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Introduction

A Circle of Light is a photographic portrayal of daily life in Antigua and Barbuda. It focusses on the people: from childhood to old age, from dawn to dusk, from rich to poor... Whatever their nationality, culture or creed people around the world share the same basic emotions: we laugh, cry, and worry wherever we live and for many of the same reasons. Institutions and political leaders are another story and one that they are more qualified to tell themselves; I wanted to concentrate on ordinary people. If you added the exposure time of all these photographs it would come to only a few seconds, just a snapshot of daily life in Antigua and Barbuda. But these are real people and as you read these words they are living their individual lives.

Antigua and Barbuda are a part of the necklace of islands that arc across the Caribbean sea. Small, and with few natural resources but their beauty and people, the islands’ prosperity has always been closely linked to outsiders. Their history has been turbulent, but from settlement and slavery to independence and development there has been one constant: the people.
Standing beneath the gently humming aerials on Boggy Peak, the highest point on Antigua, the whole of the island lies at your feet. The hills around are extraordinarily easy on the senses. Majestic, rounded and textured with a carpet of virgin forest that folds gracefully over the peaks. Across the turquoise sea, Montserrat, Redonda and the faint smudge of St Kitts and Nevis complete the picture.

In the days of slavery these hills provided shelter for Maroons - runaway slaves. Capture of these poor souls was rewarded by a bounty from the owner: 500 pounds of sugar for a slave caught alive, 200 pounds if dead. Descending the steep track from the summit I find a donkey chained to a tree. Abandoned by its owner, it was standing passively in a sea of droppings, its body covered in sores. In its desperate attempts to reach the leaves of nearby trees, its halter had cut deep into the flesh of its neck. Surrounded by a forest that had witnessed so many cruel slave manhunts, it would have been heartless not to cut it free.

In these hills I met Osayaba (‘God Forgives’). Without electricity or piped water he lives alone in his tiny hut. He has skilfully constructed terraces from the stony hillside to protect his crops against flood and drought. He produces the sweetest pineapples I have ever tasted, Antigua Black.

It is a nerve wracking climb to the top of tower G at the Caribbean Relay Company. These aerials transmit the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle to North and South America. As I inch up the narrow ladder inside the frail latticework my eye tries to avoid the seductive sweep of the cables down to the ground. Standing on top of the gently swaying mast, as high as a 26 storey building, the view is superb. This is northern Antigua, flat and fertile. I could peer down at the shapes of farms, the watercourses and the animals in their yards. It was as if I were looking at a living map.

Further north the United States maintains a space tracking station. The dish dominates the site, built in the 1960s for the Apollo missions. Some say that Neil Armstrong’s first words from the surface of the moon came through this giant aerial.

One rainy night I watched it swing silently round tracking a rocket launched moments before from Cape Canaveral. No Cold War mission this, the rocket contained satellites that help ensure the safety of sailors and airmen by giving their precise location anywhere in the world. Behind me a second aerial traced the same path. Looking appropriately like some B-movie death ray, it was there to send the coded signals that would destroy the rocket should it wander dangerously off course.

In a hidden area of St John’s, a master is at work. As children swirl around, Eustace ‘Gaytooks’ Harris is turning discarded oil drums into concert instruments. They will become steel pans: one of the few musical instruments invented this century. His tools are as simple as his skills are elaborate: hammers, punches, chalk and tape. But ultimately it is his ear that tunes them to concert pitch. He pounds, heats and nurtures discarded metal into intricate shapes that will, one day, entertain thousands. The children watch fascinated, their homework forgotten.

A shipwright proudly showed me around his workshop. A tree branch poked through a jagged hole in the roof. ‘Hurricane Luis did that,’ he explained, ‘We don’t get no help from the Government.’ I wondered about a man who can build a boat but hasn’t fixed his own roof.

Antigua administers two other islands. One of these, Barbuda, is thirty miles to the north and home to around 1500 people. It takes only a few minutes to get there by air but I wanted to approach it by sea. The weather-beaten hull of the Enterprise was crammed with the essential supplies of island life. Her decks were littered with food, wood, refrigerators and lawnmowers. The captain steered with an easy calm absorbed with his Walkman. Barbuda edged into view, so low lying and difficult to see from any distance, it was always a trap for the unwary sailor. Over 145 ships have ended their lives on these reefs, the wrecks provided a ready source of income for Barbudans.

In the south of Barbuda I stood on a sand dune admiring the view. To my left the Atlantic Ocean was breaking gently on a perfect beach. To my right a huge pit has been excavated to sell sand to construction companies. I wondered how long it would be before a storm breached this dune and shrank the island.

There must be many around the world who would treasure the memories of lying on these beaches. But not far away is a beach house damaged by an old hurricane. Abandoned by its owner, its walls now covered in graffiti.
One oft-quoted phrase on the island is that ‘You can see Antigua from Barbuda but you can’t see Barbuda from Antigua.’ A geographical accident perhaps, still Barbudans regard themselves as separate from their more numerous compatriots on Antigua. One lady was more direct: ‘When you return to London tell the Queen that we want our independence.’ Whatever the politics, Barbuda has a wonderful edge-of-the-world feeling with a serenity to match.

The other island in the group is Redonda, an extinct volcano thirty miles to the south west. It is a hard scramble to the top, and the summer heat and dust from the volcano on Montserrat does nothing to make it easier. Barren and uninhabited, few people visit since it was abandoned earlier this century when the phosphate mines were exhausted. Since then it has acquired a colourful history as the spiritual home of the eccentric followers of the obscure author Matthew Shiell - the self styled ‘Knights of Redonda’. Below the summit my companion and I found a narrow opening in the rock. Before I could react, a goat rushes out followed by two kids and they disappeared around the corner. The cave was roomy and damp inside, with walls disappearing off into the darkness. I wonder if this was the source of water for the wildlife on this desolate island.

Given the ferocious pace of development on Antigua it is surprising that areas of natural beauty remain untouched. These places are hard to find and under constant threat of destruction. Mangrove swamps lead down to the waters edge, providing the essential nutrients for the slow growth of the coral reef. There is harmony here as rare species exist together as they have done for centuries.

At Winthorpes Bay, archaeologist Reg Murphy is discovering evidence of an Arawak settlement that dates back 1600 years. In this area of the Caribbean the only source of high quality chert suitable for making flint tools is Long Island, just offshore. Reg and his team carefully dig out indications of an Arawak workshop and trading post. It is a struggle: ‘We are just trying to keep ahead of the bulldozers and the hurricanes,’ Reg remarks.

Just a few feet from where I slept lies a sentinel to a darker side of Antiguan history: A heavy stone dungeon nicknamed ‘The Torturer’. This was used to punish the least productive slaves and several died of heat exhaustion while incarcerated here. It is quiet and empty now. One evening I reflected that should the rumbling volcano on Montserrat explode with enough violence to reach Antigua it would make an fine shelter.

I joined the coastguard for a day. Aboard the Palmetto Sub-lieutenant Elroy Skerritt was searching for an unlicensed boat that was taking tourists around the coast. The work of the coastguard is usually mundane matters such as checking the safety of tourist boats and dealing with visiting sailors. Even so, they remain armed and wear bullet-proof jackets when boarding vessels for these waters serve as a key transit zone for illegal narcotics entering the US.

The US government has been keen to sign ‘Shiprider’ agreements with all Caribbean nations. These allow US officials to board ships in sovereign waters to search for drugs. There is a parallel with 19th century history when the British requested that they be allowed to search American vessels for evidence the horror of that time: slavery. The United States refused. In 1822 when President John Quincy Adams was asked by the British Ambassador if he could think of an evil worse than slavery he replied that he could: to grant the right of search, and ‘so to make slaves of ourselves.’

The water around Antigua is the yachting playground of the Caribbean. In spring, English Harbour and Falmouth are crowded with visiting boats of all kinds. High above is the lookout of Shirley Heights, which presides over one of the most magnificent views in the Caribbean. Down below, in one of the original Georgian buildings in Nelson’s Dockyard, an Antigua business is at work. A&F sails carefully repairs and re-stitches these high tech engines of modern yachts.

In the harbour outside people flaunt their wealth and luxuriate in their ostentation. The money is mostly foreign of course. Rich Americans and Europeans have always come to Antigua and fenced off some of its beauty as their own private enclave. Isolated by their culture and money, they will only be confronted by the less fortunate on the short trip to the airport on their way home.

Not all visitors are rich. Some have saved for years to afford the holiday of a lifetime. Antigua and Barbuda are depend heavily on tourism: nearly two-thirds of the country’s income comes from this capricious source. Over 200,000 tourists visit each year and a similar number also make daily stopovers from cruise ships. This adds up to nearly seven visitors a year for every citizen. The influx makes heavy demands on the environment and has an effect, sometimes detrimental, sometimes favourable, on the culture of the island. Whatever the disadvantages of tourism, it remains the only source of income to pay for vital public services such as health and education.

Traditional British influence is slowly being superseded by the predominance of American culture in the region. Although you can still find people filling in the English football pools in a small wooden shack in St John’s, the sole state television channel carries all the latest American soap operas.
Spending so much time with the people of Antigua and Barbuda while working on this book, their easy going attitude to life rubbed off on me. My hope is that this book will do the same for others.

I found a tranquil beauty in Antigua and Barbuda that is so often lacking in so other places. I shall remember, forever, sitting on the gallery watching the sunset listening to the croak of tree frogs , the chirp of crickets and the sigh of the wind through the coconut palms. The sound of dominoes slapped on a table drifts up the hill out of the darkness. This is Antigua.

Paul Ross, London, March 1998.

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