History of Soufriere

Location

The town of Soufriere is located on the west coast of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia at 13 degrees 51 minutes North and 61 degrees and 3 minutes West. This is approximately thirty-three miles by winding road from Castries the capital in the North-west. Through the years this town has acquired a world renowned reputation for the number of picturesque features that can be found within its boundaries. There are waterfalls, sandy beaches, deep gullies and precipices, rivers and streams, a living volcano that emits steam and heat and the town’s trademark Pitons which were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2004 and which is one of the top five must see places in the world according to Oprah Winfrey. The breath-taking legendary beauty of Soufriere’s many natural land formations and exotic scenery has been the back-drop for a number of motion pictures which were shot in Saint Lucia. Some of these include Doctor Doolittle, Creature and Fire Power.

Name

Sulphur springs

The town of Soufriere, its regions and hills got their names from the French who dominated during the 1700s. Even today, customs, language, foods, place names and architecture still predominate today. The name ‘Soufriere’ is a French term used to describe any volcanic area, literally translated to mean, “sulphur in the air”. The same name was used by the French to call other volcanic regions in Saint Vincent, Dominica, Guadeloupe and Montserrat.

Early Settlers

Early settlers

The history of Soufriere is inextricably linked to the history of Saint Lucia. The earliest inhabitants of Saint Lucia, that is, its indigenous people were the Amerindians who sailed up the chain of Caribbean islands from the Orinoco basin and occupied the islands beginning with Trinidad in the south along the archipelago until they reached the islands of the Bahamas in the north. The Ciboneys followed by the Arawaks (Tainos) and the Caribs (Kalinagos) were some of these people. When the Europeans ventured to the West Indies in the fifteenth century and made contact with these people the end result was their eventual demise. However, they left behind some of the remnants of their culture which are still visible to this day. Petroglyphs or stone carvings could be found at Jalousie and Stonefield in Soufriere and Dauphin in the north, while rock basins are found at Belfond Estate in Soufriere and were the subject of much archaeological research. Amerindian words such as cassava, manicou, agouti, tobacco and cacao are interspersed in our vocabulary and many of us are not even aware of their origin. The making of farine from poisonous cassava is part of our Arawak legacy together with basket weaving, pottery making and lazing around in a hammock.

The Pitons were worshipped as gods by the Arawaks who had a polytheistic approach to worship. Petit Piton was referred to as Atebyra, and represented their God of Fertility, Food and Manioc, whereas, Gros Piton, referred to as Yokahu, represented their God of Fire, Thunder and Rain. (Fred Olson:1970). A local historian, Robert Devaux posits the view that the Arawaks believed that the spirit of their Gods slept in the boiling springs of the Sulphur Springs while the Carib settlers viewed the Sulphur Springs as a God and worshipped it by throwing in virgins to appease the God during periods of intense hydrothermal activity. For that reason the area was known as, “Qualibou” meaning, ‘at the place of death.’

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A Carib lament records the demise of this proud people:

Tooking ma kanari
Minara tanara manaricou
Kimabouisi cana kivacou

(English Translation)

Destroyed our strength;
myself without birthright, food or weapon.
Without strength my plants, our land and water;
Without weapons I am destroyed.
Our strength is without defences, fortress or land.

Arrival of Europeans

With the advent of the Europeans to the West Indies, with the French and English wrangling for Saint Lucia, Soufriere sprung to importance in the early 1700s when the island was under French colonial rule. Then, a concerted effort was made at taking advantage of the volcanically enriched soils and abundant rainfall of the area to focus on agriculture. During that period, most of the estates which we know today were first established. With their large scale production of coffee, cotton and cocoa, Soufriere soon became the island’s main agricultural producing town. Soufriere Estate was a good example of a successful plantation of the time.

Eurpoean arrival

In 1713, the Devaux family received a land grant from King Louis XIV of France of approximately two thousand and three hundred (2,300) acres of land in Soufriere in recognition of service to crown and country. The land extended from the Soufriere Bay to Ravine Du Val and southerly from the Soufriere river to a parallel line with Petite Piton. Three of the brothers migrated from Martinique in the 1740’s, divided the land into three estates and as with most other families of the day started planting the land. The most successful of these estates, Soufriere Estate, was planted by the brother, Henry. All three estates started off by producing coffee, cotton and cocoa and later moved to sugar.

In 1744, the French, after claiming title of the island, divided it into quarters. (By 1745, there were firmly well established French settlements on the island and Commandant de Rougueville divided it up that year into districts and parishes.) Quarters were administrative districts for the control of the few settlers and slaves. Soufriere was one of the seven (7) quarters demarcated by the French surveyor Raussaim. The town of Soufriere was laid out in classic French European town building practice, a church, adjoining a square, with street laid out in rectangular fashion, and town houses of the more affluent around the square. At that same time grants of land were made for Church and Presbytery sites. At the behest of the inhabitants of the district, Soufriere received its first resident parish priest named Roux from November 1755.

In 1784 the road between Roseau and Soufriere was built by the corps of French Artillery. Around that same time Baron de Laborie ordered the construction of a mineral bath at Diamond for use by his majesty’s troops, after an analysis of the waters at Sulphur Springs revealed a striking similarity with waters of the famous French spas. Unfortunately, these baths were destroyed during the Brigand War of 1795-1797.

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The French Revolution

The period of the French revolution in Saint Lucia, 1789 to 1797 was the most tumultuous in the history of the island and of Soufriere. Everyone rallied to the slogan, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité for different reasons. Soufriere became the headquarters of the “Patriotes” the Revolutionary Party. Soufriere became the scene of one of the most significant battles in which Saint Lucians of all status: Whites, free people of colour and slaves joined an army of French revolutionaries against the British. The slaves who had not been considered in all the talk of Liberté joined the events.

The french revolution

... “On January 1st, 1791 the slaves from the estates of a M. Viet in Soufriere gathered before the planter’s house, and took the opportunity to request that they be given their liberty. The planter reported this to the Capitaine in the town. The militia was called out, and the leaders were captured and tried. The women supported the men and protested against the arrests, saying that they would not stop agitating until the men were released. They were tied by hands and feet and pinioned to the ground. The men were executed by having their heads severed from their bodies. The heads were then placed on spikes and displayed all around the parish as an example to others. Slaves in the entire district became agitated over the events and did not forget.

Retribution for the 1791 atrocities came in 1795. With support of arms and troops from Victor Hugues, the Revolutionary Commissioner from Paris at the head of the Guadeloupe government, the slaves rose in rebellion. The French Republicans landed six hundred soldiers on the 18th of April 1795. They joined the 250 local Republicans and 300 Blacks, most of them carrying spikes but some with rifles captured from the British. Other slaves who had joined the revolution, helped in non-combatant duties.

The British from Castries landed over a thousand troops at Vieux Fort and marched them overland to Soufriere. They attacked on April 22nd at Fond Doux and Rabot. A crucial battle took place on that day which proved the Brigands’ military tactics and prowess so that they were able to hold on to the town of Soufriere. However, destruction was widespread. Whites were attacked and the estates put to the torch. Seven of the eleven towns and villages were destroyed. Castries and Soufriere and Gros Islet were spared.

The English withdrew to Castries. They were eventually defeated on June 19th, and fled from the island. The Royalist planters fled with them, leaving the remaining Saint Lucians to enjoy “l’Année de la Liberté”, “a year of freedom from slavery…”

Goyrand, a Frenchman who was Saint Lucia’s Commissary later became Governor of Saint Lucia, and proclaimed the abolition of slavery. Goyrand brought the aristocratic planters to trial. Several lost their heads on the guillotine, which had been brought to Saint Lucia with the troops. He then proceeded to re-organize the island. Commandants were appointed in each district, many of them Black to restore production since the majority of the plantations had been destroyed and there was a shortage of food. Although he was in office for only ten months he brought order out of disarray.

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Guerrilla War 1796 – 1797: Blacks move out!

The British continued to harbor hopes of recapturing the island and in April 1796 Sir Ralph Abercrombie and his troops attempted to do so. After approximately one month of bitter fighting the French surrendered at Morne Fortune on 25th May. General Moore was elevated to the position of Governor of Saint Lucia by Abercrombie and was left with 5,000 troops to complete the task of subduing the entire island.(Breen: 1844) The soldiers who had been slaves were encouraged to return to the plantations. During the celebration of the victors, many of the soldiers, still bearing arms, slipped quietly into the bush and began a new campaign, forming a rebel army, called, “L’armée Française dans les bois”. They determinedto continue the war. They fought not only for France, but they were fighting to maintain their freedom.

One can imagine that those soldiers would have been mainly Saint Lucians, with no where else to go. New hostilities started with an attack on the towns. Some like Dauphin and Praslin were utterly destroyed and never rebuilt. The conflict developed into a murderous and merciless war. Women were involved and followed the soldiers.

Legend has it that Flore Bois Gaillard, a Mulatress, played a decisive role in the Brigands’ war and actually led one of the guerrilla bands against the British at the Battle of Rabot. However, no documentary evidence has been unearthed to support this claim.

Brigadier-General John Moore fought valiantly against the Brigands but was unsuccessful in defeating them. After his return to England he was replaced by Colonel James Drummond who, according to Breen, “soon reduced the enemy to such straits that, before the end of the year 1797, the whole of the “Armée Franςaises dans les bois” had laid down their arms and surrendered at discretion”. They were eventually formed into a regiment and repatriated to Africa.

This “Brigand War”, so named by the British, left many visible scars on the landscape and reduced the population tremendously. Much effort had to go into rebuilding the infrastructure, establishing order out of chaos and setting up the colonial administration.

The British captured Saint Lucia in 1803 and retained it by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. From thereafter the island and Soufriere remained in the hands of the British. Soufriere continued to prosper in the 1800’s with the period being marked by heavy trading and economic prosperity. Production of cocoa, copra, sugar and coffee continued; while even grapes and wine production was introduced.

Historical soufriereWhile Soufriere enjoyed economic prosperity, the slaves who were responsible for the production of the cash crops, suffered dearly. They had no rights under law. They worked enchained under the supervision of a driver and whip, from dusk to dawn, were poorly fed and regularly beaten when they attempted to rest from fatigue. Punishments were severe and slaves were executed or mutilated for relatively minor offences. Slave masters had almost absolute authority over their slaves, except the right of life and death. The slave was really the property or possession of the slave master.

In 1809, the old cemetery which was located between the hospital road and the Soufriere river was closed and relocated to its existing location, near Fond Bernier. 

On August 1, 1834 the slaves in Soufriere and the remainder of St. Lucia were all set free (emancipation), however, they were expected to remain working on the estates for an additional four (4) years before gaining full freedom (APPRENTICESHIP). Slave children under six (6) years were immediately freed, however, slaves over six were required to serve an apprenticeship of six years.  The slaves disliked the apprenticeship system but they awaited its end with much patience.

History records that by the early 19 century there were several private Catholic Schools in Soufriere and the first Mico School around 1841.  In 1864, the Sisters of Cluny started the Soufriere Girls School.  In 1887 the Boys School was started and located at the corner of High and Bridge Street.  Prior to the latter date most boys attended the Mico School.  In 1891, all Mico Schools in the island were closed including those in Soufriere.

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20th Century

Historic soufriere

During the first few years of the 20th Century, efforts were made by the colonial government to improve the infrastructure in Soufriere. As a result a proper police station and courthouse was built in and around 1901.

In 1902, the government relocated the Senior Citizens Home from its old home which is now part of Police Headquarters on Bridge Street to Malgretoute, Soufriere. The home which was then named the, “pauper Asylum an Yahs Hospital” was designed for “any person who is not possessed of any income and who, through prolonged illness of chronic age or infirmity, is unable to earn a living”.

On August 1, 1918 the Soufriere Market was opened on High Street.

By 1919 it had been determined that the Soufriere Church was too small to accommodate the number of parishioners. As a result, the resident priest, Father E. Veillet, started a drive to collect money for a new church. However, due to a number of challenges including World War 11, construction works only began in 1951.

In 1933, the old Boys School located at the corner of High and Bridge Street was deemed unsafe and too small. As a result it was relocated to the St. Isidore Hall on Church Street, which itself had been built by the Catholic Church in 1904.

At the advent of World War 11 a few Soufrierians volunteered for active service and joined the Caribbean Local Forces of the British forces. In 1944 three Soufrierians – Henry Dulieu, Desmond Du Boulay and Shingleton-Smith lost their lives in air-fighting. Today, three streets in Wingsville bear their names.

In 1946, the Soufriere Hospital was built on its present day location.

Historical soufriereWith a burgeoning Catholic population and through the hard work of Reverend Charles Cachet, F.M.I, the rebuilding of the Catholic Catholic was started in 1951 and the work completed in 1953. During that same period the old Coca Cola factory building which today houses the appliance store, Courts, was purchased by the Church to relocate the Boys School from the St. Isidore Hall which was used as a temporary church during the reconstruction efforts.

In the early night of 9th June, 1955 a small house between the Church and hospital burst into flames. The fire spread rapidly and within a few hours, the whole area between the hospital, on the north, the presbytery on the east, the sea on the west and the square on the south was completely destroyed. In fact, exactly 387 houses were burned down and over 2400 persons were rendered homeless.

The character of the beautiful old town was lost forever. The tall church steeple and bell which had given much character to the town, fell down and was for many years not replaced. Relics of the old town remain in some of the buildings on the south section of the town, not burnt in the 1955 fire. Today, beneath the concrete of the street gutters and below the tarmac of the old market place at the end of High Street is cobblestone.

During the post emancipation period, Soufriere’s development was constricted by the existence of the working estates of Palmiste, Ruby, La Pearle, Diamond, Soufriere and Coubaril, which encircle the town. Of those, Palmiste Estate was the first to sell and divide the lands for housing for its workers in the coconut oil factory. In recent years force acquisition by the government of some lands and sale of parts of Ruby and Diamond for housing estate development, have allowed for the marginal expansion of the town.

During the 1950s and 1960s several young and gifted Soufrierians immigrated to Britain in search of employment. These were the years of rebuilding Britain after the war. Many of them repatriated most of their income as savings and as direct remittances to maintain their families. Many of these original emigrants bought lands and built homes in the New Development Housing Estate. From the early 1980s, many started retiring to their homes in Soufriere.

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