Out of St Lucia: Nobel winner squares up to Columbus myth

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The Independent Online
CASTRIES - Ernest Francois, a 24-year-old construction worker from Bagatelle, fell to his death two weeks ago while repainting St Lucia's Ministry of Education in preparation for the return of the island's most famous son. Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel prize-winner for literature, was coming home to a frenzy of official festivities in his honour; that young Francois, believed to have been electrocuted on his ladder, should have died in the process caused little stir bar a headline on the back page of the St Lucia Voice which read 'Painter shocked on job'.

Celebrations were to culminate in the renaming of the capital's central feature to Derek Walcott Square. This Walcott, who has lived abroad for decades, accepted with caution: 'When an irresistible honour has been almost forced upon me by the will of a committee and what seems to be the pleasure of a people it would be an act of pseudo-humility to reject such an honour.'

There was another reason for Walcott to accept the gesture, for he had provided the local authorities with a timely opportunity for a political correction they had been agonising about for some time: how to get rid of the old name, Columbus Square. It was a correction in two senses. Not only were Caribbean people urged to take a different perspective of Columbus since the quincentenary controversy over his men's genocidal actions against American Indians; the island itself takes its name from the undocumented theory that Columbus landed here on 13 January 1492 - the Day of Saint Lucia, patron saint of light. The renaming was an admission, now that Columbus is no longer politically correct anyway, that the explorer probably never saw, let alone set foot on, the island.

Such derivative iconoclasm appears to be catching, for St Lucia, a British dependency until 1979 and a member of the Commonwealth, is not unaware of the royal-bashing gripping the mother country. A local commentator, Claudius J Francis, notes: 'Bearing in mind the copycat people we in these parts have become in recent times, it is most surprising that it has not as yet caught on.' He would not dream of questioning the role of the Head of State herself, but Mr Francis does the next best thing by challenging the role of her representative, chosen by the Prime Minister and approved by the Queen, and concludes that '. . . my vote goes towards an elected Governor- General, if one is at all necessary'.

Remarkably, this population roughly the size of Blackburn has yielded not one but two Nobel laureates. Sir Arthur Lewis, now deceased, was awarded the prize for economics in 1979. It is even more remarkable considering the high degree of illiteracy on the island. The official language is English, but people converse in a patois of mongrelised French, breaking into English when the subject-matter requires it. This seems to be remarkably often: for example, two St Lucians I asked did not think there was a patois word for 'widow'. Foreigners should also beware of unguided attempts at decoding. The advertising slogan for the local Piton beer, named after the island's two landmark peaks, is 'La biere sent lisi'. It's phonetic for 'the Sainte Lucie beer'.

Tourism money tends to be an in-and-out job and so St Lucia's economy remains heavily dependent on bananas. Earnings last year amounted to 184m Eastern Caribbean dollars ( pounds 47m). But battles lie ahead. Some European markets, notably the Germans, prefer the bigger Central American banana to its more diminutive Caribbean cousin. Two weeks ago the Prime Minister, John Compton, sought to rally the troops in parliament: while Britain and France 'never wavered' in their support, 'arranged against us were Germany and the Benelux allies, the five banana countries of Central America led by Costa Rica and the American multinationals'.

With the arrival of the Single Market, the PM said, St Lucia could no longer rely on its colonial past masters in London. The 'faceless bureaucrats' in the European Commission were not going to change their rules for the sake of St Lucia and furthermore, St Lucians had failed to heed advice to produce fruit of the quality demanded by the market. He even accused his countrymen of laziness, declaring that 'the three or four hours in the banana fields must be a thing of the past'.

The troops may not want to be rallied. They're more keen to blame others. One said: 'It's the Germans who should be educated not to judge a banana only by its size.' Small is fun. Over a plate of green bananas and boiled fish at Laurel's cafe I told Winston, a Castries barrister, about the latest banana bulletin on the radio. He said: 'Yes, I know, it was me reading the six o'clock news. I read the radio news on Wednesdays.'