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EXCAVATING HISTORY: CREATIVE SPACE #2 OF 2018
Tuesday 17th April 2018

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

In the Caribbean, when it comes to history... it’s complicated (sugar’s success forever linked with the enslavement of Africans). But complicated as it is, the excavation of that history is necessary work. Several books – among them Keithlyn Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour, Joy Lawrence’s series of village folk histories, the late Desmond Nicholson’s considerable work in to branches of that history from pre-Colombian documentation to the history of current place names – have been doing that work. Agnes Meeker’s book with Donald A. Dery, Plantations of Antigua: The Sweet Success of Sugar: A Biography of the Historic Plantations Which Made Antigua a Major Source of the World’s Early Sugar Supply, is the latest addition to this sub-genre of historical works about Antigua and Barbuda. Dery, an American who lives half the year in Antigua, asserts that there has been nothing like it.

“There is no other series of books like this, that have such specific detail on the plantations,” he said, Agnes adding that while a lot of this history has been there at the Museum and at the Archives, this is the first book “to put it in one place.”

The book, 20 years in the making, launched to a full house Friday 6th April 2018 in the upstairs gallery of the Museum (located between Long and Church streets along Market Street). I took the opportunity to chat briefly with the authors as they signed copy after copy, selling out the 50 brought in for the launch event.
Agnes if you read recollections like this one grew up around the sugar industry – her dad, she tells me, was an engineer, and on both sides she is Antiguan and Barbudan going back generations. So, while she and her co-author are of European descent, Dery is what is typically labelled expat. I mention these identities primarily because Agnes’ interest in the subject seems fairly organic, but how did this collaboration come about?

Well, as noted, Agnes had information pulled together over nearly two decades, and arguably, a lifetime. “I had all this information I needed to do something with.” Dery’s wife, Rowena, and Agnes were golfing buddies and, in conversation, she mentioned her project-in-progress. Mrs. Dery mentioned it to her husband. Her husband happened to be a writer – a retired journalist, novelist and communications executive – who had found Antigua initially through his love of sailing and who, when he and his wife were looking for a place to retire, found that Antigua called to them. A self-described historical nut, Dery offered to write with her this 300 plus years of history of the mills and the plantations of which they were a part; so much history that one of the decisions that had to be taken was to divide it in to volumes – covering St. John’s parish in the first, St. George’s and St. Peter’s in the second which is currently with the printer and due for publication in 2019, and St. Mary’s, St. Philips, and St. Paul’s in the third which Dery has just started writing. And new information is still coming in, according to Agnes, making this a project still in bloom in some ways. Blooming, too, in ways that she may not have anticipated; students at one university, she related, have begun taking the information from the book to create an interactive m/app.

I missed the bulk of the launch, to be honest, but I was in time to catch Agnes talking about something she’s been talking about since I’ve known her, something of which this book is certainly a part; the need for purposeful historical preservation. “Fort James is a place that could have been saved 20 years ago, now it’s going to have to be rebuilt, we’re behind the eight ball all the way,” she said. Fort James, a popular historical site, is a relic from our complicated island history, a time of kings but none bigger than king sugar, in all its bittersweetness.  And with the realization of this book project, she seems to be saying, in part, history records it, people must do the work of preserving it.

This post, sponsored by Joanne C. Hillhouse, originally appeared on Jhohadli as a sponsored post; contact Jhohadli/Joanne C. Hillhouse if you wish to sponsor a future post in support of coverage of Antiguan and Barbudan arts and culture. All Rights Reserved.


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