Caribbean Beat Magazine

The little house of history: St Kitts’ International House Museum & Edgar Challenger Library

Sharon Millar rummages through the historical documents in a tiny museum-cum-library in St Kitts

  • Winston 'Zach' Nisbett, curator of the International House Museum and Edgar Challenger Library. Photograph by Sharon Millar
  • The International House Museum and Edgar Challenger Library in Basseterre, St Kitts. Photograph by Hans Mallalieu

A lot of the region’s history can be found on the island of St Kitts. And much of it can be found in a small house on Central Street, Basseterre.

The International House Museum and Edgar Challenger Library is named after the historian and founder of St Kitts’ trade and labour movement. After his death in 2001, Challenger’s home was converted by his longtime friend and caregiver Winston “Zach” Nisbett, who manages it singlehanded.

The “museum” is a small town house in some need of repair. It holds a treasure trove of traditional instruments and period pieces spanning the early 1900s to the 1940s. Documents lie everywhere, in piles on the floor, packed into old cupboards, and stacked on tables. A cursory glance shows records dating as far back as the early 1600s. Most of these are irreplaceable. Birth and death records, deed titles and yellowed, fragile publications are all here. There is also a more than respectable collection of books on the history of the West Indian Federation of 50 years ago.

Over the course of a lifetime, Challenger devoted himself to the study of his island and the region, amassing a collection of historical documents rarely seen in private hands.
The young Challenger moved away from his bourgeois roots when he was exposed to heady rhetoric in 1920s New York, where he was intoxicated by Harlem, a fledgling labour movement, and a bewitching African-American beauty.

His return to St Kitts in 1933 cemented his lifelong commitment to workers’ rights. This took its toll on both his family and his finances, and he would ultimately live the rest of his life alone in the small house on Central Street, where he managed a struggling business.
Nisbett has been awarded St Kitts and Nevis’ “Unsung Hero” award for his tireless support of local culture and education. In 2007 he facilitated a fife-playing workshop on site where participants were taught to both make and play the fife (a flute-like instrument key to local string bands). He also helped to establish the 2006 heritage site of Queenie’s Well at Belmont Estate, as part of a national effort to preserve historical sites for international and local tourism and, by extension, to generate income.

Nisbett knows its story so well, he has the hypnotising effect of all good storytellers.

“Queenie was born in 1900. She was from St Paul village. Queenie would go down to the well with James Joe, who was from St Paul too, to relax after working on the estate. She was eight months pregnant when Joe threw her down the well.

“It was her skirt that saved her. When the others heard her calling out, nobody wanted to look—everybody said they have jumbie down in the well. But it was Queenie: ‘Joe throw me down last night.’ When they lifted her out of the well, she went straight to the hospital to have the baby, Luisa Nolan.

“James Joe spent the rest of his life in prison in Antigua. Queenie died in 1979 when a motorcycle licked her down.”

Nisbett is generous with the material, recognising that it is a valuable resource for students of all ages. However, it carries a heavy responsibility: he proudly shows me the gift of several bright red fire extinguishers donated by a visiting tourist.

Below the main house is the “cultural area,” where the casual visitor can get a basic course in regional culture. There are some excellent examples of rudimentary carnival costumes, as well as several traditional masquerade characters.

This fascinating house is well worth visiting. Be prepared to roll with the quirky and the surreal. There is a small “zoo” in the courtyard that is populated by an ancient iguana and a few monkeys. Don’t pass up the opportunity to view some truly remarkable historical memorabilia with a few fascinating tales thrown in for good measure. And there’s even a Queenie song. Ask Nisbett and he’s sure to sing it for you.

The International House Museum and Edgar Challenger Library is open to the public. Telephone (869) 465-0542