Clellie Lynch: Plants that changed the world - of St. Croix

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — By mid morning in January near Frederiksted, St. Croix, the brilliant warm sun is already high in the sky glittering off the turquoise waters. Certainly at this latitude Ole' Mr. Sol deigns to climb much higher over the Caribbean than here in the frozen north where, on the sunniest of winter days, its rays slice over the snow sending blinding light into a driver's eye and beam only a little warmth our way.

No matter where one looks on this isle, the surrounding landscape is a swathe of gaudy greens sprinkled with flashy flowers, red and pink, white and gold. This wonderful climate attracted settlers from the time when people discovered how to carve a boat from a tall straight tree.

The original indigenous people of St. Croix, the Ciboney, left little behind save a few arrowheads, before being overtaken by first the Arawaks and then the Caribs from the river villages of South America. Both groups were expert fishermen, but they discovered that it was quite easy to grow crops too — maize, beans, squash, yams — enabling them to dwell and thrive in the garden paradise of St, Croix and other Caribbean islands.

Fast forward to the age of exploration and colonization by England, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain etc. Some explorers sought only riches — shiny precious metals — but the naturalists on board these ships recognized the lush lands as giant natural greenhouses. The merchants traveling with them saw gold and silver in among the rich tangle of leaves and the wide open plains.

SEEDS OF EXPLOITATION

At this time throughout Europe, sugar was king. Everyone craved sugar — sugar in coffee, in tea; sugar sprinkled over food, baked in bread; sugar alone in hard and soft confections. Grass-like sugar cane was not a crop that could be grown in the European climate. It was cultivated and processed in India and China and then transported to the western world.

Columbus and his roving pals picked up cuttings and slips of sugar cane from the Canary Islands and sailed across to the Caribbean, landing in St. Croix. Not only did explorers like Columbus bring plants, but disease came along for the voyage and jumped ship which wiped out many of the natives. The seeds of Caribbean exploitation were firmly planted.

Sugar cane is a tall grass with a thick stem which carries the sweet juice or sap that when processed becomes sugar or molasses. The canes are cut, mashed and boiled down to a point where, when cooled, the end result is dividable into crystals for granular sugar and sludge for molasses and rum. (Note: I can't image what the "factories" were like. When a friend made cotton candy, she spent a week scrubbing the sticky residue off counters, walls and any nearby equipment in her kitchen.) All of these sugar products are extremely transportable ready to be poured into hogshead barrels, easy to roll onto ships and stow below deck.

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The Danes purchased the Virgin Islands from the English (as if they actually owned them!) in 1733 and then created the Dutch West India and Guinea Company for organizing the sugar industry. The fields of sugar cane all ripened at the same time and needed to be harvested and refined immediately. Large sugar mills and factories were not feasible for processing so much at once. To accommodate thousands of acres of cane, the Danes allocated 150 acres per plantation in the central region of St. Croix, each with its own processing factory that ran during the season 24/7 to enable maximum sugar production. This was an enormous enterprise for any plantation owner who now needed an obedient staff of very strong workers to make it all possible.

The indigenous population, weakened by disease, were not able to do this heavy lifting. But slaves were already being ripped from their homes and brought over from Africa to labor in the fields across the Americas. The Caribbean became the third port in the Trade Triangle: England sending ships laden with clothes, guns, furniture etc. to Africa, then after selling off their goods, loading slaves into the hull for passage to the Caribbean, selling these people to the plantation owners and then re-loading with sugar, cotton and other crops to sell back home. A three-way profit, a win-win-win, for these seafaring profiteers. We in New England had our own "goods-slaves-sugar/cotton" triangle.

So as sugar cane grew, was harvested and processed, the plantation owners thrived and raked in the money while slaves toiled and toiled and occasionally organized and rebelled. In the 18th century, for every two tons of sugar processed, a slave died. After a slave in St. Croix named Buddhoe organized resistance, the Danish governor freed all the slaves in 1833. This though did not stop the exploitation. Many stayed on to work for a pittance, living in the same dire conditions and working long days.

INDUSTRY COLLAPSED

With the European cultivation of the sugar beet as a replacement for cane and with the invention of better farming and processing equipment for it, the sugar industry collapsed. St. Croix cobbled along during the first half of the 20th century as a minor agricultural economy with many cane fields being replanted with cotton. By mid-century the economy improved with the beginning of the now thriving tourist industry.

Today in St. Croix you may study a map and see the gridded outlines of the old plantations. Some with intriguing names such as Mary's Fancy, Fig Tree Hill, Betty's Hope and Upper Love, have become townships or neighborhoods. There are even areas called Whim, Slob, Jealousy and Profits. I can't imagine saying, "Well, I'm from Jealousy or Slob." Each of these names must have an interesting backstory.

Driving across the island, we can see many topless stone windmills once used for grinding the sugar cane together with the stone chimneys of the small processing factories nearby. Some have creatively been made into homes or have been incorporated into the design of the house. Others are quite picturesque: these stone relics are overgrown with waves of vines and sprouts of weeds growing between the worn stones. Occasionally you may see remnant patches of spiky sugar cane.

Other countries around the world have been changed by crops whether it is cotton, tea, potatoes, wheat, quinine, rubber. For St. Croix, the sweeping fields of swaying sugar cane forever altered the Crucian way of life.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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