Small Islands, Big Frontiers

Small Islands, Big Frontiers

Philip Nanton

What can tiny Caribbean islands that contain a few hundred people say to the globalised world? I argue here for a new cross-disciplinary framework that I call ‘Caribbean frontier studies’. One example of the frontier that I explore is international tourism’s search for the exotic and the remnant ‘wild’ in the Caribbean. To the south of the St. Vincent mainland, the Grenadines, stretch over some 60.4 km. They have a combined area of 17.4 sq.mi. (45 km sq). Roughly two-thirds of these islets belong to SVG and the rest to Grenada. They include Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Palm Island, Petit St. Vincent and Union Island. What frontier issues might a small sovereign state with such a porous and variegated southern boundary (peripheries of a periphery) experience?

Conventional frontier analysis defines the frontier as ‘a territory or zone of interpenetration between two previously distinct societies’ (Lemar and Thompson, 1981, 7). The frontier ‘opens when representatives of the intrusive group arrives, and closes when a single political authority has established hegemony over the zone’ (Lemar and Thompson, 1981,7).  The frontier is either open or it is closed. Caribbean historians appear to agree with this perspective and have mostly consigned frontier analysis to the past. The frontier period in the Caribbean, according to Gordon Lewis, (Lewis, 1968, 4) for example, disappeared by the late eighteenth century, overwhelmed by repressive and authoritarian colonial slave society. For Lewis, Fredrick Jackson Turner’s attention to opening up of opportunity, American distinctiveness and the scope of self management that the frontier offered could not apply to the Caribbean, which experienced, for centuries, a functioning industrialized slave society, albeit based on agricultural production.

Far from disappearing, I suggest that the frontier remains very much present, if an under-recognized element of Caribbean island culture. I define the frontier as a relationship between ‘civilization’ and ‘wilderness’.   I understand ‘civilization’ to refer to societal order and organization that has some element of ideological imposition and artifice. The process of modernity, arising initially out of colonization, is the beginning of what some may identify as ‘civilizing’ practices that prioritize ‘development’. From the perspective of those who now hold power, who now mobilize the label of civilization or who are sufficiently dazzled by that power, the notion represents to them the best model of the present and the future. Ideologically, it is a model that any ‘reasonable’ human being would embrace and applaud.

‘Wilderness,’ is associated with raw nature, the absence of imposed order and a threat to that order. It is a physical location as well as a state of mind. Wilderness represents the untameable that always encroaches, challenges existing notions of order and takes a variety of forms.  The relationship between wilderness and civilization is ever present and continually shifting. The frontier, then, may be read as a process that is incomplete and this incompleteness applies to both sides of the Caribbean frontier – the ‘wild’ and the ‘civilized’. This complexity constitutes a frontier process, in which each element is constantly being made while challenging the other.

Modern frontier traits are located in the restless and adventurous coastal wanderings of the Caribbean fisherman, sailor or sea port smuggler. They can be found inland in the island-wandering woodcutter, those who squat on government land, the urban dame school-teacher, or more recently, the innovative doctor and the mountain side ganja-grower.  Simultaneously, the frontier has historically been and remains very much a part of global production. For example, modern globalization has shaped the development of various types of island tourism, from yachting to the discovery and development of discrete private island enclaves, the development of the Caribbean’s financial sector as well as patterns of Caribbean migration. All of these developments I connect to notions of the civilized and the wild. How does the frontier process play out in the St. Vincent Grenadines?

Before 1792, concessions to settle the Grenadines were given to single family colonizers by both French and British governors. They operated simple social systems that tied the populations, of no more than a few hundred on each populated island, to the land through sharecropping, keeping of animals and fishing. In the twentieth century a small proportion of the men, many of whom were good sailors, obtained half yearly employment working as seamen on ocean going bulk transport ships registered in Liberia or Panama.

Until the late twentieth century, neglect and degradation were the historical experiences of each tiny populated Grenadine island. This neglect took the form of a lack of basic amenities as a result of mainland disinterest from successive government administrations, both colonial and post-colonial. This historic frontier status, characterized by central government indifference and neglect, has, in the past twenty or so years, changed dramatically. The reason is the lure of the ‘exotic wild’ for the wealthy yachting tourist or foreign home owner.

Bequia has established an international reputation as a destination for yachting enthusiasts. In 1958, for a sum of £45,000, Mustique was acquired on a long lease by Colin Tennant.  By 1993, the Mustique Company had built 75 foreign exclusive homes and another 25 people had bought development lots. In 1995 two-thirds of Canouan was leased to the Italian-Swiss developer Antonio Saladino who heads the Canouan Resorts Development Co (CRD). The modern frontier appeal these atolls hold is their remoteness. Fed by year-round warm breeze, sunshine and substantial foreign capital expenditure, these features conspire to turn frontier remoteness into frontier exclusivity and exoticism.

These tourism developers offer their clients the frontier experience of an exclusive and romanticized relationship with nature.  In exchange for taxation and other lucrative privileges wealthy developers have now put substantial amounts of money for tourism development into at least five tiny SVG island developments. This is, of course, all part of the frontier financial process.  But how do islanders, from St. Vincent and Canouan, respectively, experience the frontier process? As recently as the 1980’s decade, local Canouan households were required to be self-sufficient. They supported themselves on their own produce – salt collection, but mainly by fishing and small scale agriculture; growing peas, corn and cassava. Local residents stored their harvests and sold the produce after they replanted. There was local fishing for men and whelk collection on the rocks around the coast for women.  In the absence of refrigeration, preserving fish by smoking for domestic use or sale – a process locally known as ‘corning’ – was widespread and long established. Sailors also worked on merchant shipping for half year periods.

Since the exclusive tourism developments on the island, many Canouan people have restructured their way of life. In a period of about twenty years the shift has been from centuries of almost subsistence living to servicing international tourism.  From the company’s point of view, the rate of this process has been hampered by an inherited low standard of education and an economy traditionally based on farming and fishing. The islanders appreciate the employment and have expressed surprise at the company’s willingness to support individuals in difficult circumstances. Older islanders can see the tangible changes to their living conditions –more regular health care, opportunities for house ownership and for educating their children to secondary school level as well as the opportunity to obtain computing and other technical skills, all of which were in short supply when they were younger.

However, the process of change has not been problem free. Periodic protests reflect islanders’ feelings of exclusion from what many regarded as their birthright. In the 1999/2000 tourist season these early issues spilled over into a week-long protest at the desecration of grave sites and white tourist exclusive beach use. A letter to Searchlight (9th Feb. 2001 p.11), a local St. Vincent newspaper, written by one Samantha Smart (a possible pseudonym,) claimed: ‘The real truth is that the European elite in Canouan have no love for black people, have no appreciation of the beauty of Afro-Caribbean culture, no respect for Vincentian traditions and individuals. The real truth is that management does not want to see black bodies at the beach with white bodies lounging carelessly nearby. …Saladino did not come to Canouan because he loved the people but because he loved the property’.

Former Prime Minister Mitchell has summed up the islanders’ experience: ‘The problem is that the people of Canouan don’t feel they belong in their own country’ (Mitchell, 1989, 127).  Simultaneously, relations between the local Canouan population and Vincentians from the mainland working on the island remain a major source of intra island tensions- the (main island) Vincentian employees felt exploited by Canouan islanders who they claim rack up rent for poor quality accommodation. Canouan islanders resent what they see as little respect for their island and the loss of their potential jobs.  The conflict also brought into the open the feeling that official priorities were not in the interests of the populations of the islands.

Various governments of SVG have negotiated formal agreements and terms of use for these islands with private tourism developers. The SVG government has minority representation on the board of Mustique. It is approached periodically to intervene where there are confrontations with the local population. These interventions often come too little and too late. Canouan developers complain that they carry the responsibility of the local state. In the Tobago Cays the state misjudged local feeling about how to manage this element of the island frontier. Thus, beyond the essentially formal arrangements between government and developer, these islands are locations where the state project always remains incomplete. Local parties are required for the most part to work out some form of agreement between themselves.

In conclusion I am suggesting that frontier-based analysis has the advantage of providing a method of exploring landscape through a cultural and historical geography which pays attention to place, population and process.  The Grenadine islands provide the opportunity for private developers to exploit the notion of the exotic frontier. Their substantial funds give them the freedom to construct for their clients, romantic and exotic notions that promote the illusion that they exist in their own world. Their investments enable their clients to buy, for a limited time, a privileged, somewhat misleading, closeness to nature.

Today’s context of environmental depredation has increasingly shifted the emphasis from exploitation and development to the need for the protection of wild nature.  Rather than exhuming a limited notion of the frontier as a concern about borders, I am suggesting that the frontier in the St. Vincent Grenadines has survived and indeed thrived. Far from being moribund, a Caribbean application of the frontier process as outlined in this example suggests that frontier continuities have survived from earliest colonial times and they offer an alternative framework for Caribbean analysis.

Lemar Howard and Thompson Leonard., (eds) 1981, The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Lewis Gordon K., 1968, The Growth of the Modern West Indies, Macgibbon and Kee, London.
Mitchell, James F., 1989, Caribbean Crusade, Concepts Publishing, Waitsfield.


Philip Nanton is of Vincentian origin. He lived in England for many years and for ten years taught Applied Social Policy at the Department of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham. He has lived in Barbados since 2000.  In 2012 he represented St. Vincent & the Grenadines at the Poetry Parnassus in London. He produced and wrote the CD Island Voices from St. Christopher & the Barracudas which, in 2014, was published by Papillote Press of Dominica and London. In 2017 his latest book, Frontiers of the Caribbean, will be published by Manchester University Press.