August Monday: Celebration and Sad Memories for Saint Kitts and Nevis
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.
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.
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.
Trailer for M/V Christena Disaster Documentary Film (unofficial)
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.
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
Monday is J’ouvert Morning and first day of "August Week" celebrations.
Monday and Tuesday; Monday is J’ouvert Morning
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
2ZIZ News—August 2, 2012
6Discover Saint Kitts-Nevis Beaches
© 2013 Dora Weithers