Scratch beneath the surface and there’s always the past. The Caribbean’s past – its most recent, colonial past, is typically brutal. It’s strange too – these tales of brutality, because it usually belies its surroundings. This place is so stunningly beautiful, it seems at odds with this same past.
Les Saintes’ history is a bit different. It is and was too dry to farm. This tends to happen with the small islands of the Caribbean. The small islands don’t have a large enough land mass to attract much rain. They receive more sunshine, but with it harsher conditions. The vegetation is shrubbier and the supplies of freshwater a challenge. There is no natural source in Les Saintes – except for scant rain.
For this reason, Les Saintes always had a transient population. This included the native Amerindians who, historical evidence suggests, didn’t settle down in Les Saintes permanently. They only visited to fish and hunt. Later, because there was no real agriculture, there was little permanent slave labour. No plantation society.
Geography seems to have spared Les Saintes of the Caribbean legacy of brutality. It’s nice here too. Terre-de-Haut seems to radiate this sense of happy independence within its town, Bourg Des Saintes. Eventually settled by Norman and Breton fishermen, the fishermen were playing music all along the beach on Saturday. Handily across from the cold fridges of the supermarket.
There are also boutique dress shops throughout this little town – rivalling its numbers of restaurants and cafes. ‘Come to Les Saintes and buy a dress’, should be the tourist board’s catchphrase here. Ok. For this we don’t need much persuading.
For the same reasons, Les Saintes feels very French. As if the lack of a permanent Caribbean industry kept it extra-close to the mainland – over 4000 miles away. In the town square for example, there’s a single gilded column with a bust at the top – of a handsome woman.
She looks out on Les Saintes’ main square, the square of the Governor Lion, and the ferry jetty. The column is inscribed by a date – 14th Juillet 1789. The Storming of the Bastille. The start of the French Revolution. Indeed, it was a busy time for this eight-island archipelago. At this point Les Saintes had seemingly entered a more military period than it had bargained for.
This is because the history of the Caribbean is also about money and power… and war. In this vein, Les Saintes – named by Columbus in 1493, after spotting them around All Saints’ Day, found itself becoming ‘The Gibraltar of the Antilles’. A sea battle would take place in these waters in 1782 – which helped to decide the whole fate of the Americas.
Those French fishermen. When the dust settled, they opened a dress shop to celebrate.