San Andres: native island

They speak English with a Jamaican twang and listen to reggae and dancehall. But...

Near San Luis, San Andrés. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinNicholas Laughlin. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe First Baptist Church, founded in 1844, on the Hill, San Andrés, Colombia. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

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 island.

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 told me—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 forgotten.

But you’ll have to visit San Andrés if you want to know what they are.