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August Monday: Celebration and Sad Memories for Saint Kitts-Nevis

MsDora grew up, received early education and taught school in the Caribbean. Read her love and pride of the region—people and place.

August Monday (first Monday in August) is also known as Emancipation Day in some Caribbean territories including sister islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis. It is a public holiday in commemoration of the Slavery Abolition Act passed by the British Parliament on August 1, 1834. Presently, Emancipation Day observance occupies two days—August Monday and the following Tuesday.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, the day's celebrations are centered around our joy and gratitude for freedom from slavery. It also brings sad memories because of the national disaster on August Monday 1970.

Nevis Culturama (2012).  No photographer named.

Nevis Culturama (2012). No photographer named.

Residents on Saint Kitts usually celebrate with picnics, parties, family gatherings on the beach or in the parks. In 2013, on the first Sunday in August, the Emancipation Festival at Brimstone Hill, the first of its kind celebrated "our rise out of bondage" under the theme "True Liberation Through Ownership of Our Heritage.”

On the island of Nevis, the holiday falls within their annual Culturama, a weeklong carnival type celebration. That’s the good part!

The 1970 Tragedy

August Monday 1970 fell on August 3rd. Culturama was not yet on the calendar, and horse racing was the main feature scheduled for the island of Nevis. On Saturday August 1st preparations for the holiday celebration came to a halt in what is still known as the single most disastrous event on Saint Kitts and Nevis. For those of us who experienced the tragedy, it is difficult to celebrate on August Monday without remembering that event.

An artist's impression of the MV Christena (artist not named)

An artist's impression of the MV Christena (artist not named)

Flashback

Since June 1959, the MV Christena, a ferry owned by the Saint Kitts-Nevis government, made daily trips between the two islands. The recommended capacity was 1551. However, on Saturday August 1st 1970, the crowd sailing from Saint Kitts to Nevis was impressively larger. School vacation had just started; both students and teachers were looking for a joyful start to the summer holidays.

Add the growing number of business men, civil servants, laborers and others who traveled annually to the Nevis celebration of the nation’s emancipation from slavery; and the regular weekend travelers who made the trip to visit family members and friends.

This was not the first weekend on which the boat was overcrowded, and nobody seemed to care. Not even Captain James Ponteen who backed the ferry away from the dock at 3: 30 p.m., then stopped and returned immediately for more passengers who were late. They sailed again, and for about thirty minutes the mood was merry in keeping with the holiday atmosphere until—in rapid succession: the boat began to rock, then lean, then took in water on deck, and finally sank with the engines still running at 4:10 p.m.

MV Christena Sank Between the Two Islands

Residents on both islands were dumbfounded. Every resident knew someone who perished, or at least the family to which a victim belonged. Some individuals suffered mental breakdowns and a few never recovered. At the end of the count, 236 perished and 99 survived.2

That Saturday night, the organ music on the radio station sounded like wailing. Intermittently, the announcer read the names of victims whose remains were recovered, and gave notice cancelling holiday events. The mood was confusion and denial. It was also connectedness which spread over weeks and month, in which residents shared sympathy and encouragement. They helped each other recover.

Christena Memorial Burial headstones reads:   "RIP - In memory of Nevisians who perished in the Christena Disaster 1st Aug 1970

Christena Memorial Burial headstones reads: "RIP - In memory of Nevisians who perished in the Christena Disaster 1st Aug 1970

Survivors' Testimonies

Pauline Ngunjiri reported the testimonies of two survivors who were featured at the 41st anniversary in 20113.

Loughton Sargeant was age ten. “I do not know what happened. I was travelling from St. Kitts and Nevis visiting my aunt . . . I was on the left side lower level of Christina. The sea was calm. I just remember that the ocean opened up . . . total mayhem followed and people were screaming. . . I found myself out of the boat . . . the boat took me down and my body floated back up…I have no idea how I got out…it was a miracle…I stayed afloat and a branch out of the boat just floated near me. I held onto it and floated.”

Oswald Tyson was 11 years old. In his self-published book entitled Ozzie’s Odyssey he wrote: "About a mile off Nags Head, that horse-like promontory which reaches toward the Caribbean at the extreme western end of St. Kitts’ Southern Peninsula, the stern of the MV Christina went under, her wide bow went up in the air, and the vessel was on its way to the depths. I lost sight of Anita and never saw her again.”

Every year, the victims and survivors are remembered in a memorial service. A list of victims and survivors can be viewed on the memorial page.

New Beginnings

Still, the celebration continues because true to the Caribbean hopeful spirit, new beginnings emerged from that disaster.

In 1972 while the nation was still grieving, Calvin Howell, a dramatist, tried to lighten the mood with his creation of the Nevis Dramatic and Cultural Society (NEDAC)4.

In 1974, the group discussed suggestions for improving their folk art and decided that Emancipation weekend was the opportune time to feature activities which would highlight their culture.5 The event was named Culturama and “the first programme included Dancing, Drama, Display, Old Fashion Troupes, Folk Singing and Arts and Crafts.” It also included a local recipe competition, the Miss Culture Show and Calypso Competition. Since then Culturama has become the heart of the nation’s Emancipation celebration.

Five ferries6 presently service travel between Saint Kitts and Nevis; and many people from Saint Kitts still plan their August Monday holiday around the Nevis celebrations. The memory of those we have lost reminds us to appreciate, and celebrate with, those who remain.

Islands Celebrating August Monday

IslandsHoliday Duration

Anguilla

Monday is J’ouvert Morning and first day of "August Week" celebrations.

Antigua

Monday and Tuesday; Monday is J’ouvert Morning

The Bahamas

Celebrations begin August 1st

British Virgin Islands

"August Festival" lasts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday

Saint Kitts and Nevis

Monday and Tuesday; Monday is J'ouvert Morning in Nevis

Dominica

Monday

Grenada

Monday

Sources

1Browne, Whitman T. The Christena Disaster Forty-Two Years Later –Looking Back, Looking Forward (iUniverse, Incorporated 2013)

2ZIZ News—August 2, 2012

3NewsLink

4Nevis Blog—August 9, 2006

5Nevis Culturama

6Discover Saint Kitts-Nevis Beaches

© 2013 Dora Weithers

Comments

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 04, 2019:

RTalloni, I do appreciate your very thoughtful comment. One issue that stay at the forefront these days is being careful for our safety. Yes, we did learn something and we did unite!

RTalloni on August 04, 2019:

Such a senseless tragedy is mind-boggling. Those who lived through it must still feel a certain numbness. Tragedies do work to bring people together because differences fade into the back ground, but the scale of this one takes one's breath away. That people helped each other heal is a blessing because anger could have destroyed more lives. May this first Monday be a safe time of honoring history and those who are still greatly missed.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 04, 2019:

Thanks, Lori. It is still a painful day for all of us who experienced this tragedy. The younger ones help us continue the celebration in optimism and gratitude.

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on August 01, 2019:

Absolutely heartbreaking. I am glad there is still celebration for the original meaning of the holiday but for many who lost loved ones it is probably a very painful day.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 09, 2013:

Hi DDE. You were probably not close enough to slavery. Thanks for your comment. Have a great weekend!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 09, 2013:

An interesting insight to August Monday I never gave it a thought you reminded me so well

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 05, 2013:

Glad to share, Frank. Today is a holiday here. I should be at the beach but unfortunately, I here at the computer.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on August 05, 2013:

I too never realized the importance of the celebrated weekend for August Monday.. thank you for the share and the bit of History that came along with it MsDora.. :)

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 04, 2013:

Oh yes, Mylinda. The entire weekend is full of celebration. Monday and Tuesday are Bank Holidays. This is the case in most Caribbean islands.

mylindaelliott from Louisiana on August 04, 2013:

I did not realize August Monday was an important day in some countries. Thanks for the information.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 03, 2013:

Ebonny, your comment was very encouraging. Thank you for taking the time to read, and to share your opinion.

Ebonny from UK on August 03, 2013:

Thank you for sharing your knowledge of this tragic event. It was related in such a way that even people who have no direct connection with the islands would be compelled and interested to read to the very end of the article.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 03, 2013:

MHatter, good to see you here. There's so much to enjoy about the people and the place where I live.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on August 03, 2013:

Fascinating. Thank you for this.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 02, 2013:

Marlene, thank you for that very kind comment. These people do know how to sing themselves through the difficulties. Cheers!

Marlene Bertrand from USA on August 02, 2013:

I enjoy reading about the places you write about. It's sad to read about the ferry. At the same time, the people in that culture have such beautiful hearts that they were able to get past the grief and make the holiday even more valuable today.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 02, 2013:

Okay then, so I might see the play on Broadway. Fascinating! Hope you and your family make it home. I have a daughter who was born here, left at two months and hasn't been back. We're working on it. If they don't come before they start their own lives, it gets harder. All the best!

Verily Prime from New York on August 02, 2013:

Sister, I have not been back home since I came home to bury my grandma in July of 1994... as for the play, pray that it will be on Broadway in the near future. My wife and my children want to come to Saint Kitts and so I hope that the Lord spear our lives so that they willl one day see the sheer beauty that is Saint Kitts/Nevis. Thanks again Sister for the memories.....

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 02, 2013:

Billybuc, thank you for wanting to know about our culture and geography. Happy weekend to you, too.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 02, 2013:

Verily Prime, I'm glad that you can relate to the August Monday joy. I missed the holidays when I lived abroad. Would love to read your play.

Dora Weithers (author) from The Caribbean on August 02, 2013:

Thanks, Purpose Embraced. I'm sure that Jamaicans mourned with us, so let's continue to look out for each other. Happy Emancipation weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 02, 2013:

How tragic about that ferry...and what a beautiful place you live. Thank you for adding to my knowledge of culture and geography.

Have a wonderful weekend my friend.

bill

Verily Prime from New York on August 02, 2013:

Thanks for bringing back the Kittitian memories - my grandma would save up just so that we could go with the Methodist Church from Saint Pauls to Frigate Bay - this outing in Auguat had such effect on me that ... I once wrote a Christian play, One Thursday In August, in its memory. I was a boy when the Christina went down and as a matter of fact, my sister, on my dad side of the family, lost her mother who used to come down to Saint Kitts from Nevis to work in the old post office. Thanks again sister for the cultural memories... and the History lesson.

Yvette Stupart PhD from Jamaica on August 02, 2013:

Hi MsDora. We celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1 each year in Jamaica.

That ferry disaster was moving event in the life of your country on a very important day. This has left a mark on the people of St Kitts and Nevis. Thanks for sharing.