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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, March 7, 2021
Home Commentary Op-ed Op-Ed: Responses to the Windmill as a Visual Icon

Op-Ed: Responses to the Windmill as a Visual Icon

Ruins of Rust Op Twist Plantation Sugar Mill Plantation, St. Croix, USVI (Shutterstock)

In a panoramic scan of the Crucian landscape, the most distinctive structures dotting the gentle hills are the windmills. The nearly perfect, inverted conical shape over 10 feet high is what strikes the eye. The massive amount of space cleared around it to accommodate its mechanical operation creates an atmosphere of awe. On the many low-lying hills that comprise the island, there may be a mill on each, towering over the landscape. In one glance, a viewer may be fortunate to see two windmills at the same time on opposite hillsides. The space and the ground, on which the structure is situated, is eerily telling of the past activity, in which the laborers were exposed to injury and pain at their workplace.

Men, carts and animals converged quickly to the top of the welcoming-arms ramp to get the cartloads of sugar cane fed into the crevices between the three rotating cylinders, each spiked with metal treads for crushing the stalks. The noise of the wooden drive shaft, attached up at the ceiling and guided by the rotation of the blades, the whirling wooden cogs and metal rollers is deafening. The rolling of the three gigantic cylinders when men force the stalks into the crevices between them has the sound of metal meeting metal.

At the same opening, the departing men scoop up the waste, crushed stalks (bagasse) into the carts and move quickly down the ramp. On the opening to the right, the juice is sent to the factory by gravity, flowing from the mill down in a trough. The physical closeness of 5-7 workers at a time, in this small, crowded space, in near proximity of the mass of moveable parts which are all rotating by a seemingly unending prevailing wind forebodes impending danger for human workers.

In the hustle to get the greatest quantity of sugar cane processed before it ferments in its stalks, there is much pressure. The tone and rhythm of the work is ordained not only by the wind which dictates the speed of the blades, activates the driveshaft and thus rotates the three metal cylinders, but also by the whip in the overseer’s hand.

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The work routine is of immense consideration to us today. Elisa McKay perceives the threat of death and/or the maiming of an enslaved worker as he thrust his cartload of sugar cane stalks by hand between the rollers was staggering. Her collage “Spirit World,” which appears in the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts 2021 calendar is a testament to the resilience of her ancestors.

As the operators of the machinery had no control of the speed of the rotating cylinders, there was always the danger of injury and the greater threat that the rollers could engulf hands and arms, sucking them into the revolving metal. An ax was at hand for such instances. Chopping off the affected limb may have been the only way to keep the victim alive. At the scene, the massive loss of blood itself was also fatal. Yet, there was no stopping the production.

In her artwork, McKay says that she, like African American Roman Bearden, tells stories through collages. In her “Spirit World,” the contrasting materials selected to render the image are powerful. The pasted on cut paper shapes are placed like the actual fieldstones of the surface of the conical shape. The rendering of the materials in the proportions anchors the image to the Caribbean sugar production of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is therefore most recognizable to us today.

To the right of McKay’s image is the silhouette of a man whom McKay envisions as her ancestor, an enslaved laborer working 12 hours per day in the blazing hot sun or in the dark star-lighted night, rapidly driving the donkey cart to the mill.

The artist’s deceased subject’s face is chillingly staring right into that of his widow and his son.

Superimposed on the mill’s façade is a photograph of McKay and her siblings when they were young. The juxtaposition of this modern image on the surface of the historic mill thwarts our sensibilities.

Today, windmills are situated in the same space they have ruled over for the past one hundred years, yet now they give the aura of being gently placed in position. William Cleveland, University of Wisconsin researcher, who 30 years ago photographed, measured and described each of the mills, all information compiled into a maroon binder in St. Croix Landmark Society’s library, says that in the days of sugar production, the windmills were central to the placement of all the structures on a plantation.

Cleared space was established to accommodate the towering mass of the structure, the rotation of its huge canvas-covered blades, the immense tail which directed the sails into the prevailing wind, and the continuous cart traffic to and from the fields. Enslaved African men provided the physical labor of the construction of the towers as well as to all aspects of this cane-crushing process.

With the beginnings of tourism in the sixties, coupled with the burgeoning world of iconography and commercialism, the image of the windmill has become on St. Croix the most recognizable icon representing the island. The windmill appears on store signs, organization and company logos and in artwork. The image is pervasive and can be found in jewelry, television commercials and print ads.

On jewelry, the windmill has become a portable symbol, which the tourist can take home as a gift or wear directly from the shop as an expensive but meaningful souvenir. Arrays of gold and silver pendants, bracelet adornments and dangling windmill earrings reinforce this image that links the wearer to having a connection with the island. In the past, one shop originally offered such a desired symbol of the island. Today a host of establishments vie with one another in merchandising the image.

In another genre, the Department of Tourism has engaged the spokesmen and image-makers to compose a unity song, aired on local television stations. “This Too Shall Pass,” referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, zones in on several of the historic windmills, capitalizing on their easily- recognized identity in the Virgin Islands’ landscape. Photographed at all angles are at least three mills. The singing and dancing performers cavort around the mill at ground level; drones photograph the conical towers from above.

In heritage tours, hikers trek up through today’s overgrowth on abandoned estates to the mill’s base and peer in through the empty openings of the walls. Outside the structure, they enjoy the panoramic views. Historian Arnold Highfield writes that the Moravian missionaries and their helpers (enslaved Africans) cut field and coral stone and hoisted the material upward as the structure grew as a tower. Their work was key to the building of a sugar processing industry.

In modern times, the mill has been incorporated into the architecture of homes, schools and restaurants and photographed and displayed in architectural magazines, showing that a new use, practical for today’s living, has been found for them.

In print ads, such as that of the St. Croix Landmarks Society, where summer camp children and their teacher race joyfully toward the mill’s welcoming arms cart ramp, ready to examine the silenced inner workings and hear the adult’s explanation of the realities of working long hours at the structure. Through the stories and the history of the estate and its mill, the children are made aware of the dangers their ancestors had risked by being forced to work on the premises. The blood of the mangled arm, the blood of the cut bare feet, the dropped feces of the donkeys and the stray stalks, all strewn over the steep cart ramp, bode ill for the health and safety of the workers. Additionally, the story of the use of the ax, which the children hear, reveals the hidden dangers of the eighteenth-century industrial complex, full of dangerous hazards for the enforced labor.

So, the wide variety of today’s representations may feature a lighter-hearted perception of the windmill. Unfortunately, its actual purpose is lost on the seasonal tourist. In purchasing the image as a souvenir, the significance of the icon is never impressed upon the unsuspecting buyer.

For the descendants of the workers of those edifices, in contrast, such as Elisa Mc Kay, the images hold another meaning. Crucian families agree that it would be inappropriate to hold a picnic or storytelling session at the base of a sugar mill. The memory of the blood and sweat of the workers makes the mill environment sacred to the memory of those Crucians who worked under the whirling sails and the watchful eye of the overseer. These memories of their ancestors are prominent in the minds of today’s people of this island.

Cleveland is returning to St. Croix to continue his photographing and documenting windmills from Feb. 24-March 3 and is looking for volunteers who wish to participate in the fieldwork. He may be reached for further details at william.cleveland@gmail.com.

Elizabeth Rezende, St. Croix

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