(originally appeared in Caribbean Compass issue #192 September, 2011)
Up Before Dawn, by Edward Kent, edited by Susan Payetta
Sail Rock Publishing (Grenada), B&W photos, 179 pages, ISBN-978-976-95346-0-5.
I had the pleasure of meeting Edward Kent in the late 1970s when I was cordially invited to hishome in Carriacou for a drink. So it was with great pleasure that I read his memoirs, the latter stages dictated to Susan Payetta shortly before his death in 2009 at age 87or 88. (He was born in 1921 with no birth date given.)
Ms. Payetta has done history a favor by the meticulous recording of Edward’s life as his declining health made it impossible for him to write: blind in one eye since a childhood accident, Edward suffered from glaucoma in his other eye, hearing problems, heart disease, a brain edema, and carpal-tunnel syndrome, yet his mind remained sharp and he used e-mail to keep in touch with his family. Edward Kent was one of the Windward Islands’ last gentlemen farmers from the era of World WarII to the present. His father, George Kent, owned 15 acres at Morne Fendue in northern Grenada and purchased Craigston Estate in Carriacou in 1927. George had a large family comprising three boys and five girls — Edward was the youngest. Edward fondly remembers his life at Morne Fendue and his father’s routine: up before 6:00 AM, a bath (since the tank overflowed at night and pressure was low during the day), a maid brought his breakfast of soft-boiled egg and toast to the dining table, then onto his horse to nearby Plains Estate, which he managed. Except every other Friday, when he would mount car or motorcycle to head for Simon Estate, the Grenville bank, and “The Club”. George was a keen sportsman, adept at rugby, football, cricket and tennis; though privileged, he was not hugely wealthy and a poor manager of money, but he sent all his children abroad for a “proper” English education. One day he put young Edward in his place for insulting a local man who was drunk, staggering in the road ahead of their car: I called out, ‘Get out of the way, you stupid old man!’ and got roundly cursed by him. I cried ‘Daddy! Did you hear what he called me?’ and my father said, ‘Teddy! If you had not spoken to him that way, he would not have spoken to you that way!’ That was a salutary lesson that has stayed with me for the rest of my life… and stood me in good stead. At age 12 or 13 Edward was sent to England to board at the home of his headmaster for two difficult years during which he suffered from harsh discipline and terrible catarrh. Eventually, with the aid of pills and nosedrops, his health improved enough so that he could play rugby. At 15 he was given an allowance of 150 pounds a year from which he paid his own room and board, school fees, clothes, and vacation. 'How I managed I don’t know… and if today I am frugal I think the readers will understand why.' Edward returned to Grenada in 1939, and while he was on board ship Germany invaded Poland; his world would never be the same. Instead of returning to pursue a university degree in law, he tried to join the Armed Services, but flunked the physical exam because of being blind in one eye. Thus he began pruning trees for his brother Paul on their Carriacou lime estate. Failing sugar and cotton estates had largely denuded Carriacou, so lime trees had been imported from Trinidad by a Mr. Archer. Rum and whisky production had also ceased. Then lime juice ceased to be profitable, Hankeys foreclosed on Archer in 1926, and the Kents had been losing money on the estate until Edward arrived. 'I found the heat almost unbearable… It was important to gain respect, thus authority, and to show that I could do — or stand — what the workers could.' He earned EC$23 a month and gave his mother $21 for board. 'This left me with $2 a month, but I really had nothing on which to spend money. As my father had mortgaged everything he owned, including Morne Fendue, and the Carriacou estates were losing money and (we were) falling further and further into Hankeys’ [their agent’s] debt.' At age 20 Edward became manager of Craigston Estate when Paul took a job with Shell Oil in Trinidad. The estate’s machinery consisted of an old Tangie engine that drank kerosene, a small Petter 6HP diesel engine that by contrast was the epitome of efficiency and which drove the two former cane mills used for crushing limes, the boiler, an injector and the whisky still, which was used to distill lime oil. In 1943 Edward married his sweetheart, Jean, and was put in charge of managing four other Carriacou estates (the Dumfries Group) for the princely sum of EC$80 per month. Fortunately, his salary from Craigston was raised from $45 to $75, so he made a total of $155 per month. Craigston House was built in the 1780s and the walls were 20 inches thick. It was reputed to be haunted, and until Jean arrived there was no internal plumbing; they had an outhouse with a bucket under the seat, emptied each morning by a maid. The couple began living at Craigston without a stove or refrigerator, but Edward built his bride a water closet attached to the back of the house and had water piped into the bedrooms. For entertainment there were BBC newscasts on their 12-volt RCA radio, which ran off a wind generator. Edward and Jean had a long successful marriage, five children, and many grandchildren. Edward learned to conserve the precious rain and, following his brother Paul, he forbade the tilling of hillsides and had drains dug to conserve topsoil runoff. There were five copper taiches (large pans) originally used for boiling down cane juice, from 50 to 250 gallons each, which Edward used to boil lime juice to make lime oil. They had to distill the juice of 320 pounds of fresh limes to make one pound of lime oil, and the boilers were going 24 hours a day, six days a week, for many weeks. In 1943, they produced a record of 3,333 pounds of lime oil. Edward’s work realized a profit of £250 in 1945, then the orders ceased. 'Concentrated lime juice was used in England for the bleaching of wool and I guess that some synthetic product displaced the use of citric acid, as we never recovered another order. Despite this setback, by 1949, after nine years of hard work, I was told by Hankeys that sufficient of the debt had been repaid to permit Morne Fendue to be removed from the mortgage they held… much to Mother’s relief.' In 1950 Edward left Carriacou to manage a cocoa estate on Grenada. He was disciplined, fair, and concerned for his workers’ welfare and their living conditions wherever he went. As a result, even during the contentious labour strikes in 1951, Edward was never threatened by his workers. To alleviate the tensions of the time, he organized and played in inter-estate cricket matches, which were a huge success. He survived Hurricane Janet in 1955 and helped the estates get back on their feet as president of the Grenada Agriculturalists’ Union. He moved on to managing several estates in Grenada, his career culminating in overseeing the change from sugar to bananas on Denis Barnard’s huge Dennery Estate in St. Lucia. As head of that government’s land reform program, Edward helped many St. Lucian farmers learn to cultivate bananas on their own plots, enabling them to earn small fortunes during the banana boom, though his attempt to repeat this success in Grenada did not receive the same support. Edward returned to Carriacou and bred bulls, cattle, and sheep in his later years. He was recognized by the University of the West Indies and given an Honorary Doctorate in Laws, and he traveled to Buckingham Palace to receive a CBE from the Queen.
This book is remarkable for its attention to detail and the everyday conversations of a dying breed — gentlemen colonial estate managers, or planters. If more of them had been like Edward Kent perhaps a few more estates would have survived into the 21st century as something other than quaint tourist attractions or real estate developments.
This book is available at shops in Grenada and Carriacou, or from the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. All proceeds go to the Carriacou Historical Society.