Saint Lucia’s search for a national identity

Juliet Highet

In Focus Saint Lucia

Once a British colony where the local Patwa was frowned upon as a backward tongue, today Creolisation has restored dignity to the Saint Lucian language spoken by rural islanders, as well as bringing a renewed interest in local folk music

Soufriere Local Man Saint Lucia

The name of the large square in central Castries, capital of Saint Lucia, used to be Columbus Square; now it’s Derek Walcott Square, honouring the island’s Nobel Laureate for Literature. The cricket ground, Victoria Park, has been renamed Mindoo Philip after a legendary local cricketer. Since independence in 1979, a movement to redefine Saint Lucian identity has accelerated in significance, symbolised by the recognition of local heroes and crystallised by Creolisation, specifically honouring traditional as well as contemporary cultural expression – that of its 90 per cent African or African-mixed population.

This, of course, is the legacy of slavery. Another fraught inheritance, indentured labour, is represented by the descendants of workers brought to the island after 1858. They are a small minority, less than ten per cent, of East Indian ancestry, who tend to live in rural settlements, but who have contributed the delicious heritage of their cuisine to island life. A few, a very few, members of the old plantocracy linger on, and recently arrived traders of Middle Eastern origin thrive in Castries.

The iconic image painted by the tourist authority – on which trade the island’s economy now largely depends – is to imagine yourself driving on the British side of the road to an Indian restaurant in a French town, greeted all along the way in Creole patois. Indigenous Caribs kick-started the cultural blend, fiercely resisting British and French colonists for 50 years, but today only very few families claim Carib ancestry. During the 18th century the island changed hands back and forth from French to British rule 14 times, and was finally ceded to Britain in 1814.

The British contributed their language, educational system, and legal and political structures to the complex cultural mosaic. French influence is more persuasive in the arts, visual and performance, and the French language is a distinctive strand of Creole patois.

When Africans were first brought to Saint Lucia in the mid-17th century, the preservation of their culture was an essential mental resistance during the dark centuries of slavery and, somehow, some traditional aspects have survived, despite repression by the ruling forces. These are of fundamental importance to the island’s identity today.

Emerging from the weight of the colonial legacy has not been easy and in recent years the yearning for identity has intensified, focusing particularly on a resurgence of traditional or folk culture. Because culture is inevitably conflated in the Caribbean with colour and class, this process has painful implications. Race relations reflect an on-going black–white tension, though it is arguably less acute than in former times since, with urbanisation, ‘the city’ has succeeded ‘the plantation’ as the main generator of contemporary Caribbean culture.

Saint Lucians love to party and there are many opportunities to do so on a grand scale with a year-long carousel of festivals, involving spectacular displays of costume and mask, joyful music, sumptuous feasts and other aspects of popular culture. Such celebrations are also a fertile source of inspiration for contemporary visual art. With a predominantly Catholic population, sacred and secular used to meet at pre-Lenten Carnival. Recently it has shifted to July, with tourists in mind, and has become a purely secular event, taking over the island with an enormous street festival. Competing calypso bands throw an ongoing Mardi Gras-style party, with parades of extravagantly dressed dancers, and specific Carnival culinary delicacies such as soca pastries.

Creole Day or Jounen Kweyo is a much more Saint Lucian-specific festival, celebrating traditional music, dance, storytelling, costuming, crafts, Creole cuisine and the Kwéyo language. Kwéyo, or Patwa, is a mixture of African languages and French spoken primarily in rural areas. Most Saint Lucians, especially young ones, are bilingual, since English is the language used in education, business and government. Use of the two languages indicates socio-economic differences, since Kwéyo was viewed as ‘backward’ until the recently emergent Creolisation movement nurtured and restored dignity to the language, as well as respect for indigenous traditional music, competing with Caribbean-wide genres like reggae and soca.

Creole-style cuisine is celebrated, too, in various towns selected to host the festival, pushing the boat out with salt and kingfish, manicou (opossum), breadfruit, plantains, Johnny Cake and bouyon (fish, chicken or pork stewed with dasheen, yams and dumplings). Copious quantities of rum are swallowed, along with lime and guava drinks. Callalou soup, made from a leafy green vegetable, is now the national dish, though food habits still echo the impoverished plantation past, with the typical everyday diet heavy on starches, capsicum or pepper sauce spicing up the protein which reflects its historical scarcity – think pig tail and chicken back.

Creole Day is the opportunity for women to bring out what has become Saint Lucia’s national dress, known as the Madras, a plaid-patterned cotton still imported from India. It’s fashionable on other occasions too, such as the flower festivals of La Woz (‘The Rose’) and La Magwit (‘The Marguerite’) celebrated in many villages for patron saints, and organised by two rival historic cultural associations, whose members comprise most of the country’s population.

On the plantations African women had to wear the uniform or ‘livre’ of the estate, but on Sundays and at Christmas they could dress as they pleased, and bought clothes from the sale of produce from their small garden plots. Their bright, colourful skirts, as compared with the dreary tones of their uniform, became known as Creole dress.

By the end of the 18th century, the muchoir madras had replaced white headscarves, which are tied in more or less provocative ‘peaks’ of availability. One peak means –
‘I am single’, two – ‘I am married’, three – ‘I am widowed or divorced’, and four –
‘I accept everyone who tries’. To add a further frisson, a custom evolved of lifting the skirt and flinging it nonchalantly over one arm, revealing a lace-trimmed petticoat.

For two weeks in April, Saint Lucia swings with its Jazz and Arts Festival, showcasing local musicians and international stars. The main venue is scenic Pigeon Island, an appropriate lure for visitors, but performances are also held around the island to involve local people. Contemporary performance art has flourished during the last few decades with an explosion of popular music recorded by local groups and broadcast on the radio. Theatre productions are staged across the island, not just in Castries, many of them inspired by the Creolisation movement. Although other Saint Lucian writers are less well-known than Derek Walcott, interest in literature and its production as drama is significant.

Visual art has received less attention than literature or performance, yet some remarkable art has and is being created. Local figure Dunstan St Omer has made a name for himself with his public murals, some of which illuminate churches. He also designed the country’s national flag.

In the last decade or so degradation of the environment has become a major concern in the Caribbean, with its unique and very fragile ecology. The Saint Lucian painter and printmaker Llewellyn Xavier has dedicated much of his work to the environment. Gaining early exposure and accolades on the London art scene, he has returned to Saint Lucia and has created a series of collages. Each collage is endorsed with stamps and signatures from environmental activists like his compatriot Derek Walcott and environmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund. Xavier’s collages are made entirely from recycled materials, such as handmade paper and 19th-century zoological prints.

So the ongoing exploration of Saint Lucian identity becomes bang up to date and global, while profoundly conscious of its past.

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


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