OLD ROAD TOWN, St. Kitts — Christopher Columbus came here in 1493 on his second voyage because he was looking for gold. Queen Elizabeth II arrived in late 1985 to dedicate Brimstone Hill National Park, the island's main sightseeing attraction.
And we came here a few months later to see the wild monkeys we'd heard about in St. Thomas.
Only the queen achieved her goal.
"The monkeys, they smart," John Abbott, the cab driver, told us. "See the scarecrows in the field there? The farmer have to keep movin' them to keep the monkeys away from his sweet potato crop. The monkey, he see the same scarecrow standing still in one place too long, he just knock him down and help himself to the sweet potatoes."
In the last couple of years we've exchanged the tour buses and professional guides in favor of caroming around Caribbean islands with loquacious cab drivers.
A Bonus in Legends
What they lack in facts they more than make up for in lore and legends. That's how we heard about the wild vervet monkeys in the first place, from a St. Kittsian who has been driving a St. Thomas cab for 21 years.
He confided that his only problem getting along with the Virgin Islanders was that they used to make fun of him "because the people on St. Kitts, they eat monkey." Properly prepared, he maintained, monkey meat tastes fine.
Then he told us a poignant story about a father and son hunting monkeys in the interior jungle. The son fired his rifle into a clump of trees when he heard the call of monkeys and killed his father, who had hidden there to lure them by imitating the cry.
But on St. Kitts, Big John (that's what he was called everywhere we stopped on the island) seemed more interested in showing us as much as possible on our four-hour, fixed-price ($40) tour, especially after he pointed out that we would have had to pay $35 just to get to Brimstone Hill and back. He wanted us to get our money's worth.
The No. 2 Industry
The government sets all taxi fares for both St. Kitts and nearby Nevis, which together became a new Caribbean nation in 1983. Although it's still being discovered, tourism is the No. 2 industry after sugar cane, and, from the look of things, there are more cab drivers than sugar farmers here.
The radio station was playing a catchy calypso tune when we stopped at a small roadside stand for a cold Carib beer and a Coke for John (both are bottled here on the island). The lyrics seem to describe a running dialogue between tourists and islanders:
What kind of car you drive?
What kind of house you live in?
You ask me all these t'ings,
I must be in fashion.
Big John lives here in Old Road Town, where Columbus first came ashore and where, in 1623, Sir Thomas Warner and a few other British citizens settled to establish a tobacco colony.
A Battle for Dominance
The French arrived not long after that, and the two nations spent most of the 17th and 18th centuries battling each other, except for one notable occasion when they joined forces to massacre 2,000 Carib Indians at Bloody Point, about halfway between the capital of Basseterre and Old Road Town.
"The blood ran for three days," Big John says, "and not one escaped. A woman named Barbara betrayed them."
He is decidedly pro-British, perhaps because he served in the British army, was stationed in Birmingham, and gleefully points out that the British controlled the part of the island where four of the five natural springs were, giving them virtually all the water.
The French, perhaps to console themselves, brought in vervet monkeys from Africa as household pets, and set the creatures loose into the forested interior after the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 awarded the island to the British.
(The British had left their own unwanted animal legacy on St. Kitts when they introduced the mongoose from India in an effort to get rid of rats in the sugar cane. The problem there, according to John is, "They both work on different shifts," the rats chewing away while the mongoose sleeps.)
The history of St. Kitts--its proper name is St. Christopher, but nobody ever calls it that--is a bit muddled between the British and French, both of whom established their first Caribbean colonies here.
A Friendly Beginning
In the beginning, everyone got along very well. The British took their half of the island out of the middle, while the French seemed content with both extremities, even without water.
The British started building the black lava fortress on Brimstone Hill in 1689 and completed it, with some sporadic French assistance, about 100 years later.
In 1782 Adm. De Grasse and 6,000 French besieged this "Gibraltar of the West Indies" against fewer than 1,000 British troops, seizing it after a month. But then De Grasse lost a battle at sea to Britain's Rodney, and the French not only had to give up the citadel but the entire island.