest in the island there is the Crusoe act of ‘discovery’ and a romantic Crusoe experience. The author of a thick coffee-table picture book about Mustique, the foreword of which claims ‘This book is about fantasy realized’ (Vaughn, 1994: n.p.), describes a first experience of the then undeveloped Palm Island in the following way: ‘It was heaven at first … To be alone on the island with no development … We lived a Robinson Crusoe life there. We had nothing, but we had ourselves, and the nicest thing in the world is to own nothing’ (Vaughn, 1994: 5). Saladino, the main expatriate entrepreneur in Canouan, recounted to me his Canouan Crusoe experience when he first stumbled across that island:

The discovery of the island of Canouan was as a result of sailing with friends on a motor yacht and visiting most of the Grenadine islands … we saw this unknown, beautiful, lush land and having sailed around, were astounded by the number of great beaches. The combination of lush and strong colours of the vegetation with the pure turquoise of the waters was very reminiscent of the island of Sardinia and its outer islands. The obvious question was why no developer had ventured there.2

These tourism developers offer their clients the frontier experience of an exclusive and romanticised relationship with nature. The author of Mustique suggests that: ‘the best thing about Mustique is that after 35 years of development, the construction of seventy-five houses, and the passage of thousands of visitors, one can still make solitary music on Mustique from the rhythm of the beetles’ (Vaughn, 1994: n.p.).

Wealthy developers have now put substantial amounts of money for tourism development into at least five tiny SVG island developments. In return they usually obtain a wide range of taxation and other lucrative privileges for their investments. This is, of course, all part of the frontier financial process.3 But how do islanders, from St Vincent and Canouan respectively, experience the frontier process? In 1990 CRD acquired 1,200 acres (485.6 ha) – around two-thirds of Canouan – on a long lease from the Government of SVG. It since acquired another 78 acres (31.6 ha) from the State’s United Labour Party Government. The company spent over $200 million on infrastructure – roads, electricity, water desalination plants, a health clinic – and rebuilt the local police station. It has built a new airport; repaired hurricane destruction damage promptly; and with business tourism partners built a hotel, a golf course, a casino and holiday villas for sale. Foreign partner developers come and go (they have included Donald Trump, the hotel chain Raffles and most recently the Irish developer Dermot Desmond). The most recent strategy appears now to be similar to that pursued in Mustique, essentially constructing homes for exclusive foreign home ownership. Before arriving at this goal the frontier living experience of islanders was somewhat different.

As recently as the 1980s, local Canouan households were required to be self-sufficient. They supported themselves on their own produce: salt collection, but mainly by fishing and small-scale agriculture: growing peas, corn and cassava. Local residents stored their harvests and sold the produce after they replanted. There was local fishing for men and whelk collection on the rocks around the coast for women. In the absence of refrigeration, preserving fish by salting for domestic use or sale – a process locally known as ‘corning’ – was widespread and long established. Sailors also worked on merchant shipping for half-year periods.

Since the exclusive tourism developments on the island, many Canouan people have restructured their way of life. In a period of about fifteen years the shift has been from centuries of almost subsistence living to servicing international tourism. From the company’s point of view the rate of this process has been hampered by an inherited low standard of education and an economy traditionally based on farming and fishing. The islanders appreciate the employment and have expressed surprise at the company’s willingness to support individuals in difficult circumstances. They can see the tangible changes to their living conditions – more regular health care, opportunities for house ownership and for educating their children to secondary school level, as well as the opportunity to obtain computing and other technical skills, all of which were in short supply when they were younger.

However, the process of change has not been problem-free. Periodic protests reflect islanders’ feelings of exclusion from what many regarded as their birthright. In the early stages of hotel development in the 1990s the local population protested at the desecration of grave sites while the resort was being built. I spoke with one elderly lady who led the protest and who described to me her concerns:

Tan-tan’s testament

I lay down in the road, mister gentleman. As God is my witness. I lay right down in that road. I tell them run your machine, your tractor and your bulldozer over me if you want. But it wrong. It wrong, wrong, wrong what they do and I don’t care who I tell. Hope is my family name. We live in this island generation upon generation. From the time they bring my great, great gran-pappy out of Guinea. My naval string bury under a tree on Yambou land. All my family bury in Massa Sam cemetery. Gran-Pappy, Gran-Ma, Auntie Leticia, my Cedric, all of them. That company just reach. They machines mash down every living piece of cemetery, not a head stone, a flowers pot, not one mark in the earth remain mister gentleman. It was a Saturday morning, ten-thirty. Sun hot as hell. We and all the village go up to the company gate. We shouting and we holler ‘Desecration! Destruction! Look me here, take me now! Bring all your guard, all your gun, all your dog them, we not moving.’

Look this picture. Cedric, my Cedric. He a sharp man, eh? Rest he soul. It take out in High Wycombe, England. He come back to dead and bury here in Massa Sam cemetery. I make two daughters for he and they bury there too. We was friending long before he go to England.

But mister gentleman the company people know it was wrong what they do. Them know it. Tree weeks after they move all we old galvanise, old drum, old car tyre, rock stone that we put in the road, two white people come to my gate early of an evening calling out ‘Tan-tan, Tan-tan’. I don’t know how they know my name so. I look out the door and is one manager that I recognise and a woman with he. I never see she before. She dress nice nice, not like me in this old frock.

Hear them: ‘We want to talk with you, Tan-tan.’

I say is jail for me now. But I don’t care, they does do what they want anyhow.

So I says to them: ‘Who send you to me? If the company send you I have nothing to say.’

Hear them: ‘Nobody send us. We just want to talk.’

So I tell them: ‘The door open, you could come in if you want.’

Just as you and me sit down on this step here they come and sit down. Well, they come to say they sorry. They did not know that the graveyard mean so much to the village. They ask me if I want anything. Well, mister gentleman what me going to do? I tell them I don’t want nothing. I tell them is not to me they must say sorry. Is they conscience and is a power greater than me they will have to reckon with. So we sit and we talk. The lady show me picture of she family. I show she the same picture of my Cedric that I show you. When they leave me they say them going put things right. I look them straight in the eye but I not saying nothing. My mouth get me in trouble already.

But I think to myself how they could do that? When you bury, you rest with you own.

I don’t know where Cedric remains gone now. When I dead how I going lie next to he? It all done and mash up. When my time come, you might as well throw my remains in the sea.

In 1999 an instruction handbook circulated by CRD on cleanliness and deportment won few friends among the resort employees. Islanders have been frustrated by low-grade levels of employment and the experience of exclusive tourism. The latter involves building and maintaining resort buildings, villas and beach facilities in which they are primarily welcome for their menial labour. To quote Mitchell’s observation about the islanders’ experience of this form of frontier development, ‘The problem is that the people of Canouan don’t feel they belong in their own country’ (Mitchell, 1989). This sense of ostracism is reinforced by the many Vincentians (around 400) from the main island who regularly seek employment in Canouan. One former senior manager at the resort was of the opinion that relations between the local population and other Vincentians working on the island were a major source of intra-state tensions – the (main island) Vincentian employees felt exploited by Canouan islanders, who they claim rack up rates for poor-quality accommodation. Canouan islanders resent what they see as little respect for their island and the loss of their potential jobs. In addition, the local working population is excluded from resort facilities outside work hours, and with few if any amenities for their use there has been a severe problem of drunkenness in the island’s one local village at weekends. With predominantly white guests and predominantly black employees, not surprisingly, the protests also took on a racialised form in the local telling.4 In the 1999/2000 tourist season some of these early issues spilled over into a protest involving a week-long attempted blockade of the resort, arrests, rock-throwing incidents, demonstrations against CRD and public meetings with Government officials. The conflict also brought into the open the feeling that official priorities were not in the interests of the populations of the islands.5

Other forms of frontier retention

In other ways St Vincent society continues to betray enduring and distinguishing marks of its frontier experience. These marks, both at the collective and individual level, though often ignored, are to be found as much in the island’s contemporary revisionist history as in traces of individual lifestyles.

Revisionist history

One location of the modern frontier is in the mythic notion of the frontier hero. I use the notion of a ‘frontier hero myth’ here as a form of inverted colonial moral landscape in which wilderness/civilisation and black/white racial borders are among the most basic (Slotkin, 1973). The central point here is that in the constructed collective memory of emancipation and political independence, black figures are required to be seen to be exercising autonomy and power, and black agency and defiance are important for the imagining of freedom. This process is not new but it has taken increasingly official form. Thus, in 2002 the Government of SVG declared Chatoyer, Chief of the Caribs, St Vincent’s first national hero. Chatoyer was represented as the leader of a horde of ‘sanguinary monsters’ by the nineteenth-century colonial historian Charles Shepherd. Chatoyer has been exonerated by revisionist history.6 Originally depicted also as part of the ‘wild’ by white settlers, and surviving at the conflicted border between the ‘wild’ and ‘civilisation’, Chatoyer’s life history offers all the elements of a modern mythic frontier hero. He took up arms against encroachment; organised and led a resistance struggle; died in battle in disputed circumstances; and has been resurrected in the twenty-first century, no longer a villain but now a heroic figure.7 One location in which frontier heroism resides, ideologically, is in the myth of nation-building. The role of the myth-hero is central to this process, and heroes are the handmaiden to freedom. It stems from a history that fails to recognise that moments of historical transformation are often ambiguous. It offers a perspective that for the most part presents history as a continuum, and frontier heroism as a predominantly male activity. Nationalist history, then, requires a purpose and a direction.8 Mythic frontier heroes are predominantly male. What, one may legitimately ask, has this to do with St Vincent as a representative of the modern frontier?

The answer is that the nation state has to look for frontier heroes not only in early history but in more modern history as well. In 1979, the year that SVG became politically independent, Rupert John published a volume that described the lives of twenty-two Vincentians with an emphasis on ‘the contributions they made during the early years of the twentieth century to the political, economic, social or cultural development of their native land’ (John, 2009: n.p.). Entitled Pioneers in Nation-Building in a Caribbean Mini-State, the volume drew on conventional frontier notions of individuals from various professional backgrounds – education, press, business, agriculture – who fought against great odds and worked tirelessly to improve nature (and thus by implication to banish the ‘wild’) in their various disciplines. At the same time these chosen ‘pioneers’ exhibited a third traditional mythic frontier characteristic: all twenty-two of the lives celebrated were male. The frontier theme was revived in 2012 when a two-volume collection of essays was published offering brief biographies of another thirty-three individuals from later in the twentieth century. The collection was edited by Baldwin King and Cheryl Phills King. In this more recent collection the group of subjects are no longer described as ‘pioneers’, but ‘trailblazers’. For the most part, the same themes of endurance and achievement against great odds are celebrated. The preface to Volume II of this collection states that ‘by dint of intellect, hard work and perseverance, [they] have succeeded in moving the beautiful island of St Vincent and the Grenadines … a little further along, either directly or indirectly’ (King and King, 2011: 7). Male dominance also remained a feature, with only seven of the thirty-three lives celebrated in the collection being female. In this way, the revisionist trend in nationalist history has managed to keep the frontier very much alive.

At the individual level, Gordon Lewis has drawn attention to the rawness of frontier lifestyles. He offers the particular example of logwood cutters who settled in the Campeachy and Honduras areas of the Yucatan peninsula from the mid-seventeenth century onward. His description captures some of the elements that inform the notion of the individual on the frontier: ‘primitive institutional organisation; a violent distrust of authority, especially any authority to do with government; a masterful grasp of material things – combined with acuteness and acquisitive instincts; a great dislike for anything philosophical; a genius for ready action’ (Lewis, 1968: 82). Though these characteristics are specific to the location and date back hundreds of years, they are also characteristic of frontier lives in general. While not all remain alive at the individual level in twenty-first-century St Vincent, a number can be shown to exist in a modernised form.

The vignettes below offer an eclectic collection of four contemporary scenarios that capture the vibrancy of the modern frontier in SVG. The first describes the experience of attending a ‘dame school’ in Kingstown in the 1950s; the next presents the frontier in the context of innovations applied by a medical practitioner, a self styled ‘isolated surgeon’; and third, the surviving inland frontier is represented through the work of an individual lumber cutter, or woodsman. The final example describes the politics of managing a frontier resource.

Modern frontier retentions

The dame school teacher

In the 1950s dame schools in St Vincent operated alongside Church-based schooling and public Government-funded schools on the island. They were home-based institutions run by one or two women, often a spinster on her own or perhaps with a sister. I know of no formal record or study of the history or nature of dame schools in the Caribbean context and certainly not in St Vincent. The following observations, therefore, are based on the author’s personal recollection of attending such a school for varying lengths of time in St Vincent during this period. This particular school was owned and run by Miss Nelcia John and located in a two-storey house near the centre of Kingstown. At that time there were at least three existing dame schools operating in Kingstown, one of which was operated by Miss Nelcia’s sisters in ‘Bottom Town’, at the western end of the town. At Miss Nelcia’s, one bedroom was hired out to a secondary school student from outside Kingstown attending the island’s elite grammar school. The remaining bedrooms, living room and, if demand was sufficiently high, out-house area, were converted each morning into classrooms and dismantled and returned to their traditional home use after school each afternoon. For make-shift desks Miss John combined the use of her household furniture along with a few long wooden trellis tables and benches, depending on the number of children attending. These were also set up and dismantled each day as the children’s first and last task. Cash payment was made each term for each child attending the school. In St Vincent, the dame school was notorious for its much stricter regimen and closer supervision than the Government or Church schools. Some fifteen to twenty children of various primary school ages attended the school at this time. Parents would enrol their primary school children if they could afford the fee and if they considered their child or children to be failing to achieve in the larger Government or Church schools.

Miss John offered a form of private elementary education that paid attention to reading, writing – especially cursive practice – arithmetic and Bible study. She extended this curriculum to include English grammar, in particular parts of speech and parsing of sentences. The discipline was notoriously strict – one reason that parents choose her school – and substantial amounts of rote learning and homework completion were required. The rote learning and memory-based tests were often linked to verses of the Bible, poems and popular speeches from certain of Shakespeare’s plays.

The dame school represented a long-established female frontier activity that in many countries dated back to the eighteenth century. The school mimicked the larger State or Church-based schools, for example in its method of rote learning and discipline. However, the dame school offered the individual female teacher a means to make an independent living, an opportunity often restricted for women in frontier societies. Other frontier elements were that an improvised form of schooling reflected the violence of the frontier on a small scale, with children regularly beaten for small misdemeanours in their set lesson tasks. At times, when they were closely supervised, younger children would shake with fear. Of course, at this time violence also applied in other schools; however, the greater intimacy of the dame school and the easier oversight of its small group made for a more intense experience of frontier education.

The ‘isolated’ surgeon

The life work of one general surgeon, who saved countless lives through his improvisational methods, offers another example of modern frontier life in St Vincent. Born in 1927, when general surgeon Cecil Cyrus retired from practice in 2001 his career in the field of medicine had spanned thirty-nine years. He became a legend among medical practitioners in the Caribbean and internationally. During his professional life he was elected a fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1980, and in 1990 he was awarded the Master of Surgery degree for his self-published A Clinical and Pathological Atlas: The Records of a Surgeon in St Vincent, the West Indies. The book illustrates and discusses many of the conditions that he attended during his decades of practice. In the world of medicine he was known before his retirement as ‘the isolated surgeon of St Vincent’. He coined the phrase himself, using it in over forty medical papers presented to his peers.

After Cyrus qualified in Britain in 1957 he returned to work in St Vincent out of a sense of responsibility to his society. For a time he was employed in the public service but found the terms and conditions unacceptable, and after a variety of disagreements with the island’s official health service, he established his own clinic and eventually a small hospital. He was known especially for his inventiveness associated with the surgical implements that he employed when treating patients. In May 2002 he opened a small museum of his life and his work in St Vincent, which has since closed. When I visited it and interviewed him in 2006, he kept in one corner what he called his favourite implements, those with which he had had to improvise in his surgical practice. They included screwdrivers of various sizes, with metal instead of wooden handles (for easier sterilisation); electric drills and home-made lead weights for traction – in his day the officially available sandbags leaked; and his favourite invention – three hollow metal objects, each roughly the size of a wine cork, with a serrated outer edge. These were home-made ‘trephines’ for burr holes, used as attachments to the electric drill, for freeing blood trapped in the brain. They were constructed by a local metal-work teacher for his use. He estimated that he had used some thirty-six locally made improvised instruments to save or restore countless lives. His observation on the circumstances with which he had to contend in St Vincent speaks directly to the frontier: ‘We are a long suffering people. Here we survive often against all odds’ (Nanton, 2006: 55).

The frontier activities described here indicate the survival of characteristics Lewis indicated in connection with the frontier logwood cutters. The disenchantment with and distrust of officialdom, capacity for innovation and a genius for ready action each have a role in the experience and attitude of the isolated surgeon in St Vincent.

The woodcutter

Lawrence Guy is a retired woodcutter. He was born in 1922 in Marriaqua Valley of St Vincent and attended Marriaqua Government School. By age eleven he was learning carpentry, joinery and masonry from his father. By 1933 he had become interested in farming and entered Glenn Community School to study agriculture, but was pulled between the two callings. He completed his secondary schooling in 1935, achieving his school certificate. From this time his very mobile lifestyle began. He migrated twice to Aruba but returned to St Vincent after relatively short stays and took up farming, first by leasing land and eventually being employed as a senior buyer, estate manager and skilled worker on relatively large estates in the Leeward valley (Queensbury and Penniston), owned by members of the Punnett family. Guy’s skill range is diverse. He became both a trusted estate employee and an independent woodcutter who practised various forms of carpentry.

This brief sketch does little justice to Lawrence Guy’s diverse and full life. I present these summary points to capture a frontier lifestyle that has to be understood in the context of the particular geography of the island. It is a rural geography in which those living in the two main geographical areas of the island, Leeward and Windward, are separated by mountains and relatively sealed off from one another. Communication has of course improved, with Kingstown, Leeward’s hub, linked to Windward by the coastal road. However, while there are plans afoot, there is as yet no joining highway across either the centre or north of the island. As Queensbury resident and local commentator Mike Kirkwood has pointed out, although Guy has lived almost continuously in the Leeward Buccament Valley since his twenties, he remains a Leeward outsider. How is this possible in a small island of less than 389 km2 (150 mi2)? Kirkwood notes: ‘St Vincent is bifurcated into two zones with very different coastlines, sea conditions and topographical features on either side of a central southeast–northwest tending ridge system.’ There are a few paths but they are known to a handful of people who undertake to travel them regularly and they at times live for weeks in the dense undergrowth to earn a living. Guy is an outsider to Leeward people but one who knows well the mountain routes and how to move between these relatively hermetically sealed regions of the island. Kirkwood’s notes and in-depth interviews with Lawrence Guy, on which he has allowed me to draw, capture the essence of Guy’s Vincentian frontiersman existence. For example, he offers the following word picture of Lawrence Guy the frontiersman: ‘Journeying constantly between high Windward and deep Leeward, Guy, with his nine foot saw braced in bamboo covers and slung over his shoulder, is indeed a moving spirit.’9

The lifestyle and personal background of Guy summarised here are not unique, and although his is a declining lifestyle it is not in danger of disappearing altogether. In St Vincent such frontierspeople include other woodcutters, hunters, cray-fishermen, mountain farmers and, more recently, ganja growers. As Kirkwood has observed, for such people ‘mobility across the ridges (although central they are folded and discontinuous, enclosing hundreds of ravines (“gutters”) and inland valleys) is a key to livelihood. Following this life meant spending weeks at a time in the rain forest.’10

Managing frontier resources

The final illustration of the contemporary SVG frontier that I will examine is the protest that erupted in 2003 that was critical of the management proposals for a portion of the St Vincent Grenadines called the Tobago Cays. In 1997 the Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP) was inaugurated. The TCMP comprises a total of 66 km2 (25.5 mi2) and encompasses nine islands of SVG. Four are uninhabited (Petit Bateau, Jamesby, Baradal and Petit Tabac); Mayreau contains a small population of almost 300 residents; and the TCMP area also includes the nearby tiny uninhabited outgrowths of Catholic Island, Jandal and Mayreau Beleine. A series of beaches, reefs and shallows surround the islands. The Cays form a natural water park with coral reefs and sea grass beds that support a variety of fish, sea turtles and sea birds. The islands contain beach vegetation, dry forests and iguanas.

In 1942 Mayreau and the Tobago Cays came into the possession of the Eustace family of SVG. In 1960 the Tobago Cays alone were sold to Nicholas Fuller, an American who was head of the Tobago Cays Holding Co. Ltd of Antigua. In 1999, after protracted negotiations, the then SVG Prime Minister, James Mitchell, secured their return to St Vincent ownership on condition that the Cays remain a conservation water park and that no commercial activity should be allowed in connection with the islands. The area increasingly needed regulating as the numbers of day-trip and yachting visitors increased. How was this process to be managed? From 1991 to 2002 at least four groups of plans had been drawn up for the management of the area but to little effect. In 2003 it was leaked that the SVG Government, led by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, was negotiating with James Barrett, the American business manager of Palm Island Resort Limited, terms and conditions under which he would manage TCMP. Local opposition led by two organisations, the Mayreau Environmental Development Organisation and the Friends of the Tobago Cays, was galvanised against the arrangement. Political party opposition was also active against the proposed arrangement. The combined opposition disputed the terms of the negotiations, the conservation and environmental competence of the proposed management, and the personnel to be involved. It was argued that Barratt had no conservation experience and that his plans breached the initial terms of the return of the TCMP to local ownership, and it was considered an insult to local expertise that the management should be put in the hands of an outsider. A heated nine months’ campaigning and debate followed. The issue was resolved when Barratt withdrew his proposal and the SVG Government was required to establish a public-based management committee for the park.

Mustique, Canouan and the Tobago Cays are frontier locations at the margins of the State. Various governments of SVG have negotiated formal agreements and terms of use of the islands with private tourism developers. The SVG Government has minority representation on the board of Mustique. It is approached periodically to intervene where there are confrontations with the local population. These interventions often come too little and too late. Canouan developers complain that they carry the responsibility of the local State. In the Tobago Cays the State misjudged local feeling about how to manage this element of the island frontier. Thus, beyond the essentially formal arrangements between Government and developer, these islands are locations where, as Veena Das and Deborah Poole suggest, ‘the state project is always incomplete’ (Das and Poole, 2004: 8). Local parties are required for the most part to work out some form of agreement among themselves.

The Grenadine islands provide the opportunity for private developers to exploit the notion of the exotic frontier. Their substantial funds give them the freedom to construct for their clients romantic and exotic notions that promote the illusion that they exist in their own world. Their investments enable their clients to buy, for a limited time, a privileged, somewhat misleading closeness to nature.

In conclusion it would appear that frontier-based analysis has the advantage of providing a method of exploring landscape through a cultural and historical geography that pays attention to place, population and process. Today’s context of environmental depredation has increasingly shifted the emphasis from exploitation and development to the need for the protection of wild nature. Rather than exhuming a limited notion of the frontier as a concern about borders, I am suggesting that the frontier in SVG has survived and indeed thrived. I have demonstrated this survival in the form of a number of individuals in the St Vincent context. At the same time it is apparent that a critical feature in studying the frontier now is the relationship that is worked out between the notion of the frontier and a remnant of ‘wild nature’.

Far from being moribund, a long view of the frontier process in St Vincent suggests that it is possible to trace both individual and collective frontier continuities that have survived from earliest colonial times. At the individual level of the three case studies presented above there is a streak of determination that is highlighted through the lens of modern frontier. It is a determination that goes beyond mere survival and instead makes the best of the situation. It requires a fierce individualism, inventiveness and a determination to turn local circumstances, however rough, to one’s advantage.

At the collective level the long history of the frontier experience is a more troubling one. The individualism that the frontier betrays in white planter absentee culture (essentially a neglect or contempt for public institutions of various sorts) has a number of parallels in the new black political class. It is demonstrated ultimately by a form of indifference to the public good. This may sound a harsh judgement on a Caribbean society that, like many others, has struggled to maintain public welfare programmes, education and all the trappings of institutions of the public good.11 At the same time, if one looks under the surface of the society, as this chapter has sought to demonstrate, frontier continuities abound. In the eighteenth century tracts of St Vincent’s land are auctioned off when the colonial State steps in. In the twentieth century, yes, at times, tracts of the St Vincent mainland are prohibited to foreign buyers and preserved for local use.12 But large parts of St Vincent’s Grenadines peripheries, long neglected by old and newer regimes, are also traded on long lease to wealthy private capital interests. The institutions that are established there ensure that the frontier experience in various forms remains a robust, albeit a modernised, one, tailored and even regulated for commercial consumption.

St Vincent’s Garifuna and black ‘wild’ was regularly put down by the old (white) militia. The (black) police force or regiment is now expected to banish ‘wild’ ganja farmers or those in urban areas whose behaviour is similarly deemed to undermine this new and commercially acceptable version of ‘wildness’.

Governments of every persuasion throughout SVG history continue to banish the wilderness by establishing ‘civilising’ institutions. To my earlier colonial examples of wilderness being banished might be added the St Vincent Botanical Gardens, Kingstown Grammar School and Girls’ High School, newspapers, agricultural reforms and land settlement schemes of various periods, to name a few. Most of these institutions, now postcolonial, struggle to sustain themselves. The reason for this, I suggest, is that the frontier conditions that I describe are more deeply engrained in SVG history and social relations with itself and others than it is willing to admit.


While writing up my notes in a hotel bar in Canouan I was approached by a hotel cleaner, a Mrs Rock. She saw me writing and stopped to talk; our chat quickly became a desperate sales pitch.

Mrs Rock’s pitch

You writing a book? I thought so. You see, it good to ask a question. You know the man from Barbados? It say on the radio he come from Barbados. He going to join with the owners of the hotel up there with the houses. I can’t remember the man name. Anyway, I want to talk to he. I have a piece of land. I want to cut it and keep the bottom piece and sell him the top half. He could make a hotel there. I have family that he can employ. I can’t remember the man name, though. I wonder how I could talk to he. He have one of them house up north. I recall his name now. He name Trump. If you see him tell him I have a piece of land for sale. My brother will live in the bottom piece and I will live there too when I retire. I am a Rock. I related to all them island family.


1 For discussions of this episode see Nanton (1983), 170.
2 From text of an email interview conducted with Antonio Saladino by Philip Nanton, July 2006.
3 For a summary of concessions negotiated by CRD in Canouan see Lewis (2010).
4 A letter to Searchlight, an SVG newspaper, written by one Samantha Smart (a possible pseudonym), claimed: ‘The real truth is that the European elite in Canouan have no love for black people, have no appreciation of the beauty of Afro-Caribbean culture, no respect for Vincentian traditions and individuals. The real truth is that management does not want to see black bodies at the beach with white bodies lounging carelessly nearby. Black bodies will only be acceptable in the uniforms of servants: maids, bartenders, lawns men and concierges. Saladino did not come to Canouan because he loved the people but because he loved the property.’ Searchlight, 9 February 2001, 11.
5 Renwick Rose, a regular columnist for Searchlight, observed at the time of the dispute: ‘A psychology of mega projects has enveloped our politicians and bureaucratic elite. They consider infrastructural development to be more important than HUMAN development.’ The result, he suggested, was: ‘big bucks and big concessions to which we must all bow or be counted as “ungrateful”’. Searchlight, 10 November 2000, 7.
6 For early revision of Chatoyer’s history see Kirby and Martin (1986). For more recent revision see Fraser (2002). For a muddier view of Garifuna leadership during the Brigands’ Wars see Fabel (2000), 193. Fabel gives prominence to the role of one Jean-Baptiste during the first Brigands’ War (186).
7 In this context Richard Slotkin provides a useful definition of what he calls the ‘myth-hero’. Slotkin states: ‘a myth is a narrative which concentrates in a single, dramatised experience the whole history of a people in their land. The myth-hero embodies or defends the values of his culture in a struggle against the forces which threaten to destroy the people and lay waste the land’ (Slotkin, 1973: 269).
8 An alternative, ‘humanist’ perspective on history – one that leans more towards illuminating rather than necessarily joining the fragments – is proposed for the Caribbean by Richard Drayton. He argues that because history has fault lines like any other discipline, these should be recognised and not glossed over – the inherent danger of nationalist history being that it shares much of the teleological style of its colonialist predecessor (Drayton, 2004: 16).
9 These quotations are part of an undated, extended series of interviews and observations conducted in Buccament, St Vincent with Lawrence Guy by Michael J. Kirkwood around 2006. I am grateful for access to them.
10 Ibid.
11 In 2008, the total population of SVG was estimated at approximately120,000 inhabitants. Some 30.2 per cent of the SVG population was deemed to be poor, 2.9 per cent indigent, and 48.2 per cent of the population was estimated to be below the vulnerability (to poverty) line. Remittances accounted for 22.1 per cent of all household incomes (Kairi Consultants Ltd., 2008). In his presentation of the 2011 budget to the St Vincent House of Assembly the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Ralph Gonsalves, stated that SVG Government welfare benefits are directly paid to or on behalf of 6,000 people – of these 5,600 are on public assistance, and one-third are students of poor families. In 2010, SVG public debt was EC$1.23 billion: that is 63.6 per cent of GDP. Debt servicing as a percentage of current revenue was 29.3 per cent.
12 In 1979 the SVG Government stopped a Danish consortium taking ownership of Orange Hill Estate (3,200 acres) in the north of St Vincent island after the sale was completed. The estate was at that time the single largest private estate in the country. CRD in Canouan controls some 1,200 acres on a ninety-nine year lease, some 85 per cent of that island.
  • Collapse
  • Expand

All of MUP's digital content including Open Access books and journals is now available on manchesterhive.



All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 1048 235 29
PDF Downloads 224 45 9