Religion in the Windward Islands

The Madonna Crushing the Devil

The Madonna Crushing the Devil


I hadn’t been in the Caribbean for more than an hour before I was introduced to the importance of religion, more especially Christianity, on the small islands that make up the Windward islands in the West Indies.

The short (and expensive) taxi ride from Piarco airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to the OK but severely overpriced hotel close to the airport was one accompanied by religious music. It was a Sunday and though over the top, in a way, understandable. This was the same for the programmes on the tele in the hotel room. Not a great choice of channels but every other one was of some preacher of some sect ‘selling’ their wares.

But the relevance of religion to Caribbean societies was to be reinforced as I travelled to some of the other islands in the archipelago.

In the village of La Pompe, on the Atlantic coast of the island of Bequia, there is a small Ephesian Tabernacle, up some steep steps off the main road in the centre of the village. What makes the location interesting is that at the bottom of the steps, right beside the main road, is the local rum shack and village store. Whilst the righteous are praising god up the steps the damned are knocking back quarter bottles of the local 84% proof double strength white rum.

Ephesian Tabernacle, La Pompe, Bequia

Ephesian Tabernacle, La Pompe, Bequia

On a Sunday this little, one room, church hall has a service from 10.00 until 13.00 and all the time, with the assistance of amplification, not only the faithful are treated to sermons – whose sole basis seems to be of the imminence of hell and damnation – but so are the rest of the village and anyone who passes by. When I first went passed the rum shack I didn’t realise the chapel was further up the steps (it just looked like a normal house) and thought, with a sense of shock, that the rum shack doubled as a church on a Sunday.

The churches are also one of the few places where you are able to observe the colonial history of the different islands. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries the islands were in dispute between the French and the British. This colonial history is represented by the architecture of the churches and cathedrals as well as the division between the Catholics and the Protestants.

Many of the Catholic cathedrals were built by the French and this can be seen in their architectural style as well as the interior decoration, including memorials, in French, to the rich and powerful at the time of that country’s dominance. This has produced some really quirky, not to say bizarre, structures, such as the Catholic Cathedral in Kingstown, St Vincent. This seems to encompass virtually every architectural style known at the time of its construction and seems more fitting for a Disney theme park than a small port town in the Caribbean.

Kingstown, St Vincent, Catholic Cathedral

Kingstown, St Vincent, Catholic Cathedral

The other significant French influenced Catholic Cathedral I was able to visit was that in Castries, the capital town of the island of St Lucia. As with all the older religious buildings on the islands there is the architectural influence from Europe but built with the limitations set by the materials to hand in the islands. As in other colonial countries throughout the world the local indigenous artists create images that are a fusion of their own, pre-colonial, culture with that of the foreign, European invader.

What I always find interesting in such situations is how the black indigenous culture adapts, some might even say subvert, the predominantly white Christian iconography. Since the Renaissance there’s been a reversal in the trend that had developed over the early centuries of Christian dominance in Europe. Romanesque images of Christ depict a dark-skinned, dark-haired male, after all he was supposed to be a Jew living in Palestine. That morphed until by the 20th century Christ became a blond, blue-eyed Aryan beloved by the Nazis.

A ‘fight-back’, if you like, can be seen in the relatively new stained glass window in Castries Cathedral. Here both the Mary and Christ figures are definitely of a darker skin. Also in that cathedral the crib that had been constructed for Christmas (and which was still there at the end of January, as the imagery remains until the end of January or early February in some parts of the world) has a black child’s doll as the baby Jesus figure, which is of a hugely disproportionate size to the adult figures surrounding it. And in the background there’s a carved wooded figure of an indigenous female figure, again disproportionate in its dimensions.

Castries Nativity Crib, 2012

Castries Nativity Crib, 2012

The church at Gros Islet, the local village next to the huge and full of very, very expensive yachting marina of Rodney Bay is another good example of the influence of Christianity on the islands. Just by chance, on the two occasions I visited the place there was a funeral taking place in the big, town centre church. On both occasions the church was full with people in their ‘Sunday Best.’ Although the predominant influence in the interior decoration was white European a relatively new, life-size, wooden crucifix over the altar had very definite African influences.

Crucifix Gros Islet Church, St Lucia

Crucifix Gros Islet Church, St Lucia

Whilst in the Catholic churches it was very easy to see the roots in the European design of the time the Anglican churches, built under British influence, are very different. They are as austere as the Catholic are over the top. This is particularly evident in Kingstown, St Vincent, where the two cathedrals are right next to each other, seemingly in competition to define their particular faith through architecture.

Other Anglican churches wouldn’t be out of place in the English countryside. They haven’t allowed the indigenous cultures to influence their design in any way and the British naval officers and their wives would have had no culture shock in going to a Sunday service if they went to a church in Castries or Canterbury.

Castreis Anglican Church, St Lucia

Castreis Anglican Church, St Lucia

Rum shacks in the Caribbean

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

‘Rum shack’ is the generic name for the basic bars that serve the rum in various measures in all of the Caribbean islands, or at least the handful I’ve visited. They are not built for luxury but are functional and serve their purpose, that is to get people as drunk as quickly as possible.

Although what they are there for is the same on whatever island they might also double up as something else when not serving the rum. One place I went to was the village local grocery store (although no one came in to buy groceries whilst I was there) and yet another was attached to a ‘fast food’ stall in the bus station in Kingstown, St Vincent, which I mentioned when I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the streets.

But before talking about the places that do the selling I should write about what is sold.

Although not exclusively these rum shacks are there to sell the double proof white rum, each island having its own particular favourite brand. It might come as no surprise to read that each islander thinks that the best rum is produced on his island. This, to me, is a bit academic as it is such strong alcohol that there is no real taste to talk of.

Double strength means 80% or more. The strongest one, commercially, I came across was the Sunset brand from St Vincent. That is 84% proof. That has a warning message on the back label about naked flames and inflammable liquids! But I’m sure that the home-made versions that are on sale in the streets and markets could well be higher in percentage.

There is also a bit of a ritual with this rum. In the first rum shack I went into, in Castries, the capital of St Lucia, the rum was served in shots in plastic cups. The woman behind the bar was also behind a home-made reinforced steel rod cage and the booze was served through tiny hatches. I never saw any trouble in any of the bars I went into but presumably the bars were there for a reason. The gateway to the bar area was never locked but then I was there in the afternoon or (relatively) early evening.

In ALL the places I went there was either a full bottle of iced water – normally in a bottle that once would have held the local rum – available on the counter for all to use or given to each individual customer.

How this was used was up to personal preference and depended on how quickly you wanted the rum to enter the system. Some would knock back a shot and then drink 2 or 3 cups of the iced water to prevent the burning sensation from becoming too great. Others would water down the shot and then drink it at a slower pace. The former method was definitely the option for those who would come into the rum shack for a quick drink and then move on – to another rum shack.

In most places the manner of it being served was not by the individual shot as in the Castries (the shot costing 2 Eastern Caribbean Dollars (about £0.50p)) but by the measure. There would also be quarter spirit bottles and you could ask for a full one of these, or just a proportion. This would be filled from a full bottle of the local brew. It was then for the customer to decide the quantity to be served in the plastic cup and the manner, although most locals seem to prefer the quick shot and then the cups of water. To give an idea about cost the normal price for a quarter bottle filled in this way was about 12EC$ and to put that into perspective a 1 litre bottle in a supermarket would cost about 30EC$.

I don’t know where it all came from but there were a number of these rum shacks, on the various islands that were called ‘People’s Bar’ or variations on that. The one I like was the Poor People’s bar in Grenville, on Grenada, which lived up to its name as there was virtually nothing on show. There was enough to serve for the day and no money seemed to be tied up in providing an inviting display but not earning anything. This was confirmed when I was speaking with the owner of the bar opposite the mooring of the ship in St George, Grenada. He would make sure that he had enough stock for those days when there was a greater demand, such as the weekend, but had learnt to reduce surplus stock as much as possible.

What was common to all these places was the number of people who had obviously had too much. Sometimes during a life time but more often for that day. Sometimes this would be mixed with a little bit of marijuana and they were the ones who were really spaced out. But it was definitely a regular affair as I even got to know some of the drinkers in the bar in Castries as I first met them before the Caribbean Island Hopping and then met them again, in the same bar, drinking the same way 2 weeks later.

Haven’t found the equivalent in Bermuda so it seems that this drinking culture is restricted to the islands of the Caribbean, at least from my experience to the group known as the Windward Islands.

St Lucia and Country and Western Music

Country and Western MusicThere are big things that define a country but perhaps it’s the little, quirky aspects of a nation that tell you more about the people. In St Lucia one of those quirks is the love of Country and Western music.

Perhaps it’s just me but I would have thought that a musical style with its roots in the ‘red neck’ heartland of what was once Confederate America would have no resonance with a nation whose roots go back to Africa and slavery.

But you don’t have to get too far off the beaten tourist track to find that this is an island wide addiction.

Walk along the streets of any town and you will hear Tammy Wynette belting out D.I.V.O.R.C.E or even some more contemporary C+W music that makes reference to the World Wide Web, no idea by who.

It’s the same on the buses (more minibuses holding about 15 people) which ply the routes between the island’s towns and villages and CDs of C+W music are available on the street side stalls.

I can’t remember where it was but when I first came across this the music had been chosen in my honour, in my self-centred arrogance being the only one in the bar. When I asked about the choice I was told that there was a big following throughout the island and there had been for some time.

Why it’s so popular I haven’t been able to find out, and now there’s no time to discover the reason. Perhaps the desire to be miserable from time to tie is universal?