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"Hidden gems – the sugar mill derelicts in Tobago"
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"Hidden gems – the sugar mill derelicts in Tobago"

Latoyaa RobertsExploring little-known historic spots becomes an opportunity to learn about culture and let the imagination soar, writes Latoyaa Roberts, 27, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Trinidad and Tobago.

A drive around Tobago, located in the Caribbean, produces several stops at historical sites that have often vanished from our memories. These derelicts are of historical and cultural importance to the essence of the island but they have become hidden, long trapped by overgrown trees and rustic scenery. On any day, you can make a triangular drive to beautiful derelict sugar mills lying less than one kilometre apart from each other. These tall brick, mud and mortar structures all recount interesting stories; stories of how they once contributed to the vitality of the island during the decades of the plantation society.

The name Tobago is derived from the word ‘Tobaco’ given by the original inhabitants of the island– the Ciboneys. Christopher Columbus cited the island in 1498 and called it Bellaforma. Other European powers including the Dutch, the Spanish, the Courlanders, the French and the British saw the strategic value of its waters, fertile soils and lush vegetation. The island changed hands 33 times until it was ceded to the British from the French by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. By then ‘king’ sugar was the most profitable crop for production and export.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century the island of Tobago was transformed into a sugar colony and exported its first shipment in 1770. In 1775, the sugar crop was largely destroyed by ants. Therefore, cotton and indigo were produced as an export substitute. However, in 1798 sugar again became the main export crop. The sugar mill was an engineering apparatus introduced to the island by the Dutch and the Courlanders.

The sugar mill at Lowlands is the most intact with the foundations, walls and roof in place. It forms part of the Tobago Plantations Estate, with a four-star hotel nearby. Anyone can access the sugar mill once the the dirt road that leads towards this site is remembered. This sugar mill is also sometimes glimpsed from the Claude Noel Highway, the only highway on the island, once the bushes are not too heavily overgrown. The sugar mill is made from bricks, grey and black stones, mortar and mud. The entrance to the sugar mill is clear and you can easily walk around it.

Canoe Bay is historically known as an Amerindian settlement, until the British named it Canoe Bay when Indian pirogue fleets moored there. Today, the sugar mill is located in The Cove Industrial Estate, a project by the local government of Tobago, the Tobago House of Assembly. This sugar mill shares  features similar to the others but it has been exposed to the natural elements. As a result, it is very rugged and has much structural damage. However, the beauty of the sugar mill is still evident in the patterns and the blending of golden brown to dark brown on the bricks. This sugar mill is easily accessible as it is located in a low lying pasture, while shaded by a tall tree. Blending in the caramel brown low grass and vibrant arching green trees, this lost treasure is a nice spot to sit and relax or walk around.

The popular fishing village of Buccoo has two majestic sugar mills which are situated on the outskirts of this village near the Golden Grove Road.  These sugar mills stand side by side, like lifelong partners who survived the end of one era and are now unveiled to a new world. The most outstanding features of this landscape are the gigantic trees, with sturdy trunks and roots growing in, on, and between the creases and foundations to make nature and these sky-scrapping historical gems as one embedded item that cannot be severed.  These sugar mills vividly remind me of the jungle-like trees growing out of the ruins of Ta Phrohm in Angkor, Cambodia.  They are easily accessible through the large opening where the entrance once stood. Inside each of the derelicts is a large open space that yields to your imagination. From a worm’s eye view, you can see the canopy of trees with their roots and branches scaling around the structure. Illuminated beams squeeze their way through the thickness of the trees to create an eerie but surreal feeling. About 200 meters  from the sugar mills there is an old copra house, other destroyed brick structures and iron artefacts that may arouse your curiosity. This picturesque site is ideal for strolls and observation of the ruins. After admiring and reflecting, test your jungle hashing skills as if you are spelunking. Follow the off-the beaten track for about five minutes to an old water well.

As a historical enthusiast, I always discover something new about Tobago’s rich plantation heritage. The plantation system has ended but it is a pity that these gems are forgotten. If these towers had voices, they will echo the prowess of colonial powers. However, their voices are silenced when we allow these gems to stay hidden and decayed.  Society must make conscious efforts to restore derelicts and cultural treasures. In doing so, we make a conscious effort to recount the past while moving forward in a modern world. As “Sankofa” the Akan (Ghanaian vernacular) word says, “we must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today”.

Photo credit: Mr. Tomley Roberts

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About me:
The world is my oyster and I love exploring it. My best exploration thus far was as an English teacher in Japan, frequently visiting other Asian countries. Now, I am a Secondary School English teacher in my country but in the future I want to become a Communications Specialist for an international organization.
My first degree is in Communication Studies with Linguistics and International Relations. I also obtained a M.Sc in Global Studies and I am currently pursuing a M. Phil in International Relations.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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