Hewanorra: The Island of St. Lucia

Capt. Jeff

Well over a thousand years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, the Arawaks paddled their dugout canoes north from the forests between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers to settle in the Antilles. Six hundred years later, the peaceful Arawaks were invaded by the Caribs from South America.

The Caribs arrived with their culture of shamans, hereditary kings, and fast war canoes, and spread north through the West Indies, eventually giving their name to the Caribbean Sea. By the time Columbus sailed through the Windward Islands in 1502 and sighted St. Lucia, the Caribs had already named it Hewanorra, or Island of the Iguanas.

The first European known to live on St. Lucia was a buccaneer named Francois le Clerc but nicknamed Jambe du Bois for his wooden peg-leg. In the 1550s, he would plunder the treasure galleons of the Spanish Main and then retreat to his lair on Pigeon Island at St. Lucia's northwest tip. And so began the long history of European inroads and colonization of Hewanorra.

The Dutch arrived around 1600 and built a stronghold at the southern end of the island.Today, that area is called Vieux Fort in recognition of those fortifications. In 1605, the first true colonists arrived, if unexpectedly.

The British ship Olive Branch was full of settlers and headed for Guyana when it was unwittingly blown off course, and it wound up landing on St. Lucia instead.Mistaking this for providence, the 67 colonists waded ashore to establish an English foothold. Within five weeks, only 19 remained.

The rest had succumbed to disease or fighting with the Caribs.Those lucky 19 fled from St. Lucia in a canoe.Unbeknownst to the Caribs,Hewanorra was later given to the Earl of Carlisle as part of a land grant from the British Crown.

This was the first time the name St. Lucia was used on a legal document. In 1638, Captain Judlee arrived with about 300 men to stake out the land grant.The new settlement thrived for about 18 months until a dispute with the Caribs boiled over. Hundreds of British settlers died in the ensuing attack. Once again, the English survivors were forced to flee.

At about the same time the French were showing interest in St. Lucia. Also without consulting the Caribs, aMonsieur d'Esnambus claimed in 1626 that Cardinal Richelieu had granted the island to him. In 1643, a Frenchman by the name of Rousselan was appointed governor of St. Lucia. Rousselan wisely married a Carib woman and the French colony prospered for 20 years.

Roughly a hundred miles to windward of St. Lucia, out in the Atlantic Ocean, lay the English colony of Barbados. In 1664, Barbados had too many people. The British governor, Francis Lord Willoughby, needed a convenient location to offload his surplus colonists. He decided to ignore the French territorial claim to his west, and invaded St. Lucia with 1,000 Barbadians. The French quickly surrendered, and Barbados began its satellite colony.

Within a year it was abandoned, again due to sickness and attacks by the Caribs.This was the third time an English colony had failed on Hewanorra. Even after a treaty in 1667 placed St. Lucia back in the hands of the French, the British still didn't get the message.

They continued to try to claim possession of the island. From the moment St. Lucia reverted to a French Crown colony during the reign of Louis XIV in 1674 until the end of the Napoleonic era, the island was declared a neutral territory or changed hands between the British and French no fewer than 11 times. St. Lucia was a pawn in the affairs and wars of the European powers during that period.The treaties that ended the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and the American War of Independence all played roles in the ever-changing ownership of St. Lucia. Finally, in 1814, Great Britain gained possession of St. Lucia and didn't let go until 1979, when St. Lucia was granted independence.

However, it was the French influence that had the greatest impact on the architecture, language, food, customs and geography of St. Lucia. Place names such as Anse Cochon, Cap Marquis, and Marigot all reflect that French heritage.

The twin Pitons, Gros and Petit, on the leeward side of St. Lucia arguably make the most stunning landscape in the Eastern Caribbean. The Pitons are the remains of an eroded ancient caldera, with active sulphur fumaroles and hot springs in between.

This area was worshipped by both the Arawaks and the Caribs, and it was there amidst the rich volcanic soil that the French built their plantations and slave quarters in the early 18th century.The plantations, called estates, grew coffee, cotton, cocoa and sugar.

The nearby village on the bay was named Soufriere, literally meaning sulphur in the air.

The town was laid out in classic French style, with a church adjoining a square, and the square surrounded by the homes of the wealthy inhabitants. Streets radiated out in a rectangular fashion from the square.

Today, some classic French tropical architecture can still be seen in Soufriere. Just prior to the French Revolution, at Diamond Estate on the outskirtsof Soufriere, a mineral bath was built for the troops of King Louis XVI, reminiscent of French spas of the day.

The final 165 years that St. Lucia spent as an English colony did take its toll on one aspect of life there: in order to find a proper croissant or baguette, one must sail 21 nautical miles north to Martinique, which is still a French overseas state, and it's a beat all the way. But in a nod to the former British Empire, you set sail toMartinique from Rodney Bay, named after the famed British naval officer George Brydges Rodney. Rodney roundly defeated the French many times during his 40 years at sea, most notably at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, when he broke the line of the French fleet under Comte de Grasse, the hero of the Siege of Yorktown.

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