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By Nicholas Laughlin
published in Caribbean Beat, November/December
The sky was flushed sunset-pink as we
cruised down the hotel strip. Here, at the northern tip of San
Andrés, gleaming multi-storey hotels alternated with modest
houses, and on the other side of the avenue the sea glistened in the
evening light. I was wedged between two Jamaican friends in the back
seat of our host’s SUV. On our left, the whine of sirens and a flash of
blue. A police car sped past and disappeared into the traffic ahead.
Our driver, Remo, looked back, a wicked grin on his face.
“El Babylon!” he announced.
We were heading south along the coast of the island, past the Cliff,
the steep escarpment that marks the approximate end of the urban
district, and up to the Hill, the highest point on San Andrés,
along the central ridge. It was not a long drive — the island is 11
kilometres from end to end — and soon we were climbing the ridge.
Almost at once, there was a change in the landscape. Downtown San
Andrés and its closest suburbs feel very Latin American. Up here
on the Hill, where gabled wooden houses nestled among mango and
breadfruit trees, and where the people looking out from their verandahs
were decidedly darker-skinned, I felt I could have been in a small
village in Tobago, or St Lucia, or the Jamaican countryside.
We slowed at an intersection, while the pickup truck in front stopped
to give a pedestrian a lift.
“Hop in!” Remo shouted encouragingly. Or, more accurately: “Hap een!”
My friend Annie said with a wondering smile, “He sounds so Jamaican.”
Someone had painted a slogan on the wall of the small shop on the
corner. “Jah rule the business.”
San Andrés is a geographical and cultural puzzle. It is also one
of the least known corners of the Caribbean, an absence on the region’s
mental map. The island is the central anchor of a tiny archipelago —
tiny even by Antillean standards — 220 kilometres off the Mosquito
Coast of Nicaragua. Further north is Providence Island, and around them
are scattered a handful of coral cays inhabited only by
lighthouse-keepers and occasional fishermen. These little dots of land
together make up the Departamento del Archipiélago de San
Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina of the Republic of Colombia
— a status disputed by Nicaragua, but also by many San Andrés
locals, who cherish their fragile links to the anglophone Caribbean and
resent what they consider the dominance of a distant occupying power
(mainland Colombia is nearly 500 kilometres away).
In 1630 a shipload of English Puritans landed on Providence and set
about establishing what they hoped would be a religious utopia. (Ten
years earlier a batch of their brethren attempted a less tropical
version of this plan in Plymouth, Massachusetts.) They farmed tobacco,
cotton, and sugarcane, with a sideline in slave trading, to supply a
labour force. But in 1642 Spain shut down the experiment, capturing the
Later, English buccaneers used the archipelago as a base, and there are
still stories of fabulous treasures hidden in caves. In 1822, during
the South American wars of independence, the islands fell into
Colombia’s hands, but the local population — English-speaking,
Protestant, now predominantly black — were permitted to run things as
they saw fit. Migration and trade with Jamaica preserved links with the
British West Indies.
But in the 20th century, things changed. Colombia finally set up its
own administration in San Andrés, and, in the face of
territorial claims by Nicaragua, decided to Colombianise the islands.
Spanish-speaking monks came in to run the schools and promote Roman
Catholicism. Mainland Colombians followed, buying up land.
Today San Andrés is a tourist island. An all-inclusive resort in
the south is popular with Canadians, but there are few American or
European visitors, and most tourists are Colombians. At first glance,
this gringo-free version of tourism seems innocuous. But cultural
battle lines criss-cross the island.
Colombians call the traditional inhabitants Raizales, from the Spanish
word for “root.” But most San Andreans refer to themselves as
“Natives”: for them, there are no derogatory overtones, and it
makes clear the distinction between those families who have lived here
for generations and the newcomers from the mainland. Today, Natives are
between 30 and 50 per cent of the population; the figures vary,
depending on the source. And they have a growing sense that their
culture and way of life are under siege.
In San Andrés, English and the associated San Andrés
creole are a crucial badge of Native identity. The accent and
vocabulary are strikingly similar to Jamaican creole. Reggae and
dancehall are the soundtrack of Native communities, with the occasional
calypso from Trinidad thrown in. Most Native San Andreans I spoke to
seemed surprised and even a little hurt to discover they are all but
unknown in the rest of the anglophone Caribbean. “We belong to the same
family,” someone told me. “But you all have forgotten us.”
That is just why the Caribbean Studies Association chose to hold its
annual conference in San Andrés this year: so the historians,
economists, literary scholars and others who are its members might be
reintroduced to these forgotten cousins. And over lunch on the first
day of the conference, my Jamaican friends got to talking with a
charming young scholar from Providence, who offered to introduce us to
his San Andrean friends and show us the Native side of the island.
Hence our drive to the Hill that evening, in the company of William and
Remo, Richard and Magda.
We were looking, they told us, for a fair table — a roadside stand
selling traditional delicacies, where people on their way home from
work stop to munch and chat. But we’d set out a bit too late, and all
the fair tables in the Hill had closed up for the night. As we drove
past the simple wooden First Baptist Church (founded in 1844, and the
island’s chief landmark) William said, “Let’s try San Luis.”
Halfway down the island’s eastern coast, San Luis is the second major
Native community, a long strip of wooden houses and coconut trees along
a reef-sheltered bay. The occasional rumshop (with English signs) oozed
reggae into the balmy night, and we found one fair table still open,
tended by teenaged sisters. They lifted a cloth to show us platters of
snacks that would not be strange on a Jamaican table — Johnny-cakes,
plantain tarts — and San Andrés specialties like crab patties.
At lunch a few days later, I noticed a dish called rondón on a restaurant menu.
When I asked about its ingredients, I realised it was a version of —
yes, Jamaican rundown. The one thing I didn’t find was ackee. San
Andreans knew what it was — it grew wild on the island, someone said —
but they all told me it was poisonous, inedible. Which is partly true.
Their ancestors brought ackee trees here all the way from West Africa
via Jamaica, but along the way they forgot the secrets of safe
harvesting and preparation.
What else had survived of Jamaican culture? Later that night, back in
our hotel lobby and over glasses of rum, we played a game with our new
San Andrean friends, the Jamaicans trying to stump them with unfamiliar
words and customs, and vice versa.
“You call a party dress a frock?”
“You all have a fruit called guinep?”
Then things took a turn for the raucous. We discovered, and were
unsurprised, that the choicest Jamaican swear words had survived
intact, and the San Andreans even know some that today’s Jamaicans have
But you’ll have to visit San Andrés if you want to know what
they are. +