by Mary Jo
“Caribbean!” Just the name evokes heat and mystery and beauty and treasure. There’s a reason why the Disney movie trilogy wasn’t Pirates of Long Island Sound!
Having recently spent a lovely week there, I thought it would be fun to riff on the islands so those who are snow and ice bound can dream a little.
I love the beauty and variety of the Caribbean islands. There are thousands of islands, some very sizeable like Cuba, Santa Domingo, and Puerto Rico, others not much more than jagged shipping hazards. Some belong to adjacent mainland countries, some are independent, but many are overseas territories of European countries.
Caribbean islands come in two flavors: flat and sandy, or rugged, volcanic, and dramatic. The Virgin Islands are of the jagged volcanic variety, and they're fabulously scenic.
Looking from a beach on Virgin Gorda ("Fat Virgin"), one can see half a dozen islands scattered around a watery channel that was once called “Freebooters Gangway.” Later it was later renamed “Sir Francis Drake Channel” because Drake sailed through with some regularity in his career as sea captain, explorer, privateer, and even, sometimes, an unblushing pirate.
We often head to the islands in midwinter to get recharged with sunshine and warmth. In recent years, we keep going back to the British Virgin Islands because they are amazingly peaceful and beautiful. The American Virgins are equally beautiful, but much busier because until recently, Americans could vacation there without a passport.
When I sent a friend a picture of the place on Virgin Gorda where we stayed two weeks ago, she asked in amazement, “Is the water really that color?”
Yes. It really is turquoise and indigo and other amazing shades. I never tire of
watching the sea there. The Mayhem Consultant and I have a code phrase for Caribbean vacations: “Rum drinks with fruit on sticks!”
Tourism is the big industry in the area now, and they do it very, very well. But delightful as it is to walk a sandy beach with the waves splashing over your feet, it’s also fun to look at the history.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the islands now known as the Virgins. He called the Caribbean islands in general the West Indies because he thought he’d reached India. Ooops. <G> At the time, the Carib Indians were the main inhabitants, and the sea takes its name from them.
The Virgin Islands were named after St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin handmaidens, all of whom were slain by pagans. If you look at the BVI flag, you’ll see a maiden with 11 lamps, each standing for a thousand virgins. (Hard to get all 11,000 on one flag. Though I did find an account of St. Ursula that said maybe she’d had only a single handmaiden, and the number was inflated. <G>)
In the age of sail, explorers were always landing places and making claims. For a mainland American example, the state of Delaware was first settled by the Dutch. A few years after they were killed off, the Swedes moved in and established a colony called, rather unimaginatively, New Sweden. 17 years later the Dutch returned and took over, creating New Netherland.
A few years after that, the English defeated the Dutch, and it wasn’t long before the territory was being squabbled over by the Duke of York, William Penn of Pennsylvania, and Cecil Calvert, the proprietor of Maryland. No wonder colonial history is so confusing!
The Spanish, French, Dutch, English and Danes were always stomping around the Caribbean laying claim to various bits of real estate. The large islands of the Greater Antilles are nation size. In fact, Santo Domingo contains two sovereign nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The small islands were good strategically for pirates and traders and fortresses. (But a deadly military post because of the high death rate from diseases.)
Many went through multiple ownership. English, French, Spanish, and Dutch are spoken in different islands, along with different creole languages.
Though Spain got a good head start ("the Spanish Main"), I believe that the British ended up with the largest number of islands, most of them considered overseas territories of the United Kingdom.
But there are also the French and Dutch Antilles. The Danish West Indies ended in 1917 when they sold their islands to the US for $25 million dollars. A bargain at the price since those islands are now the American Virgin Islands. The principal town is named Charlotte Amalie after a seventeen century Danish queen.
The Virgins were discovered by an Italian, Columbus, who sailed for Spain. (The picture to the left shows the ruins of a 19th century copper mine on Virgin Gorda.)
The first European settlers were the Dutch. They didn't manage to hang onto the Virgins, but they were great sailors and retained their share of islands. They found the Caribbean a convenient midpoint between the Dutch colonies of Surinam and New Amsterdam (modern New York City.) They also ruled what is now Indonesia. They were seriously good at the colonial game!
The Netherlands Antilles include the island of Sint Maarten/ Saint-Martin. And it’s shared with the French. The Spanish got to the island first, but later both France and Holland claimed the island. It’s said (this may be folklore) that territory was divided by choosing a Frenchman and Dutchman to start walking from the same place in opposite directions. Where they met on the other side became the opposite end of the dividing line between the territories.
Perhaps the Frenchman had longer legs which is why the French section is larger. At the time, the French said the Dutchman walked more slowly since he refreshed himself with fierce gin rather than civilized wine, like the Frenchman. The Dutch said the Frenchman cheated by running part of the way. International diplomacy is often not polite. <G>
Sint Maaren/St. Martin is the smallest island in the world to belong to two different nations. We stayed there once. It’s one of the flat sandy islands, with great beaches. It was fun to move Dutch to French and back again.
The Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands aren’t technically in the Caribbean since they’re further north (and not quite so reliably warm in winter), but they have plenty of beautiful beaches and frozen rum drinks. The very small T&C island of Salt Cay was once the world’s largest supplier of salt, which was produced with evaporation ponds. We’ve stayed there, too. <g> The donkeys were citizens of Salt Cay.
I was fascinated to learn that singer Jimmy Buffet of “Margaritaville” was the grandson of one of the salt ship captains, a man also named James Buffet. So when Buffet did an album called “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” he was entitled.
So many islands! So many tales! So many frozen fruity rum drinks! Have you visited a Caribbean island? Would you like to? If so, which one? Share the sunshine!