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SOMBRERO - PART OF ANGUILLA’S CULTURAL HERITAGE

Click HERE for our Sombrero Discussion Page

Anguillians call it Sombrero. Not Sombrero Island or Sombrero Cay - just Sombrero. Sombrero is the northernmost islet in the Lesser Antilles. It is a 95 acre rock, one mile long and a quarter mile wide, 38 miles from Anguilla and separated from the mainland by the Dog and Prickly Pear Passage. The relatively flat top of the rock is 40 feet above the surface of the water yet the treacherous northern rollers are known to wash over the entire island even on relatively calm days.

 

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Supplies being winched from the boat

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The manned lighthouse.

Sombrero is best known for its Lighthouse. The flashing beam, 166 feet above sea level, protects ships passing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea through the Anegada Passage. This important landmark (which I understand is soon to be automated), has appeared on St.Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla stamps in 1954 and again in 1963. Anguilla’s first definitive two-cent stamp issue in 1967 also depicted the Sombrero Lighthouse.

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The Lightouse Keepers

The original lighthouse came into operation on January 1st 1868 and was run by the American company which had begun mining phosphate there in 1860. By 1893, the lighthouse was taken over by the British Board of Trade which continued to administer the new lighthouse that was opened in 1962 after the destruction caused by Hurricane Donna in 1960. The lighthouse keepers can tell how windblown waves reach unimaginable heights up the light tower during the hurricane season.

Former Chief Minister, Sir Emile Gumbs can recount a number of intriguing stories about the rigours of transporting and loading construction materials for the Lighthouse in the days when the Warspite ruled the waves. Writing about the St.Martin-Anguilla Connection in the Archaeological and Historical Society Review 1981 - 1985, Don Mitchell Q.C. mentions the fact that "in the 1870’s French and Dutch men worked on the English lighthouse of Sombrero." This writer has also told the story of the Seaman Abandoned on Sombrero and that of Sombrero and the Common Law in previous issues of Anguilla Life Magazine.

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View form the old dissused lighthouse.
 

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The current manned lighthouse

The period of phosphate mining by the Americans lasted for about twenty years and the following description of the process taken from Derriman’s book Marooned, provides an explanation for the Sombrero landscape as it appears today.

"The barren rock was equipped with a light railway, a steam rock crusher and accommodation for the workers, with loading points set up on the shoreline. By 1870 some 3,000 tons were being shipped each year. The phosphate was found in pockets in the rock which could be worked only by blasting. When surface reserves had been exploited the Americans turned to the sea. Now divers had to drill holes underwater and insert blasting charges. After the explosion, loosened portions of rock were hoisted to the surface, an enormously expensive operation that could not be carried on indefinitely. by 1890 production had fallen greatly so the workings were abandoned. The graves of seven workers who died there can be seen today."

The remains of the phosphate works, the graves, the many experiences which the four keepers and cook have had over the years and of course the lighthouse, are all part of Anguilla’s Cultural Heritage.

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However, Sombrero is also important for the endemic black lizard (Ameiva corvina) and for the bird life which contribute richly to Anguilla’s biodiversity. A number of species of special concern can be found on the island which is considered to be the best seabird breeding location in the region. A 3-day survey of bird life conducted by representatives of ICF Kaiser on Sombrero in July 1998, found hundreds of Brown Boobies, Brown Noddy Terns, Bridled Terns, and Sooty Terns nesting everywhere. About 50 pairs of Masked Boobies were found and this is significant as the numbers of that species in this area are low. Magnificent Frigate Birds roost on Sombrero but apparently do not nest there.

Sombrero’s high biological value is due to a number of features such as its isolation; its relative lack of human contact; its unique geographic location in relation to migratory routes, wind and current regimes; its special nesting and breeding conditions and its high probability of unique species. This is why leading international organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the American Bird Conservancy, Birdlife International and the regional organization Island Resources Foundation are all lobbying strongly against the proposal by Beal Aerospace Ltd. of Texas to establish a rocket launching facility on Sombrero.

The Anguilla National Trust has requested that a public meeting be part of the Environmental Impact Assessment so questions about the effects of rocket launching on the cultural artifacts and the wildlife can be answered. The island does not have sufficient information about rocket launching nor do we have persons with the technological expertise for the proposed project to offer significant employment opportunities to Anguillians. In addition, the proposed facility does not seem compatible with the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society’s plan to offer day tours to Sombrero for its historical and ecological value.

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This is a view from old disused lighthouse.
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This is a view from the current lighthouse.

Finally, the history of exploitation and exhaustion of Sombrero’s phosphate resources, raises questions about what will happen when rapid changes in rocket launching technology render the Beal facility obsolete. Will we still have Sombrero? This is why both the British Government and the Government of Anguilla have given every assurance that the project will not proceed without  reviewing the findings of an Environmental Impact Study. It is hoped that the people of Anguilla will have access to the report and that their responses will be considered in making the final decision.

Article courtesy of Ijahnya Christian of the Anguilla National Trust for the August 1998 issue of Anguilla Life Magazine. Photos courtesy Mr. Ron Myers.

 




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