Pigeon Island

The offshore island

The island lay just a short distance from the mainland. It was narrow with two small hills, one at either end. It was lit by the fiery red of the setting sun as it spread its color across the western sky. The glow was caught by the puffy, slow-moving clouds and reflected onto the sea below. From the beach, a canoe slipped into the water and headed out into the bay. The canoe had been shaped from the trunk of a tall gommier tree. In it were two men from one of the Arawak villages an Iouanaloa, the big island. In their language, the name meant 'Land of the Iguanas'. The men had spent all day fishing and exploring. They had a small catch of fish and some juicy red fruits they had gathered from the cactus bushes on the small island.

They also had a few large shells that they had taken from the sea-grass bed close to shore. Now they were ready to go home. Their women would be waiting with tasty stew made from the crabs they caught in the mangrove swamps the night before. They would eat well. Then they would throw herbs on the fire, climb into their hammocks and sleep. The herbs would make a thick, sweet-smelling smoke that would drive the mosquitoes away. Behind them in the dusk, the little island was only a black shape against the darkening sky. Small, quick, black bats swooped from a cave high up on one of the slopes. They swirled through the sky, making a meal of the insects that were there in such numbers. The evening air was perfumed with the scent of wild frangipani and filled with the noise of crickets and tree frogs. far out, in the dark waters of the channel, a school of porpoises passed. They leap and turned, sometimes somer-saulting clear out of the water, as they made their way north. There was no one there to see them. The little island was uninhabited. There was no fire to cast its warm light against the shadows. Only the fireflies, flickering through the bush, lit up the scene with their pinpoints of light.

Le Gros Ilet

Another group of Amerindians called the Caribs came to Iouanaloa from the islands further south. Some of them made a camp at the southern end of a small island. From here they paddled their canoes across the bay to raid the Arawak villages on the mainland. However, after many conflicts, the Caribs moved on. Their camp in the cave on the small island was abandoned. The bats that hung high in the craggy corners and the crabs that hid among the stones, now had it to themselves.

Gros Islet

War from the sea

For hundreds of years, the Amerindians were Saint Lucia's only inhabitants. They lived in small groups, usually on the coast close to a river. They made canoes, carved from the trunks of gommier trees. In them, they paddled around the coast fishing and gathering shellfish. Broken pieces of their pottery have been found around the village of Gros Islet. This tells us that they must at one time have had a camp here. In those days the hills would have been covered with trees. The mangrove swamp would have been so large it would have taken up most of the flat land behind the bay. Ducks and waterfowl lived among its tangled roots and herons nested in the branches. Pelicans and boobys dived into the sea around the nearby island, catching fish. The island had once been a Carib camp. Later it became a hide out for pirates. They would sail in and anchor in the sheltered waters close to shore. On old maps the place is marked 'le Gros Islet' which is French for the big island. When the English Admiral Rodney built his fort there the name was changed to Pigeon Island. At fist the Caribs tried to drive off the strangers who came to the island. They shot at them with poison-tipped arrows and with burning sticks but they could not win. The strangers came in tall ships with billowing sails. Their ships were armed with deadly cannons.

For over a hundred years the invaders fought fiercely among themselves for possession of Saint Lucia. During that time the island was taken, first by one and then the other, as control passed between Britain and France no less than fourteen times. The bay at Gros Islet was a good anchorage and both, French and English ships sailed in and out. In 1781, French troops, led by the Marquis de Bouille, captured Gros Islet. Rodney from his strong hold on Pigeon Island, forced them retreat. Then, in 1793, the French Republic claimed all the French territories in the Caribbean. They renamed all the towns and villages in the island. Gros Islet became 'la Revolution'. Not too long after this, the British took over once again and the village went back to its old name. Today the Amerindians would no longer recognise the place.

The flat land covered with small thorny bushes and dry grass. It is grazed by cattle and goats. The swamp is gone. In its place is a marina full of yachts and power boats from all over the world, as well as hotels, apartments, restaurants and bars. Pleasure craft motor through the narrow channel loaded with holidaymakers.


Le Carenage

Some old maps of Saint Lucia show Vigie, where the airport is now, to be the site of an old fort. Nearby, in a small creek or inlet, boats were pulled up to have their bottoms cleaned or repaired. A place where this is done is usually called the CARENAGE. After a while, the inlet and the settlement that grew up around both became known by this name. The fort had been built by a group of Frenchmen who came to Saint Lucia in 1651 hoping to make the island their home. They knew the Caribs had wiped out a colony of several hundred Englishmen just eleven years before. They did not want to end up the same way. They brought cannons to arm the fort and dug a moat all around to make it secure. Their leader, de Rousselan, had married a Carib woman so at first the Indians did not trouble them. But after, his death in 1654, the Caribs killed three French Governors, one after the other. Then the quarrels began between the French and the English over ownership of Saint Lucia. For 100 years or more they fought over it. Finally, in 1763, the 'Treaty of Paris' gave the island to the French. They immediately began to build roads and establish their plantations. They shipped the sugar, cocoa, coffee, spices and other crops they grew to markets in Europe. It was decided to move the little town of Carenage to a more protected place.

The townspeople chose a site on the banks of the river that flowed into the Petit Cul de Sac Bay. Warehouses and other buildings were put up and a wharf was built for canoes and long-boats to tie up alongside. In 1767, the people of le Carenage began to move into their new home. By 1778, the English and French were at war again and England once more took over the island. Then, in 1780, a terrible hurricane struck. It flattened crops, destroyed buildings and killed thousands of people. Only two houses in the old town were left standing. The Marquis de Castries advised King Louis XVI to get Saint Lucia back at all costs. In 1783 a new treaty was drawn up, the 'Treaty of Versailles. This forced the English to hand the island back which made the French colonists very happy. They wrote to the king asking him to reward the Marquis. In 1785, the capital was renamed Castries in his honour but on some old maps it is still shown as le Carenage, or le Petit Cul de Sac.


Castries in the 19th century

Now came the period of the French revolution. In France, the king and many of his followers were beheaded. The revolutionaries even travelled overseas to continue their fight. In Saint Lucia, many churches, estate houses and other buildings were destroyed. Plantations were abandoned and the slaves ran away. Their masters were forced to do the same, or be killed by the soldiers of the New Republic. Castries bringing fresh water into the town. In 1885, the first copy of the Voice of Saint Lucia was printed and in 1894, the first stones for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and for Government House were laid. In September 1898, just before the end of the century, another violent storm hit the island. many buildings in the town were damaged, but they soon went up again, stronger and better than before.


Ordeal by fire

Most of the buildings in Castries were made of wood. Lumber was cheap and wooden house could be put up very quickly. It was also easy to move. This was important because not many people owned the land on which their houses stood. Wooden houses however, had their faults. They could be blown down in a hurricane or catch fire and burn to the ground in minutes. Most cooking was done on an open fire and houses were lit by candles or oil lamps. There were often accidents. Fire would quickly blaze out of control, destroying the house where they started as well as others nearby. As the town grew, the houses became more numerous and more tightly packed. On May 14 1972, a fire started at night in the business quarter of Castries. It soon spread from one building to the next until half of the town was a smoking black ruin. The Post Office, the Government buildings and many private homes were all destroyed. So were most of the business houses. Very few people had insurance so a relief fund was started to help the victims to rebuild. Still more trouble lay ahead. In 1948, an even bigger fire destroyed all but a small part of the town.

It started in the tailor's shop, perhaps from a candle that had fallen over. The flames consumed the tailor's small wooden shack and quickly reached the buildings on either side. There was a strong wind. It fanned the fire and helped it to burn fiercer and faster. When the sun rose on the morning of June 20 it shone down on a black, smoking wasteland. Just the day before, these ruins had been the town of Castries. The Post Office and the Court house were once again demolished as well as most other Government buildings. The books in the carenegie Library were nothing but ashes, just like the goods in the burnt-out stores. But the Cathedral was saved, so was St. Joseph's Convent and St. Mary's College. The college moved to one of the old military barracks at Vigie. The Convent burned to the ground eleven years later. The fire left more than two thousand people homeless. Columbus Square was piled high with furniture and other belongings that had been snatched from the blaze. It took much longer for the town to recover this time, but it did. Like the mythical phoenix rising up from the ashes of its funeral pyre, Castries was built up once again.


Port Castries

The harbour the French called le Petit Cul de Sac, or le Carenage, became one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean. For years the only activity it had seen was the shoals of fish that swept in and out. Then the Amerindians came to fish in the bay and search among the mangroves for oysters. During wars between the French and English, fleets of ships had sailed into the harbour. They anchored in the deeper water and put longboats over the side for the men to go ashore. Castries was a trading centre. Merchant vessels brought passengers and goods to the island and loaded up with produce from the estates. They paid a tax of a penny a ton if they were 50 tons or more. four pence a ton if there were less. For water they paid two pence a trip. If they were under 50 tons or registered in Castries, they paid six pence for half a year. The taxes were collected by a Town Warden appointed by Government. In 1851, a Town Council was elected and HH Breen became the first Mayor of Castries. This Council controlled the wharves until 1871. Then, it was decided that money collected for harbour taxes belonged to the whole colony, not just to Castries. By the end of that century steamships had replaced the old fashioned sailing ships.



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