From a Daughter of the Soil

Here are a few excerpts from a post by Holly Bynoe—“From a Daughter of the Soil”—on the fascinating history of Bequia. Read full post at HB.

A part of work as Generator for The Hub Collective, this decolonial story of Bequia’s ripe history starts with a look into the Indigenous Era, moving through the vagaries of the colonial battle for the Grenadines. Starting with piracy, the Black Carib uprising against the British and French and early settlements, we move through the rise of the whaling industry and our creative sea faring resilient culture.

Our island, Becouya, “Island of the Clouds”, historically was noted to be “too inaccessible to colonise,” and was one of the last islands to be settled by Europeans in the Lesser Antilles [1]. The island’s lack of surface water and springs as well as its shortage of arable land appear to have been major deterrents to early settlement.

The Before Time: Our Indigenous Era

Bequia is believed to have been discovered and inhabited as long as 7,000 years ago by Indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Ciboney [2] people, who came in small crafts from South America. They were displaced by the Arawaks who were migrating north through the region [3]. The Ciboney people went on to settle other countries in the Greater Antilles, especially Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

The Arawaks, who originated in the Orinoco Basin area of South America and migrated northward throughout the Antilles, were a peaceful people and were very accomplished at pottery and agriculture [4]. They practiced slash-and-burn cultivation of cassava and corn, recognised social rank and gave great deference to theocratic chiefs. Their beliefs centred on a hierarchy of nature spirits and ancestors, paralleling somewhat the hierarchies of chiefs. They were the first to settle Bequia, finding haven and home using the island’s natural resources of land and the sea to survive. 

The Arawaks left their material culture buried in our soil, contents of which are still coming to our consciousness today. Barbadian historian Dr. Karl Watson, during his time as editor of the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, shared an account of a visit to Bequia after Hurricane Ivan, circa 2004/5:

Formal excavation would do much to further our knowledge and understanding of the successive occupations of Bequia by groups of Arawaks distinguishable by their differing ceramic styles. Also, by compassion with provenanced collections from other Eastern Caribbean islands, our understanding of the migration routes and socio-economic links of the pre-Columbian populations of our islands would be greatly enhanced. [. . .]

A Brief History of a Violent Kind: The Colonials Fight It Out

Given the peaceful nature of the Arawaks, they were later displaced by the Caribs around 1400 AD who settled various islands including St. Vincent. When European colonists traveled through the Southern Caribbean region in the late 15th century, it was the Caribs that they first encountered. 

Prior to 1660, when the Caribs revolted against French rule, the Governor Charles Houel du Petit Pré [9] of Guadeloupe retaliated with war against them. Many Caribs were killed and those who survived were taken captive and expelled from the island. On Martinique, the French colonists signed a peace treaty in 1660 with the first peoples of our islands. Some Caribs fled to St. Vincent, where the French agreed to leave them at peace. [10] In 1664, France laid claim to Bequia, but did not establish a permanent settlement there. [11]

In 1675, the slave ship Palmyra sank off the coast of Bequia. The enslaved, newly freed Africans who managed to swim ashore eventually mixed with the native Caribs to form the “Black Caribs,” ancestors of the Garifuna people. [12]

Planter, slaver and President of the Commission for the Sale of Lands in the Ceded Islands, Sir William Young, notes in his accounts that the Palmyra was carrying slaves that were a “warlike Moco tribe from Africa.” Rev. C Jesse recounts “A ship laden with African Negroes destined for the West Indian slave market foundered on reefs to the Windward of the island (Bequia).” The captives [13] who succeeded in getting ashore were relieved kindly by the Amerindians who then occupied Bequia, and eventually intermarried with them. Their descendants, who remained more of the African pigmentation than of the Amerindian, came to be known as the Black Carib. At times they proved to be a source of trouble to their fairer-skinned relatives, the Yellow Carib, also to the English and the French. [14]

[. . .] Kim shares “The classification of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean including St. Vincent, has been a long standing problem in fields ranging from history and literary studies to anthropology and archaeology. Although most colonial and present-day accounts of St. Vincent use the term Carib to indicate the ethnicity of the Amerindians who fought against British rule, the name is an invention of early Spanish explorers and administrators, who divided the peoples they encountered in the Caribbean into two groupings of Arawak and Carib to distinguish friendly from hostile natives. Any groups considered hostile were deemed Carib and troped as cannibals, a term that itself derives from Carib. [15] [. . .]

Bequia’s Safe Haven: Admiralty Bay and Blackbeard

In 1717, as piracy gripped the region, Bequia became a well-established watering hole and source of lumber for visiting vessels, including buccaneers, privateers and pirates. [16] Our island – which couldn’t sustain much agriculture – was filled with the native tree species white cedar, Tabebuia heterophylla; the perfect timber for the production of boats, schooners and marine vessels. This abundant species kept on attracting explorers of all kinds including the notorious and much feared pirate, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. [17] [. . .]

Resisting By Any Means Necessary: The Great Genocide

In 1719, tensions rose so high that the “Yellow” Caribs united with the colonial French against the Black Caribs in what is called the First Carib War. The First Carib War (1769–1773) was fought over British attempts to extend colonial settlements into Black Carib territories, and resulted in a stalemate and an unsatisfactory peace agreement. Led primarily by Black Carib War Chief Joseph Chatoyer, [19] the Caribs successfully defended the windward side of the island against a military survey expedition in 1769, and rebuffed repeated demands that they sell their land to representatives of the British colonial government. [20]

The Black Caribs ultimately retreated to the hills but continued to resist the Europeans, while the French established plantations and imported African slaves to work the fertile land. [21]

After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, [22] St. Vincent and the Grenadines was ceded to the British and became a part of the expanding British colonial empire. France re-captured Saint Vincent in 1779 during the American War of Independence, but it was restored to Britain by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. In 1795, [23] the Carib resistance grew and reached a boiling point on March 14th, when a battalion of British soldiers, led by General Ralph Abercromby, marched toward Dorsetshire Hill. That night, Chief Chatoyer [24] was killed by Major Alexander Leith, and although the rebellion continued until June 1796, Chatoyer’s death led to the desertion of the French supporters and turned the tide of the war. [25]

Approximately 5080 Caribs [26] (most Black but some Yellow/Red Caribs) were deported from Saint Vincent to the island of Baliceaux, off of Bequia in October 1796. [27] Here they were overseen by the British military forces where half of them died in concentration camps from famine, outbreaks of yellow fever and other infectious diseases. The ones who survived, numbering 2,248 were sent to the island of Roatán off the coast of present-day Honduras, where they later became known as the Garifuna people. [28] [. . .]

A Melting Pot: Not of Sugar, Other Things

As Bequia’s cultural make up shifted during the early 18th century pre-emancipation period, the island became the meeting ground for other settlers across the Caribbean, namely those from Martinique, St. Kitts and Saba. They comprised the enslaved, planter-class, merchants, mariners, boat builders (who brought, in particular, schooner knowledge from St. Kitts) [32] and others who provided new intel about water harvesting to Bequia. 

Islands like Saba and the knowledge incoming from its people informed a large part of our traditions and surnames like Hassell turned into Hazell [33]. According to Bequia historian Nolly Simmons, Saba is the ancestral ground of a significant part of the population of Bequia [34]. The “Saybees” as they are now referred to left a blueprint for our evolution and our connection to the sea which continues to evolve to this day despite challenges around the loss of traditional and Indigenous knowledge. 

Bequia became a space for the production of sugar, cotton, indigo and cocoa, while the sea and maritime livelihoods became stronger and central to the narrative of our ancestors. The enslaved made up the most significant portion of the population, over 85%, [35] and to this day African knowledge continues to proliferate, expanding and influencing our coding, cuisine, language, habits and dreaming. [. . .]

[Shown above: Image of Toco’s in Paget Farm. Image by Anusha Jiandani.

For full article, with photographs and notes, see https://hollybynoe.com/writing-blog/fromadaughterofthesoil

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