A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEQUIA
by Nicola Redway
|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.
Around 1400 AD there was a final wave of migration into the region, this time bringing what are now known as the Island Caribs, who assimilated themselves into the existing indigenous population and absorbed most of their culture. It was these same Caribs in the Lesser Antilles who later tried to resist the onslaught of European colonization in the Antilles in the 16th and 17th centuries; driven out from other islands in the Antillean chain, they finally made the island of St. Vincent their homeland.
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".)
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, 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.
In the years immediately following the Treaty of Paris, whilst the existing French settlers on Bequia - if they could prove title - were at least allowed to retain the acres they had cultivated and cleared, the lion's share of prime land was typically acquired by the British elite involved in surveying the island, or by existing landowners based elsewhere in the British West Indian islands. These first “investors” in Bequia, both French and British, either quickly expanded and developed their land into working sugar plantations, or sold on their allocations to others who were eager to capitalise on the wealth they believed that 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 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)
This small group of tradesmen, mariners, craftsmen and hardy smallholders numbering probably no more than 90 in total including wives, children and their few slaves were, at least in part, likely descended from those 17th century settlers and indentured servants who had earlier been displaced from small farms or exhausted plantations elsewhere in the British West Indies. The grants of land on offer in Bequia presented an opportunity to acquire a small acreage of virgin land in this newest British territory, and offered hope that with hard work, a good living might be finally made which would lead to a brighter future.
Several of these 10 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 and their descendants who became the backbone of Bequia’s community, and who remain so to this day.
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.
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.
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.
Launching of the 165ft Gloria Colita February 1939
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.
Universal adult suffrage was granted to the people of St. Vincent & the Grenadines in 1951. Like its Windward Island neighbours, St. Vincent was by this time resolute in seeking freedom from nearly 250 years of British rule. Associate Statehood status, giving control over its internal affairs, was granted in October 1969 and ten years later, in October 1979, the multi-island state of St. Vincent & the Grenadines finally became an independent nation.
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 Boat Museum
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.