A diverse panel of speakers discussed the history of St. Croix’s Maroons and how that story can be harnessed as part of a cultural tourism industry Saturday at the inaugural Maroon Commemorative Symposium at the Carambola Beach Resort and Spa.
The event was jointly hosted by the St. Croix Environmental Association and St. Croix Unified for Community, Culture, Environment and Economic Development, Inc. Both organizations support establishment of a national heritage area on St. Croix and the expansion of cultural tourism in the territory.
Claudette Young-Hinds, president of SUCCEED, said the goal of her organization was to support smart growth based on Crucian culture and heritage “as a cornerstone for building both our spiritual and economic wealth.”
She said her organization was pro-development, but only if the jobs created were sustainable and equitable for locals.
The focus of the conference was on Maroons, a term applied to African slaves in the Caribbean islands who escaped the plantation system.
“Marronage was the act of running away by enslaved individuals in pursuit of freedom and self-determination,” said George F. Tyson of Virgin Islands Social History Associates. “Its practitioners, Maroons, were freedom seekers and freedom fighters who sustained a continuous struggle for self-liberation that culminated in emancipation in 1848.”
Tyson explained that on St. Croix, marronage occurred in three major forms.
There were those who escaped into the wilderness, creating settlements along Maroon Ridge and in the eastern hills; others who took to the sea, hoping to find freedom in Puerto Rico; and a third type of Maroons who only escaped temporarily as a type of strike. They would leave the plantations and hide until the planters consented to improving their working or living conditions.
Given the serious nature of this topic and the deep personal connections descendents of Maroons have about this history, a great deal of time was spent at the conference discussing the correct way to interpret this story. Where is the line between what is sacred and just for locals and what can be presented to tourists in the form of historic trails and parks?
“Our culture is sacred first. It is our way of life, and we have to be very selective about what parts of that culture we offer to other people,” said Sonia Jacobs Dow, executive director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society.
She related a story about an off-island film crew she took on a tour of Maroon Ridge. She said that when the tour was over, the film crew discovered their tapes were mysteriously blank and all of the footage they shot was lost. Dow suggested that the question of how much to share may not be entirely up to us, and that the island’s ancestors could weigh in.
Hugh Cresser, a Jamaican who has worked in cultural tourism for 35 years in that country, offered some concrete advise on this topic. He said in Jamaica there are four recognized Maroon communities and that they have decided amongst themselves where to draw the line between culture and tourism. He said that during their celebrations, some rituals and events are deemed off limits for tourists.
He also offered some general tips on implementing cultural tourism on St. Croix. First and foremost, he said, was not to become too developed.
“St. Thomas has gone mass market. It has gone overcrowded with the cruise ships. God bless them, you know, that’s fine. But for God’s sake, don’t do that to St. Croix,” he said. “St. Croix is ideally set up as a live museum.”
He said the type of people attracted by cultural tourism are looking for an authentic experience, not just entertainment. If they think the island has become too crowded or commercialized, he said, they will not come.
He encouraged the development of cultural attractions, boutique stores, and small hotels. He also cautioned politicians not to be afraid of turning away crowds of general tourists in favor of smaller groups of cultural tourists, because cultural tourists spend more money and stay longer.
“What is really most important is not the number of tourist who come here, but the amount of money they spend,” he said.
Other presenters at the conference included Dr. Olivia Cadaval of the Smithsonian Institute, Hector Bermudez-Zenon, Seminole Maroon descendent Phil Wilkes Fixico, Dr. Chenzira Kahina, Dimitri Copemann, Dr. David Listokin, Gerville Larsen and David Vela, the regional director of the National Park Service.
Young-Hinds says she intends the symposium to become an annual event and hopes to expand the proceedings to two days next year.