Pearls before Swine

Pearls, in the Parish of St. Andrew’s, Grenada, just up the road from the main town of Grenville, is a unique place that sits at the intersection of two of the main themes of my research career: the cultures and histories of Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, and the political economy of US imperialist interventions. Both of these strands come together, in one specific spot, like nowhere else: at the old runway—still very much intact—at what was once Pearls Airport. That airport is the subject of the photo essay that follows below.

Aerial view of the runway at the old airport in Pearls.

The Airport

The old airport at Pearls, which some sources say was built by the British occupiers in 1941, and others say 1943, was until 1984 the only airport serving all of Grenada. It was a peculiar choice of location since the capital, St. George’s, is on the opposite side of the island and the drive is a lengthy and sometimes winding one on very narrow roads. The trip takes roughly an hour or more from Pearls to St. George’s. For decades the main airline flying to Pearls was the now defunct BWIA (British West Indian Airways) and LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport) from nearby islands. No passenger jets could land in Grenada until the new airport was finally constructed in 1984 at Point Salines, just a few minutes’ drive south of St. George’s.

The new airport at Point Salines is now officially called Maurice Bishop International Airport, renamed in 2009 after Grenada’s revolutionary Prime Minister (1979–1983). This was the famous site of contention between the US under Ronald Reagan, and the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, which was then allied with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Reagan concocted the story that the Point Salines airport was being constructed primarily to facilitate the arrival of Soviet Bear bombers—in fact, the USSR had nothing to do with the construction of the airport. This was the typical threat exaggeration that marked the Cold War, designed to maximize fear among the American public with the aim of rousing support for eventual military intervention. After the US invasion, American officials admitted that the airport was needed for civilian passengers and to support tourism, and committed themselves to completing it. Thanks to the Grenada Revolution Online site, we have some documentation of this history.

Maurice Bishop International Airport, photographed on Sept. 1, 2019

In addition to Cuba, Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, was also instrumental in providing much needed financial support to fund completion of construction of the new airport. Thus all of us landing in Grenada, arrive at a structure that was made possible by Cuban labour and engineering, and Libyan funding, plus work by a British firm (though this last fact was conveniently sidelined in Reagan’s inflammatory harangues). Ironically, throngs of US tourists and medical students now dominate the airport’s passenger traffic.

In the 1980s, Grenada’s authorities countered US accusations by insisting that the new airport was designed to facilitate the expansion of Grenada’s tourism industry, by permitting direct travel by jet from the major centres that send tourists to the region (Canada, the UK, the US, etc.). It was never constructed for military purposes. Today, Maurice Bishop International Airport is in fact used for all passenger travel—the only time it was excessively and aggressively militarized was when US Marines landed there, just as they landed at the Pearls airport by helicopter, only to be fired on as they landed.

The old runway at Pearls is a place that is barely frequented by tourists; there were only two young American ladies doing a self-guided tour when we were there, but then again we were there during low season. On local tourist maps the image of the runway is accompanied by a label boasting of “Amerindian Sites,” except there is no museum in the vicinity, nor any tours or tour guides to take one to see these “sites”. The two American women we met were totally mystified by this apparent absence, and they had asked everyone they encountered, as we had, about where they were to go to see the Amerindian artifacts. None of the locals could (or would) give an answer.

What we did not realize, at least not at first, is that we were standing right on top of the artifacts: they were spread all around the borders of the runway, and in the heaps of soil piled up at the end of the runway by the beach, where British bulldozers pushed the soil when clearing land for the tarmac.

The Sea Port

That then is the other, older history of Pearls: it was once a major Amerindian port, possibly the largest of its kind, connecting Indigenous communities spread across the Lesser Antilles. Some historians have described it as “the most important archaeological site in the Caribbean”. Pearls had been occupied for at least seven centuries, from 300 BC to 400 AD. Trinidad, just 80 miles to the south, and much larger, has nothing like Pearls in terms of the broad expanse of Amerindian artifacts covering such a large area, with always more artifacts being uncovered at Pearls. I am not aware of the remnants of any “Amerindian port” in all of Trinidad, or Tobago for that matter.

The runway ends just feet from a long and wild beach, not the kind which would normally attract swimmers. The waters are pretty rough, with waves coming in fast and furious, from all angles. The humid air is thick with sea salt. The beach is “littered” with gorgeous pieces of sun-bleached driftwood. The beach shows a few signs of being used by locals for liming purposes: a small amount of discarded soft drink bottles, for example.

A view of the sea from the beach at the end of the runway of the old airport at Pearls

What Could Have Been: The Time before the Swine

Spending time at Pearls Airport offers one the opportunity to reflect on what could have been alternate historical futures for Grenada. Both of those interrupted futures have, arguably, been displaced by a present that is woefully inferior, an evaluation that by no means indicts Grenadians themselves. Yet it is has to be said that the powers-that-be that dominate Grenada’s present have been even handed in their deliberate neglect of the histories buried in plain sight at Pearls. Neither the remnants of Grenada’s recent revolutionary past, nor its Indigenous history, are adequately protected and respected. History is being allowed to degrade and vanish, almost as if the intention was to create a people without history, which would result in something less than human.

On the one hand, what one sees at the Pearls runway (shown in the photos below), are signs of what Grenada could have been: a nation free of US imperial dominance. The relics are a testament to the new friendships and partnerships that Grenada had developed, particularly with its nearby friend in the region with which it shared some key aspects of its history and culture: Cuba. Grenada’s turn was a unique event in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, one that went well beyond the “democratic socialism” of Michael Manley in Jamaica, or the “cooperative socialism” of Forbes Burnham in Guyana, with neither of the latter two being the products of a revolution. In 1974 Grenada wrested its future from the feeble hands of a diminished British empire, and then in 1979 Grenadians overthrew the chief henchman of foreign imperial powers, Sir Eric Gairy (who, one has to admit, still has some measure of support even today). This revolutionary history was first ruptured from within, thanks to violent factionalism (more on this in another essay), and then it was fully terminated from without, thanks to the US invasion in October of 1983.

On the other hand, what is also buried in Pearls is the Amerindian side of what could have been. Never conquered by the Spanish, Amerindian Grenada was a proud place, which for over 150 years—think of that astounding number—successfully drove off colonizing efforts by the British and French, and preserved Grenada as a Caribbean bastion of Indigenous freedom. It is a history that is both awesome and inspiring. In those encounters with the military superpowers of the time, Grenada was utterly victorious. This is one of the reasons I call the Caribs the original anti-imperialists of the modern world-system.

Amerindian Grenada was a green place of beauty, of people who knew how to live the good life and enjoy the free bounties of nature. Grenada is of course still ultra green, and Grenadians show all signs of knowing how to enjoy the good life regardless of any strife or troubles. Yet Amerindian Grenada was something different: their society was one without schools, prisons, offices, army bases, plantations, slavery, or money. Theirs was the peace to which we all claim to strive, but pretend to be unable to achieve, buried under mountains of corruption, addictions to all manner of artifice, and constrained by the daily authoritarianism that dominates our lives.

In terms of preserving or at least acknowledging the Amerindian past, it is true that the Grenada National Museum (the subject of essays to come), has made some efforts to advance local knowledge of Pearls’ Indigenous heritage, with special archaeological field trips for local schoolchildren, assisted by the incredible Michael John. Michael John, himself from Pearls, is a self-made archaeologist, with an apparently natural talent for spotting Amerindian artifacts. He is a man who is very likely of Carib descent and who also makes a living carving stone objects that look much like those one normally finds buried in the ground, those carved by his likely ancestors. What we learned from him is also the subject of an essay to come, which will at least be published on the Review of the Indigenous Caribbean if not here.

On the whole, however, what is being done to preserve and protect the memory of the Amerindians is far too little. Amerindian history is sometimes looted by tourists, some of whom possibly do not know that it is against the law to remove artifacts—but then again, nobody is enforcing the law. Suitcases and other travel items are not checked by the authorities when one flies out of Grenada, as they ought to be in all cases. Locals who claim to know nothing about “Amerindian sites” in the vicinity of the Pearls runway may be performing a very valuable service.

Facing west, on the runway at Pearls

Facing east, toward the sea, on the runway at Pearls

Visiting Revolutionary Relics

The following photographs which we took at Pearls focus exclusively on the “revolutionary plane relics”. It still seems awkward to describe Grenada’s socialist history in archaeological terms.

The first series of images below are of a Soviet-made transport aircraft, an Antonov An-26, which belonged to Cuba. The specific plane in the photos was registered as CU-T1254. Presumably it could have been used to transport troops, and almost certainly brought Cuban construction workers and doctors to Grenada. Since everyone in Cuba receives military training, it is not surprising that when US Marines landed at Point Salines, Cuban construction workers were the ones to instantly drop their shovels and pick up their rifles, and fought the Americans as hard as they could. It was an act of heroism that brings to mind the island’s Carib past.

This plane, belonging to Cubana Airlines, was prohibited by the American occupiers from being repatriated to Cuba, and the plane was damaged and just left there to rot. Photos online, posted even in recent years by other travellers, show a plane that was more intact than what we found, so it is deteriorating at a rapid pace. In 2006, the wings were still in place, not collapsing to the ground as we saw.

Cubana Airlines plane at Pearls.

The nose of the Cubana aircraft at Pearls.

One of the Cubana plane’s drooping wings.

A close-up view of the interior of the engine.

The other wing, now collapsing into the soil.

Signs of extensive decay, as seen under one of the wings.

From behind, left, looking forward.

From behind, right, facing forward.

Remnant of the landing gear of the Cubana plane.

Interior of the Cubana plane, seemingly stripped.

A haunting view of a lone passenger seat inside the Cubana plane.

Mess and chaos, jumbled up behind the cockpit.

Another haunting view, this time of the cockpit. One can imagine the pilots at the controls, when the plane was still in service.

Still standing tall and proud under the Grenadian sun, the tail shows traces of the Cuban flag insignia of the airline.

The second plane we photographed was very peculiar, at least to me. It became apparent that this was an Aeroflot craft, with the name of the airline still clearly visible on the side of the aircraft, as well as its registration number: CCCP-71189. It seemed too small to carry more than maybe six passengers. And in any case: how did it get here? Surely a single-engine vessel of this size did not fly here straight from Russia. Did it fly from Cuba? Thanks again to Grenada Revolution Online, we have documentation of this very aircraft. The plane was a crop duster, an Antonov An-2R, sent to Grenada by ship in a crate. The plane was to be used to spray banana plantations. It was a bi-plane, though what we saw led us to believe that it was single wing aircraft—thus one of the wings has effectively vanished.

Why would a newspaper article even be written about the arrival of a crop duster? Grenada may be a small place, but Grenadians are neither so bored, nor so boring, with nothing better to write about. If it was documented, it was precisely to account for and thus counter the hysterical threat inflation emanating from Washington about Soviet planes in Grenada.

Even when compared with photographs from 2006, what we saw was a greatly degraded version.

The Aeroflot crop duster.

A frontal view of the Aeroflot plane.

AEROFLOT can clearly be seen even now on the side of the plane.

The registration number of the Aeroflot plane can still be made out: CCCP-71189

The tail section of the Aeroflot plane.

An inside view of the Aeroflot plane, looking toward the cockpit.

Another interior view of the Aeroflot plane suggests that it could have accommodated passengers.

Eerily, the cockpit of the Aeroflot aircraft is being claimed by the surrounding vegetation.

Now permanently grounded, and slowly becoming part of the ground, it is hard to imagine that these things ever flew high in the sky. It serves some imperial satisfaction, or the acquired pleasure of a quisling, to view the planes of “the enemy” in this state. So these planes are left to face hurricanes and storms, unprotected, and possibly subject to vandalism. Thus the signs of a people’s history vanish in front of our very eyes. Is it a mere coincidence that the signs of a history of resistance against imperialism past and present are what is allowed to decay in this manner, even as old cocoa and rum estates are refurbished and placed in prominent view for passing tourists?

Cows now dominate the scene at was once the Pearls Airport runway.