No visit to St Kitts is complete without a stop at Caribelle Batik on the Romney Manor estate which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016. Many agree as over 150,000 people visit Caribelle Batik each year making it one of the more popular tourist attractions in St Kitts, if not the wider Caribbean region.
Stay-over visitors and cruise passengers alike tour Romney Manor to marvel at the lush green grounds of the former tobacco and sugar estate and see first-hand a group of Kittitian women – artists who use the ancient Indonesian art of Batik to create a range of colorful products that are sold in the gift shop. Initially, Caribelle Batik created and sold wall hangings and Kaftans, but now the full range of products includes ladies clothing and accessories, men’s shirts, gift items, household furnishings, and fabrics.
So why is Caribelle Batik which is essentially a factory and gift shop and in turn Romney Manor one of the more popular tourist attraction in St Kitts? Below I provide insight.
History of Romney Manor
Romney Manor is a historic estate as it was initially the home of Kalinago Chief Tegraman who provided food and shelter to Thomas Warner and his men in 1623. They were the first British settlers on St Kitts which is known as the mother colony of the West Indies.
A few years later, Thomas Warner and his men teamed up with the French settlers and turned on Chief Tegraman — murdering him, his warriors and their families — all total about 2,000+ people. The land formerly owned by Chief Tegraman became part of a land grant and was occupied by a childhood friend of Thomas Warner. This occupier was Sam Jefferson II who is the great-great-great grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and 3rd president of the United States. Sam Jefferson II later sold around 10 acres of the land grant that was named the Wingfield Estate to the Earl of Romney who created the Romney Manor estate. The Earl of Romney initially cultivated tobacco on Romney Manor but then went on to produce the more profitable white gold – sugar and its byproducts including rum.
The Romney Manor estate established in the 17th century was quite prosperous through five owners before falling into despair. According to the current owner Maurice Widdowson who initially leased the property for four years starting in 1976, “the estate had been abandoned for several years as the former owner had died by crashing into Old Road Bay one evening. His widow was in her 80’s, and the family moved her to town. We are in a tropical rain forest area, and it takes very little time for nature to reclaim its own. Vines and bushes had even penetrated the old estate house which was at the time of my arrival, in a very sorry state.”
And sadly, due to hurricanes, termites and fires, all that remains of the historic house that was occupied by Sam Jefferson II are the foundations which are now exposed. Similarly, all the surrounding trees and plants on the Romney Manor estate have been planted after 1970. The only exception is the majestic 400-year-old Saman tree most likely planted by Chief Tegraman’s ancestors in front of the historic house which is 25 feet in circumference with branches covering about half an acre. Thus the current lush grounds are a testament to the wonders of mother nature and the hard work of the nine full-time gardeners.
History of Caribelle Batik
Caribelle Batik was set up on the Romney Manor estate by Maurice Widdowson who originally hails from Yorkshire in England. Widdowson’s background is in retail and textiles, and he got his big corporate break working for Littlewood’s a major retailer in the United Kingdom where he worked his way up to becoming the assistant general manager of their flagship London store on Oxford Street. This was after working as a market trader selling cotton thread and cloth, a job he started at 14 years old.
Widdowson first visited St. Kitts in 1974 as a consultant on behalf of a local company and fell in love with the island and its people. He then resigned from his job with Bookers which he had taken up after leaving Littlewood. Bookers was an international trading company, and Widdowson first worked with them in Africa before being assigned to the Caribbean region where he was based in Saint Lucia. He traveled throughout the region and after visiting St Kitts on a consulting project decided to quit his job to stay in the Caribbean and follow his dream of setting up a business creating Batik products.
So what exactly is Batik? Well according to Widdowson, it is a “process that uses molten wax to resist dye penetration by each successive color by applying molten max.” He had seen the process in action while living and working in Zambia but was conscious of its origin in Indonesia. China also have a long history of producing Batik. The word Batik originates from the Javanese word tik and means to dot. Javenese are an ethnic group native to the Indonesian island of Java.
Romney Manor: Caribelle Batik gift shop.
Widdowson opened the business in 1976 after gaining approval from the Romney Manor estate landowners and the St Kitts government. He fell in love with the beautiful though rundown estate and surprisingly wasn’t initially aware of its historical origins. Also, Widdowson indicates that he called the company Caribelle Batik as he was “inspired by Carib for the region in which we operate and Belle, French for beautiful. It just seems right.” His focus then and now is to create attractive, unique and top-quality products that are hand-made individually for the tourist market. Its why a good portion of the clothing is made with Sea Island Cotton fabric emblazed with distinctive Batik designs that last a lifetime. And during a visit to Caribelle Batik, you can see some of the artists demonstrating the technique as well as offering up a detailed explanation of what they are doing.
Romney Manor: Caribelle Batik: demonstration of batik process.
The Batik design team is managed by Mary Pemberton who has been with the company from day one! Mary who won the 2016 St Kitts Ministry of Tourism Employee of the Year Award started working in the gardens at Caribelle Batik but moved to the dye department which she has managed for approximately 36 years. Her and team vary the design over the years with about ten regular patterns on clothing and nearly 50 wall hanging designs.
Romney Manor & Caribelle Batik is History combined With Modern Day Commerce
A visit to Caribelle Batik is to go back in time and learn the history of Romney Manor and St Kitts. There are historical artifacts on the grounds of Romney Manor as well as nearby Wingfield Estate which is also owned by Maurice Widdowson who was recently honored by the St Kitts Government with a Medal of Honor for his contributions to heritage and conservation. These estates provide insight into how sugar and rum played a significant role in the development of St Kitts which only stopped large-scale sugar production in 2005.
Romney Manor and Wingfield Estate, as well as other plantations on St Kitts and throughout the Caribbean, are also a witness to the horrors of slavery which coincided with the rise of the sugar plantations which thrived for 200+ years. But despite this tragic past, it’s great that some of these estates have been preserved. As the Anglo-Irish statesman and author Edmund Burke said: “those, who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Estates like Romney Manor and Wingfield Estate help us remember.
Wingfield Estate: Historical artifacts from former rum plantation.
Beyond the opportunity to see historical artifacts up close, the best thing about Romney Manor and in turn Caribelle Batik is the artists – Kittitian women who have taken the ancient Indonesian Batik process to make it their own. These women, many of whom have been with the company for 20+ years, create beautiful hand-made products that are primarily sold in St Kitts but can now be found in all corners of the globe due to the vast number of visitors to Caribelle Batik each year. That’s something to be genuinely proud of! And it is good to see them playing an instrumental role in creating a different kind of history, a more positive one at Romney Manor with Caribelle Batik.
Romney Manor: Caribelle Batik: creating batik products.
Romney Manor estate: Caribelle Batik clothing line.
Note: Caribelle Batik in St Kitts is currently open from Monday to Friday 8:30am to 4:00pm. Also on Saturdays from 8:30am to 4:00pm. It is normally closed on Sundays except when cruise ships are in port.