Jolien Harmsen, Guy Ellis & Robert DevauxA History of St Lucia. Vieux Fort, St Lucia: Lighthouse Road Publications, 2012. xvi + 438 pp. (Paper n.p.)

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Interspersed with photographs, A History of St. Lucia gives an account of the island from about 400bc to the death of Prime Minister John Compton in 2007. Covering such a time frame, it is small wonder that the work required the collective knowledge of three authors using archaeology, written sources, and oral history. To improve our understanding of St. Lucia, arguably one of the least researched West Indian islands, Jolien Harmsen teams up with two St. Lucians—Guy Ellis, a journalist, and Robert Devaux, a local historian-conservationist-field engineer. Only Henry Breen (1805–81) has ever attempted a similar task, using material at hand during his lifetime (Breen [1844] 1970).

The authors discuss the Amerindians’ decline during alternate French and British occupations of the island. Supposedly neutral until the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the essentially French inhabitants from Martinique, Grenada, and St. Vincent enslaved ever larger numbers of Africans in St. Lucia, first growing coffee, cocoa, and cotton, and later sugar. At the juncture of successive British or French handovers, the ensuing chaos was conducive to swell the runaway slave population. St. Lucia felt the full effects of the French Revolution and most estates were abandoned by 1793. An invasion by the British then fueled four years of resistance by “l’armée française dans les bois” (the Brigands, made up of slaves and a few whites and free coloreds). The British reinstated slavery when they won that war in 1798, and after being returned to France in 1802–03, St. Lucia was ceded to Britain for good in 1814.

Chapters are devoted to the plight of African slaves, as well as postemancipation indentured laborers mainly from Africa and Asia, and the way they enriched the cultural landscape. Details highlight a unique past: the way John Jeremie improved the condition of slaves and free coloreds, and the way Martiniquan slaves sought refuge in St. Lucia. Others explain sugar’s decline in the late nineteenth century, and the migration of thousands to work on the Panama Canal, or to French Guiana to try their luck in the gold rush. At that time the island’s capital, Castries, was used as a naval coaling port for a short period which provided the population with employment. However, for the majority of St. Lucians, the early twentieth century was no more prosperous than previous decades, and although some St. Lucians enrolled in the British West Indies Regiment, many more struggled to grow bananas. World War II saw the building of two American army bases, one guarding France’s gold reserves secretly stored in Martinique, the other protecting the Panama Canal. During the war, many St. Lucians lost their lives on Europe’s battlefields; others were killed by U-boat torpedoes in Castries harbor.

The authors explain how the formation of unions prior to the wartime boom made it possible for workers and the unemployed to later voice their discontent. Bananas finally provided the jobs so many needed, allowing the working class to move up the social ladder, while emigration and remittances from abroad eased the lives of others. They then trace the decline of British colonialism from failed West Indian federalism, through associated statehood, to independence in 1979, and detail the role played by the Black Power movement in the island’s progression along this “rocky road.” They analyze ongoing political confrontation between politicians and intellectuals such as George Odlum, John Compton, and Kenny Anthony, to name a few, and discuss environmental degradation, infrastructure improvements, corruption, and tourism’s increasing importance.

It is commendable that the writers manage to toe an objective line in discussing St. Lucia’s modern history. Separating facts from allegations in such a political landscape requires careful phrasing. Likewise they show that in spite of its size, St. Lucia played a major role internationally during World War II, in the use of Castries as a coaling station, and in being, for centuries, the strategic West Indian colony which both the English and the French so wished to possess. Constant sacrifice by a population in its quest for self-determination is ever present, visible in the caves and tunnels built by runaway slaves (Devaux 1997), or in the bid of planters to be independent of Martiniquan tribunals and bypass its ports to trade directly with France.1 One wonders whether the island’s accordion-like development and its persistent lack of administrative guidance did not create a national psyche so powerful that it bestowed an ingrained determination to achieve, giving rise to the likes of Nobel Laureates Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott.

The main criticism of the book is a lack of careful editing. Examples include italics and quotation marks for prose that is not systematically footnoted, the lack of footnotes 704–707 (pp. 412–413), references to leisure tourism circa 1700 (p. 27), and errors in French syntax (pp. 26, 121). Inconsistencies include the mention of towns in the 1720s but not in 1744 (pp. 29, 34). Maps are needed to assist readers in understanding local geography as well as the island’s situation in the Antillean chain. Also, errors in certain historical details reduce the academic value of the book. Inaccuracies include a recurring reference to 1745 inhabitants (pp. 35, 41) even though such details could only have been retrieved from censuses dated 1756–60;2 there are no St. Lucian parish records of free colored men marrying white women during slavery (p. 99);3 sugar-refining drips and cones are seemingly mistaken for hogsheads (pp. 37–39); and Irish in the French Caribbean were not British army deserters (p. 30) but arrived after Cromwell’s campaigns, with still others emigrating to Roman Catholic France after fighting against the English, their departure to Europe colloquially known as the “Flight of the Wild Geese.”

Knowing that St. Lucia was predominately French for centuries, we sense that still too little research incorporates French archives. Nevertheless, A History of St. Lucia remains a valiant attempt to share the island’s history with interested readers.

References

Breen, Henry H., 1970. St. Lucia: Historical, Statistical and Descriptive. London: Frank Cass [Orig. 1844.]

Devaux, Robert J., 1997. They Called Us Brigands: The Saga of St. Lucia’s Freedom Fighters. St. Lucia: Optimum Printers.

de Laborie to de Castries April 2, 1788. Projet d’une association coloniale pour un commerce direct entre Ste. Lucie et la métropole, November 28, 1788. Archives nationales d’outre-mer ANOM, C10C4; C10C7; C10C8.

Revues des compagnies of 1756, 1758, 1759 and 1760. Archives nationales d’outre-mer ANOM, DPPC.G.1.506, Nº32.

Marie-Jeanne-Nicolas Larché née Henry was a free colored like her husband; so was Rose Despujols. St. Lucia Roman Catholic parish registers, Carénage, Nº 716, April 10, 1774; Nº 1001, December 15, 1777. Centre historique des archives nationales, Paris CHAN, 5Mi 101.

1

de Laborie to de Castries April 2, 1788. Projet d’une association coloniale pour un commerce direct entre Ste. Lucie et la métropole, November 28, 1788. Archives nationales d’outre-mer ANOM, C10C4; C10C7; C10C8.

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References

1

de Laborie to de Castries April 2, 1788. Projet d’une association coloniale pour un commerce direct entre Ste. Lucie et la métropole, November 28, 1788. Archives nationales d’outre-mer ANOM, C10C4; C10C7; C10C8.

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