Here’s what the Virginia Band of Goat Eaters, Rum Guzzlers and Low-Adrenaline Adventure Seekers learned from a week-long excursion to the Lesser Antilles: Cruise ships use their market dominance in small islands to extract lucrative terms – 30% to 70% of revenue from what we heard – from their local tour operators. Fortunately, the Internet has changed the economics of the business by allowing passengers and tour guides to cut out the middleman. And that’s exactly what we did, thanks to the pre-vacation exertions of our traveling companion Steve Nash, whom some readers may recall from his book, “Virginia Climate Fever.”
Steve patched together a string of top-rate tour guides to explore the theme of America’s role in the Caribbean, sometimes known as the “American lake.” Instead of joining least-common-denominator tours organized by cruise ships, we went on excursions adapted to the quirky interests of our six-person group. We enjoyed the guides’ full attention, we bombarded them with questions, and we engaged in memorable conversations about history, culture and current events.
The tours were no more expensive than what we would have paid through our cruise ship, but they were far more enjoyable, and the tour operator got 100% of the revenue. In such a manner did we Virginians deploy our vacation dollars to combat the cartel-like exploitation of poor, developing Caribbean nations by the cartel of European-owned cruise lines! (Nice twist, huh? Jim Bacon – capitalist social justice warrior!)
Herewith is a small portion of what we learned.
The harshest slave owners. We started our tour in Puerto Rico, which I have already blogged about, and then stopped in St. Croix. One of the three main islands of the American Virgin Islands, St. Croix was settled originally by the Danes. The U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark during World War I for military purposes, and the islands remain a U.S. possession to this day.
The Danes used slave labor to work their sugar plantations, and were reputed to be among the harshest of slave owners. Although Denmark can boast that their nation freed its slaves in 1848, years before the Americans did, the Scandinavians did not exactly cover themselves with glory. Governor Peter von Scholten issued a proclamation freeing slaves on the three islands, but in so doing he defied the wishes of the Danish king. Furthermore, the act was hardly magnanimous. Slaves in St. Croix were in open revolt at the time. When excitement over the end of slavery settled down, the plantation owners struck back, enacting strict labor laws to maintain control over their workforce. But the now-free slaves would have none of it, and erupted in labor riots. Eventually, the Danes abandoned their plantations, and the colony’s economy went into decline. The U.S. bought the islands in 1917 for $25 million.
First stop for the Godspeed. We found little of interest from an American history perspective on St. Maartin, a prosperous Dutch island (shared with the French). But in Dominica we had the good fortune to engage Lennox Honychurch, arguably the most knowledgeable tour guide in the Caribbean. Honychurch authored the only comprehensive history of Dominica, served in the island nation’s legislature, and worked as press secretary for Prime Minister Eugenia Charles, an ally of the U.S. during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Among his many accomplishments, he spearheaded the decades-long restoration of Fort Cabrits, an 18th century-era fortification protecting the island city of Portsmouth.
Inside the main building there resides a plaque presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia as part of a 1985 reenactment of the voyage of the Godspeed from England to Jamestown. Following currents and trade winds, the English settlers bound for Virginia sailed south to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, then crossed the Atlantic with favorable winds in the tropical latitudes. Their first landfall in the New World was Dominica where, according to Captain John Smith’s account, “we traded with the Savages.” Only then did they follow the Gulf Stream north to Virginia.
George Washington slept here, or how Barbados saved the American Revolution. In Barbados, the locals have preserved a handsome colonial-era house where George Washington lived for about two months with his older half-brother Lawrence, who had traveled to the tropics in the hope of recuperating from tuberculosis. In the mid-1700s, Barbados was the jewel of the English empire; its sugar plantations were the greatest wealth generators of the era. The plantation aristocracy there was far more cosmopolitan than the provincial tobacco farmers of Virginia. In the Barbadian interpretation of history, the impressionable, 19-year-old Washington widened his horizons in the company of his worldly hosts.
Among his less enjoyable experiences on the island, Washington contracted small pox. But the Barbadians spin this incident, only partially in jest, as a history-changing event. When small pox ravaged the colonial army during the American Revolution, Washington was immune to its ravages. Had he not been exposed to the disease in Barbados, he surely would have died or been incapacitated at the most inopportune time possible!
Keeping the world safe for democracy. In 1983, the island of Grenada fell under the rule despotic rule of a Marxist-Leninist regime aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union. When one faction liquidated the leadership of another faction, bringing about a violent change of power, the leaders of Barbados and Dominica appealed to the Reagan administration to intervene. The cold war was raging at full force at the time. Leftist Sandinistas had seized control of Nicaragua, and 36,000 Cuban troops were supporting a communist regime in Angola against a guerilla insurgency. The Cubans were building an airfield that would forge a transportation link to Africa, the Soviets were flooding the island with armaments, and the Grenadian regime was building the most militarized society (other than Cuba) in the Caribbean. President Reagan saw an opportunity to halt the expansion of communism in the Caribbean Basin, and he acted decisively. (Protecting the students at the St. George’s University medical school was a pretext for the invasion, not the real reason.)
The resulting conflict was a fiasco, plagued by abominable military intelligence, inadequate time for planning, and poor communications between army, navy and special forces. The Grenadians and Cuban airport construction workers put up tougher-than-expected resistance, and some two dozen Americans died during the conflict.
The Low-Adrenaline Adventurers visited the memorial to fallen American soldiers located at the airport, where the heaviest fighting occurred, and paid our respects. The U.S. soldiers’ sacrifice was not in vain. Grenada represented the high-water mark of communist influence in the western hemisphere, and Reagan demonstrated that the U.S. was serious about confronting the expansion of Soviet power across the world. The rest is history.