The Caribbean resort of Antigua was once devoted to cane plantations. William Dalrymple meets islanders who remember the sudden end of the sweet old days and the rise of tourism. Pictures are by Nicholas Nugent
‘It makes me sad, seeing it now,” said Mama Irene, fanning herself with her big straw hat. “I worked at Betty’s Hope for 20 years, and my mother before me. It used to be so nice: the big plantation house, the gardens and all.” She paused and mopped the sweat from her brow: “I’ve got so many memories of that place. The weddings I saw there, the fields full of cane, all neat and ready for the cuttin’.”
It was a hot, windless Sunday morning and Mama Irene – one of the last plantation workers still alive on Antigua – was sitting on her porch in her frock and curlers: “After school,” she said, “me and me sisters used to help Mom bundle the cane and put it in the trailer. Drop salt, pick up the cane, drop the manure. Leave it all nice and neat . . . Now it’s overgrown, just cassia bushes and cactus and all. Course, it isn’t just Betty’s Hope: nowadays there’s no more farming on Antigua. Now it’s just tourism: hotels and stuff.”
We were sitting on Mama Irene’s porch in the village of Pares in central Antigua, looking out over the paint-peeling shacks at the edge of the village. The Sunday service had just finished and little girls with yellow ribbons in their hair were streaming out of the church, giggling and playing hide-and-seek between the orange flamboya trees and the hoarding by the lynch gate.
“Course, the island’s changed completely,” she continued. “In those days, we didn’t have TV or radio. We didn’t even have electric light. We used to sit outside in the moonlight and tell each other stories.”
She paused and shook her head: “See over there?” she said. “See the tower of the mill at Betty’s Hope?” Mama Irene was pointing to the black basalt cone of the old windmill at the plantation. The tower rose over the low, overgrown scrub, a solitary memorial to a way of life that ended only 40 years ago, but which now seemed – at least in Mama Irene’s telling of it – like something from centuries past.
“It was the end of the plantations that changed everything,” she said. “For all that life’s got easier now, sugar-cane juice was the lifeblood of this island; it held us all together. After the last of the cane was finished, nothing could ever be the same again.” She spat forcefully on the ground to emphasise her point.
“Oh, but it do make me sad, though, seeing Betty’s Hope now. It used to be nice, so nice. No weeds, no grass, no cassia bushes. Nothing. Just neat: the cane laid out for miles. And the sound of the cuttin’: two licks fo’ each: top, bottom and leave the stalk. That was how it was. I’ll never forget it, that sound. Switch, switch, and into the trailer. That’s what life on this island was all about.”
Mama Irene was right, of course: for better or worse, it was the cane that made Antigua. As a fashion for sugar and sweetness grew in 18th-century Europe, British settlers came out to Antigua looking for land on which to build plantations. The planters then imported slaves from West Africa to do the hard work of growing the cane, driving the indigenous Caribs – who refused to work on the plantations – to eventual extinction.
Over the past 40 years, however, another foreign fashion has led to a second seismic shift in Antigua. Since the 1950s, at the same time as the Caribbean sugar trade foundered, a vogue has developed for sun, white beaches and tanned skin. As a result, Antigua’s economy is now as overwhelmingly tied to tourism as once it was to growing sugar. The result is obvious as you fly for the first time into Antigua, swooping in over the yachts bobbing in English Harbour and gliding down over the empty green centre of the island towards St John’s.
Today, the towns – and the jobs – are all on the coast. The new roads and buildings – the marinas and the hotels, the villas, the bars and the restaurants – follow the white strand of the island’s gleaming coastline as it loops and meanders its way under the hills and around the lagoons, skirting the sand and the brilliant white coral.
In the days of cane, the money lay not on the beaches but in the plantations, and the plantations lay in the rich soil of the gently undulating plains of the interior. The coast had importance only in so far as it held the island’s two ports – St John’s and Falmouth – from which the sugar was exported, and the forts that were built to protect those exports from the French and the Caribbean’s many pirates.
Neighbouring St Lucia, which was less suited to cane and, therefore, less profitable, changed hands between the English and the French 14 times during the 18th century. But no one took any chances with Antigua. The British turned it into one of the most heavily defended places on Earth, with an iron ring of 40 forts guarding every inlet and every bay.
The sudden end of the plantations and the rise of tourism has left the interior oddly still and silent; hot and humid and sparsely settled, but fascinating to explore after the bustle of parts of the coastal strip. The highways of the coastline dwindle to tracks as they head inland.
The former sugar-cane fields are overgrown and deserted. The villages are empty, but for a few old men in homburgs slapping dominoes on to gaming boards or squatting outside the rum shacks, flossing their teeth with grass stalks. Old pick-ups lie rusting in the pampas grass. Miles and miles of good arable land is left untilled, slowly returning to jungle. Here and there you see the odd banana palm or tamarind, a few goats picking at a meadow or a cow tethered to the trunk of a soursop or mango tree.
The tall black cones of the old plantation windmills stand out against the all-devouring cactus and the pepper vines. These dot the interior like gravestones to the island’s old way of life and, in many places, are now the only sign of human habitation. They are everywhere. It takes less than an hour to drive from one tip of Antigua to the other, but there still remain more than 90 towers on the island and these are just a fraction of the number there once was.
Beside the towers of the windmills is a whole complex of ruins smothered under a green lint of vines and creepers. Bromeliads sprout from the roofs of slave barracks and molasses vats; lianas tangle over boiling houses and rum distilleries. Worm-eaten roofing timbers lie rotting under the collapsing vaults of once-grand plantation houses. At first sight, the remains look Aztec or Incan; it comes as a shock to realise that these ancient-looking fragments are often no more than a century old.
Betty’s Hope, Mama Irene’s old workplace, is the best-preserved of all the plantations. The fields might be overgrown, but a remarkable conservation project has rescued several of the buildings from decay, and it is easier here at its museum than perhaps anywhere else to conjure up an image of the old sugar plantations.
The whites of old Antigua, however, are more difficult to get a fix on. Even in an age that regarded slavery as no worse than an unpleasant necessity, the Caribbean plantocracy had a bad name: as early as 1676, a visiting sea captain said the planters lived “a lewd, licentious sort of life” and drank “claret at breakfast”.
It was the same story 150 years later, with another visitor remarking that “the [white] men of this country eat like cormorants and drink like porpoises”. Doctor Johnson referred to them as “the English barbarians” and called on his friends to drink to “the next insurrection in the West Indies”.
However, the insurrection did not come until 200 years later. In 1939, Vere Bird, a semi-literate plantation worker and former Salvation Army captain, formed the island’s first trade union. Twelve years later, he led the plantation workers on a general strike against the landowners. There was no sugar harvest that year. The plantation owners began to sell up when they saw which way the wind was blowing. By 1967, Antigua had become self-governing with Bird as prime minister.
I went to see the last of the great plantation families on my final day in Antigua. Yvonne Macmillan, born Yvonne Hall, lived in a large white house on a hill outside St John’s; on the walls, above the solid mahogany furniture, hung family portraits and machetes from the family plantations.
She was a tall, upright woman, in her early fifties, with brown hair and dark eyes. She had narrow wrists and a determined expression. Large pearl earrings glinted in her lobes.
The Hall family, she said, were among the first whites to come out from England, when, in 1676, Captain John Hall inherited Betty’s Hope from his wife; now they were almost the last survivors.
“Everyone left in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Yvonne. Her accent was difficult to place: English, but with a vague hint of a lilt, possibly Scottish or Welsh, in the way she ended her sentences. “Everyone I grew up with went. Or virtually everyone. When I tell my children about the sort of life we led in those days, they simply don’t believe me.”
“You know, the social life we used to live: the balls, the clubs, the tennis parties . . . and the formality of it all. Whenever my father went out in the evening he used to put on a jacket and tie, often black tie. In those days, you had to dress up. Now it’s all gone: the whole world I was brought up in.
“People just laugh now when I tell them that we used to have to wear Panama hats at school. And that every morning we would sing God Save the King.”
She drained her glass, replaced it neatly on the coaster and looked me straight in the face: “And very good for us it was, too, I’ll tell you. It would do Antigua the power of good if some of these customs were reintroduced. It would, you know. A little bit of formality,” she said, “never hurt anyone.”
Text extracted from an article by William Dalrymple in the Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2000. Pictures of Betty’s Hope plantation and Gunthorpes sugar refinery in 2016 are by Nicholas Nugent.
More about Betty’s Hope’s history can be found on the Antigua and Barbuda Museum website:http://antiguahistory.net/Museum/bettyshopelife.htm http://antiguahistory.net/Museum/bettyshoperesearch.htm