Green for the fertile land.
Black for the origin of the people.
Red for the blood that was shed.
Yellow for the sun that shines liberally.
And two white stars for hope and liberty.
I’m talking about the St Kitts and Nevis National flag, adopted in 1983, designed by a competition winner following their independence a few short years earlier. Full of symbolism, memories and future thinking. The flag is a fitting place to start to explain their culture, and I hope to do them justice with this blog by explaining why it matters.
I will share a little history before I talk about our adventures. St Kitts came by its nickname in 1493 when first sighted by Christopher Columbus who gave it the formal name of St Christopher. The English first colonised 130 years later and the French colonised a year later on the other side of the island (without each other realising). The island has been split by the French and English ever since, fought over, owned outright by each, traded for other territories between the two and for a fleeting period of 40 years the English and French jointly owned without beef, until war broke out between the two countries. The indigenous population, the Caribes, were almost entirely wiped out by the white settlers, bar a few who escaped to Dominica.
When you’re in a country for a day you have to make tough decisions about what you want to see and how you want to see it. You can’t see it all. For us this choice was the St Kitts Scenic Railway. I’ve always loved trains and railways, especially historic ones, a passion I’m sure I’ve inherited from my Dad. It also seemed a natural choice to be able to see a lot of the countryside. Our transfer started well, especially in the face of being herded onto mini buses, although it’s not as bad as it looks, especially as we had a charismatic driver who broke the rules with a slightly off piste tour. You know he’s doing a personalised version when you stop following the other buses. And he regaled us with all sorts of points of interest. As we toured you could notice the hurricane damage, as we would now expect. But this felt different. Clearly still rebuilding but the recovery seemed spirited – there is construction everywhere you look. Certainly more progress than Tortola, but that’s down to severity of the hurricane impact. They’re spending millions to put in a new dock to host two more cruise ships. Just earnestly putting their lives back together.
We got to the railway, met by a really quaint two tier train. It was 18 miles at a slow jaunt, with a sway to rival the boat. The rum punch started flowing at not much past 9am making us glad we had a hearty breakfast. The weather was glorious and we had a beautiful breeze as we trundled through the cane fields. What struck me most about this tour was the waving. Yes, waving – think back to those two white stars. As soon as we set off, the tour guide explained that people liked to wave to welcome you and they would like it if we waved back. Although I heard her words, I didn’t quite appreciate what the level of this human to human contact would mean. Could they be that joyful to see five train carts of white people coming to enjoy an experience that essentially takes you through former plantations? Oh my word. Almost everyone we saw waved, not just a small wave, but a glorious flapping of the arms, beaming smiles, young and old. Cars stopped, beeped and drivers waved. It was infectious. It was pure joy. I was teary.
I was equally teary listening to the history of the plantations, it’s clearly not news, but to hear it and see it was significant to me. Actually, it hit a nerve. The railway itself was built between 1912 and 1926, and with emancipation happening back in the 1830s, you could think the railway wasn’t synonymous with the slave trade. It was built to enable economies of scale, transporting the sugar cane to one central processing plant. However the enslaved people built the sugar plantations so it cannot not be connected. It has to be connected when you consider that white settlers had brought sugar cane to the island, then fast forward a couple of hundred years and the EU puts a stop to the sugar trade because of quotas and price cuts. The economy would have failed, so they stopped producing in 2005. Ironic is not a strong enough word. I’m going to go with wrong.
Importantly the Kittians have reclaimed the railway for themselves, reinstating it with a happier purpose. You felt the optimism, you felt the faith and the belief in everyone you met. They honour their history but they look forward. Take the case of the bread fruit which encapsulates this beautifully. It was brought to the Caribbean by Captain Bligh (think Mutiny of the Bounty) to supplement food for the enslaved people. However it was rejected when introduced as the enslaved people refused to eat the new food. This apparently lasted for many years and is in stark contrast to today’s utter love of the bread fruit. We had a Bubba Gump moment when our lovely tour guide names all the ways you can eat it: you bake it, roast it, boil it, fry it. You can put it in ice cream, pizza bases, drinks and so on…and on…!!
I want to be clear that our visit was joyful and uplifting perhaps even inspiring. I share these historical points, mostly because I refuse turn a blind eye. It doesn’t detract from their vibrant culture and welcoming personalities. Please visit if you get the chance. The train choir sang some beautiful songs for us, and they put it beautifully when they sang “I’m glad you came here before your days are done.” I am too.