A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEQUIA
Bequia’s earliest inhabitants, dating back to the first centuries of the first millennium AD, were pottery-making Amerindians whose origins lay in the northern coastal regions of South America. Travelling in large dug-out canoes, they came in successive waves of migration up through the islands, with the smaller islands such as Bequia being the last to be occupied on any meaningful or permanent basis.
Much evidence of pre-historic life has already been unearthed on Bequia, with doubtless still more to be discovered. A small display of pottery shards and other artefacts can be seen in the Bequia Tourism Office and at the Frangipani Hotel, providing an intriguing glimpse into Bequia’s distant past. The Bequia Heritage Foundation is also planning to include a significant Amerindian exhibit in their new building at St. Hilary, where currently the BHF’s Bequia Boat Museum represents the first element of a future, wide-ranging Heritage Museum and Cultural Centre.
Selection of early Amerindian pottery shards found in Bequia
By the mid to late 1600s, the population of indigenous (“Yellow”) Caribs in St. Vincent had been considerably augmented by runaway or shipwrecked African slaves especially on the Windward side of St. Vincent, giving rise to what became known as the Black Caribs. So determined was the resistance of these Caribs to European settlement that both the French and the English essentially agreed to leave the Caribs of St. Vincent in peace, despite both countries’ desire for further colonisation of economically promising ‘new’ lands. (Less promising were the Grenadines: A 1659 account of the French Antilles describes Bequia itself as being “too inaccessible to colonise”, and used only by Caribs from St. Vincent for fishing and for “cultivating little gardens”.)
Carib family in St. Vincent, painted by Augustin Brunias c. 1775
It was a different story though for Bequia and the other small Grenadine islands which at this time were administratively part of French-owned Grenada and very much under French control from Martinique. Whilst considered useful for careening (Blackbeard’s notorious Queen Anne’s Revengewas fitted out in Bequia using a French merchant ship captured off St. Vincent in November 1717), illicit trading, turtle fishing and as a source of lumber, the Grenadines remained otherwise unsettled and undeveloped outposts. Nevertheless, certainly from the early 1740s onwards, British ships were actively banned from setting ashore for wood, water or other supplies and French ships rigorously patrolled the Grenadine waters.
As Grenada developed however, and sugar began to overshadow the less labour-intensive production of indigo, cocoa and cotton, first Carriacou then the more distant Bequia slowly became potential alternatives to people with more modest aspirations. Small numbers of French adventurers from both Grenada and Martinique, who had not found success in the bigger islands and had only limited financial and labour resources, found themselves drawn to the possibilities presented but these small, less-frequented islands – excellent protected bays, some reasonably good flat land and above all, far from the watchful eye of the centres of government.
By about 1750, a handful of French families and their slaves, probably numbering no more than about 20 in total, had started to settle in Bequia. In the following decade land was cleared, indigo, cocoa and latterly cotton were planted, turtles (much valued for their shells) were fished and lime was processed. The island’s tiny population was then made up of a few “French whites”, some “free coloureds”, a relatively small number of slaves and some resident Black Caribs. Traces of French works and roads can still be found on parts of the island, and as in St. Vincent, many locations – and indeed families – still carry French names.
Bequia 1763, showing roads built and land previously cleared by French settlers plantations, or sold on their allocations to others who were eager to capitalise on the wealth they believed owning a sugar plantation in the “ceded lands” would bring.
Much smaller tracts of land – nineteen in total and by definition considered unsuitable for the cultivation of sugar – were offered as approximately 30-acre grants to less fortunate British subjects, (so-called “poor settlers”) with a view to urgently encouraging the establishment of a viable community which would support and function alongside the sugar production that was getting underway on the island.
Bequia c. 1771, surveyed by John Byres for the “Commissioners for the Sale and Disposal of the New Ceded Lands in the Islands”, showing the 19 lots of land set aside for “poor settlers” (published 1776)
Several of these 15 or so families and individuals came from the tiny, volcanic island of Saba, close to St. Kitts and Statia, and at 5 square miles, not dissimilar in size to Bequia’s seven. Unlike the island’s plantation owners who mostly left following Emancipation in 1838 if not before, it is these earliest settlers, their descendants and those of the former enslaved labourers, who became the backbone of Bequia’s post-Emancipation community and who remain so to this day.
St. Kitt’s itself was another island from which settlers came to Bequia. The first British owners of Bequia’s Spring, Mount Pleasant and Belmont estates came from this then part-British, part-French sugar-producing island, as did James Hamilton, father one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton. Formerly a clerk in St. Kitt’s, James Hamilton applied for land as a “poor settler” in the late 1760s, and was granted both a share of 70 acres to the west of Friendship Bay with one James Sempel and a further 25 acres on the north shore of Admiralty Bay, adjoining the land set aside for the heavily fortified battery that was soon to be constructed. It is after James Hamilton – possibly as a result of the fame of his illustrious son Alexander – that the fishing village of Hamilton was so named.
Bequia’s plantations may have become exhausted and unproductive, but the waters surrounding the island were always wonderfully rich fishing grounds. In the early 19th century, Yankee whalers frequently ventured south to the Grenadines in search of their catch, so whaling and the processing of whale products was a familiar activity in the country, most particularly to those living on the south side of Bequia.
Bequia Estates c. 1830 (John Edward Adams 1969)
One young Bequian, William “Old Bill” Wallace Jr., son of the late, Scottish-born owner of the large but now defunct sugar plantation in Friendship, determined that whaling would be the key to the future of his island and its struggling population. He left home in 1855 at the age of 15 to work as an apprentice on a New England whaleship. He returned to his native island in the late 1860s with two New England whaleboats, the Iron Duke and the Nancy Dawson, ready to commence his whaling operation in Friendship Bay. A second station – set up by landowner Joseph “Pa” Ollivierre, son of a Bequia-based French cotton planter – swiftly followed, and whaling went on to become the premier economic activity on the island for many years to follow.
Whale oil and whale bone were not only valuable exports they were also an important source of lubrication, medication, fuel for lighting, and raw material for furniture and construction. Whale meat itself became – and still remains – a staple protein-rich food and source of income for many Bequia families. It was not long before Bequia became renowned for her uniquely successful whaling fleet and her heroic whalermen.
Not suprisingly for a small island, maritime activities of all types were nothing new to the people of Bequia. By the mid-19th century, the island had for more than seventy years been dependent on shipping, inter-island trading and associated activities for its modest success. Many of the island’s earliest settlers had also been seamen,shipwrights and carpenters; with an abundance of indigenous white cedar (Tabebuia heterophylla) on the island, the development of boat building was a natural – and essential – activity to ensure Bequia’s economic sustainability. Indeed, St. Vincent’s shipping records document vessels registered as having been built in Bequia as early as 1799.
Grenadine whaleboat c. 1911 (Photo by Frederick Fenger)
But it was the building of whaleboats in the closing decades of the 19th century, and the boon that that activity provided to the island as a whole which gave the real impetus for the rapid development of Bequia’s home-grown boat-building into a thriving industry. In just ten years, between 1871 and 1881, the number of mariners and shipwrights on the island increased from 73 to 157. Boats of all sizes, from 27ft whaleboats to large island schooners, were soon to be built on beaches all over the island – at Friendship Bay, Lower Bay, La Pompe, Paget Farm, Hamilton, Belmont and in the heart of Admiralty Bay, then known as Bequia Town.A resettlement scheme for “poor whites” from Barbados brought a fresh influx of families and skills to the island in the 1860s. Settling almost exclusively in Mount Pleasant, these new arrivals would later contribute significantly to the existing fishing and boatbuilding activities on the island.
In the 20th century, boat and ship-building in Bequia continued to dominate over the rest of the Grenadines. Of the 153 ships registered as having been built in St. Vincent & the Grenadines between 1923 and 1990, no less than 71 were built in Bequia by thirty-seven of the island’s boatbuilders, which included Barbados-born Walter Sargeant and Dillon Pollard who came to Bequia as shipwrights’ apprentices in the late 19th/early 20th century.
One of the most notable vessels of this period was the massive three-masted Gloria Colita, built in 1938/1939 by Reginald Mitchell on the shores of Admiralty Bay beside what was then his home and what is now the Frangipani Hotel. At 182 gross tonnes and 165 feet including bowsprit, she was the largest wooden ship ever to be constructed in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and indeed in the whole of the Lesser Antilles.
Reginald Mitchell came from a richly talented Bequia boat-building family. His father James Fitzallan (“Uncle Harry”) Mitchell was one of three boat-building sons of William Mitchell and Mary Compton, daughter of English-born shipwright Benjamin George Compton who had emigrated to the Grenadine island of Canouan in 1838. Reginald’s mother Sarah Ann Ollivierre, was the granddaughter of Joseph” Pa” Ollivierre, co-founder of Bequia’s whaling industry.
Although Bequia’s golden age of shipbuilding has now passed, descendants of the famed Compton /Mitchell shipwrights, of the Hazell, Wallace and Ollivierre families of whalers and boat-builders, and of many of Bequia’s other renowned craftsmen are still ready to build boats on the island today, employing skills and methods that have remained unchanged for generations.
For its part, Bequia still retains its unique and proud seafaring heritage, its own fierce sense of independence and its age-old, open-hearted welcome for visitors from other shores. Today’s Bequians are for the most part direct descendants of those African, Carib, French, English, Irish, Scottish and East Indian settlers, smallholders, labourers and slaves who came to the island in the 18th and 19th centuries and who chose never to leave – or at least always to return.
And Bequia is still casting that spell. Many of its more recent “settlers” from America, Canada and Europe came once, came again, then finally made their homes here. Visitors too return year after year, eagerly anticipating that special warmth that is shared by Bequia and its people.
The Bequia Heritage Foundation’s fascinating Bequia Boat Museum, overlooking Friendship Bay at St. Hilary, houses a 36-foot Amerindian canoe, two 26-foot Bequia–built whaleboats and a 12-foot Bequia whaleboat tender. Backed up with detailed signage, photographs, ships’ models, artefacts and traditional woodworking tools, the display provides an intriguing window into Bequia’s rich maritime heritage.
In-depth guided tours are available by appointment, and a brief written guide is also available to purchase. Enquire at the Bequia Tourism Office for more details.
The museum has been financed with generous donations from the Grenadines Partnership Fund (GPF) and others. Further expansion is planned by the Bequia Heritage Foundation to include coverage of all aspects of Bequia’s history and culture.