I was born on the same day, in the same year, as my best friend James Wiley. He is one of the foremost experts on banana cultivation and export in Central America and the Caribbean. We celebrate our birthday together whenever we can. On Year 60, he was working on St. Lucia, so my wife and I decided to join him there.
I expected St. Lucia to be similar to the other Caribbean islands we have visited, but I was wrong. It supports more plantations and company fields than most, and it’s scenically like a New World Eden, with several waterfalls, a volcano that can be explored, and the spectacular Piton twin peaks on the southwest corner. The former British colony is also poorer than most of the other islands in the long chain. It was especially so in 2008 when we visited, due to the Great Recession and the island's dangerously high dependence on the tourist trade.
As we moved among St. Lucia's citizens and journeyed from the bustling port of Castries to squalid villages with rusty, corrugated tin roofs and women pounding clothes in streams among foraging livestock, we noticed that St. Lucia has three pronounced strata of inhabitants. The first are the white Europeans, who are either still in residence controlling the agriculture, hospitality industry, and commerce, or tourists from North America or Europe. The second are those of mixed race, who either hold jobs immediately below the whites or are bureaucrats and school teachers. The vast majority of the population is from African descent.
The more I asked questions and read about the history of St. Lucia, the more I realized how little has changed since the British government abolished slavery more than 170 years ago.
As Dr. Eric Williams, former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, put it, "The former slaves exchanged iron chains for economic ones."
As recently as 1993, a banana strike resulted in the burning of buildings and the deaths of two farmers. The class and racial tension on the island still seemed permeable and tangible, a complex structure where those of European-descent looked down on those who might be multi-racial, while those who were multi-racial resented those who might be of African descent. Those at the bottom of the pyramid often begrudged the people of the two tiers above them.
What an unsuspectingly seething kettle to dump detective John Le Brun and his wife into when they expect nothing more than the paradise St. Lucia looks to be on their honeymoon.