Brimstone Sea and Sand – an interview with Dr. Cameron Gill
Dr. Cameron Gill was admitted to the doctoral degree on February 4, 2020 after having defended his dissertation at the Academy Building at Leiden University. Emma de Mooij met up with him to discuss his achievements and his research.
Name: Cameron Gill
Occupation: Archaeologist & Teacher
PhD: Brimstone Sea and Sand: The Historical Archaeology of the Port of Sandy Point and its Anchorage, St. Kitts, West Indies
Ancillary Activities: Principal Consultant, C. Gill Consulting
How are you feeling after your defense?
It feels pretty good after all the hard work!
How did you experience all the formalities of the defense of Leiden University? Was it what you expected?
It fascinated me. All universities tend to have their formalities. I’ve been to graduations at the University of the West Indies and then a couple of years ago I attended a graduation for somebody at the University of Leicester, and they tend to be very formal because all institutions need to have their history presented. So it’s a way of making the graduate feel like a part of the institution and having gone through the academic program and its also a way for family, friends, and spectators to be impressed with the history of the institution and its traditions. It makes people feel proud to be a member.
It was a fascinating experience and I really enjoyed the discussion during my defense and seeing such esteemed colleagues actually taking such a genuine interest in my work. I found it very gratifying.
So, about your research: It
is focuses on the colonial history of St. Kitts and it is quite amazing that a relatively small island really did play such a large role in colonial history in the region. Can you explain why St. Kitts was such a strategically important island in that time?
First of all, I should say that it is not uncommon for Caribbean islands despite their small size to have played such an important part in Atlantic world and World history. If we look, for example, at St. Eustatius, which despite its small size played a major role in Dutch history. It was a major trading port. St. Eustatius played a major role in the American revolution, because they financed the rebels during their war for independence against Britain. So it is not unusual, and St. Kitts and Nevis, a twin-island federation, St. Kitts, the bigger island (which is the one where I was born), is 68 sq. miles and Nevis is 36 sq. miles. I know for a fact that Amsterdam is bigger than St. Kitts, it’s smaller than some cities in Europe. But what happened is that it was the first island settled by the English in 1624 and then a year after, the French arrived there as well. Therefore, it was both the first English colony and the first French colony. It was where the plantations were first created. The first English West Indian plantation, was Winfield Estate on St. Kitts and that is where they started tobacco production. Then later on, because of issues with the tobacco production because they were competing with the planters in Virginia, the English were unable to compete in terms of not only quantity, as Virginia was capable of producing much more tobacco, but quality as well, they shifted to sugar. Being a tropical product there were certain advantages. It could not be produced in North America, so they had no competition there, etc. Also, there was an increasing need for sweeteners in Europe due to the increase in popularity of tea and coffee. Honey could not meet the demand because of certain limitations in producing honey. So, St. Kitts became an important sugar colony and they were the second most important sugar colony in the entire Eastern Caribbean, next to Barbados, and within the wider Caribbean, the third most important after Barbados and Jamaica. So, I always tell my students that sugar was from the 17th to the 18th century what oil was in the 20th century. There was a lot of money being made from it. Many countries became wealthy from it, they invested their money to build up their cities, armies, and navies; it was a major strategic resource. The sugar colonies were strategic as well, so each country (England, France, and Holland), when they were waging war, they were capturing one another’s colonies as a way of undermining their adversary’s wealth. So the sugar economy and the location is what made the island of St. Kitts so extremely important. Sandy Point was originally on the border between the English and the French, who were struggling for a foothold in the Americas, so that made it [Sandy Point] strategically important. It had a huge anchorage and then even after St Kitts came entirely under the control of the English, the island was more vulnerable than Barbados or Jamaica. Barbados’s very remote location, most Easterly in the West Indies, was very hard to attack by sailing ships and then Jamaica had a large Royal Navy base at Port Royal. So St. Kitts was more vulnerable because it was close to Guadeloupe, Martinique, etc. So Sandy Point was an important strategic area and then they had the trade between the Dutch. St. Kitts played a major role, like I argue in my dissertation, Sandy Point was a major nexus for trade between the British West Indies and the Dutch West Indies.
So if I understand, St. Kitts was important due to the balance of the islands role as an important production and trade point for sugar, the island’s location within the region and Sandy Point’s strategic location on the island.
Exactly. And there are some Dutch historians, like Gert Oostindie at KITLV who have done research into the connection between St. Kitts and St. Eustatius. But what I have done specifically, is look at the role of Sandy Point in that relationship.
Your research titled Brimstone Sea and Sand you investigate the Port of Sandy Point and its anchorage, but in fact you look at so many more colonial heritage sites. Why was it important to study all of these in order to understand Sandy Point?
Because there is a connection between them. A lot of times, people tend to see sites in isolation from each other. One of my purposes in this research was that I wanted it to be something that, when its published, it would help to raise awareness of the important heritage in St. Kitts, that people would appreciate sites better, if they see a relation. If people just see Brimstone Hill as a monument to the colonizers, they would not really appreciate it. However, if they can see some relationship, if they understand the relationship between Brimstone Hill and their town of Sandy Point, or somebody in Old Road can see the relationship between Brimstone Hill and Old Road, or between Brimstone and New Guinea and other parts of St. Kitts. So there is a web that connects those sites together and that is what I try to show in my dissertation.
You used a lot of different types of sources including archaeological surveys, historical documents, oral sources, and underwater archaeological survey. How did you find the balance in using all these different kinds of sources and finding your way to what seems the most plausible explanation for the questions you were asking?
It’s a challenge because it’s a lot of data to go through, but what I find, and one of my paranimfs Sony and I, we were actually discussing this before the defense, because both of us strongly feel that there are archaeologists out there who sometimes tend to downplay the value of documentary sources. For me, and this question also came up in the defense while it’s an archaeology PhD and I have a love for archaeology, I tend to see these other sources as helping to complete the story. Archaeology can help as Dr. Antczak pointed out during the defense, in terms of locating the material that you could never maybe locate through use of other sources. Yet, these other sources can play a major role in sometimes revealing other things. Sometimes we would not even know that sites existed if it was not for oral sources in the community. Documentary sources play a major role as well, because for example, obviously the oral sources you find may only assist you in dealing with sites that are within living memory, so 20th or maybe late-19th century. People will know about them or heard their parents or grandparents talk about them. But when you’re looking for information that goes back to the 17th century, then you need to refer to primary source documents. So, for me personally, finding the balance between my sources was made easy by the fact that the sources tend to relate to each other. A lot of the time we find something in a documentary source that alerts you to where a site may be or how a site evolved, for example when using maps to create a theory as to how Sandy Point Fort was built.
And then the maritime surveys feed back into the colonial sources about how Sandy Point was built.
Exactly. You combine all of the sources to put the jigsaw-puzzle together. They complement each other and let you create a picture.
Is there a lot of interest and attention for the colonial heritage of the island by the people of St. Kitts? How do they relate to these big structures that are part of their daily life and landscape?
A lot of this comes down to public awareness and education about the importance of the site. Yes, they might have been built for the colonizers, but they were built by our people and they show our craftsmanship and our perseverance, etc. So, I’ll give an example: A lot of times when you are able to successfully promote the site and its connection to people ancestrally, such as has been done in past promotion efforts at Brimstone Hill, people tend to appreciate the site. In cases when you have a site that is not properly promoted in that aspect, then people have a negative perception and that opens the site to things like neglect, at the very best, or vandalism at the very worst.
It seems St. Kitts has s lot of tangible heritage related to the colonial era and I know that is what your research focusses on primarily, but are there any sites related to indigenous heritage and how are these two types of sites viewed by the people of St. Kitts nowadays?
There is a site close to Old Road, the first English Town, named Bloody Point. It was a site of a major battle, between the English, French, and Indigenous people. That site is well known. It is one of the most well-known sites. The tour
ist companies always stop there to show the tourists. So that site is well promoted. Some of the hieroglyphics are close to Wingfield Estate, which is owned by a wealthy philanthropist who has developed the site. So these two sites are a good example of how a colonial site and an indigenous site complement each other and are marketed together.
Do you think the people in St. Kitts are more keen to associate with the indigenous sites rather than with the colonial sites, or does that not really matter?
People have a lot of interest in the indigenous sites, but they tend to relate more to the colonial ones, mainly because, unlike some other Caribbean islands such as Dominica or the Guyanas or some of the Greater Antilles, where you have descendants of the indigenous populations present still, like there is a large Kalinago community in Dominica. There are no known living descendants in St. Kitts. It is quite possible that there are people alive now that are descendant from past indigenous communities from the island, but there are no identifiable indigenous people alive in St. Kitts. One of my paranifms, Eldris Con Aguilar, she did research in schools in St. Kitts to investigate how people relate to the indigenous history in St. Kitts and ways that that can be incorporated into the curriculums in the schools. People do identify with it and Eldris’s research showed that people do have an interest in it and want to learn more about it, but at present people tend to relate more to the colonial sites because they are all around them. For example, the capital city Basseterre, where I am born, I mean the town center is a lot of Caribbean-Georgian architecture. So it’s all around you.
Yesterday you also mentioned something interesting during your defense, which pertains to the very dark side of these colonial structures and the enslaved and subjugated people that built these enormous structures. You said that people in the island believe they are haunted and claim to have seen ghosts even. From your experience as the director of the Brimstone Hills Fortress National Park, how do you respond to those ghost stories?
People are fascinated by it. It does not scare people from coming up the hill. Like most national parks, Brimstone is open during the day, so people are not afraid to come up there. It makes people curious, but you do hear ghost stories about what people have seen. There are quite a few people that go jogging along there early mornings or in the evening and most of the claimed sightings have come from those people. There are also some cases where museum staff claimed to have seen and heard things. Like, for example, one of my former board members said one day he was in the museum and heard boots walking up on the fort where the museum is. When I was still working part-time at the museum, years before I became director, I remember we had saloon doors in the museum, so you could see somebody’s feet passing underneath. My colleague claimed to have seen boots pass under the saloon doors. Yet, when he went through the door to have a look, there was nobody there. There was another story that someone had seen a white man in a uniform. The most hair-raising story comes from a person I know who goes jogging up the hill a lot and one morning he was trying to pass a jogger in front of him as a personal challenge. He said there was a white man walking in front of him and he tried to pass him, but the person kept walking faster and faster and faster and he couldn’t catch up with him. The guy thought to himself ‘wow, this person is really fit’. Now, there are two gates that are closed outside of opening hours to vehicular traffic, but pedestrians can come up still. There is one gate that the jogger was coming up to and the white man was still in front of my friend and my friend saw the man going straight through the gate instead of around it.
And are these stories then only associated to Brimstone Hill or are they associated to lots of different sites? Or is this something typical of Brimstone Hill?
There are a few other places that people say are haunted. However, usually you hear the stories because tragedies occurred at that site. In the case of Brimstone, so many enslaved people have died there during its construction, many soldiers will have died there, both from battle and diseases, so much tragedy occurred there so there are a lot of ghost stories.
I know that you work as a teacher of history so I was wondering how you incorporate your own research into your lessons and how students respond to learning about their heritage from you?
Apart from being an archaeologist and historian, I am also trained to work in archives. So one thing that I do, especially with the fifth-form students when they are working on their School Based Assessment paper for history, is to expose them to the archive and encourage them to use primary sources as opposed to only using secondary sources. In the past, I have organized and directed field trips involving students. When I was doing my PhD research, I arranged for students from two secondary schools to join our archaeological fieldwork at Charles Fort. I have engaged students in actually getting hands-on archaeological field experience and exposing them to the sites and making them aware of their heritage.
How do they respond to that, are they keen to learn more?
You always have students that are not so interested, but always when we go to the sites, even the students that didn’t show much interest in history in the classroom start to take some interest. So they always tend to respond positively to it.
And what are your plans for the future? Now that you have your doctorate degree, what does that mean for you and for your work on the history and heritage of the island and passing it on to next generations?
Right now I’m working on writing an article for the book edited by my colleagues Joseph Sony Jean and Eduardo Herrera Malatesta. I’m collaborating with the archival director of St. Kitts on that. I have a publication lined up in the SHA proceedings from a presentation that I unfortunately couldn’t give myself because it was so close to the defense, but my colleague Dr. Todd Ahlman presented that on my behalf. And I have some other projects that I am working on, for example with Dr. Stephen Pendery in Quebec we are working on a project to do LIDAR, airborne survey of some archaeological remains of French fortifications on St. Kitts, so we are both trying to find funding for that. And of course, I will publish my dissertation with Sidestone.
Finally, together with my colleagues at STIMACUR (Foundation for Maritime Archaeology in Curacao) we are looking to find funding to continue our survey of the LB Wreck Site, the site that I believe might be the Lion Britannique. I can’t give information about its location due to issues of looting at wreck sites. That happens a lot in St. Kitts and in the rest of the Caribbean, sadly. Especially anchors and canons are prime targets for looting. There is a wide interest in them and a poor enforcement of the laws to protect underwater cultural heritage. St. Kitts has ratified, in 2009, the UNESCO convention of underwater cultural heritage. Some Caribbean countries haven’t, but we have, and so has Antigua and Barbuda, but the trouble is enforcement. It is very poor.
So do you think maybe there’s a role as well for the people on St. Kitts, if they were more aware of the value of their underwater heritage, that they would help in the protection of it?
Awareness helps! I was director at Brimstone Hill from 2010 to 2016 and during that time, I spent a lot of effort to raise public awareness. After a couple of years of doing that, people would start to call us, even if it was not associated to Brimstone Hill, if they saw somebody looting stonework from a plantation site or some other site. They would call me to report it. Even if the reports were about sites that were not under our purview, we would be called and we could ask the police to intervene and stop the looting. So yes, making people aware helps against the looting.
Did you also work with the political bodies that could build and write heritage protection laws?
When I was the director of Brimstone Hill we could work together with them, but I do not work in that official capacity anymore. Now, I am a member of ICOMOS and I report destruction or neglect of sites to them. So through my membership of ICOMOS and the Association of Caribbean Historians and the SHA I raise awareness of what happens in St. Kitts and what goes on with our heritage.
Thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me and for the interesting talk!