Category: Stories of St. Martin

The Serenaders

Tamara’s interview was recorded in April 2019 at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House.

Local poet and entrepreneur Tamara Groenveldt shared some of her favorite St. Martin Christmas traditions in an interview in 2019:

Every family would do their potato pudding and on Christmas day they would visit different families and of course you would be exchanging foods. And of course, coconut tarts, guavaberry tarts, that’s a very big one at Christmas time.

We have sorrel, I like the juice, I’m not a big drinker. We have lime punch as well. We also have guavaberry punch. That’s a staple at Christmas time. Every family has a bottle in their house. And everyone usually knew how to make their own guavaberry rum as well. You would usually get the guavaberry and you put it to soak for at least a year. And then that would be what you would serve the serenaders when they would come by at four o’clock or whatever time in the morning.

Guavaberry tart is a St. Martin Christmas tradition. (Photo by St. Martin’s Sweetness)

So we still have serenading happening in Grand Case. We have a group of people who have decided to preserve that part of our history and they would go and they would serenade every year. It is important to me because growing up, I remember serenaders coming to your home. And it would be persons like Tanny and the Boys that were playing string band music. So they would come with like, the bath pan and the triangle, the grater with the afro pick. And they would be playing this traditional music.

They would usually sing something along the lines of “Open the door because the dew is falling on us.” So they would call your name, they would say “Charlie, open the door, open the door, for the dew is falling on us.” And so then you would have to get up at three to four in the morning, whatever time it was, and you would open your door and you should always have something prepared to give to the serenaders.

So they would want the bush tea, or they would want the guavaberry rum. If you have the potato pudding. And every household that they visit, you have to have something to offer the serenaders, ‘cause they’re coming and they’re playing for you. They’re out on your porch and they’re just playin’ all this music: “Mama make your johnny cakes, Christmas comin’!” It was amazing.

Guava and coconut tarts are also popular at Christmas time. (Photo by St. Martin’s Sweetness)

Because those persons in Grand Case still do it to keep tradition alive, it really helps me to feel the Christmas spirit. And I feel like when, some years ago, when there were all types of laws that came into being to regulate serenaders, I think that’s what actually helped our tradition of serenading to go down the drain. Because what happened was, according to how I understand it, persons who came to live on the island, who were not familiar with serenading, they started calling the gendarmes and the police and saying that these persons are disturbing us when we are trying to sleep.

Now traditionally, it is St. Martin tradition for you to come in those wee hours in the morning to serenade your friends and family and neighbors with beautiful St. Martin music. Now those persons who actually put the complaints in, they do not understand who we are as a people or what we do as a people. And by putting those laws and regulations in place, telling persons that, okay, you need to now get a permit to serenade, you know a lot of the locals felt like, “Why do I need to get a permit to serenade? I’ve been doing this for many years. It has never been a problem. This is who we are. I’m just not going to do it.”

So they refused to do it and that was what, in my opinion, helped the serenading part of our tradition to go down the drain. So kudos to the persons who are actually trying to revive it and keep it alive so that the younger generation can come in and know, or at least feel what it felt like to be serenaded by your neighbors or family or persons even coming from the other side of the island, the southern side of the island, to play music for family and friends at Christmas time.

Special thanks to the Les Fruits de Mer oral history team: Laura Bijnsdorp, Veronica Duzant, Charlie Gombis and Vida Hodge.

Learn more about Tamara’s company and their traditional St. Martin baked goods: St. Martin’s Sweetness.

A Christmas Story

Christmas house is always alive with vibrant colors and good cheer.

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.”

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.

Bernadine Arnell Joe tells the story of Christmas House.

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.”

The Birds Are Going in a Strange Direction

Josianne’s interview was recorded in April 2019 at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House.

Hurricane Donna struck St. Martin on September 4th, 1960. It caused extensive damage and several deaths. Josianne Fleming-Artsen recounted her childhood memories of Hurricane Donna in an interview in 2019:

My name is Josianne Fleming-Artsen. I was born in Aruba because my parents went to Aruba for the Lago oil industry. At that time my father was moving around. Moved from Santo Domingo to Aruba and we were born there. Lago laid off the St. Martin people first who were working in Aruba and so we were to return to St. Martin in 1960.

That was the first time I flew on an airplane. I was maybe seven or eight years old, I think around that age. We came to St. Martin and we landed on this very simple airport. I think that was the first of August, around that time. The hurricane came a month later. That hurricane was Donna.

That was the first experience of us with the hurricane. In those days we had no phones and all of that and no weather reports. My father probably learned a lot when he was at Santo Domingo. He knew about the weather. He knew about birds. He knew about these things.

I remember him being in the garden and it was a very quiet day and there was no breeze; it was like the quiet before the storm and he said, “Something is going to happen.” He was looking up, he said, “The birds are going in a strange direction.” He said he’s going to bar-up the house because he said we have to get ready for weather. That same night around twelve o’clock Hurricane Donna came and destroyed St. Martin.

I remember that night because I was my father’s girl, so my daddy anytime he was up I’m up too. I remember him trying to keep the windows down and the doors that were in between. I was like, “What is going on here?” When we got up the next morning, I remember seeing all the trees were like, no leaves, everything was like a war zone in St. Martin.

I remember every morning, every day, the government brought us food, rations we called it at that time. A big truck would come and you would get water. You would get oil for cooking. You would get flour because flour was a good commodity. You could make your Johnny cakes and you could make bread. Those three things, I remember clearly that we received on a very regular basis.

Fast forwarding, all the repairs that were done were done with jollification. People would help each other repair their roofs, whatever needed to be done. It would be people coming together on a weekend, Saturday and Sunday was to help each other. The owner of the house would then prepare a big pot of food and everybody would chip in and help. That has been going on since I know St. Martin.

Special thanks to the Les Fruits de Mer oral history team: Laura Bijnsdorp, Veronica Duzant, Charlie Gombis and Vida Hodge.

Truth in the Tale

Folktales can do many things. They can help explain the world around us. They can connect us to our past. They can tell us how to live our lives and how to tell right from wrong. They entertain us.

Folktales are often strange or magical. They are not necessarily meant to be taken literally. But often there is some truth in them. In several old folktales from St. Martin, we can learn something about people, nature and the connection between the two.

The book Folk-Lore of the Antilles, French and English collects folktales recorded in the 1920s on many islands. Many of them were recounted by young people, and many of them include birds and other animals.

The story Cockroach Fools Fowl was told by 13 year-old Samuel Saty of Marigot. In the story, a cockroach pretends to be sick so a chicken will feed it. The chicken gives it pap, a thick drink made from arrowroot or other starch. When the trickery is discovered, Fowl is so vexed he swallows the cockroach whole. Though chickens don’t make pap, they do spend much of their time looking for—and swallowing—insects.

A Blue Pigeon, and perhaps a farmer’s wife.

Pigeon Wife was told by Hilton Liburt, an 18 year-old from Philipsburg. In this story, someone was stealing a farmer’s corn from his field. The thief was his wife, who was a pigeon. She was eating the corn in the field at night. People and birds sometimes do compete for food. When people replace wild areas with farms, birds may eat the crops because their normal food is gone. This can be a problem for both farmers and birds.

The story Bo Pigeon and Mountain Dove Race for the King’s Daughter comes from St. Croix. A pigeon and a dove agree to race for the chance to marry a princess. In a twist that may be familiar to many St. Martiners, they agree to each drink a demijohn of rum before the race, but the pigeon drinks water. The dove is too drunk to fly and loses the race. The native Blue Pigeon is usually seen high up in the sky, and the Mountain Dove is often on the ground so perhaps this tale was invented to explain why these birds act the way they do.

The Mountain Dove on the ground, but probably not drunk.

Do you have a favorite local folktale? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Three Flowers

Flowers brighten our lives and decorate gardens and landscapes. On a tropical island, there are countless beautiful varieties and something is always in bloom. Each flower also has a story, and here are three of them.

Yellow Sage, the national flower of Sint Maarten.

Yellow Sage is the national flower of the country of Sint Maarten. Also known as Orange-yellow Sage, it is a variety of the species known as West Indian Sage. Other varieties of West Indian Sage flower in a variety of colors. The plant can grow into a large bush—two meters tall and just as wide. Native here, it has also been brought all over the world. It is used in plant medicine, as a natural fence and to control erosion with its extensive roots.

The flowers of the Flamboyant tree.

The Flamboyant tree is known for its beautiful flowers. Each summer, these trees explode into brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. Though native to Madagascar, it has been popular in the Caribbean for hundreds of years. On St. Martin, this tree has a special connection to emancipation. When emancipation in Dutch colonies took place on July 1, 1863 the Flamboyant was in full bloom, and freed St. Martiners carried branches of its beautiful flowers as they celebrated.

A Painted Lady butterfly feeds from Coralita flowers.

Today, one of the most commonly seen flowers on the island is the bright pink blossom of the Coralita vine. This non-native vine has covered many parts of the island, especially areas that were once used for livestock but are no longer managed. Although the flowers are beautiful and their nectar is well-loved by insects of all kinds, this vine tends to cover and smother any plants in its path. It also has potato-like tubers deep under the ground so it quickly regrows after being cleared. Of all St. Martin’s flowers, it is one of the most beautiful and problematic.

What is your favorite local flower? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Culture Connection

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC provides an amazing look at the heritage of over 40 million people. A visit is a rich and rewarding experience for anyone. What would a resource like this look like on St. Martin?

The richness of the museum is a reflection of the richness of the culture it presents. The museum gives a detailed history of the black experience in America. But often cultural aspects are the strongest and provide us with our best connections to the past. Both African American culture and the Afro-Caribbean culture of St. Martin have countless facets to explore.

The Point of Pines Cabin, a 1953 home rebuilt on the museum floor.

The histories of both places share the horrors of the slavery era and the challenges of sharing an era when black voices were suppressed and excluded from the record. One way of helping visitors connect with the lives of enslaved people was sharing objects and stories from everyday life, even an entire home that was brought into the museum and restored.

Another key method was using peoples’ own words to tell their stories and reveal history. From old letters and documents to recordings and interviews made more recently, much of the story was told by those who lived it. Seeing these words and hearing these voices helped visitors connect deeply.

The museum also drew heavily on culture and art. The African diaspora includes many of the greatest musicians, performers and artists of all time. Music and art were featured in their own galleries, but they were also used all over the museum, making other materials more engaging. Intangible culture and heritage were presented on equal footing with objects and documents.

An exhibit on gestures in African American culture.

The museum also had opportunities for visitors to share their stories and connect them to history. The Family Research Center helps visitors explore their genealogy to learn more about their ancestors. Reflections Booths located on the museum floor give visitors a chance to share their own stories.

The Reflections Booth is a place to share your own story.

All of these techniques could be used in a St. Martin Museum of Afro-Caribbean History and Culture. Right now, the story is not told as well as it should be, even though it is the history of most of the people on the island.

What Afro-Caribbean history or culture would you want to see in a St. Martin museum? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

The sculpture Mothership (Capsule) by Jefferson Pinder.

Three Landscapes

Anyone who has spent even a little time on St. Martin is used to watching it change. Winter’s lush green hills are bare and bone dry in the spring. Beaches grow and shrink with shifting sands. Heavy machines cut into the hillsides to clear land for roads and buildings. Ponds are filled, great trees grow and die. Ruins collapse under the weight of centuries, or just the years since Hurricane Luis.

St. Martin may be almost unrecognizable to someone born here 80 years ago. But even a long human life is just a moment in the vast age of an island. St. Martin has been through even bigger changes, witnessed by people who are long since gone, and in the ages before anyone was here to see them at all. Here are a few of them.

The size of ice age super St. Martin.

Look in the direction of St. Barts and imagine not sea, but land, between here and there. Then imagine unbroken land continuing just as far on the other side of St. Barts. Imagine land extending for miles in almost every direction from the St. Martin of today, forming an island the size of Trinidad. It may sound impossible, but 12,000 years ago when the sea level was more than 100 meters lower, this is how St. Martin was.

Imagine your surroundings with every sign of human presence gone. Thick scrub full of thorny plants fills most coastal areas and lowlands. Explosions of bright blue flowers dot the landscape where Lignum Vitae trees are in bloom. In each ravine, massive trees have grown tall to capture sunlight in the canopy leaving a cool and open forest floor. Flocks of parrots fly over, chattering to each other, and huge colonies of egrets nest on the mangrove trees that surround every pond. This is the paradise that the first Amerindian people discovered here about 5,000 years ago.

Some structures from the sugar era still stand. (Barbara Cannegieter postcard collection)

Imagine a St. Martin 200 years ago, covered almost completely with fields of giant grass, with thick stalks twice the height of a person. The fields reach high into the hills, covering many places that have regrown trees in the centuries since. A few dozen plantation houses are spread around the island, built in wood on stone foundations. Somewhere near each one there is a raised ring where cows or donkeys circle, turning the giant rollers that crush the sugarcane. Near each mill there is a cluster of small wattle and daub homes. Most of the people on the island live in them, surviving day by day under an unimaginably terrible system of slavery that they would soon take a part in overthrowing.

What St. Martin era are you curious about? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Myths of French and Dutch

The idea of St. Martin as a two-nation island is central to its image. It is the one fact that appears in every article about St. Martin. It is technically true, in a political sense. The north of St. Martin is part of France, and the south is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. At the same time, it is also a myth that misrepresents the island in many ways.

Much of St. Martin culture exists between and beyond the flags that fly at the border monument.

No matter who was in charge, through most of history the people of St. Martin were mostly not French or Dutch. During the early colonial period, many people were English or Irish, possibly the majority at some points in time.

By the end of the 1700s, enslaved people from Africa vastly outnumbered Europeans. These people were not given the rights of human beings at all, much less the rights of French or Dutch citizens. The language of the island has always been English, and the culture is Caribbean with many influences. Many of the superficial trappings of French and Dutch culture arrived when tourism grew in the late 20th century, a marketing myth manifesting itself across the island.

A key part of the dual nation myth is the division of the island with the Treaty of Concordia in 1648. There is a notion that two nations have peacefully coexisted on the island since then. But they haven’t really. There have been frequent disputes over the border, which was only marked in 1772. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French and Dutch governments broke the treaty to invade and take over the opposite half of the island six different times. The harmony of the island probably has more to do with the unity of the people of St. Martin, sharing culture and family across the border, rather than two “great nations” finding peace with each other.

A line on a map only tells part of the story.

Misconceptions about St. Martin come from many times and places. Older histories only recorded the lives of the wealthy and the powerful. We know the names of the white men who gave the order to build bridges and forts, but not the people who actually built them. In the modern era, the myth of a French and Dutch island was promoted as something tourists would find fun and sophisticated.

Of course, there is French and Dutch heritage on the island, and there are fascinating things to learn about it. The challenge is simply to escape the bounds of a single narrative. Smothered beneath the myth of French and Dutch is a far richer story waiting to be heard.

What St. Martin history and culture do you feel is overlooked? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Three Plant Stories

St. Martin looks like a tropical paradise, especially during the winter. Fall rains paint St. Martin in beautiful greens from hill to valley. But life isn’t that easy for plants on St. Martin. The ones that do well here are super tough and adapted to survive. Here are three plant stories that everyone should know.

Every plant has a strategy for surviving the dry season.

St. Martin is a dry island. It is easy to forget during the green fall and winter seasons. The spring dry season pushes plants to the limit, and they all have strategies for survival. Some lose their leaves to save water. Some have deep roots to tap into hidden water, others have shallow roots spread out to catch as much as they can from a passing shower. Every single plant on the island has found a way to live through the dry season. Years of drought, which have become more frequent, can even push the best adapted plants over the edge.

Mangroves protect land and sea.

Mangroves are protectors of both land and sea. Mangroves are a group of trees adapted to live in and near saltwater areas. Along coastlines, they absorb the power of incoming waves and keep beaches from washing into the sea. They also trap soil and leaves that wash down from the hills. This provides food for crabs and other pond animals. It also protects coral reefs. Without mangroves, nutrients from the land would wash out to sea and feed algae that would smother the coral. Living between land and sea, mangroves are vital to life both above and beneath the water.

Every forest is growing back.

From seaside scrub to forested hill, every landscape we see has been changed by humans. During the colonial period, especially when sugar cane was grown, natural vegetation was cut to make way for agriculture. Virtually every wild space on St. Martin is actually growing back after being cleared. As agriculture has declined, many spaces that were once farmed or grazed by livestock are slowly returning to a more natural state. But this process can take hundreds of years, and even a beautifully regrown forest will probably not have the same richness and mix of species as what was once there.

What St. Martin plant story do you think everyone should know? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Three Wildlife Stories

There are infinite interesting facts about St. Martin wildlife. But if you had just a couple minutes to tell someone what is so special about St. Martin, what would you choose? Here are three wildlife stories that everyone should know.

The Bearded Anole is only found on St. Martin.

There are animals that live only on St. Martin. There are two lizards you can see today, and one that is extinct. These animals were stranded here thousands or millions of years ago and evolved right here to become unique species. If they don’t have the habitat they need here, they could disappear from the world. That’s a good reason to make sure we save some wild spaces. The unique animal you are most likely to see is the Bearded Anole, a small tree lizard that is usually tan with bright blue around its eyes. The Spotted Woodslave is harder to find. It is a giant gecko that lives in the forest.

St. Martin is home to many migratory birds.

About half our birds are long distance travelers. Some birds live here all year, but about half the species that have been seen here are migratory birds. Most spend their summer in North America raising their chicks. Many go as far north as Canada and Alaska. When it is too cold to find food there, they come to St. Martin, or stop here on their way further south. Out salt ponds attract many birds that come to hunt fish, crabs or snails. Many of these birds spend most of their year here, so we could think of them as St. Martin birds that summer in the north.

Non-native animals are transforming St. Martin. The island is now home to many animals that were not from here. Amerindians brought the Red-footed Tortoise in prehistoric times, rats arrived on the first European ships and the mongoose was introduced in 1888. These days, most species arrive with shipments of trees and plants. The Cuban Tree Frog, Giant African Land Snail and the Brahminy Blind Snake probably arrived this way. Some cause trouble for native species, others don’t. The mongoose exterminated our native snake and two lizards. Introduced snails can eat up both gardens and wild plants.

The mongoose has exterminated three native animals.

What St. Martin wildlife story do you think everyone should know? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Rare Books

On St. Martin, countless stories have been lost to time. For most of recorded history, only the thinnest slice of life was documented. For the vast majority of people, not a single word was written about their life, toils, resourcefulness, beliefs or loves.

But even the things that were recorded are vulnerable. Things as important as the Treaty of Concordia, which split the island between the French and Dutch in 1648, have gone missing. One of the original copies is still missing today. Other records have been lost, or destroyed in fire, flood or hurricane.

Books written about St. Martin are crucial links to information that is lost, or locked away in distant archives. Dr. J. Hartog’s book, History of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin is one of those links. He made detailed notes of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Journals of Sint Maarten as part of his research. In 1974, those journals were destroyed in a fire. Hartog’s book is the last record of much of this information.

A few out of print books about St. Martin.

S.J. Kruythoff’s The Netherlands Windward Islands contains some historical research. But it also includes many things that wouldn’t be recorded at all without his book, like the local names of plants and animals. His observations about nature and culture in the first half of the 20th century are priceless and unique. Very little was being published about the island at this time.

The Making of an Island by Jean Glasscock contains stories from conversations she had with St. Martiners between the 1960s and early 1980s. This is hardly ancient history, but St. Martin was tremendously different back then. Many of the people she spoke to have now passed.

The list goes on. For the Love of St. Maarten by Will Johnson, L’Immuable et le Changeant by Yves Monnier, Windward Children by Dorothy and John Keur and Beyond the Tourist Trap by Sypkens Smit each include stories of the island that can be found nowhere else.

These authors have succeeded where even governments responsible for preserving the public record have often failed. These works can still be read. Thanks to the number of copies that exist, they will almost surely survive long into the future.

Although these books are on many bookshelves, all of them are currently out of print. Copies can still be found occasionally by those with patience and the money to pay rare book prices. Someday they will enter the public domain, but many of us will be long dead by then.

In the meantime, what can we do? It is crucial that local libraries, schools and cultural institutions have copies of these works so they are available to the people of St. Martin. If possible, perhaps some of them could be reprinted with the permission of the authors and publishers. These books may also inform new works that continue the grand project of telling the story of St. Martin.

What is your favorite book about St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Cultural Resolutions

2020 is a brand new year. It is a chance to make a change and to try new things. Many of us have made resolutions, plans to improve ourselves or our community in this new year. Whether you have made other resolutions or not, here are a few cultural resolutions that you might consider for 2020.

Experience culture. St. Martin has plenty of culture, and it is easy to access. There are museums, galleries, events and performances. Experiencing culture in person is enriching. It is a break from the everyday and a reminder of what the island has to offer. Going to an event is also a chance to connect with the community. St. Martin culture is a set of shared traditions. If you don’t share in them, you lose your connection to this culture.

Participants reenact the Diamond Estate freedom run.

Participate in culture. Culture is for and by everyone. The only limitation is who chooses to take part. Your story is part of the St. Martin story, and it is as important as anyone else’s. Write down a story told to you by a parent or grandparent. Share a family recipe. Scan your family photos. Record an interview with a relative. The story of St. Martin is incomplete without your contribution.

Support culture. There are a handful of people who have worked tirelessly to preserve and share St. Martin culture for years or decades. They’ve done amazing things, but they have also had a lot of help from countless other people. Museums, book fairs and festivals don’t happen by themselves. They are created by volunteers and supported by donors. They are everyday people like you and me, but without their generosity perhaps culture would disappear on St. Martin.

Learning to find meaning in family photos during a workshop at Amuseum Naturalis.

There are plenty of reasons why being culturally active today is important to St. Martin. Stories are lost each year as elders pass away. Letters, diaries and photos are lost or destroyed with no backup. Many of the cultural leaders of the 80s and 90s have retired without a new generation to carry on work in their fields.

But the most important reason to be culturally active is because it will improve your life. Culture links you to your past and makes you optimistic about the future. Culture is the thing that connects a community across time and space. Without culture, we are alone. And that’s no way to spend 2020.

What is your cultural resolution for 2020? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

On Sandy Ground

Anyone in search of a deeper understanding of the recent protests would do well to read the book Saint-Martin: Destabilization of the French Caribbean by the late Daniella Jeffry. It focuses primarily on a period of great change on the island, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Jeffry set the stage with an overview of colonial history, and what she called the “Traditional Period” between 1848 and 1963. In her view, the collapse of the sugar industry, the end of slavery and the departure of white plantation owners led to a time of relative peace during this period. People farmed, fished and did seasonal salt work. People were poor, but largely free to do as they wished. France had little interest in St. Martin, giving the island a kind of independence.

Sandy Ground resident and her home circa 1980. (Photo from Yves Monnier)

Things began to change as tourism developed. The Dutch side began first, building the new airport and pier and the first hotels. By the beginning of the 1980s and feeling 20 years behind, France was in a rush to develop their side of the island. 

The 1980s were a turbulent time, even though tourists might remember it as a golden age. There was massive development, immigration tripled the population of French St. Martin, and the French state increased its involvement in local affairs. Laws and zoning plans were changed to facilitate tourism development. 

Jeffry’s book describes one series of events in March of 1980 may help us better understand the current conflict over today’s natural disaster risk prevention plan (PPRN). In early 1980, there was a development plan to transform Sandy Ground into a tourist area. The homes there where people lived and raised their families were largely built without permits on land that they did not have clear title to. One of the first steps was to knock down buildings that the state considered illegal.

Sandy Ground from above around 1980. (Photo by REGNAM)

In response to the first houses being bulldozed, 2nd Deputy Mayor Albert Romney-Burnett bulldozed the French security police barracks in the same area. The next Saturday, March 8th, a meeting was held to discuss the transfer of Sandy Ground land to the government.

Mayor Elie Fleming explained to the the tense crowd that due to the position of Sandy Ground, between lagoon and sea, and the distance between the high water marks on each side, the land actually belonged to the state. He said “Sandy Ground, for those who do not know, is the result of the abuses of those people who came here to work but could not find a place to live.” He said that these “greedy and selfish people” would not be allowed to continue living there. The area to be retaken by the state would be marked by the following Monday.

Mrs. Berry Gumbs, who owned a home in Sandy Ground, spoke up to say that no one could take her property. Albert Romney-Burnett encouraged residents to get their property ownership legalized. He also said, “St. Martin people are a very understanding people. But one thing is for sure, we are going to stand up for what is rightfully ours. I feel that St. Martin people have been pushed in a corner and we are going to stand up and defend ourselves.” He also made a call to “protest in a peaceful way.”

The comments from the crowd and the heated atmosphere seemed to change the mind of government. The plan to take Sandy Ground was not implemented in 1980. Since then, questions of land ownership and zoning have often caused dispute. And the echoes of March 8th, 1980 can still be heard.

What are your memories of unrest in the 1980s? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

You can read Saint-Martin: Destabilization of the French Caribbean at Soualibra. You can buy it on Amazon or at Arnia Bookstore.

Merry Guavaberry

The guavaberry is an easy fruit to love. It is sweet and tangy and the tree itself is beautiful. It is native to St. Martin and other parts of the Caribbean, a natural part of the landscape.

The tree grows wild here, but it is also raised for its beauty, its wood, and especially its fruit. Guavaberry is made into tarts and jams, and it is used to flavor rum. It is one of the essential flavors of St. Martin.

The guavaberry plant and its traditions are presented at the Guavaberry Festival.

Although it is found on many islands, only a few places use it so much. St. Martin perhaps most of all, and also the Virgin Islands. The fact that it is popular in the northeast Caribbean is a reminder of the cultural connections between these islands.

Guavaberry is also popular in the San Pedro de Macorís area of the Dominican Republic. In the early 20th century, St. Martiners and people from nearby islands came to this area to work in agriculture. At the time, the St. Martin economy was struggling. The guavaberry traditions brought with these economic migrants are still alive there today.

Here, the guavaberry is a key part of deep cultural traditions. It is strongly connected to the Christmas season. Some would say that Christmas time is the one true time to enjoy guavaberry in all its forms. Perhaps the most traditional Chrismas song on the island is the guavaberry song, with its lyric “Good morning, good morning, I come for me guavaberry.”

Christmas is celebrated in countless places, but it has some special meaning in St. Martin. It comes at the end of the rainiest season when many crops are ready to harvest. It comes after the hurricane season, when everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. Guavaberry rum is the perfect drink for this moment of sweetness, celebration, release and friendship.

The Jolly Boys play the guavaberry song.

The Guavaberry Festival in Colombier brings all of these ideas and feelings together. It is a celebration of the fruit and of the season. It is a chance to get a tree or some seeds and take part in the tradition of cultivation. The joyous music is a living celebration of this wonderful tree.

What is your favorite way to enjoy guavaberry? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Postcards of Paradise

Pristine Galisbay beach (Barbara Cannegieter postcard collection)

While scanning selections from Barbara Cannegieter’s enormous collection of postcards, it was interesting to see how they changed through the years. Postcards are made to represent a place, or the ideal of a place. But places change, especially St. Martin.

Very early postcards, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries mostly document “important” things. Marigot and Philipsburg are there because they are the capitals. Front Street is featured because it is Front Street. St. Martin was a faraway place back then, more remote than anyone today could probably imagine. A postcard may have been a way of proving that it existed at all.

Over time, postcard images became more diverse. Many highlighted the natural beauty of green hills and unspoiled beaches. Scenes of Caribbean life were also popular: fishermen with their catch and produce for sale at Marigot market. The unique architecture of the island along Rue de la République and other streets is often on display.

Eventually, St. Martin as a tourist destination became the subject of many postcards. Hotels and resorts were on postcards, from the extravagant fake Mediterranean village of La Belle Creole to a variety of boxy and inelegant hotel buildings. Tourists appear in postcards, doing duty free shopping and water sports.

La Belle Creole (Barbara Cannegieter postcard collection)

Postcards reflect different views of the island. They were made to appeal to buyers, so they reflect what those buyers loved about St. Martin. At least, the ones that sold. They also helped create the image of St. Martin. These very specific images were how St. Martin was shared around the world.

How we see these images today can also tell us a lot. For St. Martiners, and others who love the island, postcards are powerful. Familiar views of towns bring a rush of nostalgia. People recognize the faces of fishermen and shopkeepers. Images of unspoiled landscapes often bring a sense of loss.

The St. Martin of all these old postcards is gone. Or at least, it has changed to the St. Martin of today. Simpson Bay will never be unbuilt, but we could protect the last few wild views. Some of the classic Caribbean houses of Grand Case, Marigot and French Quarter may be crumbling, but many could still be returned to glory. St. Martin may not have any fishing villages today, but it still has people who fish.

Scene on the dock in Marigot (Barbara Cannegieter postcard collection)

In every postcard, there is an element of St. Martin that is still here, whether it is a place, a tradition or a feeling. Perhaps it is hidden, perhaps it is in disrepair, perhaps it is hanging by a thread. But it is not too late to save a little bit of what we love from the past.

What do you miss from St. Martin’s past? What needs to be saved today? Tell us about it by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

See more old postcards and photos at the St. Martin Image Collection.

Image Building

Photos may be the most direct link we have to the past of the island. Photos capture people, places and things from the past. They capture culture and family history. They show us nature and the landscapes of the past. We can see what people were doing and the expressions on their faces.

Photos are also important because they contain stories that were never written down. Where written history features a handful of people, we have photos of many people. By preserving, sharing and studying these photos, we can build a more complete history.

Many people are already working on this project, perhaps without thinking of it in this way. There are people sharing photos on social media, and others commenting. Every time someone uploads a photo or identifies a person or a place or a year in a comment, our knowledge of the past increases.

Barbara Cannegieter’s postcard collection is also a rich source of local history and culture. (Photo from Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

Even the simple act of saving family photos, postcards and other materials is part of this process. Without these collections, there would be nothing to study or share. St. Martin is a land of 1,000 archivists who have protected these precious memories through the years.

A physical photo album has some limitations. It isn’t accessible to everyone. It could also be destroyed in a storm or thrown away by someone who doesn’t value it. Making images digital and sharing them brings them into the public sphere. It also ensures that at least some version of the image remains even if the original is lost.

Social sharing is a great way to help people connect to photos and share insights, but it also has limitations. Often photos are shared in low quality. This can be okay on a computer or phone screen, but some details may be lost. Also, social media is not very good for organizing photos. Many people may see and comment on a photo when it is posted, but it can be hard to find it again.

St. Martin may not have the resources to create a state of the art archive like those at the Library of Congress or New York Public Library. But it is possible to make a simple site where photos can be shared and information about them can be collected. You can find the beginnings of this site at

Right now, the St. Martin image collection includes photos and postcards from several generous people who offered to share what they have preserved. Others are welcome to contribute images or information about what is in the photos. Over time this can grow to a rich archive of images and stories that is accessible to all.

Even photos from not so long ago reveal amazing changes, like this photo of Marigot near Howell Center from 1962. (Photo by Gordon James)

Do you want to learn how to find the stories in your family photos? There will be a free workshop on Saturday, December 7th at Amuseum Naturalis. You will learn how to find the story in a family photo you bring. You will also get a scan of your photo that you can share with family for the holidays. To sign up, email [email protected].

Family Tree, Island History

At the Museums Association of the Caribbean conference in Martinique last week, Hannah K Scruggs, Kamilah Stinnett and Doretha Williams from The National Museum of African American History and Culture gave a presentation titled Genealogy in Museums: Finding Family while Exploring Cultural Heritage. Their museum has a Family History Center that hundreds of people visit each day. They offer six sessions each day where people can come in and get help researching their own family tree.

Genealogy, the study of family history, is a way for people to understand where they come from. It is also a way to find one’s place in history and in a community. It connects people to their own family, but also to the world.

Usually, the starting place for making a family tree is asking other family members, especially older ones. Scrapbooks and memorabilia can also give key details. More and more, records are being digitized and may be searchable online. Public records, newspapers and archives are all important resources.

Local records, like this salt production journal, can give family history clues.

For anyone with ancestors who were enslaved, it can be hard or even impossible to trace family roots through this period. Not being able to trace family history is a part of the trauma of enslavement that still hurts people today. But many people find it rewarding to discover the family history that is available.

At the Family History Center, visitors can have access to databases and help learning how to research. On St. Martin, it would be very good to have a similar center. By helping individual people learn about their own history, we could enrich what we know about the history of the island as well.

On St. Martin, family research would surely reveal many connections between local families. It would also show how people from St. Martin are connected to relatives on Anguilla, St. Kitts and beyond. In these connections, we can find stories of survival and cultural connections. A handful of people researching their own family histories would enrich the lives of everyone interested in St. Martin.

A family history is like a map for the past. Combined with photos and documents that can be scanned at the heritage preservation station at Amuseum Naturalis, we can make that past come alive. The history of the island can be transformed to include the history of everyone on the island. This inclusive history has its roots in the family tree.

Are you interested in researching your family tree? Have you already started? Tell us about it by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

Landscape and Memory

On the first morning of the Museums Association of the Caribbean conference, John Angus Martin gave a presentation called Exhibiting Slavery in the Caribbean Museum. It is a challenging topic that many museums have avoided in the past. His presentation sparked animated discussion amongst the attendees.

Martin focused specifically on how small museums in the Caribbean can tackle this topic. These museums tend to lack funding, resources and space to address a topic so big and important in the detail it deserves. Making space for people with diverse perspectives and different ways of processing this history is also hard.

Dry stone slave walls are legacy features that crisscross the island.

Despite the challenges, Martin had many suggestions. One key element is focusing on the people themselves. Exhibits that focus on artifacts or data tend to be cold and clinical. Stories should be personal. Humanity can be lost when exhibits focus on the magnitude of the slave trade. It is hard to tell personal stories when most names and lives were not recorded, but some records do exist.

Martin also highlighted the need to honor and memorialize. People should feel empathy and sorrow. There can be space for contemplation, and the hope of working towards a sense of closure. Featuring stories of resistance is part of this, but honoring how people survived is also important.

Martin suggested that the starting point of exhibits about slavery should be here and now. The story should be told starting from the present and working back into the past. It should highlight how this history has influenced life and culture today. The focus should be local, and the local story should not be lost by trying to tell a global history of slavery.

Slavery exhibits should be rooted in the local landscape, which often a key to telling the story. Although many of the signs of slavery on plantations are gone, the land itself remains. The places where enslaved people lived and toiled are still here. The landscape itself was transformed by their labor. Many of the plants were brought with them are still growing here, what does remain from this era was built by their hands.

Sugar mill machinery was operated by enslaved people.

What do you want an exhibit about slavery? What would you like to learn or see? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

Plastic Problems

A Killdeer surrounded by plastic.

There’s too much plastic in the world. People have made almost 10 billion tons of plastic, and only 10% is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, natural spaces and the sea. And there’s plenty of it on St. Martin. Some of the most beautiful places on the island are full of plastic garbage.

Plastic waste is ugly and it can cause problems for people. Mosquitos can breed in plastic containers full of rainwater. Plastic can also break down into tiny particles that are literally everywhere.

For birds, plastic is even worse. Many birds eat plastic. In the water, algae grows on plastic and make it smell like food. Birds eat it and feed it to their babies. Birds starve with stomachs full of plastic instead of food. Plastics also absorb toxic chemicals and poison birds. Sharp plastic objects can cause internal damage as well.

A Snowy Egret looks for food on a plastic bag.

Plastic can also trap birds. Old fishing gear and other plastics in the sea can trap birds. If a bird gets tangled in plastics, it can drown. This is a serious problem for the Magnificent Frigatebird that fishes and forages for food that is on the surface of the sea. Frigates don’t dive into the sea. If they do get caught and pulled into the water they can drown.

Plastic gets in the way. Plastic bags fly in the wind and plastics float across the sea. They clutter up beaches and ponds. These are places where birds hunt for food or make their nests.

A Black-necked Stilt nest beside a plastic bottle.

Plastics are a big problem on St. Martin, but there are many ways that you can help. Buy less plastic. You can connect with St. Martin traditions by using reusable bags, water bottles and food boxes like people did back in the day. You can recycle, and make sure your plastic never gets into wild spaces. Pick up plastic litter when you see it, or join a beach clean-up.

Your individual actions can help, but you can also encourage local government to make changes. Banning plastic bags and other single-use plastics can help everyone use less plastic. With laws to lead the way, people and businesses can find better alternatives for a cleaner and more beautiful St. Martin.

Do you remember the days when St. Martin was trash free? It could be that way again. To learn more about how plastics hurt birds and enjoy lots more fun activities, come to the Migratory Bird Festival from 9am-12pm on Saturday, November 9th at Amuseum Naturalis.

Precious Memories

Written by Mark Yokoyama and César Escalona

Photos are a window into our lives. They show who we are and how we lived. They are a record of heritage, history and culture.

Some histories only record the lives of rich or powerful people. But most families have photos, so photos can tell the story of almost anyone. With photos, we can all be part of history.

Photos capture cultural heritage. You can see how people dressed and the houses they lived in. They show us events and places that were important to people.

Photos reveal culture in clothing and objects.

They show traditions that built up over time that make this island unique. When families took photos at parties, events and jollifications, they were making a historical record—even if they didn’t think of it that way at the time.

These photos show us people’s expressions and what they were doing. They show us how people interacted with each other. They also show material culture. We can see what people were wearing and the objects around them.

Photos taken outdoors show us the cultural landscape. We can see architecture and nature, and how people are interacting with the island. On St. Martin we often see how much the island has changed in a very short period of time.

Photos are a window into the past. We can use them to learn what life was like. But they also show us where our traditions came from. We can see the roots of today’s culture in the photos of yesterday.

Photos are art. The photographer was expressing their vision, and their creative choices are captured in the photo. Family portraits were made with care. Each detail reflects a choice: how the people were grouped, what they wore, where the photo was taken and how they posed. The choices have symbolic meaning we can study, telling us about the family and their culture.

Even a beach day snapshot can tell us many things.

Every picture is important. Old photos and photo albums are precious family memories. But they are also important historical archives. Your photos can be a part of history. When we preserve photos, we build a richer history of the island. We make sure everyone’s story is part of the story of St. Martin.

Do you have old family photos? You can have them scanned at Amuseum Naturalis in French Quarter. You can also learn more about why photos are so important at the heritage preservation station at the Migratory Bird Festival from 9am-12pm on Saturday, November 9th at Amuseum Naturalis.


Pounding arrowroot at the Arrowroot Jollification in Colombier.

In the first National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of St. Maarten, jollification has a modest entry:

A traditional gathering of people to help build a house, well, or fence and at which food is served as compensation.

To most of the world, and even most of the Caribbean, a jollification is a just a party. Parties are great and jollification is a great word for party. But the meaning of the word on St. Martin is more complex. It also tell us a lot about local culture.

On St. Martin, neighbors had to come together to help each other. Some tasks, like fixing a roof or digging a well couldn’t happen any other way. Before the modern era most labor was done by hand. People had to lift and dig and carry together.

St. Martin was a small island and it was a poor island. But the people of the island provided for themselves by combining their talents and labor. There was not just an idea of community. People truly depended on each other.

Working together also makes sense in St. Martin’s climate. Crops had to be planted in time for the wet season. A well can only be dug during the dry season. People used jollification to do things when they needed to be done.

Reaping together at Arrowroot Jollifcation.

It would not be surprising if the roots of jollification stretch back to the time of slavery. Enslaved people were forced to work long hours. They typically worked six days a week. But they were also growing their own food and taking care of their basic needs during the little time they had left. It is hard to imagine how they could have survived without helping each other.

Today, the tradition of jollification is in decline. People are busy with their jobs. There are companies that build houses and replace roofs. Most St. Martiners aren’t digging wells or reaping provision grounds. Thankfully, the tradition is kept alive by events like the Arrowroot Jollification in Columbier.

Generation New Status band at Arrowroot Jollification.

Jollification is a key part of local culture, but it also has a place in today’s society. When people come together to volunteer, the spirit of jollification lives on. Especially when there are food and drinks. After all, volunteering isn’t really a jollification unless you also have a party.

What does jollification mean to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

You can’t have a jollification without food


What is St. Martin culture? It is hard to put a finger on it. Local culture is the way things are said, or a proverb or a story. It is the way a food is cooked and on what occasions it is served. It is stories, crafts, games, songs, dances and much more. It can be hard to point to something and say “That is St. Martin culture.” But at the same time, it is all around us.

Over the last few years, the Sint Maarten National Commission for UNESCO has worked with the Department of Culture to write down the things that make local culture special. They created a survey and collected over 230 responses. The resulting list is the first National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of St. Maarten.

Rice and peas are on the menu at Yvette’s Restaurant and part of local heritage.

The inventory is focused on five areas: oral traditions; performing arts; social practices; rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques. The list includes over 200 different entries across these categories.

The list is rich. It includes jumbie stories and and songs like Mama Make Yo’ Johnny Cakes Christmas Comin’. It includes carnival, boat racing and dominoes. Foods like locri, conkie and guava cheese are there. Skills like making coconut oil and cooking on a coal pot made the list. You can also find crafts like making a fish pot or dry stone wall.

Traditional boat building and racing are part of the inventory.

The inventory also notes which aspects of local culture are thriving or declining. Bull foot soup isn’t going to die out any time soon, but jollifications and horse races are less common than they were.

The intangible cultural heritage inventory is rich with things that make St. Martin special. There are also many things that still need to be added. The childhood game of rubbing a nickernut on a rock and then pressing the hot seed into a friend’s arm should probably be there. Also, the skill of making a noose from a blade of grass to catch a lizard.

The inventory is both a resource and an inspiration to those who have things to add to it. It is ready for your contributions. There is a copy at Amuseum Naturalis. You can also find it online at

What intangible heritage do you want to add to the inventory? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Window on an Island

Every window presents a different view.

Look out any window and you’ll see St. Martin. At least, you’ll see part of it. You might see your neighbors working on their house, cars passing in the street or clouds rolling in. Every window presents a slightly different view of the island.

If you don’t have a good view in the right direction, you might check Google for the weather. Beneath the forecast, you may see a section titled “People also ask.” Below are a series of questions that you can click to reveal the answers:

What is there to do in Saint Martin? What is the water temperature in St Maarten? What is there to do in Saint Martin? Is St Martin safe? Which side of Saint Martin is better? Do they speak English in St Martin? Can I use my credit card in St Maarten?

It is clear that a lot of the people asking questions about St. Martin are choosing their next vacation destination. As one of the world’s largest advertising platforms, Google is happy to help them find a place to spend their money. Hopefully some of it gets spent here.

Google says its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It is a worthy goal. In practice, St. Martiners researching their heritage have a hard time. Authentic voices from and about St. Martin are buried under pages for and by outsiders looking to visit. These travel sites present a limited and often inaccurate view of the island.

This problem is not a surprise. Google is a company, not a library. The infinite potential of the internet promised a place for all voices. In practice, most voices are buried. As algorithms pick out the questions and answers for us, things may get worse. People ask Google, Siri or Alexa for answers, and they are less likely to know where those answers come from.

For the question “What is the crime rate in St Martin?” Google presents a page that generates a “crime rate” based on an internet survey that was filled out by two people. Questions about language, history and geography are answered from travel forums and hotel websites.

What can we do? We can get more St. Martin voices online and searchable. We could bring archives online and digitally republish books and articles. Amazing stuff is being shared on Facebook, and it deserves to be on the web for all to enjoy. Many great resources don’t even have a chance to be in web search results because they aren’t on the web yet.

St. Martin should also curate its own story. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and information there makes its way all over the web. The island needs more web sites for and by St. Martiners. Libraries, museums and schools need the resources to safeguard and share the stories of St. Martin. The island needs to train its own experts for this crucial role. We can’t change Google, but we can change St. Martin.

How would you make sure St. Martin has a voice in telling its own story? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

Four Quarters

In 1772, Auguste Descoudrelles, the Commander of French St. Martin described the four quarters of the territory he was commanding. At the time, these were French Quarter, Grand Case, Colombier and Marigot. Although almost 250 years have passed, some essential traits of each quarter still remain today.

Descoudrelles describes French Quarter as the oldest community. He believes it may have originally been Quartier d’Orient, or East Quarter, with Orient over time becoming Orléans. Even in 1772, most of the people living there were born there, and many had parents who were born there. He noted two natural features. One was the large and beautiful Fish Pond, the other was Oyster Pond, a well-protected harbor divided by an imaginary line between French and Dutch. Although it had a large population and bordered the Dutch territory, it was the only quarter without a militia.

St. Martin in 1775.

At the time, the quarter of Grand Case stretched across the entire top of the island from Cul-de-Sac to Friar’s Bay. It was slow to be settled because it was so dry, but by 1772 had become the most populated. Cul-de-Sac was noted as a safe harbor for ships and the areas between Anse Marcel and Grandes Cayes were not yet developed. Today, Cul-de-Sac is still a popular place to anchor ships, and the northeast corner of the island is still the least developed area.

Colombier was known for its forests and for having the best farming land on the island. Descoudrelles claimed its forests were spared because they were difficult to access. The quarter had very little sea shore, but spread out in the interior, both in width and height.

At the time, the quarter of Marigot stretched from the Lowlands to where it met Colombier. Descoudrelles felt the land was some of the best for farming, except the the Lowlands and Sandy Ground, which were too dry. Descoudrelles built a house there and “had many good reasons to believe this quarter would become the main town.”

Over the years, many things have changed on St. Martin, but these quarters still reflect some of the character that was described so long ago. French Quarter is still home to some of the island’s longest family histories. Colombier is still lush and fertile. The geography that protected its trees has helped protect some of its traditions. How we use boats has changed, but a good harbor is still very valuable.

What is the essence of the quarter where you live? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

The threats to sweet St. Martin are many and varied. Some have causes far beyond local control, like global warming. Some problems are local, like trash and pollution. Some come by surprise, like the sudden invasion of sargassum in 2011. Some, like droughts, come in repeated cycles.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, several recent droughts, the arrival of sargassum, an often burning landfill and variety of other concerns, we are very aware that St. Martin is delicate and vulnerable. It would seem that these issues have finally risen to a point of crisis. In fact, the fragility of St. Martin and its resources has been recognized for longer than one might think.

Auguste Descoudrelles.

Consider this passage written by Auguste Descoudrelles in 1772 and translated in the publication St. Martin’s Gazette:

This island in the condition it is now, has no more natural resources except fishing, which is excellent near our coasts…Pigeon hunting is still every important in season, but this resource will diminish as the colony grows bigger. Already because of the number of inhabitants, we have to clear the mountains and woods…The Dutch side has far less resources than we do. As for sea-fishing, their coasts are almost completely ruined as much because of the number of fisherman as by the lack of policy in their area and the fishing gear used.

Auguste Descoudrelles was the Commander of French St. Martin for much of the time between 1764 and 1785. His writing reveals an island already strained by its population. His statements about issues like habitat destruction, overfishing and a lack of nature-friendly policy could easily be made today.

Scaly-naped Pigeons have survived 400 years of hunting.

He writes that Grand Case “took the longest time to get established because the lands of this quarter were generally considered as the most exposed to the drought of all the island.” In his description of Colombier he remarks on “the lignum vitae wood which was once upon a time so common and now become so scarce.”

It is amazing to think that some of the problems facing St. Martin today were already so visible over 200 years ago. It is miraculous that an island that has suffered so long still has so much natural beauty to offer us. The pigeons and fishes and trees that have been threatened for so long have not yet disappeared. While reflecting on Descoudrelles’s warning from the past, we can be thankful that we still have a chance to help preserve St. Martin today.

What parts of St. Martin are in the greatest peril today? Tell us about them by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].


How would you describe St. Martin in a sentence? Anyone who lives here knows it is a special and unique place. It is sunny, vibrant and very Caribbean.

Yet the island is usually defined by a border. It is the island that is half French and half Dutch. This is often the first fact that people turn to when describing St. Martin. From there it is easy to continue in this direction, emphasizing the French-ness of the French side and the Dutch-ness of the Dutch side. This notion is appealing to tourists and it does start to imply the multicultural richness of the island.

But often the essence of St. Martin is ignored. In most ways, it is not much like France or the Netherlands. St. Martin has its own history, its own culture, its own plants and animals. It is not Paris with snorkeling or Amsterdam on a white sand beach. We love it because it is St. Martin, but somehow it is not as easy to describe this island’s magic without leaning on two nation trivia.

Ironically, the French themselves are better than anyone at promoting the unique essence of a place. The word terroir is used to describe the local environment where a product is produced. The word comes from the word for land, and it’s why there are so many kinds of French wine. Many kinds can only be made in tiny areas that are tightly controlled. It is a pure expression of the belief that each place is unique.

Terroir is specific to agriculture, but the broader idea can be seen all over France. Each region has its own cheeses, pastries or sausages. A town of 2,000 people is world famous for the Espelette pepper that originally came from the Caribbean. And all of these products with their unique names and stories bring more tourists to France each year than any other country in the world.

Salt was St. Martin’s original artisanal product.

Raising the profile of truly local products and culture on St. Martin would enrich the island in many ways. It would foster a sense of identity and self-worth and connect St. Martiners with their heritage. It is the essence of sustainable tourism. St. Martin is a unique terroir and it should be developed.

What are the products of St. Martin? Sadly, artisanal salt production probably can’t happen without major environmental clean-up. But we do have guavaberry rum, Beauperthuy punch and plenty of local foods. There are local fishing, farming and livestock raising traditions.

There are heritage buildings still standing featuring local designs. Local artwork and writing showcase St. Martin landscapes and language. It is not hard to imagine a St. Martin defined by what is great about St. Martin, rather than its relationship to European countries.

What fantastic things are unique to St. Martin? Tell us about them by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].