Tobago is a small place, but it has about it a sense of distance. As you drive from the airport along the swift highway, the land falls away, sometimes undulating, sometimes flat, but always windy.
Between the ever so tall coconut trees and tangled shrubs, you can glimpse the windmills, their gaping doorways, hollow interiors, and sense of abandonment so long ago make them seem as ancient as the pyramids or Stonehenge.
Like those antique monuments of the old world, the windmills of Tobago served useful purposes as they were engines of the great estates. Their huge spinning sails served to turn the great millstones in the heart of their cavernous interiors.
The Dutch, who in the 16th and 17th centuries had established themselves in Tobago, had brought with them these marvels of European medieval engineering. In Holland, they had ground the harvest and served as pumps to drain the sea-soaked low countries and create the polders, new land won from the North Sea.
In Tobago, the windmills drove the millstones that ground sugar cane, producing the juice from which sugar, rum and molasses came. The great plantations of Tobago show in their overgrown ruins more than one heir of economic activity and the progress of industrialisation. For as you leave behind the dry and windy lowlands and follow the winding coastal roads on either side of the island, the waterwheels become more apparent. Stopped still in time, rusting, the giant cogwheels of the apparatus are seized in rust. There is a stillness, the rivers’ gurgling sound in the distance, a donkey’s bray, loud, startingly, in the bushes. Look, the old bell from the estate, half sunken in the earh, and the huge iron pots, called ‘coppers’ to boil the sugar. Now they are used to water the animals.
Franklyn’s estate, St. David, is a fine example of the ruins of a sugar estate complex. Today, its machinery is known as the ‘Arnos Vale Waterwheel’. It is off Franklyn’s Road, where one can see one of the most impressive plantation sites of Tobago in a scenic setting. One can visit three different sugar cane crushing technologies next to each other. There are the foundations of a windmill, the ruin of a chimney next to a well preserved steam engine, and an iron wheel about 12 m in diameter, on which is stamped 1857. Just behind are the ruins of an aquaeduct which once brought water to the wheel from the nearby river.
At Courland Bay estate, there is a fine windmill that has been converted into a house, and other ruins of previous industry. The windmill at Grange estate, north of Montgomery Road, is now a house as well. Mount Irvin estate, now a grand hotel, has its windmill built into the hotel itself. There are three mills at Riseland estate in St. Andrew, and two at Golden Grove. There are two at Bon Accord, converted into houses. Friendship estate has two, also converted into houses. There is also a large windmill at Lowlands.
Windmills exist at Killgwyn, Cove, Shirvan and Bacolet. These ancient monuments to our past are much more than just old things. They are the history books. If told well, stories of 16th century adventurers against the backdrop of Europe’s wars, of conquest, of slavery, the origins of various economies in the 18th and 19th century, the establishment of churches, the creation of village life, the folk institution, cultural traditions, folklore and dance: all may be gleaned in the shadows of the windmills of Tobago. If only they could talk!