Blogger on Books VI – Hidden Secrets of St. Croix by Clarice C. Clarke

Hidden Secrets of St. Croix by Clarice C. Clarkehidden.jpg

Full disclosure, Clarice C. Clarke is my mother’s niece but when the book arrived (from St. Croix to Antigua) for her I swooped it up and read it before her. When I decided, at some point during the reading of it, that I was going to be writing about it, I knew I had to treat it the same I would any book I wrote about. Take the good, take the bad, take ‘em both and there you have Joanne’s opinions about Hidden Secrets of St. Croix.

Hidden Secrets of St. Croix is a photography book – beautiful images – but what I found just as interesting was the historical notes accompanying the images. I liked that for the most part the book was structured around historical spaces and particularly Estates. For me when focused on the estates it centered the history and told the stories of the estates in a natural and organic way. It would actually be a great companion read for a historical tour of St. Croix’s estates. Because of how naturally well ordered and interesting the estate chapters were, however, as a general note, I didn’t think the diversions to other sites of interest (e.g. Caledonia Falls, Small Isaac Bay, Jolly Hill, Creque Dam) worked as well. The writing there felt very much about the ‘you’ outside of the story – like a tourist-conscious guide.

Since we’re in the nitpick section, Baobob trees are so rare here in Antigua – only seven on island – it would’ve been nice to see the “many beautiful baobob trees” (page 58) on Estate Butler Bay.

“beautiful images”

But I thought Clarice’s colour contrasts were eye catching, quintessentially Caribbean (a tad cliché at times but), exciting to the eyes. The framing of the old estate relics with nature almost aggressively climbing over them, reclaiming their space (though some of the buildings are so defiantly sturdy, you can’t help but marvel at the workmanship and at history’s insistent marking of the landscape), was – and I could be reaching here – great visual commentary vis-à-vis colonialism in the Caribbean. So, for me, the images were beautiful not just aesthetically but from a storytelling standpoint.

On my earlier point of tourist-consciousness, though, anything that feels staged (which is most of the time people were in the frame, looking posed like they might be in a tourist magazine) was a no-no for me, with one possible exception: the little girl in front of a building on Estate Little Princess (who seems like she’s playing rather than posing anyway) because if the author is doing a bit of reclaiming of her own by inserting an island princess, a little black girl, in to this space once named for massa’s princess, that’s bold.

Oftentimes the images work on a tonal level as well, achieving a desired mood – an example being Estate Hogansborg’s  romantic light. On that note, it could be argued that there is some (sometimes considerable visual) romanticizing of history with the gently beautiful presentation of that history (Estate Mount Victory, for instance, has a devastatingly beautiful wow factor for the colour saturation and contrast between the red brick and the green grass). But the historical notes, the contextualizing not usually seen in books that are all about the pretty pictures, do lend some perspective.

And I thought that the author was largely deliberate and careful with language used – e.g. “enslaved Africans” not slaves. But there were some slips. Some very minor proofing slips, some unevenness in the writing style, but also some slips re the historical framing. An example that comes to mind is the chapter on the Friendensfeld Moravian Church. The bright red and white of the church against the green background is beautifully captured in the first wide frame image by the way, less so the more pedestrian front view, but the narrative here is confusing especially given how thoughtful the author is in other parts of the book. The story fits in to the historical narrative as it speaks to the Moravian’s work educating Black people back in the day (Antigua even gets a shout out in this section) but then speaks to a well respected preacher being unable to convince the “Negroes” to “desist” in their participation in the protests against slavery. The word choice and phrasing creates a tone that’s almost chiding especially when the writer goes on to say, “with the 1848 Emancipation, the membership of the church declined and by the 1880s, there was increased violence.”

I refer to this as a slip because for the most part, the book goes to great pains to give the enslaved their humanity, to give nuance to their lives. In the chapter on Estate La Grange, Clarke writes (on pages 87-88) “on July 2nd 1848, enslaved Africans assembled at La Grange and other plantation. On July 3rd 1848, they gathered in Fredriksted and demanded their freedom. Fearing the destruction of the towns and plantations, Governor General Peter Von Scholten proclaimed emancipation. After the enslaved Africans were freed Budhoe was jailed and then sent to Trinidad…Emancipation, however, did not live up to the freed slaves’ expectations. Low wages, restrictive labor laws and regulations kept workers in unending servitude. In October of 1878, their dissatisfaction erupted in what is known as the ‘1878 fireburn.’”

“the historical notes”

I appreciated the history lesson. I’ve read only one other book specifically about USVI history and it was H. Akia Gore’s Garrote, about the despicable treatment of immigrants from the eastern Caribbean to the USVI. This book, given that it saw the writer-photographer exploring the ruins of former sugar estates for the most part, was about a time several hundred years in the rear view – and yet unshakeable. There were quirks that I found charming, like the phrasing – so, that Antigua’s Betty’s Hope Estate (they have a Betty’s Hope too by the way) would be, in St. Croix, Estate Betty’s Hope.

Speaking of historical notes, the book smartly capitalizes on the Hamilton revival by asserting its place in his personal history – one of the earlier images being his mother, Rachel Fawcett Levine’s gravestone – while the text precis his family history as relates to the island.

The images actually start to get historically and artistically interesting for me on page 6 with Estate Anna’s Hope. One nitpick, it’s pointed out that images on pages 6-10 are by another photographer Charles Peters. Was there something impeding the author from doing her own take on these images? In any case, the images of Anna’s bell tower, mill, and other ruins on pages 6 and 7 are two of my favourites in the collection. The author’s notes, meanwhile, made for interesting reading (some natural intersection in the excerpts below between my commentary on the images and on the history):

“the gothic revival bell tower on Estate Anna’s Hope was erected in commemoration of the estate’s escape from total destruction in the ‘Fireburn of 1878’” – page 11

“Stone arch that was part of the sugar factory” at Estate Sion Hill on page 15 – Sion Hill in general seems to have some interesting images

The twin towers and collection area on Estate Castle Coakley draw the eye on pages 20 and 21 as does the two images of the exterior wall with the mills beyond on page 23

The colour temperature on Estate Concordia’s manager’s house (page 24) gives it an interesting look

The vines overtaking the overseer’s house on Estate little princess – page 28

The overrun blacksmith shop (page 31) on Estate Little Princess

The images of the flame tree foregrounding the mill (page 32) and the chimney amidst the lush greenery including coconut and flame tree and bush (page 33) – natured and history juxtaposed

The Bethlehem water mill – a mill in the water – on page 35 at Estate Bethlehem

(page 100) – French Billy Pond – beautiful use of colour to create a certain whimsical mood with the unusual contrast of purple and silver and the trees mirrored in the water, beautiful framing

Some of the images aren’t as technically strong nor as special (Great Pond and Salt Bay for instance, though in the latter’s case, the detail about this being the site of Columbus’ landing was interesting) as others but the quibble is minor at best, at least from me; a master photographer may have different critiques.

Other things

The story of the Senepol was unknown to me and interesting – a reminder that Clarice is about not just taking pictures but using the pictures to tell something of the nature-cultural-history of her island.

Most importantly though Clarice’s love of her country shines through in Hidden Secrets of St. Croix. I can picture her hiking through the ruins and pouring over the research. And reading it, coming from another Caribbean island, so much was familiar and yet in the way of our islands being alike but different, there was always that differentness that kept it interesting for me. I think the beauty and history of the islands as captured in words and images will make this interesting for any one.

The main page of my Blogger on Books VI can be found here.  Other pages are sub-linked from there. To check out my books and see what reviewers and readers have been saying about them, go here and here.