THROUGH THE HALLOWED WALLS OF CASTRIES
A City's Death By Fire… more than just the name of a poem; part of the life's work of one of two of St. Lucia's Nobel Laureates – The Honourable Derek Walcott - Nobel Laureate Literature - 1992; completely descriptive of a time in our history when the landscape of Castries, the Capital city was changed, by fire. Not once, but at least once every century since the 17th century. And so we know more about the fire next time, as lives have been significantly altered, by "that hot gospeller [that] has levelled all but the churched sky."1 In 1796, Castries, the capital, was razed to the ground and all official and private documents and records were destroyed. Castries was again devastated by fire in 1813; a cyclone caused terrible damage in 1817, and in 1919, fire destroyed the headquarters of the fire fighters.
At about 10:30 p.m. on Saturday May 14th 1927, fire broke out and destroyed not less than seventeen blocks from Peynier Street down to the sea. Practically the whole business section of the town was burnt down. The doors of the Catholic Church were charred, but all the parish buildings were saved. Unfortunately however, the Post Office, Government Spirit Warehouse, the Magistrate's Courthouse, the Attorney General's Office and numerous residential houses, were destroyed. Records show that "in spite of the efforts made to stop it, the fire was only stopped by the sea."2
through a process of complete restoration. The interior of the Chapel was renovated and flights of stairs were built, linking it to the main road, and near the entrance, a grotto was also built for the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Interestingly enough, this statue is still there today, and Calvary continues to be a revered place of worship for Catholics. During the Easter celebrations, St. Lucians gather in thousands at pre-dawn for a large procession through the streets of Castries and pilgrimage to Calvary, re-enacting the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. And to this day the sterling contributions of Father Charles Jesse, Father Joseph Vrignaud and Father Charles Gachet (later Bishop Gachet), among others, to Church and State, are talked about with a certain reverence.
Throughout all of this the people live simple lives, and on the 19th and 20th of June 1948, the fire strikes again, and destroys four-fifths of the capital, nearly all of forty blocks, 23 more than in 1927. "All that section of the town between Micoud Street (up to Columbus Square - now Derek Walcott Square) and Brazil Street and the Castries River (beyond the Square) on one side, and Chisel Street, Jeremie Street and the sea on the other sides, was completely burnt down."3
The entire commercial section of Castries was lost, including many Government Buildings, and Private Sector Buildings such as Barclays Bank and Cable & Wireless. Miraculously however, there was no loss of life, but 809 families, comprising 2293 persons, were rendered homeless. So in the face of much distress, re-building became the order of the day, and we must now thank the disastrous fire of 1948 for the introduction of a new town planning scheme for Castries. Central and lower Castries looks pretty much as it does today, having been zoned during that time of re-construction after the fire, for commerce, warehousing and industry. The density for living accommodation was greatly reduced with the relocation of people from Castries proper, to outlying areas such as Vigie, La Clery the Morne and Marchand. Certainly one of the greater benefits derived from the 1948 fire was the installation of a waterborne sewerage system within the statutory limits of the town of Castries.
Now in as much as we are more consumed with the changes that fires wrought in our 1920 and 1940 something years, we also have it on good authority that comparatively large fires occurred in 1951, 1959 and 1960. 1951: many houses on the Eastern side of Chaussee Road were destroyed. 1959: St. Joseph's Convent, the Convent School and Chapel and a few houses went up in flames. 1960: then the largest department store in Castries - Minvielle & Chastanet Ltd. now the J.Q. Charles building, was partially destroyed by an explosion of fireworks in the toys department store.
Having been devastated several times by flames, Castries has lost much of its personality and there remain only a few old buildings. However, the many re-buildings of this city paradoxically make it one of the most modern cities of the Eastern Caribbean. But it would be remiss on my part not to mention that as the rest of the world was engulfed in the second world war, even beautiful Castries had to step up to the plate to be counted when, on the night of March 9th 1942, a German submarine entered the harbour and torpedoed two ships which were berthed alongside the Northern Wharf - the C.N.S. Lady Nelson and the S.S. "Umtata." These two ships sank into the mud and several lives were lost.
But what is more remarkable is the importance of this Castries harbour, then and now, described as one of the finest in the West Indies, and certainly as one of the greatest natural treasures and assets of Castries. All of this is what adds a certain romance to Castries and its early development, a development premature, and caused primarily by the 1948 fire. This resulted in a period of prosperity caused by the rebuilding that was necessary. This activity eventually gave impetus to the formation of the Trade Union Movement and emphasis on collective bargaining, which has gone on to develop the new character of Castries as evident today.
Between the 1920's and 1940's the business of running St. Lucia was still completely in the hands of the British Government. The Queen vested powers to an Administrator who headed an Executive Council, and it is through this means that business and municipal matters were conducted. At Castries, the Castries Town Board (now the Castries Town Council) was responsible for matters of development, including the provision of essential services and amenities and the maintenance of order. Through their efforts, pure drinking water was provided, electricity was installed, and a substantial food market had been constructed, along with a fish market and a slaughterhouse. Most importantly, work had begun on managing a waterborne sewerage system within the statutory limits of the town of Castries, as part of a larger sanitation project which was to include scavenging, collection and removal of house refuse, control of comfort stations, public bath houses and at the time, night soil disposal in suburban areas.
One of the more topical issues of the time was the selection of a suitable site for the construction of a Free Public Library in Castries. Debate raged for a period of some 12 years, until finally, on May 15th 1923 the cornerstone of the Carnegie Free Library was laid and it was completed in June 1924. After this long controversy, the Library, having been spared death by fire in 1927, was not so lucky when the flames licked in 1948. The building, along with some 20,000 volumes, succumbed to the flames. The Library still stands today, in the same spot, as the Castries Library, rebuilt under the new town plan for Castries, after the disastrous '48 fire.
Today the city of Castries is no longer the Castries it used to be in those early times. While there is no longer the same kind of nostalgia that comes with walking along the William Peter Boulevard where "the ole Mico School"4 used to be, or on Micoud Street looking towards Derek Walcott Square (which used to be Columbus Square, formerly "Place d' Armes"), a new pulse races as the altered face of Castries draws its personality from the U.S. as well as from the old influences of the English and French, and to a lesser extent form the Spanish.
In addition to Government, Castries was the seat of trade and industry, education and health and other essential services in the early 1920's and 1940's. Its natural harbour facilitated the export of limes throughout the 1920's. By 1922, when market conditions shifted and the islands of the West Indies came to depend on Banana cultivation, again, the Castries harbour made exporting bananas easier. At the time, the first export company was The Canadian Mercantile Marine Ltd. Even in terms of aviation, the importance of Castries cannot be overstated. The first plane to land at Vigie on March 23rd 1943 belonged to the British West Indies Airways.
During the 1920 something and 1940 something years, sugar production was on in earnest and by the 1930's the coal trade began to suffer decline as the growing population turned more and more to agriculture, and for the first time in the history of Castries, approval is given for a partially elected Legislative Council by the Order in Council - March 21st 1924. Interestingly enough, St. Lucia first became connected to the outside world by telephone in January of 1940.
And in the midst of all of this, the battle would continue between Church and State to preserve the Christian character of Catholic Schools. All Catholic Schools were placed under the authority of a Catholic Education Board of Management headed by the Vicar General. And still the social fabric continues to form. "It now appears that a further shift in public thinking is taking place. It is too early to state categorically that a new trend is developing in the political life of the country. The shift of power that took place quite radically in the 1940's appears to be finding a new level comprised of a mixed group of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals within the party system but drawn from a wider cross section of the community who may become more and more the deciding factor in future elections."5 Already significant inroads were being made in the early development of sports with the major investment in a recreation ground for the youth of Castries. Victoria Park is what that facility would come to be known as upon completion, today known as the Mindoo Phillip Park. Before this Park, Columbus Square was the primary centre for outdoor recreation. The Botanical Gardens (George The Fifth Park) was used for growing ornamental flowers and plants and was used as a promenade for afternoon walks while children played games there.
So by all accounts Castries from 1920 something to Castries 1940 something was a glorious time of formation and enquiry and building and innovation. It was about nation building and soul building, and exploration and discovery. But if you choose to walk through these hallowed walls of Castries in 2000 and something, you will still come across an element of intrigue as you will find a spirit that is unlike any other, because only we can be truly St. Lucian, as we draw strength from our forefathers and our dependence, a new still undefined freedom and independence. We will only truly mature once we can capture the power that comes from inter-dependence.
Perhaps this is why Castries will always have a certain romance, and nostalgia, as different generations will write so creatively on the pages of history, each trying to maximize the experience, of walking through these hallowed walls, ad infinitum…
One just has to stumble across a person who grew up in the early 1900's to get the feel for a whole new romance of a time long gone. They will tell you it was a simple time; it was a time for religion - predominantly a Catholic religion, when priests were sent from France to build churches and schools and to save souls through parish missions, confraternities and communions; it was a time for grand mothers and grand children; it was a time of beautiful architectural buildings - until the next fire…
Populated now by 62,967 inhabitants, the City of Castries has evolved around a rich history. While the physical landscape was changing largely due to scaring from fire, much of the early socio-economic development was through the efforts of the Fathers of the FMI (Fils de Marie Immaculée) Congregation. This work manifested itself in many ways, including the formation of various guilds and religious societies, resulting in a significant increase in the number of persons receiving communion - from 16,000 in 1921 to 42,000 in 1927. They also constructed schools for boys and girls. Additionally, attempts were made to develop healthy recreation through the introduction of a Scout Troup for boys formed at the St. Mary's College in 1916 and a Girl Guide Company formed at St. Joseph's Convent in 1925.
And relentlessly, the work continued to promote piety in Castries. In 1932, the traditional place known as "Calvary" went
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