Nevis sugar mills

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Thu 27 Jan 2011 15:01
Pinneys Beach, Wednesday night

We're back on Saxon Blue now after an exciting day exploring the ruins of the Nevis sugar industry. It was just as well that it was an interesting day as I started off feeling pretty down but, before we get on to today, we had Burns Night at the Hermitage Inn.

Unlike the rest of the time we were at the Inn, it was absolutely packed last night. I think they were fully booked for dinner and then a bunch of other people turned up wanting to eat as well. It was a bit chaotic, in truth. We were sitting in the lounge with our pre-dinner drinks wondering when we were actually going to get to eat when another couple who were staying at the Inn asked to join us. They sat down with us and we started chatting about our trip and the boat which they'd actually seen already when they were on the beach. We were having a good time but still no sign of dinner. The number of people in the lounge seemed to be reducing so we headed through to the dining area where some people were already sitting down and tucking into their soup. Hmmm...

The waitress told us that there was one table for two available on the terrace and another in the bar which was decidedly second best so we suggested to our new friends that we pull up another two chairs and make a foursome. That created a bit of fuss for the staff but we just carried on and it turned out well as we had a great night chatting. The food was good, too, even the haggis and especially the beef. We had to endure a bit of Scottish nonsense with one chap reading out an address to the haggis and another making a toast in genuine Caribbean Scottish accent but it wasn't as bad as I'd feared and everyone was in good spirits especially after the hotel owner distributed a load of free whiskey. We spotted one guy who looked like an ageing rockstar from Central Casting and Kali told us today that there was a rumour that Roger Daltry of The Who was in attendance so there you are, we were in the presence of Rock Royalty (Andrea may disagree).

When I woke up this morning, though, I felt very unsettled again. We'd made a good plan of our itinerary but I couldn't get excited about it. I think I'm finding it difficult now that we don't have a very clear goal for our voyage. We're physically close now to Antigua where we want to leave Saxon Blue so it feels a bit like we're just hanging around waiting to go home. Just pottering from one (albeit lovely) island to the next isn't going to keep me interested for the next few months and I was feeling pretty miserable at the prospect. Luckily, Andrea is still keen on her film-making and wanted to get some shots of a ruined sugar mill so we decided to get going and do that. We told the woman in the Inn reception what we wanted and she phoned someone she knew to come and give us a tour.

We checkout out and then waited a short while before a woman turned up in a slightly battered Toyota 4x4 and introduced herself as Della. She clearly had a feisty attitude and listened when we explained what we wanted to do before we all set off up the rough roads around the central volcano. It wasn't long before we were all deep in conversation about the history of the sugar industry, why it died out and what evidence was left. Then we arrived at an abandoned hotel built on the site of a sugar plant. Among the shuttered buildings was the remains of a steam-driven sugar cane press and all the associated works. Andrea got her costume on and we did some good filming while I got to have a good look around.

The buildings were intact enough to follow the whole process through. The raw cane was crushed between rollers powered by a single-cylinder steam engine made in Glasgow in the 1860s. The furnace which heated the boiler also warmed the sugar boiling pans so that a succession of them allowed the juice to be gradually refined until Lime juice was added in the last one and the sugar itself drawn off. The whole plant only needed one fire to operate with the heat and then the steam being piped around to where it was needed before being discharged up a stone-built chimney.

We still wanted to see a ruined wind-powered crushing plant, though, so we set off again with Della to the New River Plantation, near the Atlantic coast. Looking down on the sea, we could see the swells running onto the beaches in great foaming breakers - totally different from the leeward side where Saxon Blue is moored. We drove into the ruins of another sugar plant and Andrea spotted the distinctive shape of the sone windmill base lower down towards the sea. Della didn't want to drive down the rutted track (she should have bought a Land Rover) and Andrea took a bit of persuading to walk down there but we were so glad that we did. The ruins were perfect for Andrea's filming.

This ruined plant, called the Coconut Grove, I think, had been used before the steam-driven ones so its crusher was powered by the wind. The stone-built tower of the mill stood with its fine silhouette against the brilliant light of the Atlantic. Like most of the Colonial era buildings on Nevis, it's constructed from rough-hewn blocks of black volcanic rock held together with mortar made from crushed coral and limestone. The buildings would last pretty well forever if it weren't for stone-robbers taking the blocks and selling them to developers for use in new construction. The image was perfect for Andrea so we spent a good while filming there, standing among the low shrubs which had invaded the building complex.

Once she'd finished, I went for a look around. The mill base is beautifully made with a perfect circular top framing the brilliant blue sky with the ocean clouds scudding across. Just inside the lip, a swarm of bees had built their own sugar factory so high up that they hadn't bothered to hide the combs which hung from the stonework like the folds of a heavy skirt. An army of lazy workers were hanging around outside their city waiting for the midday heat to subside. On the North side of the mill there was an arched entrance about 12 feet tall but only 2 wide. On the West and South sides, wider arches gave easier access to the space within. There was no machinery left inside but it must have looked very similar to the steam-driven rollers that we'd seen earlier. As we walked away from the mill, I looked back at it with the sea behind and was instantly struck by the similarities between this industrial plant and the whaling station that we'd seen in Isafjordur in Iceland last summer.

Both the factories had been used to extract the valuable commodities contained in bulky, awkward raw materials. They were the distant works, breaking down the tough fibres of their raw material and boiling out the hidden juice so that it could more easily be shipped back to the economic centre. In both cases - whale oil and refined sugar - the commodities were for the benefit primarily of the rich. No poor man lit his evening with a whale-oil candle - for him the spluttering stink of tallow would suffice. Nor could he have afforded to sweeten his meal or drink with concentrated Caribbean sun. Only much later was sugar produced on such a scale that the product was cheap enough for mass consumption and that was the moment that the Caribbean sugar industry collapsed as these tiny islands, so far from Europe, were unable to compete with the new sources of sweetness and dental decay.

Both industries applied industrial methods and, more importantly, vast amounts of capital investment to the problem of providing luxury goods at high margins. Without the profit on such industrial investment, there would have been no wealthy customers able to afford the output from these distant factories. Without the taxes they were willing to pay, the building and defence of the British Empire wouldn't have been affordable. An economic merry-go-round spun faster and faster once the Puritan Revolution in England had enshrined the legal sanctity of private property until the disaster of the First World War destroyed the economic foundation of Imperialism. For those two and a half Centuries, wealth was created around the world and shipped back to Britain, only to be reinvested worldwide once again.

Clearly, by this time the heat was getting to us. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, after all.. We stopped briefly to look at the steam-powered processing plant we'd seen earlier. It was almost complete and I could follow the path of the sugar from crusher, through the sequence of heated boiling pots, some of them still brilliant green from the copper. By now, it was getting on 2pm so we headed up to another Plantation Inn called Golden Rock for lunch. This Inn was much grander and less charming than our Hermitage although the lunch was excellent. We sat in the shade of a collonade and Della regailed us with stories of Caribbean history and politics. Her knowledge was encylopaedic and her forthright opinions kept us very entertained. Like me, she thinks the breakup of the West Indies into all these tiny Nations is crazy and driven only by ambition as politician wants to be Prime Minister of his own tiny rock.

After lunch, we headed back towards Charlestown via the complete but overgrown Hamilton plantation on the hills above. One of the Hamilton sons became the first Secretary of the Treasury in the USA and has his portrait on their 10 dollar bill. Della says they're trying to get him removed now as they've found out that he was a quarter black, being born to a half-black slave woman working for the family. I don't know it it's true but it's a great story.

Della dropped us off back at the ferry dock so we got hold of Kali on the VHF and she soon zoomed around the corner to pick us up. She's had ample to time to accumulate a whole bunch of new friends so she's currently over on a tiny boat owned by two young Norwegians who've sailed it across the Atlantic with a little knowledge and a great deal of courage. They want to sail back home via the Arctic so Kali's helping correct their knowledge deficit although, hopefully, without dampening their enthusiasm. We've been unpacking all our going ashore gear and having a lovely veggie curry for dinner. Andrea is now downloading all her footage from the day so she has room on her SD cards for more filming tomorrow.

So that's it for another day. Thank goodness for Andrea's filming project. Once again, it's got us out to places that we'd not have bothered to see otherwise. As Della said, "no need to read a book, the past is written there in the rocks." Seeing a place is so much more powerful than just reading about it and that's what we're doing here. Seeing stuff and thinking about it and trying to make some sense of it all. That's given me some enthusiasm back.


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