Castries

One of the most beautiful capitals in the Caribbean is found right here in Saint Lucia. Castries is a pleasant town and a friendly beacon of welcome at the base of its habour. It was originally called the "Carenage" - a name which was commonly assigned to careening places in the West Indies. In 1785, Castries got its name in honor of Marshal de Castries, the French colonial Minister for the navy and the colonies, which was instrumental in having the island returned to the French in 1784, following the Treaty of Versailles. When the republican raged for altering names and abolishing institutions extended to Saint Lucia, the name was suppressed and the more homely one; "Carenage" was substituted. Then in 1803, after many changes with the name, the city finally adopted "Castries" as its name.

View of Castries
The story, however, does not begin where Castries is currently situated but it begins across the habour where the first town was established. The village developed around what is now Vigie Marina, and was indeed the perfect place to repair ships of all sizes. Unfortunately, the area at that time was surrounded by a considerable amount of swampland and the town gained a reputation for being very unhealthy. In 1768, as the island entered its "great era of sugar," the town of Carenage was moved to the present location. But still the stigma attatched to the name "Carenage" clung and many potential settlers snubbed the village, not realizing that it had been moved to a much healthier location.

When the chain of battles reverberated through the Caribbean beginning in 1778, between the British and the French, Saint Lucia landed into British hands. However, as peace was regained in 1784 under the command of Mashal de Castries, the island was again French. At that time the country was assigned to the Governor, Baron De Laborie, an engineer by trade. Fortunate for Saint Lucia, the country entered into a state of development, including improved roads, one of which in Castries still bears the name "Laborie Street".

The period of development which was brought about by Baron De Laborie was short lived. In 1791, Castries saw the "Tricolore" of the French Revolution hoisted on Morne Fortune, followed by the renaming of Castries to "Felicite-Ville," and the "reign of terror" which swept the island. Finally, after a few more volleys from British to French, Commodore Hood Captured Saint Lucia for the British. Castries regained its named and settled to become "Pleasant City". After so many wars and blood shed, Castries' devastation was not over. Nature took over where the battles left off. Castries suffered two major Hurricanes, one earthquake and a series of floods between the years of 1816 through 1819. Then the years 1834 through 1838 brought a great period of adjustment to the town, with the emancipation of slavery. Many newly-freed slaves poured into Castries, causing overcrowding, poor housing and job shortages. Not to mention the immigrants from the neigbouring islands who were in search of jobs.

Finally, problems were being solved and Castries saw another period of develompent in the 1840s, this time bringing such improvements as the city's first fresh water system, and English being designated the official language of Saint Lucia. In 1851, Henry Breen became the first mayor of Castries, and a few years later a code of civil law was compiled. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, development continued although daunted by a cyclone, more flooding, fallout ash from the erupting volcanoes of neighboring Martinque and Saint Vincent, and an earthquake. Despite the setbacks, the road sytem was improved, harbor facilities extended, and in 1903 the first kitson light burned in Castries. Much of the progress was due to Castries being selected as a coaling station for the British Navy, thus bringing increased jobs and revenue to the city.

However, this period of rapid development brought with it another saga. In 1907, although no longer a military garrison, Castries remained a coaling port for merchant ships. April of that year ended in a series of serious strikes and riots by the coal carriers. Other labourers around the island joined in sympathy and marched into Castries, only to be stopped at the Castries Bridge. After four men were killed and twenty-seven labourers wounded, reinforcemants were sent from Barbados and Saint Vincent. On April 29, the H.M.S. "Indefatigable" arrived in the Castries harbor as show of force, and finally an agreement between the workers and merchants was arranged on May 2.

In the 1930s, many laws were passed to benefit the labourers, including the construction of 25 model cottages, which were situated in the area between the new government buildings and the market. These new housing accomodations for the coal carriers were so neat and attractive; the area took on the name by which it is still referred today: "Hollywood".

This time of improvement for the labouring class, was, however, also a period of two great disasters. In 1927 a fire consumed 17 blocks of Castries, encompassing the main business section. Fortunately, the winds were blowing in a seaward direction and the blaze was eventually put out by the sea water. The second great disaster hit in 1938. Following along period of heavy rainfall, severe flooding and landslides took their toll on the entire island: 96 lives were lost; damage to property totalled some ?55,000.

Excitement again reigned in Castries during World War II. Because Saint Lucia was selected as a site for both a U.S. Naval Station and a U.S. Air Base, Castries enjoyed a steady flow of military vessels calling at her harbor. The excitement did not climax until March 9, 1942, when, due to a lax view of light screening regulations, a German submarine slid into the Castries Harbor and torpedoed two ships, the C.N.S. "Lady Nelson," and "Umtata." Damage was not severe and both ships were reloated. But the destruction was compounded by pilfering of the ships' cargo.

The struggles of Castries did not end there. On the night of June 19, 1948, a tailor's shop on the north-eastern part of the town burst into flames. The breeze was so strong that it spread the fire throughout most of the town. Castries was devastated. Finally, with the assistance of the U.S. Air Force fire fighting squad from Vieux Fort, the fire was extinguished, leaving behind blocks and blocks of rubble. Business establishments, government and historical buildings and archives, many important records-to say nothing of scores of homes-were destroyed. Especially sad were the loss of many historic documents and reference material from the Carnegie Library, also destroyed. The only bright spot among the smouldering ruins was the church, now the Castries Cathedral, saved by the efforts of many volunteers who worked desperately to hold the flames back from the building. Much of present-day Castries was built to replace the buildings lost during that "Great fire" of 1948. The city managed to survive Hurricane Abby in 1956, Hurricane Allen in 1980 as well as small fires in 1951, 1956 and 1959.

The banana industry plunged forward in 1956, when Geest Industries started making regular calls to Port Castries to collect the precious fruit that would become Saint Lucia's number-one export crop.

Castries continued to grow, reaching its crowning moment in 1967 when Saint Lucia became an associated state of Britain. Sir Frederick Clarke became the first local governor, and Castries became the capital city. The city retained the honoured position of capital, when Saint Lucia became an independent nation in 1979. Castries has since developed into a modern city with blossoming signs of prosperity and reflecting the ambitions and lifestyles of the people of Saint Lucia. The town sqaure or Place d'Ames as it were called a long time ago was built under the direction of Sir Dudley Hill of which this square is indebted for much of its importance. He planted the first ornamental trees and made the sqaure a sight to see in the town of Castries. Today, the town sqaure has changed tremendously but with more beauty and is one of the venues of the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival.

Morne Fortune is a hill about eight hundred feet in elevation and is situated on the south side of the town. It commands a magnificient view of different portions of the island and even the neighbouring island of Martinique to the north. Its buildings tell the tale of the Frenchmen who stood battle on the hill. With all their artillery and canon mounts they prepared for battle. Morne Fortune even had barracks which were a cluster of brick buildings of one story situated within fort charlotte and was capable of receiving 240 men. There was also a hospital which housed the sick. The chief ornament of Morne Fortune was an edifice called the ‘iron barracks' constructed for the accommodation of the officers. It was built in 1833. The walls were built of ashlar stone, held together by means of iron bars. There was an iron gallery to each story and an exterior iron stair case from the ground to the roof. The iron barracks are considered hurricane proof but unfortunately hurricane are not the only casualties that Saint Lucia is exposed to. The Government House which was commonly called the ‘Pavilion' was a spacious wooden structure; tastefullt lay out and fitted up in a style of elegance worthy of the representative of the sovereign. It was situated at the western extremity of Morne Fortune on a plateau or terrace, which possess one of the most magnificient views in this beautiful island.

Today, Castries is the busiest town in Saint Lucia. With major busineses including three major telecommunication companies, more than five radio stations, three television stations, more than five different banks, and not to mention, a wide variety of clothing stores, supermarkets, restaurants and gift shops. Castries is home to two major hospitals on the island. The Victoria Hospital which has been in existence for over thirty years and the more recent Tapion Hospital which is home to some of the best doctors on the island. Saint Lucia is presently in the planning phase of a multi-million dollar Hospital project which on completion will be the national hospital of the island. The government has promised the people of Saint Lucia better medical facilities when the new hospital will be opened. Mostly all of the hotels on the island are established in the city of Castries and can accommodate more than 100 people each.

Visitors enter the island via the harbor at Pointe Seraphine and at the George F. L. Charles International Airport in Vigie. The airport is just five minutes from the city and the harbor is about two minutes. Saint Lucia now depends solely on the Tourism Industry and many initiatives have been undertaken to ensure that this Industry does not "die". With heavy advertisments and promotions abroad, making the Jazz Festival the number one festival in the Caribbean and the world. And indeed these events have paid off. Now the Cruise Industry has grown tremendously and tourist arrivals have increased dramatically since.

It is suffice to say that Castries is one of the most unique cities in the world. It combines a little modern with a hint of the old, a dash of French with a touch of British. Mostly, however, Castries remains the pulse of a nation-with a throbing Caribbean beat.