REAR ADMIRAL ALFRED THAYER MAHAN once wrote, “One thing is sure. In the Caribbean Sea is the strategical key of two great oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific; our own maritime frontiers.” After the War with Spain it seemed for a time as if we would heed Mahan’s advice and make the Caribbean Sea our own private lake, a continuation of the Gulf of Mexico. A base was acquired in Cuba, Puerto Rico was under the American flag, and while the eastern approaches were still open, at least we held the northern passages to the Caribbean. However, something stopped us; the country’s internal feeling of the antagonism of the Pan- American countries to our Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy, reliance upon English sea power, or just the natural reaction and withdrawal after the war. At any event we did not push our naval interests in this area even though the construction of the Panama Canal made Mahan’s words truer than ever.
During World War I our interest was again focused on this area and we strengthened our hold on the northern fringe by the purchase of the Danish West Indies, or the Virgin Islands. Still we did not construct bases, but merely acquired sites on which bases could be built when the need arose. And again after this war we saw an American withdrawal from this vital area. This time it was concern over our relations in the Far East that caused the movement of, first the major portion of our fleet, and eventually all of it to the Pacific. Once again the knowledge that the control of the Atlantic was in the hands of British sea power proved a comfort to the government in Washington.
Now the picture has changed. Japan is still a power to be reckoned with in the Pacific, but there is an equally great urgency in the Atlantic. British sea power, while still ruling the seas, has had its lines extended to the danger point, and the United States has realized that the Atlantic is our problem as well as England’s. Who controls the shores of the Atlantic across from us in the European balance of power, is a matter of vital importance to our way of living, and we can no longer trust to some one else for our safety.
First and most immediate is continental and hemisphere defense. The Caribbean has been rediscovered and another war brings us new territory around its borders.
The Caribbean and Mediterranean have been compared but it would be more true to show them in contrast. Both the Caribbean and Mediterranean are busy crossroads of the world’s sea-borne trade, and man-made canals have vastly increased this natural traffic. Both arc focal points of control that save thousands of miles to all maritime nations, and especially to the two most vitally concerned, the United States in the Caribbean and England in the Mediterranean. But with these two points similarities cease—the remainder is contrast. Around the shores of the Mediterranean are powerful nations, civilizations that have flourished since records began; whereas the Caribbean washes the shores of small, thinly populated and undeveloped nations of the New World. Around the shores of the Mediterranean are many naval bases, fine harbors with the resources of modern countries to back them up; in the Caribbean at the outbreak of this war there were some harbors, nothing more. Two entrances, or exits, Gibraltar and Suez, control the Mediterranean, and both are in the possession of one power, England. There are many passages into the Caribbean and until our acquisition of the new bases from England, we controlled only about half of them, and that control was not positive. But with the acquisition of our new bases the picture changes and once more the opportunity is ours to make the Caribbean an American lake—not a closed sea, but an open highway with the United States Navy in charge of all the traffic lights on this particular corner of world trade.
Between the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Cape San Antonio on the western tip of Cuba lies the connecting link to the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Channel. This channel and the Florida Straits to the east of it are amply covered by Key West and Jacksonville. The next opening to the east is Windward Passage, which is dominated by the triangular bastion of Guantanamo Bay, Gonaives Bay, and Jamaica. On Jamaica the United States has acquired 55 square miles plus an additional 275 acres. Here on Portland Bight is to be one of the two important bases of the West Indian area, and Jamaica will become the Malta of the Caribbean!
Some of us have been into Kingston Harbor and remember it as a most pleasant spot, but for those who have not made the visit (at least not yet), a brief history and background of Jamaica may not be amiss. Jamaica was first touched by Columbus during his second voyage in 1494, and it was named by him “St. Iago.” However, it soon reverted to its native name of “Xaymaca,” or the modern equivalent, “Jamaica.” In 1520 Spanish Town was founded and the Spaniards maintained a colony on the island until its capture by an English force dispatched by Cromwell in 1655. A new town, Port Royal, was founded on the end of the sandy spit enclosing Kingston Harbor, and it soon became one of the finest, richest, and wildest towns of the Caribbean, due to the pirates making it their headquarters.
The morning of June 7, 1692, saw the end of Port Royal as a city, for a great earthquake struck the town in all its fury. Three thousand buildings were destroyed, part of the town was swept into the sea, and when the catastrophe was over the few survivors crossed the bay to the present site of Kingston. Kingston was nearly destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1907, and consequently most of the city dates from its rebuilding in that year. Kingston is a city of from 75,000 to 100,000 and lies on a plain with the hills behind it and the bay in front.
The island of Jamaica is approximately 150 miles long by 50 miles wide and has nearly 4,000 miles of good motor roads and 210 miles of railroad. The main railway runs from Kingston diagonally across the island to Montego Bay on the northwest shore, which is a popular beach resort. Jamaica abounds with good hotels, and offers a variety of climate and scenery. The Blue Mountains rise to an elevation of 7,000 feet and offer a cool relief from the tropical seashore. Part of the area acquired by the United States is 100 acres in the mountains for a hospital and recreation center.
Jamaica’s population of nearly 1,000,000 persons is largely black, and the full- blooded negro Jamaicans shine as if they had been polished. A number of Chinese, Hindus, and the usual quota of British colonials make up the remainder of the population. Prior to the outbreak of the war Jamaica had a very large tourist trade, and probably has maintained it, as most of the tourists were from the United States. The shops in Kingston were well stocked with British tweeds, Kent brushes, Wedgwood china and other British products, and a thriving business with the tourists was carried on.
Jamaica will be the major base in the northwestern part of the Caribbean, and from its central location affords a means for ready reinforcements in any direction.
Our own islands of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and Culebra stand guard over the next two passages, Mona and Anegada. San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the strong point of this group with a naval station and navy and army air bases. Medium bombers with fighter escort will be able to shuttle back and forth between San Juan and Trinidad via Antigua and St. Lucia, two other of the bases. San Juan is the headquarters of the newly constituted Tenth Naval District which includes all the American territory in the Caribbean area, and with the adjoining islands of St. Thomas and Culebra it will be the central strong point of control, being flanked by Jamaica on the west and Trinidad on the southeast.
Three hundred miles east of Puerto Rico, and at the point where the Lesser Antilles turn the corner and head southward, are the Leeward Islands with Antigua as the capital and most important island. The other islands of the Leeward group are St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat, but they are all of minor importance as compared with Antigua. St. Kitts was the scene of the first English settlement in the West Indies in 1623, and was settled with the idea of using it as an opening wedge to move in on the Spanish West Indies. The pirates soon found that they were welcome and for many years it was a pirate stronghold.
Nevis, two miles east of St. Kitts, is a volcanic cone rising 3,500 feet above sea level. In the earlier colonial days it was something of a West Indian watering place and health resort, as it had, and still has, a very fine mineral spring heated by the volcanic fires underneath. It was here that Alexander Hamilton was born, and it was here that a young naval captain in His Majesty’s West Indian Squadron, Horatio Nelson, met and married Mrs. Francis Nisbet.
Antigua, the capital, comprises a little over 100 square miles and is not as hilly as its neighbors, the maximum elevation being about 1,000 feet. The principal town is St. John, which has a population of 8,000 and is a quiet little village. The entire island is quite pastoral, and the main amusement and relaxation is swimming as there are many miles of white faultless beaches with clean blue water and gentle surf. The aviation base on Antigua will be on Parham Sound, which is on the northern side of the island and consists of two land areas of 1.4 sq. miles and 430 acres. Antigua, being the northeastern most island, will be useful as an observation post, as well as a way station between the other aviation bases.
From San Juan to Antigua is 300 miles, from Antigua to St. Lucia 200 miles, and from St. Lucia to Trinidad 250 miles. These distances show how well we have closed the passages to the Caribbean from the east, as any type fighter plane now in production will have sufficient radius never to be far from one of the bases, and yet support other type planes or surface ships in defense of the passages.
St. Lucia comprises about 340 square miles and is 20 miles south of Martinique. In fact from Gros Islet Bay, where the United States has acquired 1,255 acres, Martinique can be seen quite easily. It was in this bay that Rodney anchored his fleet and awaited the French just before the Battle of the Saints’ Passage. The land is mountainous, rising to an elevation of over 3,000 feet, but there are a number of good beaches, which furnish the main relaxation of the inhabitants. The capital, Castries, in the days of coaling ships was rather important, as it possessed a good harbor, and Great Britain considered it one of her important posts in the West Indies. Some very fine stone barracks for the British Army were completed in 1905, but that same year it was decided to remove all troops from St. Lucia, and the barracks were left unoccupied for many years.
It was for the Botanical Gardens of St. Lucia and its neighbor St. Vincent that Captain Bligh made his famous trip in the Bounty. Everyone is familiar with Captain Bligh and “Mutiny on the Bounty,” but what started him on his ill-fated cruise is less well known. The colonial office in London decided that some of the various food plants, especially the bread-fruit tree, that grew in profusion among the Pacific Islands could be transplanted in the West Indies and assist in the problem of feeding the plantation slaves. Accordingly Bligh was commissioned to obtain the plants and eventually he did, because after the Bounty episode he tried again in the Providence and completed his task.
The total population of St. Lucia is approximately 60,000, of which nearly all are black. Castries is a very clean West Indian town, for according to the authorities the population of 60,000 use an average of 4 pounds of soap per year for each person.
Between St. Lucia and Martinique lies the passage that is most used by vessels making a direct run from western Europe to the Panama Canal. In fact this passage might be thought of as the eastern entrance to the Caribbean. The new base at Gros Islet Bay will cover this very effectively.
Two hundred and fifty miles to the south we come to the large island of Trinidad, our southern anchor of defense. Trinidad is in reality a part of the South American Continent, and geologically speaking it must not have been so many thousands of years ago that it was detached from the neighboring mainland. On Trinidad today may be found monkeys, armadillos, a species of South American deer, boa constrictors and other South American animals; not in great numbers it is true, but some of each kind. The botany of Trinidad is the same as that of the great forests of Guiana to the south. The area comprises 1,862 square miles and has an extreme elevation of 3,000 feet. Most of the land is low swamp, or thick jungle forest, and will constitute a problem in the building of the army base there. The United States has acquired four areas in Trinidad of 18 square miles, 12 square miles, 2 square miles, and 96 acres. The sum of $90,000,000 has been set aside to build in Trinidad the most imposing of all the new defense bases. This will be the anchor to the Caribbean defense and a jumping-off point, if need be, for South American defense.
Two promontories extend to the westward from the main part of the island which with the adjacent mainland enclose the Gulf of Para, making it nearly landlocked. The Dragon’s Mouth, the northern entrance to the Gulf of Para, is only about 20 miles wide and is made up of several channels, the largest and most navigable being the Boca Grande. Just inside the entrance to the Gulf of Para is Chacachacare Island, the present location of the leper colony that was removed from the main island of Trinidad a number of years ago. The southern exit of the gulf is known as the Serpent’s Mouth, and into it flows one of the mouths of the Orinoco River. On this southern promontory is located the famous Pitch Lake, a bottomless natural deposit of nearly pure asphalt. The first view of it will be disappointing, as it appears only as an ugly black marsh of 127 acres that is solid enough to support a narrow gauge railroad track. The crude asphalt is dug out of the “lake” by means of pickaxes, loaded into small cars which run on their movable tracks, and carried to a near-by refinery. At the refinery the 30 per cent water is removed and the asphalt barreled for shipment. Some ships load up at the pier of La Brea, the asphalt being carried directly to the holds of the vessels. Though years of excavation have lowered the level, Pitch Lake gradually replenishes itself and it appears that there will always be asphalt, as long as anyone cares to take it away. The lake will be a most useful source of supply to aid in the construction of the new bases.
The existence of Pitch Lake indicated that perhaps there might be oil in the vicinity, and eventually it was discovered. Now Trinidad is an important producing field in the British Empire; oil has been rather scarce in actual British territory. The oil industry has brought a large degree of prosperity and has made the island cosmopolitan in contrast to the remainder of the West Indies. The presence of these oil wells will be another source of strength to the naval units based there. In fact Trinidad has a number of factors that go to constitute a good base. Pitch Lake and large forests will supply construction materials, agriculture is well developed, and a large population of 340,000 persons furnishes a labor market.
The population, like other features of Trinidad, is different from that of the other islands of the Caribbean. Fully one-third of the inhabitants, about 100,000, are Hindus. The presence of these Hindus, or Indians from Calcutta, is explained by the fact that, when the slave trade ceased, natives from the slums of Calcutta were imported under an indenture system, whereby they agreed to work for a specified number of years. When their term of service was up, nearly all remained, and their descendants make up the present Hindu population. It was as late as 1917 when the last shipment arrived. They have their own part of the town, their own mosque and temple, and furnish most of the shopkeepers of Port-au-Spain.
The remaining two-thirds of the population is composed of blacks and Europeans. The blacks of Trinidad have become world famous, in a peculiar way, for their Calypso singing. Calypso singing is a type of folk music that, until now, has remained original and unspoiled. Calypso singers acquire a great amount of prestige and honor if they arc good, and each year at carnival time the competition is quite keen. Groups of negroes wander around the streets with the most meager of musical instruments and produce real rhythm. Their songs are often familiar ones to the natives, while the more famous Calypso singers compose on the spot about anything under the sun. Personages, world events, happenings of every day, love, life and death—any subject will become a song. Some songs are poor, while others are ribald, effective, and often brilliant. Calypso singing is real folk music, spontaneous, life itself in song. Recently some of the more famous Calypso singers have appeared in New York, but they sing best in their native Trinidad.
Port-au-Spain, the capital, is a large pleasant city of 70,000 and lies in a great plain extending back to the mountains. Along Frederick Street are numbers of shops offering articles of British merchandise, but the majority are Bombay stores run by the Hindus, which are similar to but not up to the standard of the Hindu shops of Colon and Panama.
The most delightful part of Port-au- Spain is the Savannah or Queen’s Park, consisting of 170 acres, which contains a race track, a Rugby football field, and several cricket pitches. Some of the trees here are not equalled elsewhere in the world, but the main appeal of the Savannah is the large expanse of beautiful meadow. Around the Savannah arc the better homes and hotels and on one edge is Government House surrounded by the Botanic Garden. Government House is the residence of the Governor-General, the post ranking as among the best in the British colonial service. Across the Savannah is the Queen’s Park Hotel, the best in the city, and the center of the night life of Port-au-Spain. Any description of Port-au-Spain is not complete without mention of the Wuppermann family and their Angostura Bitters. The world-famous bitters are prepared here from the jealously guarded formula, and have added wealth and fame to Trinidad.
The island of Tobago, 20 miles northeast of Trinidad, is governed from Port-au- Spain. It is a quiet, restful island, an overnight journey by steamer from Trinidad, and a vacation spot for Trinidadians because of its peace and calm. On a tombstone in the churchyard of the village of Plymouth is inscribed the epitaph of a most ingenious lady,
“She was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it.”
The last defense bases to the south have been acquired in British Guiana and consist of land areas of 2.5 square miles and 1,400 acres to be used for two patrol plane bases. These bases will be the southern outposts of Trinidad and complete the ring of control points around the Caribbean.
When all the new bases have been constructed and manned by units of our Army and Navy, Mahan’s dream will have come true, for the Caribbean will then be an American lake, and ingress to that lake will be controlled by United States defense forces as positively as if it were an inland body.
... IF OUR OBJECT be positive our general plan must be offensive, and we should at least open with a true offensive movement; whereas if our object be negative our general plan will be preventive, and we may bide our time for our counterattack. To this extent our action must always tend to the offensive. For counter-attack is the soul of defense. Defense is not a passive attitude, for that is the negation of war. Rightly conceived, it is an attitude of alert expectation. We wait for the moment when the enemy shall expose himself to a counter-stroke, the success of which will so far cripple him as to render us relatively strong enough to pass to the offensive ourselves. —CORBETT, Maritime Strategy.