Category: Stories of St. Martin

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.

Naked Boy

Last week’s article about street names prompted some comments from readers who shared some of their favorite place names on St. Martin. Naked Boy Hill was a favorite of Melinda Chiu, and a number of residents shared an interest in this name, as well as a few stories about how it came to be.

Google can help us find the answers to many questions, but when it comes to the hills of St. Martin, the results are often lacking. A search for Pigeon Pea Hill, brings up relevant results, but those results don’t tell you much. A search for First Stick Hill is mostly results about how to start a stick-shift vehicle when parked on a hill. Naked Boy? You can probably imagine. Don’t do an image search expecting photos of landscapes.

Fully-clothed hikers climb Naked Boy Hill.

Although it can be amusing to see the mighty Google fail, it underscores a more serious point. Lots of information still isn’t on the web. You can’t find it in Google and it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Perhaps some of this missing information is in an obscure or out of print book. In many cases, it probably hasn’t been recorded at all. Over time, the facts and stories handed down in oral traditions are at risk of disappearing.

And our Naked Boy? There are a few different stories floating around. Ilja Botha heard that the name comes from being a small hill set apart from the central hills. In this case, our hill would be a geological and geographical naked boy, naked in its aloneness.

A few sources claim the hill is named after the trees found there. Naked Boy is a local name for a few different trees in different parts of the Caribbean. Sometimes the name is used for the Gumbo-Limbo, which is also called the Tourist Tree because it has peeling red bark like a sunburn. One website mentions a guava-like tree with peeling bark as the Naked Boy. The Blue Ocean Villas website believes the Naked Boy tree is the same species known as Bois Bande. The bark of this tree is used to infuse a rum with alleged aphrodisiac qualities.

In yet another story, the “naked boy” is a man who lived on the hill. When walking home, he would take off his clothes so they wouldn’t get sweaty during the climb. In a variant recounted by Ilja Botha, the man did this specifically during his walk home from church on Sundays, perhaps so he could keep his very best clothing clean.

Whether true or not, each story tells us something. The last one in particular brings us back to a St. Martin far more isolated from the world. One where goods were scarce and people took great care for what they owned. Even if that meant walking home naked.

Do you know a story about Naked Boy Hill? Share it by writing in to The Daily Herald, or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Where the Streets Have Names

For several years I’ve had a dream that St. Martin was covered in signs explaining everything that makes the island unique and special. The island does have a few, but they’re mostly found at particularly old ruins and they mostly explain political and economic history from the colonial era. The actions of European-appointed leaders or the rise and fall of the sugar and salt industries are part of history, but so many other things are left unexplored.

Imagine 1,000 signs on the island, revealing 1,000 stories. I would love to read about Simpson Bay during the hundred years when the sea cut it off from the rest of the Dutch side of the island. I would love to learn about the artists and craftsmen who carved the delicate gingerbreading that can still be seen local houses, or produced the decorative cinderblocks that frame so many porches.

French and English meet on a street sign.

As it turns out, there are hundreds of signs on St. Martin. They don’t actually explain all these things, but they offer plenty of clues. Street signs, where they still exist after Irma, may tell a broader story than the signs designed to educate.

One that caught my eye many years ago was Rue des Gun Dove in French Quarter. I didn’t know of any bird known as the Gun Dove. It seemed possible that it referred to a dove that people hunted, but to my knowledge local hunters preferred hunting the larger pigeons. I looked it up on Google Maps today and it was shown as Rue des Ground Dove. The Ground Dove is a bird found here. Is “Gun Dove” a local name for it, or possibly a miscommunication when printing the sign?

Nearby, a sign marked Rue Rond the Pond. This mix of French and English is a reflection of St. Martin. The road itself runs around part of a pond, or ‘round the pond. The French rond, translates more directly as round, as in circular. A more direct translation of around would be autour, but that is certainly not as lyrical as Rond the Pond. Google shows it as Rue de Round de Pond, which is even less poetic.

From Rue Lady Fish in Sandy Ground to Manjack Drive in Cole Bay, street names give countless clues to the history and culture of the island. There are streets named after people, plants, animals and features of the landscape. What are your favorite street names, and do you know the story behind them? Write in to The Daily Herald, or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com and tell us about them!

The King of Tintamarre

The “King of Tintamarre” wasn’t a king, but his story remains one of St. Martin’s most popular tales. What is his story, and how has it remained so intriguing?

Diederick Crestiaan van Romondt was known as D.C., and his family was considered the wealthiest and most powerful family on St. Martin at the time. He owned the Mary’s Fancy estate, but left it in 1902, moving to Tintamarre reportedly to avoid paying local taxes.

A house still stands on Tintamarre.

On Tintamarre, he built a home and ran several businesses. He hired workers from St. Martin and Anguilla to grow sea island cotton and to raise cattle and sheep. They also produced butter and cheese on the island. He imported 30,000 old Dutch coins to pay his workers, who spent them at the store he built.

D.C. became “king” in 1913 when a French reporter wrote an article about him titled “Le Roi de Tintamarre” in a Paris newspaper. According to legend, this publicity attracted the attention of would-be queens in Europe who sent letters to him. He didn’t take a bride, and he moved back to Mary’s Fancy in 1932. In 1948, the van Romondt family name died along with D.C.

These ruins on Tintamarre still carry the king’s initials.

There are plenty of reasons why this story endures. The Caribbean is a wild and mysterious place, and Tintamarre is the wildest and most mysterious part of St. Martin. The idea of a rebellious individual creating their own kingdom in the wilderness is inspiring. The idea of independence is powerful on an island that has never been independent. He wasn’t a king, but in our imagination perhaps he is.

Like any story, there are a few questions lurking behind the fairytale. Is a wealthy person fleeing to avoid taxes an inspiring story to those of us who have never been rich? What was his relationship with the people who worked for him? Having control of the island, the currency and the only store is a perfect setup to take advantage of workers. Is this a story of a man striking out against the system, or powerful person using the system to his full advantage?

Do you find inspiration in the King of Tintamarre? What does this story mean to you? Write in to The Daily Herald, or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com and share your thoughts!

A Tale of Two Countries

St. Martin’s status as a two-nation island is often recited as a piece of trivia. It is called the smallest island split by two countries, though strictly speaking that’s not true. Although we know that the split is something that makes the island unique, we don’t always give context to this fact. What is the story behind the trivia? What does it tell us about what St. Martin was, and what it is today?

This is a story that can be taken in many directions, but let’s try out this one: St. Martin was split out of necessity—out of practicality. Neither the Dutch nor the French had the resources to claim, colonize and defend the whole island. The Treaty of Concordia that divided St. Martin explicitly calls for the joint defense of the island against attackers threatening either side. St. Martin was at the edge of European influence. It was on the frontier, so a frontier runs through it.

Frontier fables are part of the St. Martin story.

This perspective on the splitting of St. Martin leads us to a variety of related thoughts. St. Martin has a culture all its own that is clearly neither French nor Dutch. These colonial powers controlled laws and land ownership, and brought slavery to the island, but they didn’t really define its culture.

In fact, one could argue that connections with other Caribbean islands were, in many ways, closer and more important than connections with Europe. English has always been spoken here, and St. Martin families have connections throughout the region.

Connections across the two sides of the island are even stronger. For over 100 years, Simpson Bay was separated from Philipsburg by water, but was tightly connected to Marigot. Estates spanned the two sides of the island. Today, many prefer the terms North and South over French Side and Dutch Side. 

Today, St. Martin is a melting pot of people and cultures. But that truly goes back all the way to the beginning of its history. It was a frontier land where planters from other nations were encouraged to farm. It is a place where African traditions persisted and evolved, despite the horrors of slavery. It was closely connected to the islands around it, a crossroads in the Caribbean. This perspective tells us much about what St. Martin is today, what makes it unique and what makes it strong.

There is, of course, another story that is told about the splitting of the island: a Frenchman and a Dutchman—each drinking a different alcohol—head off in opposite directions around the coast. They divide the island at the spot where they meet up again. It’s not literally true, but perhaps there is some meaning to the story and the fact that we still tell it.

What is your tale of two countries? What does the border mean to you? Write in to The Daily Herald, or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com and share your thoughts!

A Million Stories

Amuseum Naturalis was a free nature museum in Grand Case that was open the last two years. This year, the Les Fruits de Mer association is relaunching the Amuseum at the former site of The Old House museum in French Quarter. The scope of the museum is expanding to include heritage and culture, with the goal of telling the story of St. Martin.

The story of St. Martin is really a million smaller stories—pieces of a puzzle. These stories come together to tell us what St. Martin was like, and how it came to be the way it is today. They’re stories that are unique to this island, and stories that reveal St. Martin’s connections with the world.

A place to tell the story of St. Martin.

These stories are about everyone, not just the handful of white men who wrote a book or got mentioned in one. They’re stories that celebrate the humanity of every man and woman. No Amerindian was defined by the style of their pottery, no enslaved person was defined by their enslavement. It can be a challenge to find and tell stories that were deliberately hidden and ignored, but together we can find a way.

These stories are about the things that were made and done here. They explain why houses on St. Martin look distinctive, and how gingerbreading was carved by hand. They connect us with traditions in agriculture and cooking, even if the names of the inventors and innovators have been lost to time. They are about how people lived, and how we live today.

Theses stories are about a history that sometimes isn’t that old. The story of brothers making tiles in Sucker Garden that are still underfoot in hundreds of homes on the island. The story of how monkeys got to St. Martin. The stories of surviving Donna and Luis and Irma.

The story of St. Martin is in thousands of minds right now: a sentence here, a paragraph there, maybe a chapter in a diary or photo album. The goal of the Amuseum, and the goal of this series of articles, is to help collect and share these stories—to help St. Martin tell its own story.

Please join this process by sharing your stories. Write to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or connect with Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook. And tell us what you think we get right and wrong. There may be different ways to tell a story—even different truths—but together we can get to something honest and real.