Gros Islet
When the Amerindians came to Saint Lucia between 200 and 1000, they lived in small groups usually along the coastlines or close to a river. They made canoes, carved from the trunks of huge gommier trees. In them they paddled around the coast fishing and gathering shell fish. Evidence of their settlements has been found in and around Gros Islet.

Gros Islet is a town which lies to the very north of the island. The bay at Gros Islet was a good anchorage and both, French and English ships sailed in and out. In 1781, French troops led by the Marquis de Bouille, captured Gros Islet. Rodney from his stronghold on Pigoen Island forced them to retreat. Then in 1793, the French Republic calimed all the French territories in the Caribbean.

The revolutionaries came to Saint Lucia bringing a guillotine with them to behead any Frenchmen who were still loyal to the king. They renamed all the towns and villages in the island. Gros Islet was called ‘la Revolution’. Sooner than later, the British took over once again and the village went back to its old name.

After the first French settlers arrived in 1651, Saint Lucia’s landscape began to change. Large plantations took over most of the valleys, the plains around Vieux Fort, and all of the northern part of the island. A hundred years later, more than three quarters of the island had been calaimed by private owners. By 1775, there were 802 estates, 47 of them in the quarter of Gros Islet. They were large estates like Monchy, Bonne Terre, Morne Giraud, Marquis and Esperance. They stretched north to Cap, south to Bois d’Orange and Corinth and eastward to the sea.

Gros Islet had a population of about 2,000. The ‘Chemin Royal’ or ‘Royal Road’ that circle the island ran through the village. It came up from le Carénage, which would later be called Castries. Leaving the village it went out through Monchy and across the island to Marquis, Esperance and Dauphin.

Sugar was the main crop on the island, although cotton, tobacco and spices were still grown. These crops fetched high prices in England and Europe and so the French and the English continued battle for control of the island. Almost every estate had its own mill. The mills were usually powered by large water wheels turned by water channelled from a nearby river. The wheels turned heavy rollers that crushed the sweet juice out of the cane. The juice was then boiled in big iron pots, called chaudieres.

Gros Islet became a centre for all this activity. Then came the Revolution in France and everything came to a hault. In 1795, bands of brigands roamed the island destroying everything in their path. Eight of Saint Lucia’s eleven parishes suffered badly. Gros Islet was one of the few to escape. But in 1817, a terrible hurricane hit the island. This time the village was not so lucky; the big wooden church was completely demolished. The one that replaced it was said to be “…the poorest in the island.”

In 1838, the slaves who had been brought from Africa to work on the plantations were finally set free. Some still tried to make a living from the land, while others became fishermen. The village continued to grow. Rows of neat wooden houses with wooden shutters lined the narrow streets. Fishing boats were set out from the beach each morning to fish in the open sea. And soon, Gros Islet like other villages became a major fishing village on the island.

In 1871, a new parish priest, the Abbe Chassang, came to the village. With the help of his parishioners and money from his estate at Monchy, he built a new church. It had three fine marble altars, but like the earlier churches it was still made of wood. In 1906, it was wrecked completely by an earthquake. Only the bells were saved. Twenty years later, in 1926, the foundation was laid for the Church of St. Joseph the Worker, where people worship today.

As the years pass by, the sugar estates began to disappear one by one. Sometimes the land was replanted with coconuts, citrus or cocoa but often it was abondoned. Land left without the protection of trees or crops quickly became dry and useless.

In 1939, there was a war between England and Germany. Soon it spread to include almost the whole world. When America joined in, they decided to use Saint Lucia as a base for their aircraft. A runway was built at Vieux Fort for the planes to land. At Gros Islet, 221 acres were turned into a Naval Air Station. In 1941, the marines moved in. There was no runway at Gros Islet and the planes that arrived were sea planes and their landing strip was the sea. They were on the look out for enemy submarines and they patrolled the Caribbean from Trinidad to Puerto Rico. They would fly in low over the water and land in a shower of spray. Then, with engines roaring, they would move toward the concrete ramp that had been built on shore.

When the war ended in 1945, these strange aircraft also disappeared. The base was closed, the marines went back to America and the buildings were dismantled. Bush grew back over the land but after a while, the only thing that remained was the ugly concrete ramp and the broken down jetties.

After the Rodney Bay development Project began, great changes took place in the district of Gros Islet. In 1970, the mangrove swamp that had spread from the ‘Chemin Royal’ to the hills at Bonne Terre, finally disappeared. The Americans tried to fill it when they built their base there in 1941, but they failed miserably. As fast as they pumped sand into it from the bay it sifted away again. The stagnant edges of the swamp were full of mosquitoes, but it was also an important nursery for fish. Birds fed and nested there and each year flocks of migrating ducks rested there on their way south.

In its place was not land but water. Since it had been impossible to drain the swamp it was dredged and filled with water instead. A channel was cut to connect the new marina with the open water of Rodney Bay. The channel was deep enough for even large boats to go in and out. It passed right through the place where the rickety old bridge once crossed the muddy stream. A new road was built. Not a narrow, twisting lane but a wide, well paved highway from Castries to the gates of Cap Estate. It passed east of Gros Islet, crossing the road that led from the village to Massade and Cas-en-Bas. Just before it reached Cap Estate there a turning. It went toward the sea, cutting across the old village road that had wandered up to Cap Estate and straight on across the bay to Pigeon Island.

The new road, the causeway and the marina were no the only changes that had been made. All around Gros Islet luxury hotels, private villas and neatly arranged housing estate were springing up. Even today, one of the biggest and most luxuriest hotels can be found in Gros Islet. Over the years, Gros Islet has been developed tremendously, with numerous hotels and villas. Not to mention many restaurants which provide visitors with taste of the Caribbean’s best cuisine. To many residents, Gros Islet is Saint Lucia’s second city and the fastest growing town in the country.

Pigeon Island is another historic part of Saint Lucia and that of Gros Islet. It lies just 700 yards westward of the northern extremity of Saint Lucia and a distance of about seven miles from the city. It is three-quarters of a mile in length from north to south and less than half that extent at its greatest breadth. It contains about forty acres of pasture ground.

On some of the old French maps, the little island was called ‘le Gros Islet’. Many birds once nested on its steep cliffs. There were egrets and boobys, frigate birds, pelicans and long necked, long legged blue herons. The bay between the island and the mainland was full of fish. The boobys and the pelicans could be seen swooping over the surface of the water and diving into its depths after them.

In the 16th century the Spaniards arrived in their many-sailed galleons. Soon they were followed by the English, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. The Spanish ships, loaded with the plundered gold of South American cities, were often waylaid and boarded by pirates. Many fierce battles were faught there between the French and the British. The booming of their cannons became a familiar sound.

In 1778, after defeating the French at the Battle of Cul de Sac, the English established a base in Gros Islet Bay. They hauled guns to the small island making a fortress on the top of one of the hills. On their maps the main island was now marked Saint Lucia, while the smaller one was ‘Pigeon Island’.

Many disasters affected the wildlife there also. In 1780, the island was struck by a terrible hurricane that sunk and damaged many of the English ships. But by 1782, there were so many boats at anchor in the Bay, it was almost possible to walk across it without getting your feet wet. In 1817, another hurricane hit the island and some buildings at Pigeon Island were damaged severly. They were later repair and added others to form barracks for several hundred men. Many of the soldiers that occupied them died, not in battle but from diseases. The garrison was finally abondoned and the guns removed. For a while the buildings were used to house East Indian labourers brought in to work on the estates. Then in 1901 troops from the Morne moved in, to escape yet another epidemic of yellow fever. When they left, the island was over-taken by animals such as birds and bats.

The care and protection of the 40 acres that once made up Pigeon Island has now become the reponsibilty of the Saint Lucia National Trust. The park was officially opened in the year of Saint Lucia’s independence; February 23rd by Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra. Today, Pigeon Island comes alive when world events such as the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival are held every year. Many visitors enjoy the ambiance and sit on the beautiful lawn to watch and listen to world famous artists as they perform.

The only marina on the island can only be found at Rodney Bay. Named after Admiral Rodney who outmanoeuvred the French, the bay is the end point for the ever popular Atlantic Ralley for Cruisers. Every year, more than one hundred sail boats take part in a race over the Atlantic Ocean form Europe to the Caribbean. Gros Islet comes alive with many visitors enjoying themsevels and taking part in the Friday Night Street Jam. They drink, eat and dance to the sweet Caribbean music. There is a friendly, holiday atmosphere in the crowded streets. Even the roadside vendors with their coalpots and their grilled barbecued chicken legs are busy.