Category: Stories of St. Martin

History and Voyage

Every early account of St. Martin reveals something unique. During the early history of the island there were few written records, so every stray detail is of interest. Often, St. Martin appears in only a few sentences in a book about wider travels in the Caribbean. The reality of the island at the time is a great sea of possibility, shaped only vaguely by a handful of written observations.

Of course, all the early writings about the island were by European men educated enough to write. Many of those people were priests. Guillaume Coppier was an exception in some ways. Although he could write, he was not wealthy. Although he was Christian, he wasn’t part of the church.

Guillaume Coppier’s History and Voyage to the West Indies.

He came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant in 1628. He lived and labored on St. Kitts, which was then shared by the English and the French. He had worked about a year and a half there before the Spanish attacked the island. While fleeing, he became stranded in St. Martin for two months. His account of this time on St. Martin was published fifteen years later, along with an account of his other travels.

His book, History and Voyage to the West Indies and to Several Other Maritime and Faraway Regions, is discussed in detail in the book Desperate in St. Martin: Notes on Guillaume Coppier by Gérard M. Hunt. Hunt describes the unique style of the text and provides and easy to read translation of most of the book.

As one might expect, Coppier did not enjoy being stranded on St. Martin, “dying of hunger and thirst; having no water but that which flowed through several minerals that made it distasteful.” For Coppier, the Caribbean was full of mosquitoes and biting flies and short on food and drinkable water.

But St. Martin was also lovely, especially “several beautiful salt marshes, located in the low land of the island.” He found St. Martin “full of tall trees different from ours” and “different sorts of birds and a good number of parakeets.” Sea turtles and their eggs were plentiful.

He also had praise for small lizards that he called anoles. He claimed that when men were sleeping on the ground, these lizards would pinch them on the ears to wake them up when snakes were nearby. He said they were “our guardians when we rested, and that we slept in peace among them.”

How much can we believe early accounts like Coppiers? We can be sure that lizards weren’t trying to protect him. We can also be sure that sea turtles were plentiful back then. We don’t have any parrot or parakeet specimens from St. Martin, but they do feature in other early writings. It may be hard to imagine a St. Martin covered in tall trees, but beautiful wetlands can still be found. His words reveal an island that is still recognizable to us today despite hundreds of years of change.

Has a lizard ever helped you? Tell us about it by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

English translations of Coppier’s text in this article are taken from Desperate in St. Martin.

The Mare Mischief

“Mare Mischief took Alva on the 1st and 2nd of May, 1897”

Mischief’s love life.

Many decades had passed for the little brown notebook before the mare Mischief arrived in its pages. The early portion of the notebook was written in the early 1800s. The sexual exploits of this horse were recorded at the end of the century.

The love life of a horse may seem out of place in a book that was mostly used to record medical remedies. On the other hand, horses were valuable, and breeding them was important. Horses transported goods and people around the island. On the plantations, they pulled cane carts or loads of other crops like tobacco and cotton.

Horse records from the late 19th century.

At the Spring Plantation, where The Old House is today, records show there were 3-20 horses at a time between the late 1700s and early 1800s. There were more when the plantation was profitable and fewer during hard times.

By the late 1800s, long after the peak of sugar production, the number of horses may have been limited. They were valuable and surely it was expensive to import them. In the notebook, the purchase of Mischief was recorded: “Mare from Rose Duma called Mischief bought on the 5th April 1896 for 482 francs.” This price would be around a couple thousand dollars today.

Recording the lineage of horses may have been used to avoid interbreeding them. It could also help owners keep track of which pairs made the best offspring. Although the little brown book doesn’t record the family tree of the people writing it, it does record the family history of the horses: “Mischief colted on the 25th April 1897 — colt called Beauty”

Mischief must have been a good horse: “mare Fanny [was] bought from Hays Viotty on the 20th March for 320 francs.” Poor Fanny was only worth 2/3 the price of Mischief.

We can also see that Mischief was bred with Alva just a week after giving birth to Beauty. Mares usually go into heat about a week after giving birth. Breeding them during this “foal heat” gives the owner the chance to have a new foal each year. We don’t know the rest of Mischief’s story, but perhaps she still has family on St. Martin today.

Do you have any stories about horses on St. Martin? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Rheumatism and Change

A 19th-century notebook full of handwritten medical recipes from St. Martin is consistent for the first 25 pages. There are remedies for ills and other useful things. Everything is noted in what seems to be the same steady handwriting. But on page 26, things change.

A jagged line across the page marks the starting point of a “cure for Rheumatism.” The letters are suddenly irregular as if written by a shaking hand. Dark spots litter the page where droplets of ink had accidentally fallen.

A cure for rheumatism.

The recipe itself is similar to many that came before. Raw turpentine, castile soap and sulfur are combined and applied to the bottom of the feet. This seems to be the last entry from this author. It is tempting to wonder if the author was aging, and perhaps suffering from rheumatism or other ailments.

On the very next page, the handwriting changes in style. Remedies for jaundice are described, made from cucumbers, carrots and yellow Doodle Doo. It is impossible to say how much time may have passed between one entry and the next.

The following page begins with the words Pour Mal de Gorge, and gives a remedy for sore throat in French. The handwriting has again changed completely. From this point on, the notebook is much less orderly. Pages are skipped and entries are crossed out. The language bounces back between English and French.

The purpose of the book remains the same. Most entries record medical recipes gathered from one doctor or another. The rest record things that were useful or important. Although the authors changed over time, the notebook served its function for decades.

The notebook passed from one person to the next. With it, knowledge passed from one generation to the next. On St. Martin, this often happened orally. Wisdom and stories were passed on with the spoken word. Over time, the culture of St. Martin grew from this process. In this small notebook, we can see it and hold it in our hand. It has passed all the way to us.

Do you have any stories or remedies passed down in your family? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

For a Young Woman…

In a 19th-century notebook full of handwritten medical recipes from St. Martin, there is an interesting entry on the fifth page. It describes a medical preparation “For a young woman who has not menstruated.” The recipe is as follows:

“a large hand full of Doodledoo Roots, as much of Cankerberry roots, & the same quantity of Cashia roots, put with 6 pints of water, & boiled down to three, a tumbler taken three times a day, & plenty of exercise taken. a tablespoon full of Yucca in each tumbler of drink, & sweetened if necessary.”

This medicine is different from most in the notebook. It is one of the only recipes that is entirely made of local plants. Doodledoo is a name still used for the columnar or candlestick cactus growing on St. Martin. Cankerberry can refer to a couple different plants on St. Martin, the Bahamas nightshade and the rouge plant or jumbie basil. Cashia is another name for the acacia tree.

A medical recipe from the 1800s on St. Martin.

The exact purpose of this cure is unclear. Was it used when menstruation was delayed or irregular, which was seen by some doctors as a problem at the time? Was it for a young woman who had never menstruated? Or a young woman who had stopped menstruating because she was pregnant? It isn’t clear from the text.

Most of the cures in the book are actual remedies given to people on the island. In several cases, they were named in the description of the remedy. In this case, we don’t know who the young woman is. We also don’t know her age, her background or whether she was free or enslaved.

Was this medicine used to end pregnancies? There is a long history of abortion as a form of resistance for enslaved people. By not having children, enslaved people were able to hurt slaveholders economically and keep a future generation from suffering under slavery. The enslaved women who were midwives and healers also had some of the best knowledge about plant medicine.

However, this book was not written by an enslaved person. For economic reasons, a slaveholder would not want to end the pregnancy of a person enslaved by them. Abortion was also illegal and against the rules of the church, so it wasn’t allowed for free people at the time, either.

The plants used don’t offer immediate clues, either. Cankerberry and Cashia both have plant medicine uses in the Caribbean and beyond. But there isn’t clear evidence that they were used for anything related to menstruation, particularly on or near St. Martin. Perhaps further research can reveal more about this recipe and its purpose.

Do you have any ideas about this recipe? Share it by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Suddenly, From the Sea

In most ways, 2011 was not a remarkable year on St. Martin. There were no major hurricanes. The hills weren’t parched by drought. But one amazing thing did happen, and in some ways it began a new era.

Sargassum was on nobody’s mind in 2011. That is, until it began washing ashore by the ton. It sloshed in the shallows and piled up on beaches. A rusty rainbow—yellow to orange to red to brown—inserted itself on every eastern coastline. The rotten egg smell of rotting sargassum overwhelmed the beach.

Sargassum in Coconut Grove, 2011.

At the time, everyone was surprised. Old timers were asked, and the old timers told us they had never seen this before. People wondered where it was coming from and why. Seaside businesses struggled to remove it. Would it ever stop coming?

After a few months, it did stop. But as we know today, it was only a temporary break. In less than a decade, a huge change in nature has become normal. Unlike ground sea or Christmas winds, there’s no local name for the time when sargassum comes, but perhaps some day there will be.

In the years since sargassum first invaded, we’ve learned a bit about it. It doesn’t come from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. It seems to come from the tropical Atlantic, where in the past there was almost none. It seems likely that nutrients flowing into the ocean from South American rivers are fertilizing these new sargassum blooms.

If ending the sargassum blooms means ending farming and restoring rainforest in South America, then sargassum will be with us for a while. People will have to learn to deal with it: how to remove it, what to do with it. It is a huge hassle, but perhaps someday also a resource.

A wheelbarrow at Galion Beach.

We don’t fully understand the impact of sargassum on local nature, but it does not seem good. Rotting sargassum chokes near-shore waters. It uses all the oxygen that fish and other animals depend on. It can ensnare sea turtles and cover the beaches that they need to nest on. The nutrients from sargassum may also fertilize algae that can smother corals and destroy reefs.

In less than a decade, an immense environmental change has already become normal to us. We still aren’t sure what to do about it, but we are starting to work on it. But even if we learn to clean our beaches, there may be unseen harm to the ocean life around our island that we can’t stop.

What do you think about sargassum on St. Martin? Share it by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Moho Stone

Where the last houses give way to the slope of the central hills in French Quarter, there is a stone with many faces. It is called the Moho stone, and it was named after a nearby well. It is the most elaborate prehistoric stone carving on the island.

Stone carvings, also called as petroglyphs, are found all over the Caribbean. In some ways, they are more mysterious than other archaeological remains. Some artifacts can be dated by radiometric analysis. Radiocarbon dating can be done on wood and bone, for example. The Moho stone, on the other hand, existed long before it was carved, so there’s no way to directly measure the age of the carvings.

The Moho stone in French Quarter.

The largest features of the Moho stone are three deep holes on the top of the stone. These features are sometimes called cupules. They were made for the polishing of stone tools. They could hold sand or other grit as an abrasive for polishing stone tools.

Cupules could also hold water, which would keep the tools from overheating when they were being polished. In most cases, stones like this are found near water. Perhaps at one time a stream ran beside the Moho stone regularly. These cupules may have served other purposes as well. They may have been used as mortars for pounding or grinding roots or seeds.

Cupules made for and by polishing stone tools.

The Moho stone clearly had practical uses, but was it art? Did it have cultural or spiritual meaning to the people who carved it? The answer is almost surely yes. The three large cupules are arranged in a pattern common to many stone carvings that represents the eyes and mouth of a human face. The stone also features many additional faces and designs.

For us, the Moho stone will always be incomplete. We can understand some of its purpose, but we will probably never know the inspiration behind the carvings and what it meant to the people who made it. To us, it will always be a mystery.

Still, in the middle of the most densely populated island in the Caribbean, it is a reminder that all the roads and buildings are a very recent development. All of St. Martin history is just a short time, and people were here for long ages before that. The Moho stone is a rock of ages, and you can still stand beside it and consider its epic past.

Do you know anything about the Moho stone or the well it was named after? Share it by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Bird Stories

St. Martin wouldn’t be what it is today without birds. It emerged from the sea as a barren rock millions of years ago. Seabirds were probably the first animals to live here, raising their chicks and depositing a layer of poop that would provide nutrients for the first plants. The seeds of sea grape trees and countless other plants were brought here by birds as well.

When humans arrived, birds and their eggs were a source of food. Fishermen used birds to locate fish at sea. The behavior of the frigate bird was an indicator of bad weather before satellite forecasts. Birds were also a part of culture. St. Martiners gave them names and told stories about them.

Today, birds face many challenges on St. Martin and in the Caribbean. The wild spaces that birds depend on are small and shrinking, as islands continue to develop and build. Non-native animals like rats and mongoose are deadly to bird chicks and eggs. The region is home to over 150 kinds of bird that are found nowhere else in the world, and many of these species are rare.

Bird scientists and educators in Guadeloupe.(Photo by Ancilleno Davis)

From July 25-29th, over 250 bird scientists, conservationists and educators gathered at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference in Guadeloupe. The mission of the organization is to protect birds and their habitats. There are many ways this is done.

Scientific research helps us understand the challenges birds face. This year, a lot of research about bird survival and recovery after hurricanes was presented. For example, Hannah Madden presented a study of the Bridled Quail-dove population on Statia. Sadly, about three-quarters of these doves died during and after the hurricanes of 2017. Future research will tell us how quickly they are able to recover.

Conservationists present their work preserving or restoring wild spaces. Like on St. Martin, these success stories seem rare on most islands. But they can be inspiring. Orisha Joseph presented on the restoration of Ashton Lagoon at Union Island in the Grenadines. The project took over a decade through many obstacles, but it transformed an abandoned marina project to a vibrant wild space that could be enjoyed by wildlife and people.

Educators around the Caribbean are helping kids and people of all ages discover and fall in love with birds and nature. The conference is a place to share ideas and educational tools. Jenn Yerkes from St. Martin presented on how to use local culture, like folklore, to generate interest in nature. She also shared how to bird education can be valuable after a natural disaster like Hurricane Irma.

Jenn Yerkes presents at the BirdsCaribbean conference.

On St. Martin, it is easy to be saddened by ecological problems, like the dump and pollution. While these issues are also facing other islands throughout the region, there are some solutions and successes. The BirdsCaribbean conference is a chance to share and learn. Hopefully the result will be a new generation of Caribbean people with a deep love for nature, scientific discoveries that help us understand what birds need, and a desire to work together to preserve natural heritage all over the Caribbean.

Important Information

In a little brown notebook from the early 19th century on St. Martin, someone was recording the most important information they knew. The book is full of cures, remedies and other medical preparations. Most of these are notes on what was prescribed by local doctors. It is easy to understand why medical knowledge would be considered very important. For other information, the value is less obvious.

A mathematical calculation is sandwiched between treatments for ulcers and a leg sore. It is for the “dimensions of the cistern at the Estate Golden Rock.” Measurements in feet for the length, width and depth “to the vent holes” are converted to inches. These measures are converted into cubic inches to give the volume of the cistern: 967,680 cubic inches. The volume in cubic inches is then divided by 231 to give the number of gallons: 4,189.

The volume of a cistern is calculated.

This calculation could have been done on another piece of paper. Knowing the capacity of this particular cistern is not valuable to most people. But by recording the process of calculating the size of the Golden Rock cistern, the notebook can help anyone measure the volume of any cistern. This information could also be used to plan the size of a cistern to hold a certain amount of water.

On the other hand, this calculation doesn’t record any wisdom about how big a cistern should be. Four thousand gallons is 22 gallons a day for a six month dry spell. How many people could that support at the time?

Later in the notebook we have a page labeled “Note from Mortimer’s Commercial Dictionary.” It contains instructions for planting, raising and harvesting tobacco. The book was A New and Complete Dictionary of Trade and Commerce by Thomas Mortimer. It was written in 1766 and revised and reprinted a number of times.

Why was this particular passage copied? Did the notebook author have a chance to copy it directly from someone else’s dictionary? Was it a passage passed on from person to person? Tobacco had already been grown successfully on St. Martin for 200 years by the time this passage was written in the notebook, so why choose this information to save? Why not record information about how to grow sugar cane, the most important crop at the time?

Notes on growing tobacco, copied from a commercial dictionary.

We will probably never know why some information made it into the notebook. Perhaps some things that seem useful to record were so widely-known at the time that it didn’t seem necessary. Perhaps it was just chance that the writer had access to one bit of knowledge and not another. Do you have a theory? Share it by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Local Plant Cures

In a notebook of medical treatments used on St. Martin in the early 1800s, there are quite a few recipes made from ingredients purchased abroad. Many of those compounds are things we know are poisonous. Others were plant-based ingredients from around the world that were brought in to the western medicine of the time.

But the notebook also includes some remedies based on local plants. The source of these cures is not revealed, but plant medicine traditions in the Caribbean are rich. They come from African and Amerindian cultures, which have roots going back thousands of years.

“A cure for the most obstinate ulcer” is one of these plant cures: “Yellow prickle wood water must be used as a bath for the sore after which you take the bark of the yellow prickle wood pounded & sifted fine & the sore sprinkled with it then apply over it a poultice of bread.”

A cure for the most obstinate ulcer.

Cures made from locally-available ingredients would have big advantages over those that require imported chemicals. Imported goods were expensive and took a long time to arrive. It is not surprising to see local plants used in some cures.

Four o’clock blossoms and some young leaves are used in a poultice. For dropsy, a cure includes several plants: bitter root stinking weed, black dog root and white candle wood root. A tea to break a fever was made from stinging windroots and black dog root.

Although many cures in the notebook are attributed to Dr. Allaway, these plant cures were not. It seems Allaway preferred his mercury and lead concoctions. A cure for stoppage of urine from Dr. Griffin of St. Kitts was made from plants: chicken weed root and white nicker root. The transfer of knowledge from black Caribbean people to white doctors was surely different from island to island and doctor to doctor.

By the time this notebook was written, the population of St. Martin was mostly people of African descent, both free and enslaved. These people had brought a rich tradition of plant medicine, and even many of the plants themselves. The most skilled doctor on the island was probably one of these people, although we don’t know their name or have a record of their work. They may have used dozens or even hundreds of local plants. Although their cures are not recorded in their book, some of them survived to this day via oral traditions.

Were plant cures passed down in your family? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Bad Medicines

If you lived in St. Martin in the 1800s, hopefully you didn’t get sick very often. For that matter, if you lived in many places in the 1800s, the odds of getting good medical treatment were pretty slim. A visit to the doctor could easily leave you worse off than you were.

In a little brown notebook full of 19th century medical cures used on St. Martin, we encounter a number of medicinal substances used at the time. Many of them are recorded in a list of medicines ordered from New York by Lucas Percival.

One of the first medicines on the list is corrosive sublimate. If you think it sounds bad, you are right. It is a white, crystalline substance made of mercury and chlorine. Mercury itself is very toxic, but this particular preparation is also corrosive. It burned the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines. In large doses it caused kidney failure and death. It was such a dangerous poison it was used to murder people.

A deadly shopping list.

Also on the list was calomel. Calomel is also made of mercury and chloride. Thankfully, it wouldn’t burn you. But it would still give you mercury poisoning. It was used to make people vomit or evacuate their bowels, and it worked because it was poison.

Sugar of lead was on the shopping list, too. Lead acetate is sweet, and was used as a sweetener and a medicine. But we don’t use it today because lead is toxic. Also on the list was tartar emetic, which contains antimony. Its effects are similar to arsenic poisoning.

By comparison, other items on the list were not nearly so bad. Flowers of sulphur act as a fungicide and may have some uses. Opium can be abused, but we still use its active ingredient—morphine—as a pain reliever. Snake oil has become a term for fake medicine, but at least it didn’t do anything, which is better than can be said for corrosive sublimate.

Rounding out the shopping list were a variety of plants and plant preparations: rhubarb, chamomile, camphor, sassafras, sarsaparilla, jalap, lavender and more. It is hard to say if they were used effectively, but most of these plants have some medicinal properties. Better still, they aren’t deadly poisons.

Although medical science wasn’t much of a science back then, western doctors had adopted some plant cures. Most of these came from other parts of the world with more developed plant medicine traditions. Some of the medicinal recipes in this book also combine purchased medicines with local plants. Perhaps European doctors on St. Martin were learning plant medicine from St. Martiners of African descent. And hopefully using that knowledge to provide better care.

Do you know any local remedies? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Salt Blowing

You don’t need a lot to make salt. It takes seawater, a shallow pond and sunlight to evaporate the water. It takes a few months that are dry enough for evaporation to outpace whatever rain is falling.

When salt was an industry on St. Martin, other things were added to basics of salt making. People controlled the timing and amount of seawater flowing into ponds. Canals were built to keep rainwater out of drying salt pans. Levees were built to section salt ponds.

A dusting of white salt surrounds the last water of Chevrise pond.

The management of salt ponds increased yields. It also kept unseasonal rains from ruining a harvest. Levees in salt ponds allowed easier access to the salt pans. All of these things were critical to the industry of salt production, but the basic conditions that produce salt were here naturally.

The Amerindians who lived on St. Martin named it Soualiga, or “land of salt” in the Arawak language. They were harvesting salt on the island long before the first Europeans arrived. But as far as we know, they were simply taking advantage of the salt production happening naturally.

Although much has changed on St. Martin, some ponds still produce salt under the right conditions. This dry year has been perfect. While ponds connected to the sea have remained full, several are dry or nearly so. Chevrise and the airport pond of Grand Case are two of them.

Salt crystals in Grand Case.

On Chevrise, there is just a tiny bit of water left. The pond bed around it is dusted in a white coating of salt. Beyond that white area is cracked brown dirt. This mud dried before the salt was concentrated enough to crystalize.

In Grand Case, the area of the pond near the airport road has quite a bit of salt. Some areas are pretty dry, with large crystals in a crust on damp mud. In other parts, salt crystals and the last of the pond’s water make a salty slush. The crystals glint in the late afternoon sunlight.

Salt slush in the airport pond at Grand Case.

Less than 100 years ago, thousands of tons of salt were being produced in Grand Case each year. It is within the living memory of some on the island, but it feels like another world to most. St. Martin has been made and remade since then.

Somehow, amidst a million modern crises and concerns, the salt itself has returned. It has returned of its own accord. It sparkles in the sun as if to remind us that no matter what we do, no matter what we change or destroy, St. Martin is still a land of salt.

Do you have memories or pictures of salt on St. Martin? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Salt forms around a stone in Grand Case.

Cure for the Locked Jaw

Lockjaw is a terrifying disease with a terrifying name. Also known as tetanus, it is caused by a toxin that is made by a bacteria. It causes a variety of symptoms, including muscle spasms that can be strong enough to break bones. It can kill, and in the past it killed a lot.

Tetanus was common in tropical areas like the Caribbean. Perhaps the warmth helped tetanus bacteria stay viable when lying dormant in tropical soils. Or maybe people just had more contact with the dirt, working barefoot. Review of historical records from Brazil found that tetanus rates were higher for enslaved persons. This was likely to be true on St. Martin as well. Enslaved persons were doing dangerous jobs and in constant contact with soil.

In a little brown notebook Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House, a cure for tetanus is described: “Make the wild tobacco in a strong bath, take out a little of it to make injections, which must be given frequently.” This herbal treatment was combined with some of the popular medicines of the day: “Give the child two grains of calomel immediately, with a grain of antimonial powder.”

A 19th century cure for tetanus.

This cure reflects another terror of tetanus: it was often a killer of infants. In the 19th century, when this cure was likely written, we did not yet understand germs. There was no vaccine for tetanus, and the umbilical cord was often a site of infection. Today, tetanus in infants is much less common. Most mothers are vaccinated, which gives immunity to newborns.

The handwritten cure for tetanus continues with a variety of other measures. Oil is taken to evacuate the bowels. Camphor, opium and candle grease are mixed together and spread along the spine, from the throat to the temples, and around the wrists. The bath and injections are repeated five or six times a day. “Remember to keep the child sitting in the bath until it appears sick at its stomach, but great care taken that it does not take cold.”

Would any of this have worked? Probably not. Even today there is no cure for tetanus. The toxin created by the tetanus bacteria is one of the deadliest and most powerful toxins in the world. Both then and now, working to ease the symptoms during months of recovery is a big part of treatment. Luckily, today we are much less likely to get tetanus in the first place, as long as we are up to date with our vaccinations.

Have you heard stories of diseases or conditions that were once more common on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Analysis of Soils

The method for analyzing soil.

During St. Martin’s agricultural past, people had to understand the land. Much farming knowledge in the Caribbean was passed down from African and Amerindian traditions. These two cultures had experience with tropical crops, and their methods are still used today.

In a little brown notebook Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House we find another approach to understanding the land. It is a description of a process of analyzing soil. The method is simple, and could be performed by anyone with just a few items on hand:

The following is a method of analysing soils for ordinary agricultural purposes: Weigh a convenient quantity of earth to be analysed say one thousand grains dried in the open air; dry the same before a fire on paper, so as not to scorch the paper; re-weigh and the difference will be the moisture. Roast the residue, re-weigh, and the difference will be the organic matter. Pour a convenient quantity of muriatic acid on the remainder; when stirred and settled pour it off, and add oxalate of ammonia, the precipitate will be the lime. Mix the remainder with water and stir it well, when a little settled, pour off the turbid mixture and the suspended contents are argillaceous and the deposit siliceous.

By this process, the user can find out the relative amounts of moisture, organic matter, lime, clay and silica in the in a soil sample. These traits can help understand the richness, acidity and drainage of soils. In turn, these factors can help determine which crops may grow best, or how valuable the land is for farming.

While the process for analyzing soil is given in detail, there are no notes about what the results mean. Were St. Martiners making farming decisions based on soil analysis in the 19th century? At the very least, we know they had at least some of the skills to do so.

In the early 1950s, soil analysis was done here using more modern methods. As one could have done with the method in the notebook, organic matter and calcium carbonate were measured. Many other attributes were measured as well, like pH and the levels of nitrogen and phosphate. A report was published in 1955 about soils of St. Martin and the geology beneath them.

A field in the Lowlands prepared for planting in the mid-20th century.

Soil studies in the 1800s may have decided which crop enslaved people were forced to cultivate: cotton, sugarcane or tobacco. The 1955 report told how well crops for the dinner plate and grass for livestock were growing in local soils. We could do better soil analysis today, but the need seems less urgent. Frequent droughts and crop-eating invasive animals like monkeys and iguanas are bigger farming challenges than soil quality. Sadly, our most dire need may be to find out how much we have poisoned and polluted St. Martin’s soils.

What is the soil like in your area? What grows best there? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

For Improving Rum

Instructions for improving rum.

The little brown book from Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House is full of old knowledge. It contains recipes for medicines and techniques for making glue. It was carefully written. The pages were numbered. It contained very important things that had to be remembered. Like how to make rum better.

There are some clues to suggest that this book dates from the early 1800s. This is a time when sugarcane was grown on St. Martin and rum was made from it. The sugarcane industry was not very successful here and it didn’t last very long. But during this brief window, knowing how to improve rum was surely useful.

The little brown book.

The first method starts with Balsam of Peru. The instructions call for adding 35 grains—about a third of a teaspoon—for every five gallons of rum. Balsam of Peru is a resin made from the sap of a tree that grows in Central and South America. It was used as a flavoring, a fragrance and a medicine. Many people have an allergic reaction to it, so it is not widely used today.

The Balsam of Peru was added after being dissolved or pulverized, and left in the rum for eight days. The next step was to construct a filter with a hoop, a flannel bag and charcoal. Impurities are removed by passing the rum through the charcoal. This is a process that is still done today to many spirits. The instructions specify that the charcoal should be made from White Oak.

Directly below these instructions, a second process is recorded under the simple heading “Another.” This method starts with 30 Tonka Beans, well-pulverized. Tonka Beans com from another South American tree, and they were also used as both a flavoring and a fragrance. The bean powder is to be added to a demijohn of rum taken from a puncheon cask and left in the sun for a day before being shaken and dumped back in the cask. A puncheon is a size of cask, about 85 gallons.

The next step is to take some gunpowder tea and a half stick of finely chipped licorice and steep them in boiling water, closed for “24 hours or even a day.” This is then strained into the cask as well. The final touch is some burnt sugar to add color to the rum. Although the burnt sugar—or caramel— tastes bitter, only a tiny bit is used to color rum and it is still used today.

An old rum bottle.

Could we try using these instructions to re-create the flavor of rum that was made in St. Martin 200 years ago? Perhaps, but maybe we don’t need to. Many of these steps are still used in rum making today. Do you have a secret for improving rum? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

For Mending Coppers

A recipe for curd cement.

A little brown book from Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House is full of handwritten recipes for cures. Various entries indicate it is from St. Martin in the 1800s, although we don’t yet know exactly when it is from, or who wrote it. Entries in different handwritings, using both English and French, show that it may have been used for quite a while.

Many of the pages contain recipes for medicines. Between those, the book also has other useful information. There are instructions about how to make essential oil from flowers, and how to test soil. Each page is a reminder of a time when this knowledge was precious. It was a time when people needed a huge variety of skills were needed to survive.

Boiling coppers from sugarcane days are still seen on St. Martin.

One recipe is titled: “For mending coppers or any other broken vessel.” In the Caribbean, a copper or boiling copper is the giant round vat where sugarcane juice is boiled down. They were also heavy and surely very expensive. They were a key part of sugar processing. After the decline of sugarcane, they were often still used to hold water. On Tintamarre they were placed around a well as troughs for livestock to drink from.

Boiling coppers around a well on Tintamarre, reused as animal troughs.

The recipe for mending giant metal cauldrons seems a bit odd at first. It requires boiling half a pint of milk, adding a bit of vinegar to make the milk curdle and then adding a well beaten egg-white. Next, one must sprinkle in a little “very fine boiling lime” and “take care not to let it be too dry when employed to mend anything and it will last very long.”

Though it may seem strange, this basic recipe appears in books as curd cement. It is claimed to be waterproof and long-lasting, but does not seem to be something that would stand up to high heat. Perhaps by the time this recipe was recorded, the coppers were already being reused for things other than boiling cane juice.

It’s hard to say what seems more strange today: a recipe for superglue made mostly from food items, or the idea of mending a vessel at all. But back when this was written, the recipe for a glue was as valuable as the recipe for a medicine. In fact, the very next item in the book is a recipe for “another cement” based on isinglass, a kind of gelatin made from fish swim bladders!

Can you remember a bit of local wisdom passed down from elder generations? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Book of Cures

The little brown notebook is warped with water damage. It’s small enough to fit into a coat pocket and about 100 pages thick. Inside is local medical knowledge from a long time ago. It is all carefully written in script that is mostly still legible today.

A few 19th century cures and a list of medical ingredients ordered from New York.

On the inside front cover is a quick primer on the apothecaries’ system of measurement: 20 grains in a scruple, three scruples in a dram, eight drams in an ounce. This is handy because most of the recipes for cures are given in grains.

The one of the first medicines in the book is “for a swelling from cold.” It contains 30 grains of calomel, a chemical containing mercury, and 40 grains of jalap, a medicine made from the powdered root of a type of morning glory vine. Both were fairly popular drugs in the 19th century, and neither are in common use today. These drugs were to be “made in 24 pills for a person 14 to 16 years, three pills given every morning.”

Many of the medicines noted in the book are oddly specific, like a dosage specifically for people 14-16 years old. In fact, the very next cure is for “the dry belly ache such as the woman Judy had.” Many of the early cures are attributed to a Dr. Allaway. Many combine chemicals with plant remedies.

What is this odd book? Who wrote it? When is it from? The book contains a list of medicines sent to Mr. Lucas Percival, who lived on St. Martin from 1809 to 1877. This would date it to perhaps the mid-1800s on St. Martin. Later in the book, though, the handwriting changes and the language switches from English to French. Perhaps it is the work of multiple people recording cures over a longer period of time.

The cures themselves are mostly not things one would recommend today. Many include things we now known are poisons, like mercury and lead. But it is a unique window into life on the island in the past. This little book tells us what ills bedeviled residents at that time. And it tells us that doctors had little to offer that would help. Back then medicines were mixed at home from ingredients ordered from New York, and it was wise to write down medical recipes in case a doctor wasn’t around for the next obstinate fever or case of jaundice.

Every single page of this book may have something unique to tell us about the history of St. Martin and how life was lived here. We will continue to explore its pages. Have you ever seen a book like this? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Beyond a Drought

It’s not your imagination, St. Martin is very dry right now.

Why is it so dry right now on St. Martin? The answer is pretty pretty complex, and a bit scary, too.

For starters, spring is the dry season. This time of year, the island is usually as dry as it gets. That’s why people go camping on Easter and why you should never schedule an outdoor event in November. Usually, November is the wettest month and things get drier until April. Starting in May, rain gradually increases through the fall.

But it also seems drier than usual, and it is. St. Martin was rated “severely dry” for the first part of 2019 and the forecast for the coming months is drier than usual. It isn’t necessarily unusual to have a dry year, this often comes in phases with bigger weather cycles like El Niño and La Niña.

Today’s dry weather isn’t just about rainfall. Higher temperatures are also making a difference. Higher temperatures increase evaporation, from the ground and from plants. Many plants adapted to the local climate lose their leaves to conserve water in dry times. Plants less suited to the climate may just die. Either way, St. Martin looks quite brown and barren.

Dry pond bed exposed at Chevrise Pond.

There are reasons to believe that things are getting drier around here. New studies found that the Caribbean drought of 2013-2016 was the worst on record. Climate models also predict less rainfall in the northeast Caribbean in the future.

Things could be worse. Although they are still used, the island no longer depends on cisterns and wells for water. Agriculture is also a tiny part of the economy now. This is in part because so many livestock died in the droughts of 1974-77 and 1986-87. With a tourism economy and a desalination plant, drought may be an eyesore and a fire risk, but it isn’t a threat to survival.

At least, not completely. For wildlife and native vegetation, a shift to a drier climate may become deadly. Especially when wild spaces are already pushed to the limit. A dry future may also spell doom for cultural traditions connected to plants and livestock.

Do you remember a drought from back in the day and how St. Martiners dealt with it? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Rice and Peas

The combination of rice and peas or beans is loved all over the Caribbean and has many variations. What are the roots of rice and peas on St. Martin, and why is this dish so popular?

In St. Martin and the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, the Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan) is typically used in this dish. It was brought to the Caribbean from Africa, and grows well in our climate. It can survive the dry season and produces lots of food with little care. They are still grown in backyards all over the island.

Rice also has a long history in the Caribbean. African Rice (Oryza glaberrima) was domesticated in Africa and was brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans. But it was not widely grown on St. Martin or nearby small islands. Here, available land and labor were focused on sugarcane, and rice was imported from Africa. Rice was one of few dry provisions able to survive the trip across the Atlantic.

Rice and peas from Yvette’s Restaurant in French Quarter.

During the 20th century, rice consumption in the region tripled. Perhaps this is because fewer people grew traditional ground provisions like cassava and sweet potatoes. Immigration to St. Martin brought new recipes featuring red beans, black beans and black eyed peas. Yet on this multicultural island, rice and peas is a traditional recipe that still satisfies.

What’s your recipe for rice and peas? What other dishes are most important to the culinary cultural heritage of St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Survivors

Nature on St. Martin is precious. It’s precious because it’s unique. It’s precious because it lives on through drought and hurricane. It’s precious because it protects us from floods and landslides. It’s precious because it is the natural heritage of everyone on the island. It’s precious because there isn’t so much of it left. It’s precious because it still holds treasures yet to be discovered.

Nothing represents this better than the animals that live only on St. Martin. These species are true St. Martiners, and true survivors. They arrived on the island by chance in the distant past, and they made this island their home.

This lizard’s ancestors crossed a sea.

Each one of these species has a different story, and all of them are lost to time. The ancestors of our Bearded Anole likely arrived on St. Martin before modern humans even existed. Perhaps they held tightly to the limbs of a giant tree that was torn from the ground and washed to sea by a hurricane. They were storm survivors.

Carried by the currents, they crossed the sea, from their home island to ours. They were lucky enough to arrive on St. Martin before dying of hunger or thirst. They were seafaring survivors.

Suddenly, they were in a new place. The landscape was not the same as their old home. The forest was not the same. The insects they eat were not the same. The lizards they compete with for food were not the same. The birds that eat them were not the same. Most of these things were similar, but the Bearded Anole ancestors had spent millions of years becoming perfect for their old home. Here, everything was different.

Like other local species, the Bearded Anole had to adapt to survive dry times.

What’s a lizard to do in a situation like this? Adapt. Or perish. The ancestors of the Bearded Anole adapted and they survived. They transformed into something new. They become something unique in all the world. They perfected themselves for this place. They were St. Martin survivors.

The story of these amazing animals should be known. Because they are amazing. Because they should be protected. Because they are a metaphor for everyone and everything that has adapted to St. Martin rather than trying to change St. Martin. Because they are unique in all the world and they are St. Martin’s.

Today this lizard must adapt itself to the ways humans are changing the island.

You can discover the Bearded Anole and other animals found only on St. Martin at the Endemic Animal Festival. The free festival is Sunday, April 28th from 9am-noon at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House on the hill above Galion beach in French Quarter. There will be fun activities and fascinating exhibits about these special animals and much more. For more information visit http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com or find Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook.

Caribbean Cool

Traditional Caribbean houses were designed to stay cool in the tropical heat. There was no air conditioning, so builders used wind, shade and stone to make houses cool. The location of a home, the direction it faced and what was built around it could all make a difference. There were also many design elements that kept houses cool and you can see them right here.

A thick foundation can absorb heat and cool the home.

The Old House was built with a massive stone foundation, this keeps the floor dry and protected in storms or floods. It also keeps the house cool. The foundation acts as a thermal mass, absorbing the heat from the house.

High ceilings give hot air space to rise, leaving it cooler below. Openings between rooms allow air to flow all around the house in any direction. The kitchen was not part of the house, so the heat from cooking fires was not near the living space.

High ceilings and openings between rooms help hot air escape.

The Old House is designed with windows and doors across from each other, so wind can blow through the house. This design can have ten times the air flow compared to a window on only one side. The windows are at human height so people can enjoy the cooling breeze.

Windows were made with louvers—slats of wood that can be tilted. These allowed air to pass, while still providing shade. Residents could change the angle of the louvers to direct the incoming breeze where they wanted it.

Louvers let wind pass through while providing shade.

Many of these heat beating strategies were developed over time, right here in the Caribbean. Today we see these features as part of the unique style of Caribbean architecture. But many of these design decisions were made for very specific reasons.

Over time, we have developed new building materials and techniques. We also have electric fans and air conditioning. But relearning some old school Caribbean design tricks can still help us today. Modern designers are looking at how we can use these methods to keep homes comfy while using less energy. Perhaps the Caribbean home of the future will start to look a bit like the homes of the past.

What parts of your home design help keep it cool? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

5,000 Years of Eco

Glass bottles were often reused, this demijohn was protected by wicker basketwork.

The idea of being eco-friendly is spreading on St. Martin. We can see images from around the world of birds, sea turtles, and even whales that died after eating plastics. We find litter on our own beaches, and the eternal fire of the Philipsburg dump is a constant reminder that we are making more waste than we can handle.

Progress seems slow at times. Recycling on a small island is a little harder, because those materials usually have to go somewhere else to be recycled. It also takes time to build awareness. Promotion of recycling and other eco practices took decades to become established in Europe and North America.

On the other hand, St. Martin has a deep history of reusing and recycling. In fact, it stretches all the way back to prehistory. Visit an archaeological site and you can see the evidence. Conch shells were made into a variety of tools: axes, scrapers, awls and more. This may be first example of reusing a “single-use food container” on St. Martin.

A conch shell tool made by Amerindians on St. Martin.

During the colonial era, St. Martin was a remote outpost. Goods arrived slowly by boat and nothing went to waste. Metalwork was done by hand-powered forge so St. Martiners could make their own nails and horseshoes. Old or broken items could be melted down to make new things.

A forge blower for backyard metalworking.

In the early 20th century, there were few jobs on the island. Some St. Martiners living today remember wearing dresses made from cloth flour sacks. In an interview, Delphine David explained that her mother “used to take the flour bag, wash it good, put it in the sun and let the sun draw out the marks…she would take that bag and measure us and crochet right around, tie our waist with a string and that would be our outfit.”

There was recycling in the kitchen, with graters made by hammering holes in a tin can. On the docks even today you can see fish scalers made from bottle caps nailed into a wooden handle. Perhaps the most elegant examples of Caribbean recycling is the steel pan drum. It transforms waste into art.

A new handle extends the life of this rake.

Waste on St. Martin is a modern problem, and will require many solutions. We need to generate less trash and adopt alternatives to plastic. We need to process our waste better. In some ways these are new skills and habits. Some of the ideas and expertise may come from outside. But when it comes to reusing and recycling, there are deep traditions on St. Martin that we can tap into. This creativity and ingenuity is a part of local culture we can all celebrate and embrace.

What is your favorite historical or recent example of reusing or recycling on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Metal hinges often outlasted wooden shutters and were reused.
This old hinge, along with a wire, was used to ground an electrical line.

The Skinks of Tintamarre

Skinks are small, shiny lizards. With their sleek bodies and small legs they look like they want to be snakes, and maybe could be in a million years or so. For most of history, the skinks of the eastern Caribbean were all lumped into one species.

Herpetologists—scientists who study reptiles and amphibians—knew that these skinks were probably different from island to island. Even in 1862, the famous scientist E.D. Cope mentioned that American skinks were “in a state of some confusion.” But it took 150 years for someone to take a closer look. In 2012, a groundbreaking paper by Blair Hedges and Caitlin Conn described 24 new skink species from Caribbean islands.

The St. Martin Skink, Spondylurus martinae, was one of these new species. It was described from museum specimens, including ones collected by Dr. Hendrik van Rijgersma in the 1860s. Sadly, it had not been seen for a long time. The mongoose in was introduced 1888 and may have eaten them to extinction.

A few years ago, skinks were seen on Tintamarre, living in the stone walls left over from D.C. van Romondt’s farming days there in the early 20th century. Were they St. Martin Skinks? Could they be the last survivors of a species that was wiped out on St. Martin?

Stone walls, the final refuge of the skinks of Tintamarre.

In fact, further research revealed that they were actually a very similar species, the Anguilla Bank Skink, Spondylurus powelli. This is the species that also lives on Anguilla and St. Barts. This wasn’t a complete surprise. Tintamarre is closest to St. Martin, but the ground lizards there are the variety found on Anguilla and St. Barts, not the variety on St. Martin.

Discoveries like this show that the evolutionary history on St. Martin is very complicated. We share many species with Anguilla and St. Barts because our islands were connected during the last ice age. Yet there are also species found only on St. Martin. Finding out why could tell us more about how evolution works in general.

So close, yet so far! St. Martin seen from Tintamarre.

And what about our St. Martin Skinks? It seems that the last specimen was collected in Little Bay around 1963. Perhaps they have died out since then. Perhaps, like on Tintamarre, a few have survived unseen. Keep your eyes open for them!

Have you ever seen a skink on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Learn more about the skinks of Tintamarre at Caribbean Herpetology.

Vanishing Stories

Here we are, in the age of the internet. The world’s knowledge is just a click away, in theory. But where are the stories of St. Martiners?

St. Martin is a people as much as it is a place. This island was home to people who created and preserved its culture, who helped their community every day and built the foundations of what is here today. These people were known and loved by all.

Many great St. Martiners live on in the memories of friends and family. They are remembered in the stories that are told about them. But how long will those stories survive?

Thankfully, the lives and achievements of some St. Martiners have been recorded in books and newspaper articles. But this information is not necessarily easy for all to access. When St. Martin students go online to research the history of their home, will they find cultural icons from the past? Will they learn their stories? Will they see their faces?

There are many people to celebrate: Juliette Mingau, Gaston Boasman, Laurelle “Yaya” Richards, Calypso Barbara, Cees van Dolderen, Yvette Hyman, José Lake, Sr, Inez Eliza Baly-Lewis, Cynric Griffith, Melford Hazel, Roland Bryson, Emilio Wilson, Neville Chester York and the list goes on. Some of these names may be familiar to most. Others may be icons in just part of the island. But few have a proper biography that records their life and works.

St. Martin is proud of its people. There are statues of St. Martiners all over the island. Streets and buildings are named after St. Martiners. But far too often, the stories of these people are out of reach. As time moves on, their stories are vanishing bit by bit from local memory. As photo albums are lost or destroyed, their faces disappear, too.

Do you know the story of a great St. Martiner? Do you have photos of local icons who have passed? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Tree of Many Uses

A calabash tree stands between to homes in a vintage Caribbean photo.

The calabash tree has many uses, and is much loved in the Caribbean. We see them near homes in grainy old black and white photos. You can spot them on the roadside today, a tangle of green branches like leaf-covered whips.

The fruit of the calabash has a hard skin that makes a sturdy and lightweight bowl or cup when it is dried. They were also used as vessels to carry water. Throw some hard seeds inside and you can make them into musical shakers. Designs carved into the wet skin of a fresh fruit are preserved in the dried shell, and many calabash objects feature intricate designs.

The calabash flower is pollinated by bats.

The pulp of the fruit is not particularly appetizing, but in some places foods or drinks are made with very young fruit, pulp or seeds. In Curacao, the seeds are used to make a candy called carabobo. Preparations of the fruit are also used as remedies for cough, asthma and other conditions.

Although the calabash tree is not very tall or straight, the hard wood was used for tool handles, saddles and some furniture. In times of drought, calabash branches were cut down so livestock could eat the leaves.

The calabash tree is also a part of many cultures. In one folk tale, the trickster Anancy gathers all the common sense in the world into a calabash. (Spoiler alert: the calabash falls and the common sense scatters, which is why we all have a little of it today.) Some believe calabash trees shelter spirits, and in some parts of the Caribbean they were planted near graves.

The calabash fruit.

Some of the uses and cultural connections to the Caribbean calabash tree can be traced back to the calabash vine or bottle gourd in Africa. Although the tree and the vine are not related to each other, their fruits are used in many of the same ways. African traditions—transformed and adapted to the New World—are central part of Caribbean culture. The calabash tree is a great example of how these traditions adapt and persevere.

How do you use the calabash tree? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Bird feeders made from calabash.

Slogans

Every slogan tells a story of sorts. The story is always incomplete—a phrase can’t sum up an island—but it has some meaning. Slogans tell us something about how we understand St. Martin, how we misunderstand it, how it is and how we want it to be.

The Friendly Island has been an enduring slogan for St. Martin, but it is far from the only one. In some ways, the English translation of Amerindian Soualiga sounds like a slogan: The Land of Salt. But it is probably not one that would bring tourists running.

The Beach Island of the Caribbean.

A 1970 postmark from Philipsburg proclaims this The Beach Island of the Caribbean. Although almost all Caribbean islands have beaches, St. Martin is blessed with many beautiful beaches for its size. The white sand is also a contrast to some of the more recent volcanic islands to the south.

A graphic in a 1981 issue of The Clarion stated We’re glad!—not mad—We are living in St. Maarten. In some ways the phrasing suggests that perhaps we are mad, but we are doing our best to hide it. Perhaps this highlights a difference between the perspective of residents and the ideal projected towards tourists.

Glad, not mad!

Some older slogans emphasized the colonial heritage of the island. Twice the Vacation, Twice the Fun and Two for the Price of One both suggest the dual-identity of the island. It’s Dutch, it’s French, it’s Caribbean is more explicit. Even when the island’s Caribbean identity is acknowledged, it is almost as an afterthought.

The Friendly Island may be a bit vague. Almost any island could brand itself as friendly. Many other islands have developed more specific identities: Unspoiled Queen, Historical Gem, Spice Island and Nature Island. St. Martin really couldn’t claim any of these titles.

On the other hand, The Friendly Island does speak to the open and cosmopolitan nature of St. Martin. It is a place where people from countless cultures live together. It is a place that invited the world to visit.

Aside from the island’s touristic identity, other slogans tell us something about the island. Semper pro Grediens—always progressing—is the motto of Sint Maarten. It is accurate, in that the country is always in motion. Some may disagree about which progress is good or bad. On the masthead of the Windward Islands Opinion from 1959, we see the message LABOUR CONQUERS ALL THINGS. This may be a prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled, but around the world, voices that share this sentiment are louder than they have been in decades.

Labour conquers all things.

What is your favorite St. Martin slogan? What does it mean to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

How did the woodslave get its spots?

In St. Martin, you can find animals that live nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the things that makes St. Martin special and it is a great reason to protect local nature. If these animals disappear here, they will be gone from the planet.

The Spotted Woodslave, a gecko found only on St. Martin

The Spotted Woodslave is one of these animals. It is a kind of gecko, but probably not the one you see most often. This gecko can be huge and it mostly lives on big trees like old tamarinds and mangoes. True to its name, it is light with black spots.

The Spotted Woodslave is usually found on large trees.

The Spotted Woodslave has only been a species since 2011. Before then, it was thought to be the Turnip-tailed Gecko, a similar species that is found in most of the Caribbean and beyond. The main difference between the two is that the Spotted Woodslave has spots. On average, there are also differences in the number of scales around the mouth and on the toes of the two species.

Small details, like the number of scales around the mouth, make this gecko unique.

It may seem surprising that a new species can be “discovered” these days, but it isn’t rare in the Caribbean. Small islands like St. Martin haven’t been studied as much as many places. Many “new” species are known, but not yet named. People on St. Martin have known about the Spotted Woodslave for generations. Scientists have thought for years that the Turnip-tailed Geckos on different islands might be different species. It just took time for someone to do the research and record the differences.

There are many new species being described in the Caribbean today. In addition to comparing the physical characteristics of specimens, we can also compare the genetics of animals from island to island. In the coming years, we will probably find other new species that have been hiding in plain sight this whole time.

Split toe pads give this lizard a distinctive look.

But how did our woodslave get its spots? That’s a tough question. The Turnip-tailed Gecko lives on many islands, but St. Martin is the only place where it evolved spots. The authors who described the new species did not have any suggestions. If spots help it hide from predators or sneak up on prey, why didn’t geckos evolve spots on other nearby islands?

Do you know any stories about St. Martin’s geckos? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

What’s in Your Perfect Kitchen Garden?

The kitchen garden is a Caribbean tradition. As the name implies, they are usually right next to the home. Gardens or farms a bit further from home are often called provision grounds. Kitchen gardens are often small, but they can include a wild variety of different plants.

Stingy Thyme

St. Martin is densely populated, so some kitchen gardens are as small as a few potted herbs on a balcony. Walk down a street and you can see bits and pieces of kitchen gardens all over. Sugar apple, soursop and papaya trees stand guard in front yards. A maiden apple vine winds its way around a front porch. A line of pigeon pea bushes runs along a fence. Bananas are growing in the wettest corner of a yard and a single clump of sugarcane rises up beside a wall. Along the even busiest streets you’re likely to spot doliprane and vervain.

Sugar Apple

Kitchen gardens are ancient. Plants and techniques come from African and Amerindian traditions that are thousands of years old. European and Asian plants have been incorporated, too. The result can be chaotic, but the diversity of plants makes kitchen gardens rich and strong. Pigeon peas and beans provide nitrogen to their neighbors, papayas and bananas offer shade.

Kitchen gardens have roots in the colonial era, when enslaved persons would tend their own gardens before and after long days of labor. They were key to survival for free St. Martiners during the long years when the island had little economic activity. Today, with a tourism economy and endless imports, the kitchen garden is not as necessary as it once was.

Will the kitchen garden disappear from St. Martin? It seems unlikely. No matter how busy we get, the promise of a fresh-picked sugar apple and the smell of herbs are still irresistible. The growing power of the Caribbean sun is too strong to waste. Time spent with hands in soil will always be one of the best ways to get a moment of zen in a world that is too busy.

What is in your perfect kitchen garden? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Spinach Vine

Recent Arrivals

Life on an island is special. For million of years being a St. Martiner was an exclusive club. It was a place for the animals and plants that somehow made the journey here. It was a home for the ones who survived storm and drought.

This changed when the first Amerindian people set foot on St. Martin’s shore. People could choose where they went and what they brought. Into the elite club of native species, they brought useful plants and animals. Hitchhikers caught a ride on Amerindian canoes as well.

The Giant African Land Snail seems to have arrived after Hurricane Luis.

The pace of new introductions has only gotten faster over time. Rats arrived on European ships. Mongoose were brought from India to Jamaica and from Jamaica to St. Martin. Frogs and lizards have hopped down from Miami.

Today, new species mostly arrive with cargo, especially plants. Dozens of different insect species can arrive in a single container of plants. During the recovery process, an increase in cargo tends to boost the number of new species introduced.

Many remember the appearance of the Giant African Land Snail soon after Hurricane Luis. The colorful Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth may have also arrived after Luis. Surely many less noticeable species could have come during this period.

Did the Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth arrive with Hurricane Luis?

In many cases, these species would have arrived anyway. The Giant African Land Snail has been invading new areas steadily with or without the help of hurricanes. The Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth is native to the region, but may have been rare or absent from the island before Luis. The popularity of Oleander bushes would seem to guarantee its eventual arrival here.

It is usually impossible to pinpoint the arrival of a new species. Most arrive unnoticed. It can take years before populations get large enough to draw attention. However, many St. Martiners know their native plants and animals and are quick to notice new arrivals.

The Mourning Gecko was first seen on St. Martin just a few years ago. It looks similar other geckos already living here.

Observations by regular people have documented many species that arrived before Irma. These include the Colombian Four-eyed Frog, Mourning Gecko and Greenhouse Frog. Knowing what was here already can help us understand the impact of Irma on local wildlife. Did the hurricane help spread introduced species that were already here? Did it slow down their colonization? It also gives us a better idea which new species may have arrived as a result of Irma and the rebuilding process.

Have you seen any new plants or animals on St. Martin lately? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Rodents of Unusual Size

Could people be forced to leave St. Martin due to rising sea levels and worsening storms? As islanders, climate it is a real threat. Think of all the low-lying areas that could be submerged: Simpson Bay, Sandy Ground, Philipsburg, Grand Case, Orient Bay and many more. But if humans do lose our ability to live on St. Martin due to rising seas, we won’t be the first to suffer that fate.

St. Martin’s relationship with the sea has changed over millions of years. For a time, the island was totally underwater. The coral reefs that grew then became the limestone of the Lowlands and Billy Folly.

An approximation of ice age super St. Martin, with modern Anguilla, St. Martin and St. Barts for comparison.

There were also times when the sea was much lower. During ice ages, water is locked in glaciers, and the sea level drops. And when the sea level drops, St. Martin gets big. If the sea drops 100 meters, St. Martin is about the size of Trinidad. It connects to Anguilla and St. Barts and well beyond.

Prehistoric super St. Martin was huge—big enough to support rodents of unusual size. The Blunt-toothed Giant Hutia is one of the most astounding St. Martiners of all time. We only know it from fossils, but those fossils suggest it could have weighed over 200 kilograms. This makes it one of the largest rodents of all time.

Giants often evolve on islands, like the giant tortoises in the Galapagos. St. Martin’s giant hutia probably arrived on the island as a much smaller hutia. On St. Martin, it didn’t have predators to hide from, so it didn’t have to stay small. There also weren’t any big grazing animals to compete with, so the hutia could get big and eat all the leaves.

An artist’s conception of St. Martin’s giant hutia. (Painting by Dan Bruce, photo by Craig Chesek, American Museum of Natural History)

Hutia fossils from St. Martin, Anguilla and St. Barts actually show a surprising range in sizes. Some scientists believe it may have changed size depending on the sea level. When the sea level was lowest and the island the biggest it was at its biggest, 200 kilos. During periods when the island was smaller, it may have shrunk down to 50 kilos.

One estimate shows that this might be possible over 80 generations. On a shrinking island, the smallest of each generation survive and the hutia adapts to fit the space it has. But this process takes time. If the sea rises faster than it can change size, the hutia would be too big to survive in the space available.

We don’t know for sure what happened to St. Martin’s giant hutia, but we can guess. A bit more than 10,000 years ago, the island went from Trinidad-sized super St. Martin to three islands each less than 2% that size. If it couldn’t shrink fast enough, it wouldn’t have enough land to survive. Rising seas would have inundated it to extinction. That sad fate is implied by the giant hutia’s scientific name: Amblyrhiza inundata.

It is amazing to imagine giant hutias roaming St. Martin, like capybaras the size of black bears. It is perhaps just as amazing to imagine ice age super St. Martin. Look out to Anguilla or St. Barts and imagine land between and beyond as far as the eye can see.

What do you see when you look out over St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Shell Collector

A portrait of Dr. van Rijgersma.

Dr. Hendrik Elingsz van Rijgersma was a Dutch doctor, sent to provide care to the formerly enslaved people on St. Martin. He was also St. Martin’s first naturalist. He arrived in 1863, and died on the island in 1877. He never published a scientific paper, but his field work was key to our understanding of local nature.

Rijgersma collected shells since childhood. While on St. Martin, he collected many things, including shells, birds, reptiles, insects, plants and fossils. Sometimes he traded specimens for scientific tools or shells from other parts of the world. Many of his specimens are still in museum collections in Europe and the United States. He also painted beautiful watercolors of both shells, fish and plants.

Dr. van Rijgersma collected and painted plants.

Dr. van Rijgersma collected the fossils of the extinct Blunt-toothed Giant Hutia, a huge prehistoric rodent that lived on St Martin and Anguilla. The Leeward Island Racer snake, with the scientific name Alsophis rijgersmaei, was described from specimens he collected, and the species was named after him.

Most recently, a lizard specimen he collected was used to describe the St. Martin Skink in 2012. Shortly after van Rijgersma collected the skink, the mongoose was introduced and wiped out the skinks on St. Martin. His specimens are a unique window into the nature of St. Martin in the 1860s.

Dr. van Rijgersma died in 1877. He was buried in the Dutch Reformed Cemetery, now known as the Cul de Sac Cemetery. An estate inventory after his death listed four pine cases of shells: the empty cases valued at $8 and the shells “not valued.” This appraisal was highly flawed. His contributions to science—though rarely recognized—were priceless.

Dr. van Rigjersma’s headstone is in the Cul de Sac cemetery.

What other people from St. Martin’s past are almost unknown today? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.