By the late 1600s, indigenous ("Yellow") Caribs had to a great extent merged with runaway or shipwrecked African slaves, giving rise to the so-called Black Caribs. So fervent 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 and Dominica in peace, despite both countries' desire for further colonisation of 'new' lands. A 1659 account of the French Antilles describes Bequia as being "too inaccessible to colonise", and used only by Caribs from St. Vincent for fishing and for "cultivating little gardens".
But by the early 18th century the French were showing renewed interest in the lush and fertile island of St. Vincent. After developing if not an alliance, then at least a working accord with the Black Caribs, the French were permitted to develop small settlements there. Bequia and the other Grenadine islands however, were at this time considered to be part of French-owned Grenada and very much under French control. British ships were banned from setting ashore for lumber or water and French ships rigorously patrolled the Grenadine waters.
First cultivated in the early 18th century by a scattering of French smallholders from Grenada, the earliest crops on Bequia were indigo, cotton, sugar and lime, and its tiny population was made up of French whites, "free coloureds", slaves and 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.
The turning point
in St. Vincent's colonial history came with the cessation of
hostilities between the French and British in the Seven Years War,
marked in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. By this treaty, both previously
'neutral' St. Vincent, and the formerly French-controlled Grenadine
Islands were ceded to the British, along with Grenada, Tobago, Dominica
and Canada - while Britsh-captured Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia
were returned to the French. Although interrupted briefly by a
short-lived French seizure of St. Vincent in 1779, the long period of
British settlement, colonisation and control of St. Vincent & the
Grenadines had now truly begun.
By 1829, Bequia boasted nine sugar plantations of between 100 and 1000 acres, numerous smallholdings, its own new church and a close-knit population of maybe 1400 people, of whom at least 1200 were slaves. But the island's prosperity was short lived: 1828 was the peak of production of sugar in the islands. Thereafter the industry slowly declined, and in the years following Emancipation in 1838 the once wealthy planters returned to England or moved on, often bankrupt, while the majority who remained sought new ways to make a living.
activities were nothing new to Bequians; the island had for more than a
century been totally dependant on inter-island trading for its
survival. Just as today virtually all supplies, including all but the
simplest ground provisions, were imported into Admiralty Bay, and the
island's produce - sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, indigo and cotton -
left on the same island traders. Many of the island's earliest settlers
and smallholders were also shipwrights, seamen and carpenters, and with
an abundance of indigenous White Cedar on the island, the development
of boat building was a natural - and essential - progression to ensure
the islanders' survival.
It was the building of whaleboats in the last quarter of the 19th century that 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 28ft whaleboats to large island schooners, were built on beaches all over the island - at Friendship Bay, Lower Bay, La Pompe, Paget Farm, Hamilton, Belmont and of course Port Elizabeth.
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
was from a richly talented boat-building family. His father James
Fitzallan ("Uncle Harry") Mitchell was one of four 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.
Twenty-first century Bequia retains its proud seafaring heritage, its fierce independence and its open-hearted welcome for visitors from other shores. Today's Bequians are for the most part direct descendants of those African, Carib, English, Irish, Scottish, Asian and Portuguese settlers, 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, then came again, and never left.
Visitors too return year after year, eagerly anticipating that very
special warmth that is shared by Bequia and its people.
There is a keen
interest worldwide in tracing the history of Bequia families. Cheryl
Hazell, a Vincentian-born editor, writer and researcher from Toronto,
Canada, whose family emigrated from St. Vincent to Canada in the late
1960s, is a major contributor to an extraordinarily interesting website
about Vincentian history and genealogy. See www.svgancestry.com.
Cheryl welcomes new information and contacts and is keen to hear especially from members of Bequia and southern Grenadine families who have links to the following names: Hazell, Ollivierre, Wallace, Simmons, Derrick, Snagg, Mitchell, Adams, Gooding, Peters, Stowe, Williams, and Kydd. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org