Category: Stories of St. Martin

A Culture of Nature

On St. Martin, nature and culture are like two vines endlessly twisted around each other. Following them back down all the way to the ground, we would find them springing from the same root. These vines are ancient. They twisted their way through centuries and back farther still. But today they are often overlooked and under threat.

What is the future of local nature and culture on St. Martin? How do they survive and add meaning to the lives of future generations? How do we make them part of the island’s prosperity?

Bush tea and bush medicine are a collaboration with nature.

To start, we can celebrate the connections between all parts of the island’s heritage. Painting, dance, food and writing on St. Martin all have roots in nature. They bring us to nature and help us find our place in nature. Fishing and farming are collaborations with nature, as are bush tea and bush medicine. 

Ancient walls have the power to stop fires.

Salt production was hard work, but it was also made possible by an almost magical transformation powered by the sun. The stone walls—called slave walls after the enslaved people that built them—that still stand after hundreds of years are one of the most natural constructions ever made by people. Held together by just the weight of the stones and the knowledge of their builders, they allow water and wind to pass and have become home to many native plants and animals. Nature and culture can’t truly be separated on St. Martin. Each makes the other stronger.

In a world of competing interests, heritage must fight for attention. Today’s youth pass their time looking at a small rectangle of glass. Today’s adults do that, too. But culture and nature together can still cut through. Children are naturally fascinated by nature, and this should be fostered. As they grow and consider their place in the world, it is important for them to learn about about their heritage. It should be part of school, but it also needs to be on their phone screens and in their ear buds. 

Culture and nature are the foundation of the entire economy of the island. “The Friendly Island” is welcoming and open. It is the culture of a place where sharing was just a part of living. It is the spirit of a place where people left to find work and returned with a broader view of the world. Combined with amazing beauty of beach, sea and hillside, it is a culture that turned a quiet island into a major tourism destination.

There is no time to lament the destruction of nature or vanishing traditions. It is time to work. We need to document what is here, what is still alive and still remembered. We need to protect what is crumbling or threatened. We need to share what is special about St. Martin—with each other, with the next generation of children and with the visitors who come here. 

The island’s oldest buildings are made from local stone.

This age of many distractions has also given us many tools to document and share. We should use them. We should encourage government, schools and businesses to help in this mission. We should also take part directly: as citizens, residents or parents. Each person on the island knows something about St. Martin. Something that could be shared, or lost.

A St. Martin with beautiful nature and a vibrant culture is a place of prosperity. It is a place that tourists fall in love with and return to year after year. It is a place with money and jobs. But of course it is more than that. It is a healthier place. It is a stronger community. It is an island that tells its own story. 

Nature provides the wind that fills sails and the fish that fill nets.

We are all people who would live richer lives knowing more about this special island, and it is up to all of us. We are the people who can enrich others by sharing. We are the caretakers of those long-growing vines of nature and culture. We are the ones who can ensure they survive and prosper.

What part of St. Martin culture or nature are you most worried about losing? What story of St. Martin can you share? Take a few moments to tell it to a friend, child or grandchild. Post it on Facebook, or tell it to us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Notion of Nature

Scientists who study nature have many words to describe nature. They are useful and necessary. They describe what makes one animal different from another. They help us understand what is special and unique about one landscape compared to the next.

Animals and plants can be native or endemic. Or they could be introduced, invasive or naturalized. A forest could be virgin or primary. Or it could be secondary or disturbed. These words help take the diversity of nature and make it something we can study and protect.

It is important to know that there are animals that live only on St. Martin. They are worth protecting because if they disappear from this island, they disappear from the world. When rats threaten the survival of seabirds by eating their eggs and chicks, we can see it is a problem. We know we caused the problem by bringing the rats.

This language helps us understand nature, but it can also lead us to certain ways of thinking about life on earth. Or life on this island. It can divide the world into what is natural and what is not. By valuing certain things, we risk undervaluing others. By separating the manmade from the natural we also separate ourselves from nature.

Is a mango tree part of local nature?

There are other ways to think about nature. When you look at a mango tree on St. Martin, do you see nature? Most people would probably say yes. But at the same time, mango trees were brought by people and planted by people. A million years ago there were many trees on St. Martin, but no mango trees.

In some ways it is unnatural for the mango, breadfruit or flamboyant to grow on St. Martin. We have transformed nature by bringing them here. On the other hand, they are undeniably part of nature. There are small spiderwebs in their branches and insects sipping from their flowers. Anything alive and interacting with other living things is nature.

A field of grass with goats or cattle is not the same as the forest that was once there. But you can still see the butterflies flying through it. The most carefully landscaped yard still harbors wild residents. A beach with a restaurant is still a beach and waves still roll onto the shore.

A scientific view of nature helps us see the details more clearly. A more casual view of nature finds the wildness in human space. Both views reveal truth and we need them both.

We should protect the wildest spaces left on St. Martin. There’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world. But the island is too developed—too human—to just do that. We should celebrate and protect nature wherever it remains. Not just “pure” nature, but everywhere nature still flows into lives and local culture.

What does nature mean to you? Where do you go to connect with nature? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Soil Savvy

After the rain, caterpillars came for weed and crop alike.

The story of St. Martin is made of many things, and agriculture is a big part of it. A written history of the island would surely reference tobacco, cotton, coffee and sugar. But the crops grown for local consumption were probably more important to the everyday lives of the people who lived here.

The Les Fruits de Mer association has been working on several plant projects at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House. There is a native plants nursery raising native tree seedlings for backyards plantings and restoration of wild spaces. There is a bush tea and bush medicine garden. We have also planted some traditional foods. Even the local wildlife has joined in: birds have planted guinea corn by dropping seeds from the bird feeders.

Over the past year, these projects have provided a window into the challenges of agriculture on St. Martin. I can imagine working very hard and being very hungry. 2018 began with month after month of dry weather, lasting through the summer. A few plants did well, but most struggled.

Old school farming on St. Martin.

Wild plants were not much better off. Many lost their leaves to conserve water. The landscape was dry and dusty. This sent desperate iguanas into the garden to eat any greenery that survived.

Fall rains brought a quick transformation. Plants were sprouting everywhere. Vegetables, herbs and tree seedlings were finally thriving. But grasses and weeds were also. Gardens became a chaos of new life and it was hard to keep up.

Hard for a person, at least. Nature maintains her own balance. In this case, she sent in wave after wave of caterpillar, and a few grasshoppers for good measure. For every plant there was an insect ready to eat it. But this ecological harmony made few exceptions for vegetables.

Growing a few plants as an educational showcase is surprisingly hard. It makes you think about how difficult this work was. The amount of local knowledge developed over the years must have been vast as well. Generation after generation had learned what to plant where and when. They found ways to safeguard against a crop-destroying drought or storm.

Longhorn beetles ate a tree full of Surinam cherries overnight.

This knowledge and skill influenced many aspects of St. Martin’s culture. Local farming and fishing influenced how people traveled and traded with each other on the island. Crops and their seasonality influenced what recipes became popular and when certain foods were eaten. Lately, interest in sustainable local farming is increasing. How will traditional agricultural knowledge help today’s farming efforts?

Do you have any advice to share about farming or gardening on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Science, the Story, the Scene

What is the relationship between what we can see, what we remember and what we can learn form science? On St. Martin, we see an island that looks different each season: storm-battered, dry, lush and flowering. We are lucky to have the stories and memories of an older generation. Scientific study can also help us understand the island.

In many cases, these sources of information agree. Anyone who lived through Irma knows how ferocious she was, and many have memories of previous storms to compare. The idea that climate change will bring stronger storms is not abstract in St. Martin. It is very real. Caribbean countries, and other island nations, are leaders in the effort to fight climate change.

There are different ways to see coralita.

Sometimes we struggle to make sense of things. When masses of sargassum first arrived on our beaches, it was a surprise. It quickly became a curse. Over the last few years, scientists have been working to learn where it comes from and why. Our knowledge is quickly growing. On a practical level, we are watching to know when it is coming and developing ways to collect it before it chokes Caribbean beaches and bays.

Sargassum came as a surprise and became a crisis.

Science, story and the scene around us are all modes of observation. Scientific observation is structured. Data is collected so conclusions can be drawn from the results. On St. Martin, one weakness of science is a lack of data. In the past, few scientists studied the island, so we don’t have much data about how it has changed.

Story and memory are observations gathered over time. On St. Martin, these can be very valuable. We might be able to learn how often crops were lost due to very dry weather, or when a certain introduced animal was first seen on the island. Through storytelling and written journals, these memories can stretch back generations.

Dry times can be forgotten after a few weeks of rain.

When we look at the scene around us, we get a snapshot of the island. It is the most immediate and real observation. It may also disagree with what we know. Looking at the green island today, it is easy to forget the months of very dry weather that just ended. Recent studies show a scary decline in insects around the world, a danger to everything in nature that depends on them. For the moment, it is hard to imagine, with a butterfly on every flower and a caterpillar on every leaf.

The green leaves and bright pink flowers of the coralita vine are all over the island. Science shows it is a threat, smothering native plants. Old timers can probably remember when it wasn’t so common because fields were farmed or full of livestock. Looking at it, abuzz with life in the soft light after a rain, it’s easy to see the beauty in it.

What changes have you seen in St. Martin over the years? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Culture of Seasons

New faces appear on St. Martin’s ponds in the fall.

Once upon a time, the seasons controlled the daily life of almost everyone. It was a time when most people were farmers, not just on St. Martin, but everywhere. Life was a cycle of activity on the land. The choice of when to plant and when to reap could bring survival or starvation.

Today, much of the world is different. In many places, a few farmers use massive machines to tend huge areas of land. Food is transported around the world. Most jobs don’t depend on the sun or the rain. In the United States, Thanksgiving is a time when most people don’t think at all about being thankful for the harvest.

St. Martin is a place where seasons have always been important. The wet and dry seasons set the agricultural calendar. They also determined the schedule for salt production. Fishing on the salt ponds was linked to seasonal events like filling the salt pans with seawater.

Many other cultural traditions are equally tied to the seasons. Mangos ripen in early summer, the Flamboyant is in full bloom in July and guavaberries are ready in time to make punch for Christmas. Easter is a great time to camp on the beach with family because it is dry. If it were wet, people might celebrate Easter in a different way and head to the beach on another holiday.

There are plenty of other seasons on St. Martin. We have hurricane season, carnival season and the high season and low season of tourism. In a world where fresh strawberries are sold in the middle of winter, seasons have remarkable staying power on St. Martin.

Seasons represent a deep connection with nature. On St. Martin, people spend time outside. They feel the Christmas winds blowing in and the sea warming up in the spring. They see the haze of Sahara dust and feel the heat of the midsummer sun. Perhaps they notice the birds.

In the winter, birdsong on St. Martin is more diverse.

On St. Martin, the arrival of birds from distant lands heralds the end of summer and beginning of fall. Many small, brown birds appear on beaches and around ponds—plovers and sandpipers coming down from the North. The Osprey can be seen high above ponds looking for fish. In the forest and scrub, many new songs suddenly fill the air. Eventually ducks will arrive by the dozen.

Here, most migratory birds arrive in the early fall and leave in the spring. Once they were hunted, but today they are celebrated. You can take part at the Migratory Bird Festival, 9am to noon on Saturday, October 13th. It is at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House and it is free! Visit lesfruitsdemer.com for more details.

What seasonal traditions are most important to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Unnatural Disasters

Damaged and diminished wetlands offer less protection to people and their homes.

On St. Martin, people are all too aware of natural disasters. We have been keeping a close eye on every possible storm since Hurricane Irma. We are trying to deal with the sargassum washing up on the beach in huge amounts. We have seen unusually dry seasons in most of the last five years.

We know that human activity has contributed to these problems. There are few climate change deniers in the Caribbean. Communities truly know their islands. There is a shared knowledge and memory of what is normal. This makes it easier to see when things have changed, even without satellite images or data models.

Many local problems have global causes. Stronger hurricanes and drier weather in the northeast Caribbean are both expected results of global warming. The sargassum blooms may be connected to fertilizer runoff in South America.

While these issues are very modern, people have been making natural disasters worse for a long time. This is the topic of a recent article by Oscar Webber, “The Plantation’s role in enhancing hurricane vulnerability in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean”.

Webber finds a big difference in the damage and death caused by hurricanes in Barbados in 1831 and Dominica in 1834. Barbados was completely deforested at the time, with sugar cane planted everywhere. There were massive landslides due to rain. Fields were destroyed and the mud swallowed livestock whole. With no forest to shelter in, many people died trying to survive the storm on open ground.

Unlike sugar cane, coffee plants have strong roots that hold soil.

On Dominica, much of the forest was uncut. The main crop was coffee, a plant with deep roots that hold the soil. No landslides were reported, and no request for aid was made. Although almost all buildings were destroyed, there were far fewer deaths.

On both islands, the plantation system meant that enslaved people suffered much more from these storms. Their dwellings were less secure, and many died. On Barbados, guinea corn was one of the main rations for enslaved people. The crop was destroyed in the storm. Many feared starvation. Two enslaved people stockpiling guinea corn were shot by colonial authorities.

Coastal mangroves have been destroyed for centuries.

There were surely similar issues on St. Martin. Sugar cane was grown on much of the island. We may have made some ponds more vulnerable when adapting them to salt production. By clearing mangroves we left shorelines unprotected.

We still do things that make natural disasters worse. We fill ponds and build on beaches. We depend on an industry that can be destroyed by a major storm. Slavery is over, but there is deep inequality on the island. There are thousands living in unsafe homes with insufficient resources.

Beachfront is valuable, but vulnerable, too.

What would you change to make St. Martin stronger before the next natural disaster? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Crowdsourcing Culture

Word travels fast on an island. It always has—before WhatsApp, before Facebook, before the Internet and before there was a newspaper on St. Martin. Sharing knowledge with neighbors was key to survival back when the island wasn’t a quick plane ride from the rest of the world.

Over time, this shared knowledge forms the culture of the island. How are certain plants used to treat illness or injury? How are certain dishes cooked? Which styles are common in many home designs? What words and phrases are unique to St. Martin?

Snapshots of everyday life tell the story of St. Martin.

We are lucky that much of this culture is still here. We can see it in buildings, we can hear it spoken in the street and we can taste it from a bowl. But in this globally interconnected age, many things may be lost. Will grandma’s recipes be forgotten now that Gordon Ramsay’s are just a click away?

Culture doesn’t have to disappear, but it’s not going to preserve itself. We live in an amazing time when we can read, listen to, eat or watch almost anything from around the world. This world is a wonderful place, but it is also a place where languages are dying and traditions are disappearing. Can we have it all?

Citizen science provides an interesting model. Using modern technology, regular people can contribute observations that help us learn new things. Bird sightings on St. Martin, for example, can fill in on tiny piece of the story as millions of birds fly south for the winter. Sharing something about your backyard can change what humanity knows about the world.

Sharing bird sightings can help us understand migration.

Sharing science melee can be very effective. After writing about the Colombian Four-eyed Frog in The Daily Herald last week, readers have shed new light on this species. It has been seen on many parts of the island, and it was here long before anyone noted it in the scientific record. Being able to communicate with the local community in real time, helps us get a better picture of nature on the island.

Citizen science techniques could also help preserve local culture. People are already sharing stories and photos online. Collected and organized, this could be an incredible resource for preserving local culture. Pull together enough grainy snapshots and fuzzy memories, and a remarkably clear picture of local culture may emerge. By participating—even in a small way—people also become actively involved in preserving their culture.

Do you have a story or memory that tells us something about St. Martin culture? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Amuseum Naturalis encourages visitors to participate by saving items seen along the garden path.

New Song in the Night

Nights may never sound the same on St. Martin. We will still have the piercing thweet of the Whistling Frog, the cackling of the Cuban Tree Frog and the harsh buzzing of the Money Bug. But a new sound is echoing out on rainy nights. It is a low-pitched honk, as if from a giant robot goose, and it’s probably coming to your neighborhood soon.

It is the sound of the Colombian Four-eyed Frog. It is smaller than you might imagine from its voice. This frog only has two real eyes, but it also has two eyespots on its butt. When in danger, this frog faces that danger butt-first, hoping that those eyespots will intimidate the threat. It can also show off bright orange patches on its legs to alarm a would-be predator. If that fails, the eyespots are also poison glands.

The Colombian Four-eyed frog.

Our newest frog comes from South America. It also lives in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. We don’t know how it got here, or when. It was first noticed on St. Martin in late 2017.

The story of St. Martin’s wildlife has been written over millions of years. But lately, the number of new characters in that story has been increasing very quickly. Today, almost all new species come here with human help. Most hitch a ride with cargo. We almost never know exactly when they arrive or how. We only notice them when they start to be common.

The Four-eyed Frog is the latest in a long tradition of introduced species connected to major hurricanes. Several animals are associated with Hurricane Luis. Stories about the Vervet Monkey and Green Iguana often involve Luis, but there’s no proof that their arrival is related to the storm. The Giant African Land Snail allegedly came with giant spools of cable that were brought to restore power after Luis. The Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth may have come with Oleander bushes brought in for landscaping.

Eyespots and orange warning coloration.

Did the Four-eyed Frog arrive with cargo after Hurricane Irma? Did pet frogs escape during the storm? Was it already living here unnoticed before the storm? We probably won’t ever have an answer. We do know that it has made its way from French Cul-de-sac to Grand Case already, even though there were many months of dry weather. Probably it is headed towards your neighborhood.

We can’t know exactly how it got here, but we can learn about how the Four-eyed Frog spreads across the island. Have you seen or heard this frog? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Ponds from Feast to Feast

St. Martin’s ponds are rich. They are alive. They are always changing. They are a cornerstone of both human and natural life on the island.

Ponds concentrate life. Rain falls in the hills, washes down the guts and flows into the ponds. Leaves and dirt come with it—nutrients, the stuff of life. In the pond, this matter settles down into a rich mud. It gets trapped in mangrove roots. It becomes a concentrated richness that feeds life on the pond.

This filtering also keeps the sea clean and clear. It gives coral reefs a chance to grow at their own measured pace. The sea is beautiful, vast and empty. The pond is small, messy and alive in every drop.

Blue crab in the pond.

Salt ponds were always important to the people of St. Martin. The ponds were used to concentrate sea water until it became salt to harvest and sell. This was done all across the island: the Great Salt Pond, Grand Case, Orient Bay and Chevrise.

But people can’t survive on salt alone. The ponds were also a valuable resource for food: fish, shrimp, crab and birds. Sometimes salt production and fishing went hand in hand.

In Orient Bay, the salt pond was managed at the point where the Salines d’Orient meets the Fish Pond. When it was opened to flood the salt pans, fish were caught as they rushed through the channel. In Simpson Bay, shrimp were caught at night when they passed beneath the bridge. In the Lowlands, fishing on the pond was crucial during high seas when fishermen couldn’t take their boats on the ocean.

Great egret with a fish.

In Grand Case, Roland Richardson remembers fishing in the salt pans as a boy. As the water level got lower, fish would be just below the surface. He could hit them with a stick and pick them up from the water. Though the fish were trapped, he never took more than he needed because there was no refrigeration.

The simplicity of those times is gone. In her poem, “Spirit of We Fish Pon”, Laurelle “Yaya” Richards laments the loss of local culture, and the many foods that were once harvested on the pond: shrimp, crab, mullet, bass, 10-pounder and cremole. The life of the pond was the culture of her people and the food in her bowl.

Today St. Martin’s ponds struggle, but survive. Many have been diminished by filling. Most are tainted with waste. But they still remain remarkably alive. Young fish and lobsters still hide around the roots of mangroves. Birds still come from thousands of miles away to pull crabs from the mud. We buy our food from the store now, but animals still feast on the pond.

What do St. Martin’s ponds mean to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Saving Stories

A young couple gets married. A man holds a fishing trophy. A crowd inspects a portion of bridge that collapsed. A young girl stands on the beach with a handbag. A pier full of people looking to see who wins the boat race. One man throws a net, another cleans a fish. A woman talks with a giant pestle in her hand. In the mortar is a baton of sugarcane.

A girl stands on the beach.

Is a picture really worth a thousands words? Maybe. But a box of old photos will always hold at least a few stories. Each frozen moment gives us clues. They tell us what life was like here. We might see what people wore and what they were eating. We can see what a day’s catch of fish looked like. In the distance, we can see whether the hills are covered in pasture or scrub.

A man throws a fishing net.

Letters and journals have much to tell us, too. Recipes for food and herbal medicine are recorded. We learn how people spent their time, what things they worried about and what they hoped for the future. Even more can be learned by listening to those who lived here as the island changed.

All of these resources have special value here on St. Martin. They aren’t just the history of a person or a family, but the history of an island. They’re the record of a culture unique to this place.

Neighborhood kids pose for a photo.

These things are special, rare and always in danger. It is impossible to know how many stories have been lost to storm, fire, mildew and death. Hurricane Irma damaged the institutions that store local heritage: libraries, museums, archaeological collections and records archives. It is impossible to know how many items were lost from homes that were destroyed or flooded.

We should do what we can to save these stories. Through so much of history, only the stories of the wealthy and powerful were recorded. For the St. Martin of the last 100 years, we have the possibility of telling the story of everyday life. We can tell how people lived through great changes. We can learn what made the island what it is today.

A crowd watches a boat race finish line.

Do you have a story to tell about St. Martin? Do you have a photo or letter that shows us what life was like back in the day? Share it with The Daily Herald, or contact info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A man cleans a fish.
A woman holds a pestle.

House of Ages

The Old House has been part of the St. Martin landscape for hundreds of years. The first known record of it is from 1766. The foundations of this house are from this era. In the census of 1772, it was the most valuable estate on the French side. Crops included 2,000 coffee plants, 1,000 banana trees and acres of cotton, potatoes and cassava.  The names of the 49 enslaved people who lived there at the time are unknown, but traces of their lives can still be detected on the site today. They cleared and farmed the land, tended the livestock, constructed stone walls, and built the foundations of this house. 

The Old House.

By 1793, much of the land was used to grow sugar cane. A mill had been built in the valley across the street. Facilities were made to refine sugar and produce vinegar and rum. At this time, the property was owned by members of the Hodge family, originally from Anguilla. By 1816, there were 77 enslaved people on this estate, producing sugar while also raising their own food. The original wooden home was destroyed in the hurricane of 1819 and then rebuilt on the same foundation.

By the late 1830s, the property was in decline and it was considered a “former sugar mill” by 1837. In 1843, the property was acquired by Daniel Beauperthuy, who had the rights to produce salt on the Orient Bay salt pond. In addition to salt production, this estate grew cotton and raised livestock: 70 cattle, 36 mules and 234 sheep. By 1931, the house was again in disrepair. Unable to tear down the strong posts, Louis Emile “Lil’ Dan” Beauperthuy set the remains of the house on fire. He said it burned for about two weeks.

The concrete house you see today was built in 1935 by Adolph Artsen. It remained the residence of the Beauperthuy family for many years, and they continued to manage salt production in Orient Bay until the late 1950s. Pierre Beauperthuy transformed the property into a museum of history and culture in the early 2000s. His charisma and gift for storytelling were key parts of the museum he created here. It was a monument to his love of his island and its history.

Pierre Beauperthuy builds his museum.

In 2018, the Les Fruits de Mer association began restoring this property as a museum of nature, history and culture on St. Martin. Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House is a free museum dedicated to sharing all the stories of St. Martin. It is also a center for community projects, including a native plants nursery, shared gardens and other collaborative projects. The museum is now open for its fall hours, Tuesday to Saturday, 9am to Noon.

Flamingo Stories

When local birder Binkie van Es spotted a pair of flamingos hanging out on the pond behind Orient Beach, people got excited. You don’t have to be an avid birder to love the idea of flamingos on St. Martin. Many were also curious about where they came from and what they were doing here.

St. Martin’s salt ponds are a great habitat for flamingos. They are full of food for flamingos, like the shrimp that turn them pink. In the past, when St. Martin had more ponds and fewer people, there were definitely flamingos living here. At that time, they were also found in many nearby islands.

A flamingo at Salines d’Orient.

Flamingos on St. Martin were not part of the scientific record. Very few bird scientists visited St. Martin before 1955. But we do have some stories about flamingos living here.

Maps may give a few clues. Part of the Simpson Bay Lagoon was called Flamingo Pond, although we don’t know how it got its name. Baie de l’Embouchure appears as Baie Flamande on some maps. That is French for Flemish Bay, but also only one letter away from Flamingo Bay.

Historian Steve Kruythoff mentions the flamingo in his book, The Netherlands Windward Islands. He noted that he last saw it in the Orient Bay salt pond in 1932. I have heard that a travelogue written by a French couple includes a tale of the last St. Martin flamingo being shot by a hunter.

Between 1955 and 1975, birders did study St. Martin. They surveyed the island extensively, and the list of birds they found grew steadily. But it did not include the flamingo. The flamingo is an easy bird to spot. If they didn’t see it, flamingos probably weren’t here then. At least not regularly.

When Binkie posted photos of the new flamingos on Facebook, some commenters shared memories of flamingos on St. Martin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Around this time, flamingos on Anegada in the Virgin Islands were disappearing. Any flamingos on St. Martin at this time would have been among the last in the region. They may have been refugees from the dying flock in Anegada.

Starting in 1992, flamingos were reintroduced to Anegada and Guana Island in the Virgin Islands. Today there are hundreds in the Virgin Islands. A few years ago, a lone flamingo started visiting Anguilla. In 2015, a birder spotted a lone flamingo flying over Grand Case. Perhaps the arrival of flamingos in 2018 will mark the beginning of a new era for flamingos on St. Martin. It certainly would be wonderful.

Do you have stories or images of flamingos on St. Martin, or other interesting wildlife tales? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Ephemera

In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is a key scene in a Cairo cafe. The evil archaeologist Belloq holds out a cheap watch and says that if he buries it for a thousand years it will become priceless. Although his character was on the wrong side of history, he had a point.

A hurricane tracking map from Esso.

Today’s newspaper is worth about 75 cents. Yesterday’s is basically worth nothing. A newspaper from 30 years ago? It may not have cash value, but it might be priceless in its own way.

Today I was reading through an issue of The Chronicle from February 3rd, 1989. There was an article about the groundbreaking of a new museum, which was why this particular copy was probably saved. The paper was thin and full of international news from the wire. But even one issue was full of insights into the island at the time.

“No Cause for Alarm Over Brown Water” read one headline. There was a lengthy exposé titled “Sewage: Where It Goes Nobody Knows” that spoke of trucks pumping waste water off the cliff in Point Blanche. A few pages later, an real estate ad proclaimed Point Blanche as “suddenly the place to be!”

Over time, even the most trivial items become interesting in their own way. The 1980 program for July 14th festivities on the French side is full of great sounding concerts: the Superfly Brothers, Genius and Three Kings. The schedule was done on a typewriter, and all the accents were added by hand.

Festival program for the 1980 July 14th celebrations.

A hurricane tracking map was distributed by Esso and was touted as “a sign of progress.” A letter from Romelia Dollison identified her as “the only woman candidate in this election.” The sleeve of the seven-inch record for “O Sweet St. Maarten’s Land” is notable for using the Dutch spelling of St. Martin.

The 7-inch record of “O Sweet St. Maarten’s Land”.

So many things pass through our hands each day, it would be impossible to save them all. But even the most ordinary things eventually become fascinating in time. We should be thankful for the savers, who left us with these glimpses into the past. We should also take seriously the task of preserving and documenting what we have so that it can survive in some form into the future.

Do you have ordinary items that have survived the years against all odds? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Invisible City

St. Martin is full of cities with stories. We know their past and their present day identity. For a small island, it has a surprising number of distinct cultural centers. That’s one of the things that makes it such a great place to live or visit.

Philipsburg was a center of salt production in the past, and today is one of the region’s busiest cruise ship ports. Grand Case was a sleepy fishing village turned into a gourmet paradise. Simpson Bay was also a sleepy fishing village that is now packed with restaurants and nightlife. Marigot was the peak of chic in the 1980s, and Colombier the breadbasket of the island where traditional life is still celebrated.

By comparison, French Quarter is a bit of an invisible city. It was the first place where the French settled in the 1600s and it is one of the bigger towns on the island, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention in history books or travel guides. A large part of the population worked in the salt industry at Salines d’Orient for over 100 years, but I’ve never seen a single picture of salt production there.

A view of French Quarter.

Why don’t we know more about French Quarter? Perhaps because it is such a border town. The town is technically French, but it has always had close ties to the Dutch Side. French Quarter children would walk to school in Philipsburg back in the day because Marigot was harder to reach. Orleans Hardware is still the place to go on the French side if you need 3/4 inch pipe instead of two centimeter. The town may have been too far from the center of power on the French side and more integrated into the side of the island that wasn’t responsible for recording its history.

Today, French Quarter is also largely removed from the main industry on the island, tourism. On TripAdvisor, it has listings for six restaurants and zero hotels. Grand Case, by comparison has 47 restaurants and 18 hotels. Not every town has to be a tourism mecca, but how can a town thrive when it isn’t part of the island’s main industry?

French Quarter is an important place with a rich history. It has homes and buildings that are beautiful examples of local architecture. It exemplifies St. Martin’s greatest strength, the connection of people in communities that transcend nationality and political boundaries. It is an invisible city that deserves a share of the spotlight.

French Quarter isn’t invisible to the people who live there or have roots there. Perhaps we can work together to shine a light on this invisible city. Do you have stories or images of French Quarter? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Mystery Machines

The backyard of The Old House in French Quarter was overgrown with trees and bushes that had been growing wild for years. On top of that, Hurricane Irma had downed branches and tossed debris everywhere. Volunteers had spent weeks clearing the yard before they finally reached the mystery machine.

The trapped flywheel.

You could almost walk by and miss it. A flywheel sticks out at ground level beside a newly cleared path. A patina of rust covers the iron, and it is similar in color to the dirt and tree bark around it. Further in, another part looks like the bell of a saxophone.

The mouth of the machine.

How long has it been there? Based on the tree trunks that are growing through the machine, it has been there for decades at least. At least some of it is now underground, but we aren’t sure how much.

This mystery machine is a symbol of so much. It tells us of old times and old ways now forgotten. Especially as a group of volunteers gathers around it to make wild guesses about what it was once used for. It tells us of a St. Martin that was the same island, but also a very different one.

It reminds us of the constant struggle to maintain our homes and possessions against the ravages of nature and time. Concrete crumbles, metal rusts and wood is eaten by termites. Nature reclaims her land, inch by inch. The process is constant and effortless.

Surely this machine didn’t come cheap when it was bought. It was forged far away and brought here on a long ocean journey. At a time when there were no cars, refrigerators or big screen televisions, this was surely a major purchase. Yet there it is, grown into the landscape. Once valuable and useful, the world around it changed.

The mystery machine.

We look forward to researching this and other mystery machines from St. Martin’s past. They are not just relics. They were once used by people here. Understanding the purpose of these machines and tools can tell us what people were doing here as they went about their daily lives.

Do you have stories of tools and machines that were used once upon a time on St. Martin? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

History Exposed


The cycles of change between wet and dry on St. Martin have shaped the island’s wild spaces. Plants and animals that can’t survive the dry times don’t live here. Those that can have adaptations. Trees shed their leaves in dry times to conserve their moisture. Animals breed in the wet period when there is more food for their young.

Human life is also influenced by the changing seasons. To make salt, St. Martiners needed the dry months when water could evaporate, leaving the salt behind. The choice of crops and the timing of planting and harvest also depended on the rain.

The yearly cycle is somewhat predictable. There is a dry period from winter into spring and a wet period from summer into fall. Of course, in the Caribbean one is wise to expect the unexpected. A big storm could bring a huge rainfall during the driest months. This could be a disaster for birds nesting beside a pond that suddenly swells and swallows their nests.

The remains from salt production in Grand Case.

There are also droughts. It is said that people here had to face the prospect of losing their harvest every few years due to lack of rain. This would have been a huge challenge in centuries past. Perhaps it is good that we don’t depend on rain for our food today. The island has been relatively dry for a number of years, including a severe drought in 2015 and 2016. Climate change may bring more dry years to our region in the future.

Very dry weather does give us one unique opportunity. We can often see historical remains much more clearly. In ponds not connected to the sea, receding water reveals the levees and structures created for salt production. Barriers of stone and dirt divided the pond into smaller areas for salt production. In some cases, they also protected salt pans from incoming rainwater.

The dry hills also reveal structures from the past. As plants drop their leaves or shrivel and dry, we can often get a better view of old buildings and walls that have been abandoned to nature. Combined with the destruction of Hurricane Irma, this is a good time to see things that would otherwise be hidden by the vibrant growth of Caribbean plants.

Rains should be on their way. For thirsty plants and animals, it will be a chance to thrive again. For those of us still living beneath tarps, it will be a challenge. Before they come, take a moment to look up into the hills and down into our ponds to catch a glimpse of the past while it is still exposed.

Have you seen parts of St. Martin’s past exposed by the hurricane or the try weather? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Setting Sail

What could be more Caribbean than traditional boat building and sailing? Island life has always been tied to the sea. The Caribbean is also a place that has a long tradition of self-reliance. Traditional boats are a symbol of these two characteristics.

On St. Martin today we mostly get our food from the supermarket. It is shipped in from far away on big cargo ships. This is a necessary part of life on what is now the Caribbean’s most densely populated island. But it wasn’t always the case.

Throughout most of history, much of the food eaten here was grown here. People grew vegetables, raised livestock and fished the sea. A few foods were imported, like flour and canned goods, but survival often depended what the island could provide. 

Although shrimp and fish were harvested from St. Martin’s many ponds, fishermen needed boats to fish the local seas. Building boats was an important skill throughout the region. Being able to build boats and sail them was an absolute necessity.

These boats also helped link the islands of the Caribbean together. In the Lesser Antilles this was especially important. Throughout most of history, these small islands had small populations. People would travel between them to trade, to find work and to marry. 

Although many are quick to refer to islands as English, French or Dutch, the Caribbean identity and shared culture has always defined the region. Boats gave strength to the region by allowing its people to communicate, share and collaborate. The design and construction of the boats themselves shows shared elements from Anguilla to St. Martin to Saba to Carriacou.

People will gather in Grand Case today to enjoy the traditional boat races at the Schoelcher Day celebrations. They will celebrate seafaring and boatbuilding traditions. They will also celebrate Caribbean technology—boats designed and built here. Life today is easier in so many ways, but it does become harder to identify local invention in a globalized world.

Do you have stories of sailing and traditional shipbuilding? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Christmas Story

Christmas House is one of St. Martin’s most popular and unique attractions. It is a tradition that goes back over 30 years and has touched many thousands of lives. It can bring a smile to anyone in the world, and it is also a deep expression of St. Martin culture.

It all started as something simple. Bernadine Arnell Joe decorated her own home, and it became a place for family and friends to enjoy the holiday spirit. In her words, “We started from scratch. We made a little tree and the neighbors would come and the children would come and then it start growing. Then you start putting it outside and then people start coming and now it’s very popular.”

Christmas House aglow with lights.

Today, Christmas House is still at the home of Bernadine and her daughter Monique Joe. Monique is the President of the Good Friends Association, which was created in 1987 to manage Christmas House as it grew.

Monique remembers family working together to create something for the neighborhood children: “My mother used to do a little Christmas deco in the yard and the neighbor children used to come around. I also had an uncle in The States who used to send little decorations. When I finished my studies, I also wanted give the children a little party in the yard and from there it grew to the Christmas house.”

The Christmas House has always been free. Visitors can make a donation, but there has never been a fee to enter. In the 1980s “the island was bloomin’.” Local merchants would provide candy and toys for the kids. Today, grants and supporters like Super U help make Christmas House possible.

It was designed for kids, but as Monique says, “and of course we have the goodies for the parents. Mom always used to make the cake and the puddin’ and the punch, so we are famous for that.” Celebrating the local heritage of the island is a big part of the experience: guavaberry punch, coconut tarts and other local Christmas traditions are always shared.

After Hurricane Irma, many assumed that Christmas House would not be open in 2017. The house was damaged and many of the decorations were lost. As Bernadine recalls, “when I looked out the morning after, I thought this is it. All the stuff was put aside outside there, messed up.”

But Santa himself seemed to send a message. “There was a Santa standing up on the roof there, looking out at the street. And I said, but this is a sign. And then we had some flowers from garlands that stayed up from last year and they were still there. I said, with all this destruction and these things stay there, we have to do something. And with that spirit, we did something.”

Share your story about Christmas House with us! Write to The Daily Herald or email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Stories of Stuff

The written record of the past is full of holes. In fact, it is mostly holes. So many things were unwritten: everything before writing and the experience of those that couldn’t write. Land deeds, legal contracts and census records have often survived, but surely even more was lost through time. Countless letters and diaries have been lost and destroyed. 

A hand-crank coffee grinder. (Photo by Robert Mandl)

When it comes to learning about everyday life in the past, we can fill in some of the holes with the objects that were left behind. In many cases, objects reveal what people did and how they did it. A hand-crank coffee grinder tells us that at least some people were drinking coffee. A kitchen’s worth of antiques can help us imagine the morning routine of someone living on St. Martin long ago.

Objects can also tell us about the relationship between St. Martin and the wider world. Which items were imported and which were handmade here? Where were imported items made? The path that objects traveled can reveal connections between cultures.

Of course, objects can only tell us so much. Was a homemade roaster designed to roast coffee beans? Or was it for roasting cashew nuts? Both were grown here. Maybe it was used for more than one thing. What was ground in a mill? What was weighed on a hanging balance?

At Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House, we are photographing and cataloging a collection of many old things saved by Pierre Beauperthuy. It is a wide-ranging collection of objects. Within them are so many stories, but what are the stories? How should they be told? What do they tell us about St. Martin specifically?

A hanging balance by itself is simply a way to measure weight. When we see one, we understand it is a tool that was used in the past. But, by itself it does not exactly tell us a story about St. Martin, since they were used all around the world. 

The story of the hanging balance comes alive when we know it was used to measure salt that was produced on the Orient Bay salt pond, or to weigh fish sold in Marigot by Simpson Bay fishermen. It becomes part of a very real and specific St. Martin experience. Often, the missing link between stuff and its story is found in memories. Especially the memories of elders and those who spent time listening to their grandparents.

Do you have an object that tells us something about St. Martin’s past? Share a photo and story with us! Write to The Daily Herald or email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

From the Records

History is the study of the past. Often it is defined as the study of the past as recorded in writing. This is a reasonable definition, but it also limits the the scope of what we can learn from history.

The Old House in French Quarter has a history. A version of it was compiled by Henri and Denise Parisis in 1989. In their research they drew from a variety of archives such as census records and legal documents. These are the things that were written back then, and these are the things that survive.

As one can imagine, some of the history is quite dry. We learn the size of a plot of land each time it was sold. We have some family histories that are a series of distant dates and faceless names. We can see the price of a plantation.

Does the data of commerce and bureaucracy tell us anything about what life was really like back then? In fact, it does. There are quite a few details that can help us imagine the scene at the time of the 1772 census. We know the crops that were grown, and they were varied. There were fields of cotton, potatoes, cassava and even grain. There were 1,000 banana trees and 2,000 coffee plants. There were 25 cattle, three horses, 100 sheep and 50 goats.

History records the coming and going of cotton.

We can also trace changes over time. By 1793, the property had a working sugar mill. In 1816 85% of the cropland was growing sugar cane. By the 1840s, sugar production had declined and cotton was being grown again. With this data, you could sit on the porch and imagine the changes sweeping through the land. Combine it with data from dozens of other plantations and it tells us how the whole island shifted in the service of the global economy.

These records also tell us some human stories that tell us about connections within the Caribbean during the colonial era. Alexis Bernié was from St Barths. Brothers Arthur, John, Benjamin and Thomas Hodge were from Anguilla. Pierre-Daniel Beauperthuy was from Guadeloupe. All came from other islands, and all were owners of this property. They remind us that St. Martin has always been a land of immigrants and a Caribbean melting pot.

What is sadly missing is information about the vast majority of people who lived on the plantation during these years. The number of enslaved people was recorded alongside property and livestock: 49 in 1772, 47 in 1793, 77 in 1816, 44 in 1843. Their houses and gardens are mentioned, but we don’t know their names or their stories.

On St. Martin, much of history is a hollow shell. Beyond the owners and rulers is a great emptiness. The people who built the island are largely unnamed and unknown. What do you wish we could know about them? Write to The Daily Herald or email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Changing Tastes

You are what you eat. At least, that’s how the old saying goes. If it’s true, then the people of St. Martin have changed a bit over time. Some food traditions have been passed down from generation to generation, while others have fallen by the wayside in a changing world.

Fresh chicken on the go.

Many St. Martiners can tell you that people ate more fish and less chicken back in the day. There was a time when “fresh chicken” was chicken that you caught, killed and cleaned yourself. And this was the only kind of chicken you were likely to eat.

Fish and other seafood have always been an important part of the local diet on St. Martin. But even local fish preferences have changed. Mahi-mahi, wahoo and red snapper are some of the most commonly eaten fish today, but doctorfish was the real favorite for many back in the day.

Fish in the pot.

In the past, many fish and shrimp were caught in St. Martin’s ponds, something that doesn’t happen much today. Many ponds are now polluted. Some have been filled in to make way for buildings and roads. In French St. Martin, fishing in protected ponds is not allowed. All these changes have ended most pond fishing, and many people miss the taste of fish and shrimp once caught there.

A fish known as the cremole is particularly missed. Cremole is the French name for a fish that is also called the striped mullet, but also has countless other names. On St. Martin, the name cremole is widely used by English speakers. It is a fine example of a word moving freely from one language to another in the melting pot of the Caribbean.

The cremole likes to live in ponds and that’s where it was usually caught. They could grow as long as your arm—or even longer depending on who is telling the story. By all accounts, they were a delicious fish. The roe of the cremole was also fried and eaten and considered a real treat.

On St. Martin, it’s no surprise that changes have made their way down to the dinner plate. Shifting tastes tell us about the many changes to the island itself, like the ponds that are gone and ones that can never be used the way they once were. They tell us about the connection between the island and the rest of the world, and the daily container barges and jets bringing all kinds of products here. The foods that have stayed the same tell us something about the culture of St. Martin and how strong it is.

Share some of your favorite food stories by writing to The Daily Herald or emailing info@lesfruitsdemer.com. Let us know your favorite childhood dish, something you miss from days gone by or a family favorite that you are still cooking today.

Stories for Today

Lately, it feels like the world of storytelling has opened up. It is a moment we have waited on for far too long, and we still have a long way to go. But it seems to be happening. Could a black director get a huge budget to film an afrofuturist blockbuster? Yes, and Black Panther became an instant classic and one of the top-grossing movies of all time. 

A postcard for The Old House museum.

More than ever, women and minorities are getting the chance to tell their stories to a wide audience in movies and television. We’re also listening to victims as they tell their stories about wealthy and powerful abusers. The world is changing and the universe of stories is expanding.

On St. Martin, storytelling has long been dominated by a minority of people and a handful of stories. We hear about a Dutchman and a Frenchman who walked around the island to divide it. It is a made-up tale, but still focuses on European men, like most of the written history of the island.

We learn about Christopher Columbus “discovering” the island. We learn of battles between European armies and the Treaty of Concordia between the French and Dutch. We may become familiar with names of a few white governors and a handful of wealthy families. We learn about a small number of crops that were exported to Europe. 

Now is the perfect time to reconsider the stories we tell about St. Martin. The impact of colonialism and the exports that drove the local economy will always be part of the story. But there are many other stories to share, and many other perspectives that haven’t received attention. The people of St. Martin deserve to hear these stories. Sharing these stories with visitors will help them develop a deeper bond with the island. 

The story of bush medicine deserves a place alongside the story of sugarcane. The story of the Diamond Estate 26 is at least as important as any battle between European countries. Slave walls are as important as any fort. 

Luckily, we have many of the resources we need to find and tell these stories. Pierre Beauperthuy preserved many historic things in The Old House museum. Every day, Facebook is filled with photos, videos and memories about St. Martin. Thanks to the people who have held on to this history, today we have the chance to tell new stories about St. Martin.  Now we can tell a deeper and fuller story about the island and its people.

What untold stories deserve a wider audience? What new perspectives do we need to share to have a deeper understanding of St. Martin? Send your stories and ideas to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Changing Stories

The fisherman with his catch. It is a classic photo, taken countless millions of times from the days of black and white film to the smartphone selfie era. We have scanned dozens of photos of fishers and fish on St. Martin from days gone by. Aside from the grain of the film and the faded colors, many could be taken yesterday. But a few stand out. A photo of a dead hammerhead shark is one of them.

A shark out of water.

The St. Maarten Nature Foundation is leading Shark Week activities right now, celebrating the importance of sharks. Sharks were long feared and despised, but now we have learned that they keep our oceans healthy and preserve a balance of marine life. They help us have fish to eat and vibrant reefs for scuba diving and snorkeling. 

But Shark Week isn’t just a chance to celebrate these majestic animals. It’s also a reminder that they are threatened by overfishing. The fate of sharks, and ocean life in general, depends on actions to protect them. Dutch St. Maarten has done that, protecting all sharks in their waters. Hopefully more of the Caribbean will follow.

It is amazing how much our attitude towards sharks has changed, and how quickly. Diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau and his team once killed sharks and viewed them as an enemy. The movie Jaws made people terrified of sharks. But today, if you shouted “Shark!” on a scuba boat, the divers would jump into the water to see it.

When our knowledge and values change, how does that change the way we tell stories about the past? We need to consider what it meant to catch a shark back then, and also what it means today. Fishing to feed a family is certainly different than trawling the ocean with miles of net. The seas themselves were different before commercial fishing depleted them.

The fishing that sustained villages like Simpson Bay and Grand Case is an important part of the history and culture of the island. For thousands of years before that, the Arawaks harvested conch, whelk and other foods from the sea. As far as we know, this was done sustainably. Many generations ate fish and shrimp from St. Martin ponds. Dying reefs, overfishing, pollution and invasive species like the lionfish are all relatively modern threats. 

Can we honor the past while also promoting current values? In many cases, we find ourselves looking to the past for the solutions to the problems of today. How do we farm without hurting the land? How do we live without generating tons of plastic waste? In other cases, we may simply acknowledge that the circumstances of the past were not the same as today. 

What parts of St. Martin’s past seem different to you today? Share your thoughts by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Mystery Spring

The Old House in French Quarter was formerly known as the Spring Plantation. Perched on a dry hilltop it looks out to the Atlantic Ocean. One thing that is not there is a spring.

A house on the hill, but where’s the spring?

The source of the name Spring is a bit of a mystery. Researching in the 1980s, Henri and Denise Parisis didn’t find a spring at the house, but they did come up with a theory. Heading towards French Quarter, there is a dry ravine coming down from the mountains just beside the hill. They thought a stone well was built there at some time and then destroyed by flooding in the ravine.

It seems as good a theory as any. A location in the ravine where a well could reach groundwater would also be vulnerable to flooding. St. Martin has many ravines, also know as guts, that are usually dry. But they do transform into raging streams when heavy rain falls.

The Parisises also noted that this stone well probably had a trough for animals. This would be useful because the well would have been near the sugar mill, which was powered by cattle. They found the remains of the sugar mill and documented it in 1989.

The site of the mill was a raised earth platform about four feet high in a circle about 65 feet in diameter. Cattle circled on this platform, powering the mill in the center. Other features that remained in 1989 included a ramp to access the mill, a short bit of wall and some masoned stones that may have been part of a building.

The black and white photos in the report by the Parisises don’t look like much. It is hard to make out the remains of the mill platform and the other features, especially parts that are overgrown. It would take lots of work—and lots of imagination—to showcase them as something that resembles a mill in any way.

Is the spring still in the valley, waiting to be discovered? What else on St. Martin remains hidden—covered by grass, vines and acacia trees? What should become of these sites? How should they be preserved? How should they be presented? They are the heritage of the island, but they are also a legacy of slavery. Tell us about sites that should be saved, and your ideas about how to present them in a way that honors and respects the people that built them. Write to The Daily Herald or email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Salt Story

It is an incredible privilege to learn local history from someone who lived it. In a recent interview, Elise Hyman from French Quarter described the salt work done on Salines d’Orient in the middle of the 20th century, a time when the industry was coming to an end on St. Martin.

Elise Hyman can still remember the beauty of the salt.

She set the scene of St. Martin during that time: “In that time—in the salt pond times—they were good times. People were very industrious and they didn’t have no other alternative but the salt pond. Everybody used to work their own garden, and when the time come for the salt…that was all the industry they had here.”

She spoke about picking the salt in the morning: “They go in the pond in the morning early. Early morning, everybody’s in the pond picking salt. Picking, throwing in a basket. Then they have a big thing, what they call a flat. So they pick it out the pond, put it in a basket—bum!—you throw it in a flat. So you do that all day, when you get this flat full they row it in to the shore. And so somebody there in the flat is shoveling it out and the younger people come and they transport it on the shore. On the dry shore. So you take it now from the spot where you take it from the flat and you throw it on the groun’ so all the water run out so it’s dry.”

In the afternoon the salt was measured and recorded into a book we were looking at: “Afternoon, three o’clock, Mr. John Gumbs come. Everybody get up and going back and forth taking it up the big pile as tall as this house. So he’s going to come to measure it. And he’s the one putting down all those marks [in the ledger].”

Later, boats would come to collect the salt: “They had a big, big pile. The boats used to be coming there every month. Two and three boats comin’ in to Orient Bay. The people go and they bag it. By the big pile, you have people to shovel, to fill up the bags. They had a little small bag. I don’t know how big it used to be, but it was big enough for the children because mostly children was going to do that. They put it on they head and they go and they had men by the sea water that take it from them and carry it to the boat.”

Terns roost on the stones of a salt pan in Salines d’Orient.

Today, only the slightest remnants of the salt production days remain. Stone levees marking salt pans are roosting spots for birds. But Elise Hyman still remembers how it was: “As long as rain fallin’, no salt don’t grow. But when it come on the dry weather, up comes the salt. Beautiful. It used to be a beautiful sight to see.”

Stories Come Together

If you pull on the thread of almost any story, it will lead you into the next. On St. Martin, this is especially true. People know each other—cousins, aunts, friends and classmates. A conversation about salt turns into one about bush medicine or walking across the island to go to school. A handful of old photos can spark stories that connect French Quarter to Grand Case.

I recently spoke to Elise Hyman about her work in salt production in Orient Bay. She remembered all her co-workers from French Quarter, although only a few are still alive today. She remembered reaping salt from the pond and bagging salt from the great pile and bringing it out to ships that would arrive from Guadeloupe.

Elise Hyman talks about life on St. Martin from her porch in French Quarter.

She described how they would control the flow of water into Salines d’Orient at the little bridge where a channel connects it to the Fish Pond. This was necessary to produce salt, but also provided an opportunity to catch “a kind of fish you call cremole—oh, such a sweet fish.”

Cremole is featured in the poem “Spirit of We Fish Pon” by Laurelle “Yaya” Richards. The poem winds its way from tales of fish to cassava. Elise Hyman does as well in our conversation. She remembers going to Grand Case because they had “terrific ground” and grew sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, yams and more in abundance.

Elise still works in her own garden today, where she grows a variety of plants used for bush tea and bush medicine. It was once the only kind of medicine available, and the traditions are still alive.

A cough remedy “by Parson Hodge of Anguilla” that includes rhubarb.

As the Les Fruits de Mer association develops Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House, we are sharing the stories of St. Martin from the people of St. Martin. We are finding out how the stories of nature, history and culture connect together. Join us on Sunday, May 20th from 9am to noon for the Endemic Animal Festival. It is a free event that celebrates the animals that live only here. We will also be exploring other aspects of nature and heritage and how all these stories come together. For more info, visit lesfruitsdemer.com.

Built Here

On St. Martin, Hurricane Irma tore off roofs and damaged many houses. But pretty soon, the air was filled with the sounds of hammers and saws as the rebuilding process began. Still, many homes remain damaged and open to the elements. Without repairs, the rain and tropical sun will bring them beyond the point of fixing.

Take a closer look at these St. Martin homes. Whether they were built 200 years ago, or only 50, they reflect unique Caribbean architecture, design and construction traditions. They’re the legacy of St. Martin designers and builders. They are also a big part of the special look of the island.

St. Martiners once used molds like this to make decorative blocks by hand.

Most houses on the island are one of a kind, from the overall design to details like railings and arches. A wide variety of materials were crafted right here by hand, including tiles, concrete and woodwork. Many homes on St. Martin feature cement tiles made in Suckergarden in the 1960s and 1970s by brothers Cameron, Louis and Stevanus Guy.

Decorative concrete blocks in countless designs can be seen on St. Martin. Built into a wall, they provide privacy and shade, while allowing air flow.

Their work remains for all to see, but the stories of the artists and craftsmen behind St. Martin’s style are largely untold. What inspired their designs? Where did they learn their techniques? The time to record and preserve the human stories behind local homes is now. Although some craftspeople are still working today, mass-produced materials have replaced much that was once handmade.

Intricate wooden gingerbreading is a beautiful detail on many local houses. For most of the island’s history, this was carved by hand.

Even the physical legacy of these builders is vulnerable. Concrete, stone, wood and metal are sturdy, but don’t last forever. Will Hurricane Irma’s destruction change the face of St. Martin? Will we lose many fine examples of local design? Will we design new homes differently? Only time will tell.

Carpenters, welders, masons, painters and other artisans of St. Martin—share the stories about your work and how this island was built. Write in to The Daily Herald or email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Life at the End of an Era

Many of us grew up thinking of history as the story of ancient times. We learned about the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the American Civil War. They all seemed like very distant things, and they were.

On St. Martin, we don’t have to look so far back in time to see a totally different island. The tourism industry really began to transform St. Martin in the 1960s. The economy grew, the population grew and the island became more closely connected with the rest of the world. Today, we have access to global culture and commerce: Game of Thrones, the latest iPhone and fresh foods from around the world.

Thread, paint and pitch, some expenses of salt production.

Going back just a few years earlier—within the lifetime of St. Martiners still living here today—the island was a very different place. Fishing, farming and raising animals were key parts of the struggling local economy. Many had left the island to find jobs abroad. Salt was still being harvested and sold using age-old techniques. But that era was coming to an end.

A series of journals collected and saved by Pierre Beauperthuy gives us a unique window into this period. Spanning from 1935 to 1957, they mostly record financial transactions. But even the most mundane ledger becomes interesting over time. We can see which ships came and how much salt they purchased. We learn the cost of oars and paint for marking salt bags.

The entries that record the work and wages bring us closer to understanding life back then. Inese II stopped in Orient Bay and bought 318 barrels of salt in May of 1948. To bag the salt, there was a breaker, and there were shovelers, holders and helpers. There were many carriers to move it. There were boatmen, receivers and overlookers. There was a measurer. You don’t have to be a historian for this scene to come alive in your mind.

Records for the loading of Inese II in May 1948.

Even more importantly, we have names. Gaston Brooks, Mitilda Richardson, Charles Vanterpool, Marie Lake, Eduardo Fleming, Martha Brooks, Leonard Wescott and Roland Hodge are among the dozens who loaded the Inese II in 1948. Surely some passed on stories of their work to their children. Some of the people working in the later years may still be alive to tell their own story.

We can learn much from the journals themselves. We hope to learn more from the stories of the people who were there. If you have stories to share, write in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com. To find your relatives in the full list of names from the ledgers, visit: http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/salt-worker-names/.

Salt Worker Names

Below are names transcribed from a series of journals documenting salt production and trade in Orient Bay, St. Martin. Read about the journals here. It was challenging to transcribe many of the names due to the age of the documents and, at times, the handwriting. Please let us know if you know any of these people or if you have stories to share about the salt industry on St. Martin. You can email info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Anna Abram
Beulah Abram
Marie Abram
Morris Abram
Marie Alsam
John Babtist
Amelia Barry
Bobey Barry
Felicien Barry
Frederick Barry
Hyacinth Barry
Suzette Barry
Jean Bastman
C Beauperthuy
M Beauperthuy
Amelia Blake
John Boastman
Adolphe Boatholder
AB Brooks
Alderloria Brooks
Anathade Brooks
Beatrice Brooks
DB Brooks
Frederick Brooks
Gaston Brooks
Harlow Brooks
Martha Brooks
Rebecca Brooks
Ronald Brown
Caesar Bryan
Delphine Bryan
Emma Bryan
Ernest Bryan
Laurent Bryan
Alice Caine
Alice Canes
Faustin Carty
Harold Carty
Samuel Carty
Stanley Carty
Stanly Carty
Emile Case
Gertrude Case
James Case
Raymond Case
Rémont Case
Edith Chittick
Iris Chittick
Mary Chittick
Ann Cocks
Emile Cocks
Evencia Cocks
Evericia Cocks
Gertrude Cocks
Hyacinth Cocks
Janders Cocks
May Cocks
Orlescander Cocks
Zander Cocks
Roy Connor
Emile Contic
Emile Cox
Laureline Crawford
Theresa Douglas
Eduardo Fleming
Elada Fleming
Elsaldo Fleming
Joseph Fleming
Raphaël Fleming
Alice Garcia
Catherine Gibbs
Adelaïde Glasgow
Antoine Glasgow
Antoinette Glasgow
Charles Glasgow
Ebert Glasgow
Eglantine Glasgow
Hubert Glasgow
Leontine Glasgow
Oliver Glasgow
Philomena Glasgow
Robert Glasgow
Adolphe Gumbs
Alea Gumbs
Alese Gumbs
Alfred Gumbs
Calise Gumbs
Clément Gumbs
Elie Gumbs
Ida Gumbs
J Gumbs
Laurencio Gumbs
Lorraine Gumbs
Victor Gumbs
William Gumbs
Martha Heyliger
Mathilde Hodge
Porter Hodge
Roland Hodge
Rollon Hodge
Handita Hubert
Nestor Hubert
Pedro Hubert
Elise Hyman
Felise Hyman
Ferdinand Hyman
Isaac Hyman
Isaiah Hyman
Jane Hyman
Jerdinan Hyman
Lilian Hyman
Marcelin Hyman
Marian Hyman
Reneé Hyman
Susan Hyman
Francisco Ilidge
Roland Ilidge
Frank Illidge
Jean Illidge
Jean Illidge
Marcelle Illidge
Antoinette Jacobs
Alcide Jeffers
James Jeffers
Endine Jermin
Eveline Jermin
Lucia Kingsale
J—- Lake
Leonard Lake
Marie Lake
Veronica Lake
Veronica Lake
William Lake
Monheride Lambert
Madame Matheda
Henrietta Mento
Laurette Mento
Lorretta Mento
Hudon Ray
John Reed
Maybell Reed
Eglantine Richardson
Leapole Richardson
Alice Roberts
Rose Roberts
Clifford Rohan
Juliette Rohan
John Roy
Richard Smith
Elsie Stevens
Elise Sweeney
Tedric Sweeney
Gaston Trench
Charles Vanderpool
Dorothy Webster
Similienne Wescott

Pieces

Massive sugar cane rollers at The Old House.

At the former Old House museum and future site of Amuseum Naturalis, there is a collection of sugar cane processing equipment in the front yard. There are massive coppers for boiling down cane juice, and a number of enormous rollers for crushing cane. They are items of clear historic value, but I was unsure how they worked. 

An illustration in a 17th century book by Charles de Rochefort shows similar rollers in use. I thought they would have lain flat, using their tremendous weight to crush the cane stalks. To my surprise, in the illustration it shows them positioned vertically in the center of a cane mill. 

An illustration of a sugar mill from the 17th century.

Figuring out how these pieces fit into the machinery was the easy part. The much harder part is fitting them into the story of St. Martin. In the illustration, and in life, the machine was operated by enslaved people. Telling the full, real story of the rollers, the mill, the sugar industry or St. Martin means telling the story of slavery.

Slavery may be the most significant part of the island’s history, but it is easy to visit St. Martin without thinking of it. The enslavement of African people during the colonial era is one of the cruelest chapters in human history. It’s deeply shameful, and it is challenging to find the right way to discuss it.

It is even harder to tell the story of the lives of enslaved people. Often, the story of slavery is told like a story about commerce—the rise of the sugar industry, the number of slaves owned, the value for which these people were sold and the dates of emancipation. The human element is frequently missing.

We often learn about the lives of enslaved people from archaeological work on objects, rather than writings. But they did not live thousands of years ago in a culture with no written language like Amerindian people. They lived during a time when Europeans were writing about their own lives but ignored and suppressed the stories of enslaved people. It is one of the dehumanizing aspects of slavery that remains with us to this day.

To tell the story of the cane rollers, the Amuseum must also tell the story of enslaved people. It is a story that residents and visitors deserve to hear at a museum about St. Martin: an honest account of slavery, and an exploration of the lives and works of enslaved people. 

Some stories are already being told, like that of the Diamond Estate slave escape and the legend of One Tété Lohkay. Surely there are others that deserve more exposure. I am not a historian or an expert on this topic, and I believe telling this story properly is deeply important. It will take input from the entire community of St. Martin to know what stories to tell and how to tell them. Do you have a story about the lives of enslaved people on St. Martin or suggestions about how to tell their story? Write in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com to share them.