Ten weeks after hurricane Irma hit Anguilla (and St. Martin) it’s becoming increasingly clearer that the task at hand involves the transformation of the island, not just its reconstruction. With hundreds of structures badly damaged or totally destroyed many buildings are doomed to give way altogether, vacating the land where they once sat to be replaced, at least in some cases, by new constructions. But what becomes of the departed buildings? What’s in a ruin? What, even, in empty space? Can any significance be attached to what no longer is there? Can a building that has touched the lives of many simply cease to exist?
In theory the 2017 winter season started a fortnight ago, but the reality on Anguilla is not one of rich visitors and high-end tourism but rather one of trying to bring back some sense of normality to day-to-day life. A drive down The Road from South Hill to Sandy Ground tells you all you need to know about the situation: despite the electric company’s best efforts, the island’s most popular strip of nighttime entertainment is still off the grid, poles leaning left and right in a guard of honor of sorts. For all the devastation evident along The Road, though, the most striking portrait of the mess Irma has left behind is, quite possibly, the least evident to the untrained eye for it isn’t articulated around invasive and perfectly visible elements such as rubble. Instead, it reveals itself in the eerie form of absence, in the immaterial yet perfectly evident emptiness that has replaced a building that should be there, that seemingly always had been there, a landmark that everyone knows, yet that isn’t there anymore: The Pumphouse.
Ask anyone who has had any dealings with Anguilla in the last twenty years and they’ll know The Pumphouse for what it’s been all this time—the island’s favorite nightlife venue. From the moment the historical building was transformed into a bar, back in the mid 1990s, The Pumphouse grew in stature at a staggering pace, quickly complementing and eventually replacing Johnno’s as the place to while away the Anguillian night. Long before the pump house became The Pumphouse, however, the building already had played a significant role in the lives (and livelihood) of Anguillians in general and people from Sandy Ground in particular, as the nerve center of the island’s salt industry.
Anguilla’s saltpans have almost certainly been exploited since the seventeenth century, though the first Anguilla Salt Ponds Joint Stock Company wasn’t founded until 1855. For centuries salt reaping in Anguilla was conducted with no interference of the natural process, whereby the basins would be flooded periodically by seawater which would subsequently be evaporated by the sun, creating a sheet of salt which had to be pierced and picked from the bottom of the pond to be transported over flat barges to dry land. It would be Wager Rey, originally from St. Martin, who would deploy a system of stone dams all around the Road Salt Pond to regulate the levels of seawater and keep rainwater from diluting the brine. Wager’s son, Carter would further develop the mechanism and install a diesel pump to drive the rainwater out of the lagoon, as well as a mill to grind the salt rocks down to grains. In order to protect this valuable machinery from the elements, and to provide shelter to those cleaning, preparing, grinding, and packing the salt, the wooden pump house was built, probably sometime in the 1920s. Those were not buoyant times for Anguilla, but the salt industry—with the pump house at its core—provided a rare economic lifeline on an island where employment was desperately scarce.
Indeed, the pump house outlived the purpose for which it was constructed—salt reaping—twice over. The first time came roundabout 1950, when the original salt company was forced to shut down. Anguillians, however, are nothing if not resilient and in the 1960s Rupert Carty and Joseph Owen paired to create the Anguilla Road Salt Company. At the time Carty had been working in Trinidad, where salt was needed in great quantities for the oil refining process. For the best part of the following two decades salt competed only with lobster as Anguilla’s mainstay, with the Anguilla Road Salt Pond Company producing more than 9,000 tons of it in 1967 and consistently exporting more than 400 tons to Trinidad on a monthly basis. The pump house, with its tall gabled roofs and exposed wooden beams, was the operating room of the whole enterprise.
A combination of unfavorable weather conditions and financial volatility in Trinidad brought dark clouds over the venture in the 1980s, and the passage of hurricane Klaus in 1984 put the final nail in the coffin of the Anguilla Road Salt Company. The pump house on one side of the road and a mound of leftover salt on the other remained as relics of what once had been an enviable business. The salt withered away, but the pump house refused to die, and ten years later Laurie and Gaby Gumbs gave it a new lease on life—one that, as it turned out, would last more than two decades.
Today, nothing is left of the much-loved pump house, once one of Anguilla’s most emblematic buildings. Hurricane Irma unleashed all its fury and shattered to pieces a structure that, though wooden, had withstood the passage of hurricanes Luis in 1995 and Donna in 1960, as well as many others before and after. Suddenly, the absence that exists in the space vacated by the pump house—by The Pumphouse—is as glaring as if a skyscraper had materialized out of nothing in the middle of the island. Gone are the four walls (and Demarara windows) that harbored so many stories of backbreaking toil and drunken revelry, of drag parties and traditional values. The memories won’t go anywhere, and the stories will stay alive as long as any given person remembers any of it (or at least remembers that they couldn’t remember a thing the following morning) but there is more to the legacy of a building than a few anecdotes.
Landscape, natural and manmade, is shaped by each and every one of the elements that compose it. Some elements might make a greater contribution that others, but ultimately all components play a role in the configuration of any given space—also those which are no longer there. That is not to say that a building lives in its spirit as if it were still physically there—I’m not proposing anything as esoteric as that. What I am suggesting, though, is that every space tells a story, also through what isn’t (any longer) there.
What was there before? Why isn’t it there now? These and other questions are pertinent not only in the face of natural catastrophe, they are always relevant, and always enlightening because change is constantly happening—and it never fails to leave a trace. The answers to these questions can be found by many means: sometimes an in-depth investigation might be required; sometimes we might have to ask someone from the area, an older person or a specialist; but sometimes the answers are readily visible in the immediate surroundings. In other words, sometimes we need someone to tell us a story, but sometimes the landscape tells a story in and by itself—and little can be more telling than unspoken narratives.
Of course, no one could be expected to learn of hurricane Klaus and Joseph Owen, of Wager Rey and the Anguilla Salt Ponds Joint Stock Company merely by looking at the landscape—those details pertain to history, and history is by definition tangible, recorded. What can be divined from observation, what remains of the pump house in its absence and of every other building in Sandy Ground (and elsewhere), is usually intangible, though not for that reason less significant.
In all likelihood the lot where the old pump house once sat won’t remain empty for long—indeed a gofundme initiative to sponsor the construction of a new Pumphouse has already been launched. No matter what shape the new building takes, though, it will never be able to incorporate the character and the substance that came attached to the old pump house. That would be simply impossible, because lost in the rubble is something that just cannot be replaced. The new Pumphouse will have to forge its own legacy, create its own stories, and leave its mark in a community hungry for a happy ending. And yet a number of circumstances (from location to ownership, of course, but also the orientation of the new building, its vicinity to the pond, its relation to the stone dams, even, in all likelihood, the name of the new bar) dictate that the new Pumphouse will also have to learn to coexist with the invisible presence of the old pump house, because if something irretrievable was lost when the previous structure came tumbling to the ground something else remains which cannot, will not, go away.
It might not always be obvious to the naked eye, and clearly the more things change the less recognizable the past becomes, but in a place like the Caribbean, where transformation is always around the corner—just a strong wind away—it’s worth bearing in mind that the landscape is a work in perpetual progress with a million clues to where we’re at and how we got here.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday November 17, 2017.