Features

Living Heritage

Multi-talented Alton Higgs plays many roles in Middle Caicos society.
By Sara Kaufman and Siri White ~ Photos By Siri White

Middle Caicos is the largest island in the Turks & Caicos Islands, but its real claim to fame is the living heritage of its elders. The majority of the population is over 60 years old, and lived on the island many years before the “modern world” arrived. (For example, electricity only came to Middle Caicos in the late 1980s.) These elders still possess skills which have almost vanished elsewhere. Farming, fishing, sloop building, handicrafts and bush medicine are still living crafts, essential to survival in times past — but this wealth of experience and knowledge now needs to be shared and preserved.

Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos

Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos

One embodiment of this living heritage is Mr. Alton Robertson Higgs. At over 90 years old, his energy, drive and community spirit put to shame many who are decades younger. Like his peers, he is multi-talented — in a community of less than 300 people everyone has to contribute in several ways. Alton is a farmer, artist, philosopher, community activist, “medicine man” as well as preacher in Lorimers’ Mt. Herman Baptist Church.
Born in Lorimers on October 17, 1920 to Isadora Missick of Middle Caicos and Benjamin Higgs of North Caicos, Alton was the couple’s youngest son. He had ten siblings (six brothers and four sisters) plus six “outside” brothers — all raised in a wooden house at the west corner of the family property in Lorimers where he still lives. Traditionally, the houses in Lorimers were built of wood and thatch. Most of these houses were destroyed by the (un-named) hurricane in 1945 and rebuilt with “tabby” (cement and stone) walls. Cement came from Jamaica by boat to Grand Turk and was then shipped on to Middle Caicos by sloop.
Deacon Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos

Deacon Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos

At that time, Lorimers was a large community with 120 dwellings and maybe 300 people, but only one school with one teacher, Mr. Peter Hall, who was also the policeman. Today Lorimers is almost a ghost town, with only eight active dwellings, four of which have only one occupant. It is still a charming place though, bordering the sea, famous for its fruit trees, farming . . . and Mr. Higgs’ artwork.
Interviewed for this article in early May 2011, Alton recalled his active childhood, the birds, ponds and outdoor life. He went to school at age 6, the same year his father died in Freeport, Bahamas where he had gone to work as a foreman on the boats. His mother never remarried. Alton attended school until he was 14, when he began full-time work as fisherman and farmer. At age 21 he married Bethel Robinson of Conch Bar (also on Middle Caicos) and they raised five children in Lorimers. They were married for 50 years until her death in 1991. Bethel was a good cook, skilled at craft work and very knowledgeable about bush medicine — she taught Alton those skills which he still uses.
Although schooling gradually improved and education became more available in TCI, Alton’s children did not all attend high school because of the expense. However, he is proud that his eleven grandchildren (plus three adopted grandchildren) all attended high school. Alton’s children moved to Grand Turk, where his only surviving son lives today.
Growing up, times were hard, and Alton’s family was poor. Travel was difficult. To get to the world outside Middle or North Caicos, it was necessary to sail in locally made sloops (a risky journey even today). Within Middle and North Caicos, one walked. To get to North Caicos, it was a three hour walk to Conch Bar, and then an all-day effort to walk the Crossing Place Trail and wade across the shallows to reach Bottle Creek on North Caicos.
Alton remembers his mother working at Jacksonville on East Caicos in the now long-defunct sisal industry. The sisal boom was already winding down in the early 1900s, but his mother would walk/swim from Lorimers to Jacksonville (a five hour journey) and come home each weekend. In those days, everyone could swim (not so in modern TCI) and children would go into the ocean to get clean after working in the fields. As Jacksonville declined, Lorimers became the main settlement in TCI, but many residents migrated to the Bahamas for work on the farms there. Alton went for nine months but did not like it.
Back in Lorimers, Alton had his own sailboat, built by Mr. Albert Outten. He used it to go conch fishing at Milton Cay where they would camp, using the sails as a tent. Boats were launched in the creek at Lorimers, and then hauled across the sandbar to get to the ocean.
Alton Higgs' messages

Alton Higgs' messages

Today, when you enter Lorimers, the first thing you might notice is Alton’s cottage, decked with artworks, found objects and his “messages” painted on them: “You are welcome, visit or call” . . . ”Slow down and be careful” . . . ”Rural settlement — please cut clean your lot — environmental law”.
Over the years, Alton’s messages have covered many themes, and although some of the writing is faded, it is still moving and poignant: “God blessed our land, our heritage” . . . ”Seeing people through the eyes of love” . . . “God is Love”.
Alton Higgs Middle Caicos recycler

Alton Higgs Middle Caicos recycler

There is a circular sign by the gate which indicates whether Mr. Higgs is at home — he welcomes visitors. He is very active, walks many miles each day and is often out farming, beachcombing for materials or working on his art projects. He is gregarious, engaged and a lot of fun. His perspective enlivens community meetings, and he insists on Christian values and respect for the land as integral to anyone and everything.
Alton’s religious calling came dramatically during the hurricane in 1945, as he sheltered under an upturned boat for eight hours. He recalls, “I did not have it in mind to become a pastor — as a young man I used to drink and have a big time. The Lord called me in the 1945 hurricane, hiding under a small boat with eight others on a small cay, with conch shells pounding and chipping on the upturned boat, I decided to give my life to the Lord.”
Alton began in the Mt. Herman Baptist Church as a sexton, then Sunday school teacher, rreasurer and deacon, gradually taking more responsibility and training under visiting pastors and at college in Jamaica. Few in TCI had the calling, and Baptist Union pastors visited rarely, so Alton preached at the churches all across Middle and North Caicos, even though it was a three hour walk just to get to the church at Conch Bar! Although he never qualified as a pastor himself, he is proud to have inspired two “sons of the soil” — Rev. Reuben Hall and Rev. Ednold Outten — to take up the faith and train at Jamaica Theological School.
In his 60 years at Mt. Herman Baptist Church, Alton has seen the congregation swell and dwindle to the present five to six stalwarts who attend each Sunday. Officially retired in 2005, he still speaks throughout the country and is very active in the church.
Although his community life is fulfilling, Alton sadly notes the changes that have taken place in his lifetime. When much of the land on Middle Caicos was farmed, there were pathways everywhere. Nowadays, the pathways that led to ponds, beaches and other settlements are overgrown, the farm land is lost, and former homes disappear beneath the encroaching bush. Everyone used to know all the names of the plants and birds. These are now remembered by only a few old people.
The younger people have moved away to find work and have not learned the old survival skills, he bemoans. In the old days there was no money to purchase household goods. In fact, there was no money in circulation and everything was handmade. The way of life meant that people had to work together. Alton says, “People’s houses were open to all. We were more together, we served each other. We showed respect and love to the older people. Today people forget where they came from. Middle has so much to offer. I’m an old man and know what we have. Young people should ask me, or otherwise the knowledge will be lost.”
At Alton’s home you find a creative abundance. There are beach rope hammocks, “messages” on old floats, plants in odd containers from tires to rusty tins to plastic bucket remnants salvaged from the shore. He is an original recycler, most famously using lengths of colourful plastic ship hawsers to make indestructible braided rugs which can sometimes be bought from him. His unique personal style of strawcraft uses the whole palm top to make huge “picnic” baskets, using split shafts for the weft and fronds for sewing. He makes fabulous necklaces from seapeas and knickerbeans, which he harvests while still green enough to pierce and thread onto strings. Alton’s skill in bush medicine is evidenced by the aroma of “Mabi” — a long-standing TCI health tonic — and he will usually offer you a dram, but steadfastly refuses to divulge the recipe.
Alton praises his late wife for teaching him her skills in handicraft and medicine, which only became a source of income as opposed to household necessities after her death. Today, Alton is renowned for his creativity and wide variety of crafts, as well as for his warmth, wit and devotion to the community. His home is a beacon for those searching for the lore of the old. It should be on the itinerary of all who visit Middle Caicos.

Siri Tunaal White is Norwegian and has lived in eight other countries before settling in Providenciales. She first visited Middle Caicos in 2001, when she began an ongoing project to record the dignity and culture of Middle Caicos’ wise and resourceful elder citizens, who present a lifestyle almost untouched by the modern world.
Her photos are taken with a simple Hasselblad camera using only black and white film, which Siri develops and prints in her home darkroom — a totally manual process.
Siri has held several exhibitions and helps produce an annual calendar featuring Middle Caicos’ 300 residents and cultural events, but for this article, she focused on Mr. Alton Higgs, who she feels should be declared a “living national treasure.” For more information on Siri’s artwork, visit www.siriwhite.com.
Sara J. Kaufman moved to TCI in 1994 and settled on Middle Caicos. With various partners, friends and sponsors over the years she developed the Blue Horizon Resort, managed the Crossing Place Trail project, and started the Middle Caicos Co-op. In 1998 she met Daniel O. Forbes from Bambarra at the dance to open the trail, and they have since started Daniels Café and Forbes, Forbes & Forbes Ltd. realty brokerage.
Sara loves to write and research (a remnant of her former life as an international management consultant) and is dedicated to the emergence of a sustainable ecotourism economy for North and Middle Caicos. For further information and/or Middle Caicos newsletter subscriptions, email middlecaicos@tciway.tc.



5 Comments

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Chip
Jul 21, 2013 19:24

Hi there,
Just curious, is Mr. Alton Higgs as well as Mrs. Mary Outten still with us? We have been very interested in the T&C since a vacation. Ran across the two articles here and are contemplating another visit.

thankyou

Chip

carmela
Oct 26, 2014 9:48

Chip, also very intrigued by T&C since our trip there in 2011 and looking to go back next year. We stayed on Providenciales for the week and took the ferry for a day trip to Middle Caicos. .While on the island we rented a car for the day and just drove around Middle Caicos. (Map, great idea, until you realize there are on street signs) Well we first had to get there from North Caicos which was quite a feat! We almost turned around a couple of times, but what an adventure, which was fine by us! Anyway, while on Middle Caicos we kept bumping into the same van which was full of taxi drivers from Providenciales area enjoying their day off together. Well, we ended up getting lost down a dead end street, but who was there to save the day but the taxi drivers! They escorted us out and had us follow them back towards the ferry which would take us back to Provincial. Well on the way back they pulled over and said they were going to introduce my husband to the medicine man and away he went with them leaving me with the 2 women taxi drivers. Keep in mind I was a little nervous The women were not as friendly as the men but I kinda got the idea that women were not welcomed or they just did’nt want to go (maybe did that , been there type of thing) either way they eventually returned and my husband had quite a story to tell. Something about a potion they had him drink and so on…..lol….when I think back I sometimes think maybe we should have been a little more cautious but boy we had some story to tell and quite an adventure. While looking up next years trip back to T&C I came across this article and it brought back all those great memories. Can’t wait to return!!!

Livorno
May 22, 2015 10:53

I am from the Turks and Caicos Islands and on a visit home a few years ago as a student interested in learning about our native plants and herbs I was able to sit and talk with Mr. Higgs. I told him of my interest in our native plants and was determined to pass the information along to other Turks Island young people who were interested I explain that I had knowledge of folklore herbs as well as chineese and American herb meds that I was interested in sharing with others. Mr. Higgs said he was willing to share the Islands history with me for $50.00 an hour. I was willing to pay for the information but the cost was too high, so I started to write down everything I could remember from a child growing up in the Islands and the rest I ask my mom who to her surprise did not remember as much as I had hoped. I was able to get information from family members in the Bahamas and one day I will return home to share this information with those interested in preserving this powerful life giving information.

Gary
May 27, 2016 19:07

My wife and I visited Middle Caicos for the first time in February of 2016 for the first time (on Middle) and were excited to visit with Alton Higgs. Unfortunately he had fallen ill and had to relocate to Grand Turk where his sister is helping care for him. My wife is an RN and would like to share some of his herbal knowledge as well as help people with it. Does anyone know how to contact him or his sister?

rebecca
Jul 23, 2017 14:27

I am planning a trip in October of 2017 to T & C Grace Bay Area. I plan to try to Travel to Lorimers Middle caicos area. This will be my 5th trip to the Islands. My husband and I both love the Island and choose it because we find the area to be a fantastic escape for us from work. We both celebrated our 50th birthdays and we both have become ill. This is very special trip for us for many reasons. I began to make special preparations for this visit and came across an article about Alton Higgs which prompted me to start to research Herbist medicine. Is there still someone available we can contact to make a prearranged visit for a consultation. i wonder if Mr. Higgs passed down is traditional wealth of knowledge? Please email me… I would love to get help..

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