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The French Revolution lasted for ten years, from 1789 until 1799. One of its most significant effects on St. Lucia was the abolition of slavery in 1794. Liberte’, Egalite’, Fraternite’ (Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood), the watchwords of the first French Republic echoed throughout the West Indies.

Over the years, many slaves in St. Lucia — where the French and the British were embroiled in intermittent warfare — had been fleeing into the forests. The confusion created by the wars and a series of powerful hurricanes provided excellent getaway opportunities. Even though the consequences of recapture were dire — floggings, hamstringing, and even decapitation — such punishments did not deter the escapees. On the contrary, the numbers of those who absconded grew. The French abolition, decreed by the Revolutionary government, was an added incentive to head for the hills.

These men and women were called the Negre Marron. To survive, they raided plantations, stealing articles they needed, and encouraging more timid slaves to join them. The British who wanted to regain control over St. Lucia were in total disagreement with the French abolitionist initiative. They called the runaways, brigands. They feared that freeing the slaves would ruin the economy. Notions of freedom could not be encouraged. In an attempt to re-institute slavery, the British declared war on the French in Saint Lucia.

Victor Hugues, the French Republican leader in Guadeloupe sent his emissary, Goyrand, to recruit members of the Negre Marron to fight against the British. The French turned them into a formidable force and called them, L’Armée Francaise Dans Le Bois, or the French Army in the Forest. French soldiers trained the Negre Marron and fought alongside them. Goyrand employed an original recruitment strategy. He offered the rank of corporal to anyone who brought in ten recruits.

Weapons and ammunition were smuggled into the island from Guadeloupe. Under cover of the night, Negre Marron canoes ferried the contraband from ships into the countless coves and beaches. The British destroyed the canoes as fast as they found them. After a victory over the British at Soufrière in the battle of Rabot, the French Republican army launched an attack on the North. The fort on Pigeon Island and Fort Charlotte on Morne Fortune were the only remaining British strongholds.

To their surprise, when the Negre Marron attacked Morne Fortune, they found only terrified women and children hidden in a room. The British soldiers had withdrawn to Martinique, a British stronghold with links to French Royalists. The Negre Marron embarked the women and children onto a boat and, sailing under a flag of truce to Martinique, handed
them over to their husbands and fathers. This heroic act belies the derogatory ‘brigands’ used by the British in reference to them.

Saint Lucia flew the French tricolor for about a year. During this time the Revolutionary government renamed Saint Lucia, “La Fidele”, and Castries, “Felicityville”. The land owners deemed to be Royalist sympathizers and therefore reactionaries were hounded by the Revolutionary government. A few were executed by guillotine on the Soufrière square. Many fled to Royalist Martinique.

When the British subsequently attacked Saint Lucia in 1796, the Republican army, L’Armée Francaise Dans Le Bois, made up of two thousand Negre Marron soldiers, was firmly ensconced in Fort Charlotte. The British unloaded their heavy guns at Choc bay. They attacked the fort at Vigie but were repulsed. They then set fire to Felicityville.

In an effort to gain tactical advantage, the British invested two hills, Morne Chabot and Morne de Chasseau with heavy guns. There was exchange of fire in a cannonade that lasted for days, until finally the British 27th Inniskilling Regiment noted early one morning that a flag of truce was flying from Fort Charlotte. The Republican army was suing for peace.

The British were so impressed with the valour of their adversaries that they allowed them to march out of the fort with their flags flying and drums beating. Brigadier General Moore expressed surprise that the fort had been defended so valiantly, especially when he noted that the disciplined soldiers were mainly black. Saint Lucia reverted to British control. General Moore was made governor.

However, the Negre Marron guerrillas who remained in the hills continued harrying the British. Governor John Moore hanged any Negre Marron who was captured. When that did not stop them, he destroyed the gardens where they planted food near their inaccessible mountain camps. The Negre Marron responded by increasing their guerrilla warfare, burning plantations and even churches in settlements like Dauphin and Praslin.

An attack on Mamiku estate near Praslin resulted in the massacre of a platoon of English soldiers who were bathing in a river. When he realized that he was the only one left alive, the soldier who had been on guard duty committed suicide.

Governor John Moore was incensed when he learnt of the incident. He redoubled his activities, hunting down Negre Marron all over the island. Ironically, he was almost waylaid by the Negre Marron on his way to Vieux-Fort by canoe. The Negre Marron got wind of his trip, and two canoes filled with Negre Marron in the Soufriere area chased the Governor for miles. Only by making for St.Vincent and rowing desperately until nightfall did he avert capture. The near escape took its toll on his health and he was forced to leave St. Lucia.

Governor Moore was replaced by Colonel James Drummond. He continued Moore’s tactics of blockading the Guadelopeans so that the Negre Marron could not receive supplies, and of destroying Negre Marron gardens. Eventually the Negre Marron sued for peace. One condition of their surrender was that, having borne arms, they would not be re-enslaved.
The British thought that freedom was a small price to pay for getting rid of the troublemakers.

The non-St. Lucians among them were returned to their islands. The whites were allowed to stay unmolested in St. Lucia but the blacks were formed into a regiment and sent to Africa to fight. Thus ended a proud period of St. Lucian history, where our ancestors actively engaged in determining their future. They took emancipation into their own hands
long before 1834, the year when the British finally abolished slavery for good.

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