When I was a boy I used to long for the sugar industry to die. I had caught this idea from the Labour Leader Paul Southwell who said at a meeting at Warner Park in 1948 that he would like to see the sugar industry burn to the ground and a new St. Kitts emerge from its ashes.
I was at the Park and heard him myself as I sat on the grass beside my mother.
Mr. Southwell, a Dominican by birth, was one of the more widely read and educated of the Labour leaders in 1948. From the history of the Caribbean and his own observations in the various islands where he had lived and worked as a young teacher and police man,he had learned that the plantation system was what was keeping the Caribbean people in poverty.
I believed Mr. Southwell and grew up under the impression that the sugar industry was the greatest enemy of black Kittitians.
I also made my own observations. Two of my Nevisian uncles came to St. Kitts to work in the sugar industry. After many futile years the younger one escaped to Britain where he died. The elder one worked till he was old and then died in poverty.
During my boyhood the St. Kitts sugar industry was at its zenith. The planters and their close associates lived in relative luxury. Their children went to Lady Boon’s school, if they were white. If they were off-white they went to the convent school and if they were black, their privileged position would get them into the grammar school.
Canefield workers could not afford to give their children a secondary education. Indeed, many of them could not afford even an elementary education. Thus canefield workers and similar families were doomed to poverty and to a life in dirty and muddy slums all over St. Kitts. The slums in the countryside consisted mainly of thatched (trash) houses with dirt floors. In the towns they were small wooden tenements rented from insensitive and avaricious landlords.
The slum dwellers of the countryside lived close to the ghauts while those in Basseterre lived in narrow alleys. Disease was rampant, and hunger was a regular companion. Often, to ease the pain of hunger, boys and girls flocked to the cane-field during crop-time to fill their bellies with the sweet cane juice.
In the middle of the dull season we flocked to the canefields to pick up pieces of cane called bumpers. These were left overs from the process of preparing cuttings with which to plant new fields. When there was no nearly canefield being harvested, we used to steal into the fields to “break cane” and eat.
Some of us used to walk the length of the railway lines picking up pieces of sugar cane that fell from the locomotives. Some-times we were caught breaking cane and our parents had to pay the courts for this criminal act of procuring a piece of cane to slake our hunger. Sometimes the outcome was more serious. A boy would lose his leg or hand, sometimes his life, trying to pull a piece of cane from a moving locomotive.
It was interesting irony that in an island covered with sugar cane fields, some of which were so close to neighbourhoods that they were used as latrines, it was a crime for a youth to assuage his hunger with a piece of sugar cane.
As I grew up in poverty in Basseterre, Mr. Southwell’s remark echoed in my mind and I hoped that I would live to see his dream fulfilled.
I gave thanks to God that I saw the day when the sugar industry finally buckled under its own weight of debt and irrelevance.
I was really looking forward to the social and economic reconstruction St. Kitts along lines opposed to the plantation economy.
There were other people who thought about the sugar industry the way Southwell did and the way I did.
They were Wilkes, Solomon and Nathan. They had lived abroad and returned home to the stench of the dirty roads and alleys and the primitive state of the lives of the poor.
They knew that the sugar industry was to blame for this nauseating situation. Thomas Manchester felt the same way although he was a sugar estate owner. He was willing to compromise his status as a planter to lead the suffering people out of the darkness of ownerlessness. He and his cousin Edgar Challenger took up the gauntlet of leadership turning their backs on their aristocratic upbringing.
Things have gotten better on the journey from Wilkes to Douglas. Kittitians live in better houses, are healthier, and do not have to toil in the cane-fields anymore.
The ghaut side slums have been replaced. The wet, dirty alleys no longer exist. Kittitians do not any longer eat mangoes and sugarcane to satisfy our hunger. school children on holidays now attend camps and travel abroad instead of foraging the hills and the seaside rocks for fruits and periwinkles.
Some Kittitians have risen from the slums to replace the old plantation hierarchy and now wield power and authority over the majority of the masses.
For these masses the journey from the canefields has ended in disappointment. For me the disappointment has been particularly painful. The journey has not met the great expectations with which Paul Southwell inspired me when he predicted that a new St. Kitts would emerge from the ashes of the sugar industry.
I believed that Southwell was predicting that the people of St. Kitts would become like those of his native Dominica, small land holders and peasant cultivators.
I believe that this was the base of his new St. Kitts; an economy transformed from landless labourers to proud peasant cultivators, producing food and meat to feed the population. An economy which would rest on the firm foundation of local land ownership.
I am disappointed because the slums have not been cleared; they have only been modernized, and the poor people who are predestined to live in these modern slums will forever be set apart from their modern masters.
This disappoints me and I look back with longing at the dream of Paul Southwell and with pain with the thousands of your youths for whom this dream will remain unfulfilled as they prepare to settle in the modern ghettos arranged for them all around the island.