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smoke hole at Lawyer Stephen's cave Photograph by permission of Gregory Pereira, Greg’s Safaris

by Alex Robinson

According to the oral tradition the cave was first fashioned by maroons out of the side of Olivees Mountain in the 17th century. In a series of local history programmes a contemporary griot, Tamboura Kitwana, from St. Kitts Ministry of Culture, described the site:
“The cave is made of packed earth and rock, with a smoke hole and a door sized opening at the back, and is surrounded by gullies to the east, west and south. There is a path above the cave which leads straight up to the top of the ridge, over Olivees Mountain to Cayon.” Standing in the middle of the rain forest, about eighty feet below the cave, is a plunge bath made of dressed stone, reputed to have been built by Stephen. 


James Stephen was a barrister in St Kitts 1783-1794; according to the oral tradition, he counselled enslaved Africans and free Blacks to pursue their rights. Following a series of prosecutions which aimed to curtail the rights of slaveholders’ use of brutal punishments, he alienated the white community to such a degree that he withdrew to the hills and took refuge in a cave. There, he continued to advise the enslaved workers and wrote reports on conditions, which he sent secretly to the Abolition Committee in London.


The oral tradition is supported by the evidence of these prosecutions , particularly the celebrated Herbert case: William Herbert, a local merchant, was accused of gross cruelty “upon one Billy, a Negro child of the age of Six Years, [...] that he did gag inhumanely and immoderately, wantonly and cruelly […] beat, wound, bruise and ill-treat the child so that of his life was greatly despaired.” The guilty verdict was without precedent in the English speaking Caribbean and caused bitter recrimination on the island.


Stephen’s visit to England and his meeting with Wilberforce on January 31, 1789 is also recorded: he met Wilberforce in Palace Yard and agreed to report to him.

Stephen returned to England in 1794, supporting the Haiti revolution and too radical for Wilberforce, but he learned to temper his radicalism. It was his strategy that led to the Orders in Council of 1806 which banned the slave trade to Britain’s enemies, making way for the Act abolishing the slave trade altogether in 1807, which he drafted. He spent the rest of his life campaigning for an end to slavery, as an MP from 1808 – 1815, as a founding member of the African Institution and author of a two volume, thousand page study, The Slavery of the British West Indian Colonies Delineated[…]. Stephen’s interpretation of plantation slavery is unique and prescient; he draws from close observation of the system and presents the horrors and excesses of that system, not as exceptions, but as commonplace, and perhaps most chilling, as sanctioned by law. Some of these observations were first reported in this cave, and the story preserved in the oral tradition affords agency to the island of St. Kitts in the achievement of Abolition.

 

Liverpool Row 2008

 

Liverpool Row stretches in the opposite direction from Bank Street. It heads West from the Circus. It is not clear if this street actually existed in French times. If it did, it would not have been known by its current name.

Basseterre - detail from McMahon 1828
Basseterre - detail from McMahon 1828


Liverpool Row was the commercial centre of Basseterre. This was where most merchants set up business. If they did not own a plantation house, they would have lived above their store front. Slave trading would have taken place here as often merchants preferred to deal out of their own premises. The street was an ideal location as it is close to the Bay Front, where their goods were landed. Its name is a testament to the close commercial relationship that existed between Liverpool in the England and the island’s merchant class.


The area past Church Street, where Fort Thomas Road starts, would have housed their porters and domestic servants. In the years after Emancipation in 1834, this part of Basseterre was a magnet for those who were looking for a life away from the cane fields.

 

 

 

Fort Street 2008
Basseterre was the main town of the French quarters of the island.  Just as Thomas Warner set up wooden forts in Old Road, Pierre Belain D’Esnambuc set up a Fort Pierre in Basseterre.  When Governor Phillippe De Longvillier De Poincy took over the administration of the French Caribbean Islands, he wanted something stronger and more permanent.  It is known that De Poincy took military architecture seriously.  He had books on the subject.  The Fort he built was constructed of masonry and designed to meet engineering specifications. 
After the turbulent years of the late 17th century, Fort Londonderry was built on the Basseterre Bay front. Fort Street was  the most eastern of the roads perpendicular to the Bay Front and  the closest street to these military structures, hence its name.
Baker 1753 detail
Baker 1753 detail
Bank Street
Bank Street

The Road heading east from the Circus is Bank Street. A bank has been at its southern corner where it meets Fort Street for almost 200 years. The first one was probably Colonial Bank which was set up by Royal Charter in 1836 to trade in the West Indies.


The former enslavers had been given £20 million as compensation for the loss of their unpaid labour. This meant that there was a significant increase in the money supply both in Britain and the colonies. Entrepreneurs started to realise that it would be good business to establish a bank. Planters and their merchant bankers in London were also aware that when the Apprenticeship system came to an end they would have to pay in cash for the labour on the estates.


Offices of Colonial Bank opened in the West Indies on the 15 July 1837. Despite the ups and downs of the sugar industry in the region, the Bank survived and in the early 20th century was allowed to extend its operations to other part of the world. In 1925 by Act of Parliament, Colonial Bank changed its name to Barclays Bank (Dominion, Colonial and Overseas) and it started operating as a private subsidiary of Barclays Bank Ltd. In 2002 Barclays took the name of First Caribbean and merged its operation with The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Barclays has since withdrawn from the region but First Caribbean continues to operate here.

Bank Street

Bank Street c.1930

Part 1

by Cameron St. Pierre Gill

The town of Sandy Point was the first major seaport on the island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), the earliest English colony in the British West Indies. Many mistakenly claim that Sandy Point was St. Kitts first English town. This is not so, that honour belongs to Old Road, the site of Thomas Warner’s first settlement. When St. Kitts was divided between the English and French, Old Road was the administrative capital of St. Christopher (English St. Kitts) and Sandy Point was the trading centre, while Basseterre was the capital of St. Christophe (French St. Kitts).


Barry Higman has noted that the export driven plantation economy which became a feature of many Caribbean islands first emerged in the Leeward Islands. Early ports such as Sandy Point were indispensable to the growth of that burgeoning export driven plantation economy. As the first major English port town in the Eastern Caribbean Sandy Point became important not only to England's claim on St. Kitts but to her ambitions on the other islands as well. Unlike the other English and French towns on the island, namely Old Road, Basseterre and Cayon, Sandy Point was located next to one of the two boundaries that separated the English and French settlements, whose relationships with each other was always hostile, frequently erupting into armed conflict. The fact that the northern boundary between St. Christophe and St. Christopher ran through the bay at Sandy Point only contributed further to the hostile state of affairs. The Sandy Point Anchorage is one of the largest in the Eastern Caribbean, comparable in size to the anchorages at Basseterre, Oranjested in St. Eustatius, Prince Rupert's Bay in Dominica, Carlisle Bay and Speightstown Anchorage in Barbados. The size of the Sandy Point Anchorage and its location on a contested boundary between two rival European powers caused this anchorage to assume huge strategic importance.

 

 Vuillermont 1667 detail
Vuillermont 1667 detail


Consequently, within the first century of the island’s settlement the Sandy Point Anchorage became heavily fortified at both ends. The French erected a fortress on the northern bluff of the anchorage (where the village of Fig Tree is located), which is depicted on Etienne Vuillemont’s 1667 Map as “Fort François”. On the opposite (southern) end the English erected Charles Fort, named after King Charles II who had taken the almost unheard of step of financing the fort’s construction out of his own pocket. The King’s actions were indicative of the importance of St. Kitts and more specifically, the importance of the fledgling border town of Sandy Point and its anchorage to Britain's imperial ambitions. After St. Kitts came completely under English control in 1713, Fort François became Fort Charles, a name that still causes some confusion because of the similarly named fort at the other end of the bay.


With respect to that other fort, Charles Fort would begin life as a fort that differed from other early Caribbean forts, including even its younger and now more famous sister, the Brimstone Hill Fortress. Most of the region’s forts began life as simple fortified artillery positions which over time were extended and improved, eventually evolving in some cases into major fortresses. Some notable examples are the Cabrits in Dominica, the aforementioned Brimstone Hill, Fort Delgres in Guadeloupe, and El Morro and San Cristobal in Puerto Rico. Charles Fort, on the other hand, was conceived from the beginning as a comprehensive masonry fortress. There was no haphazard planning in its construction, all of the gun positions are connected by curtain walls that fully enclose the fort, remarkable for a mid to late seventeenth century Caribbean fortification!.

Walls of Charles Fort
Walls of Charles Fort

What is equally remarkable is that it took approximately eleven years to complete what would be one of the largest coastal fortresses in the Eastern Caribbean. When one considers that funding for defence works was often a contentious issue between Crown and colonies, such a commitment is impressive. However, all the King’s horses, money and English men could not have made Charles Fort a reality without enslaved African labour. These anonymous labourers and stonemasons have left as testament to their endurance and skill perhaps the oldest surviving intact and original seventeenth century masonry fortification in the Caribbean, a fort built originally in stonework when most other buildings in the Caribbean of the time were being hewn from timber.


Impressive as Sandy Point’s principal coastal fortification was, Charles Fort had one weakness that afflicted, regardless of their size, all coastal fortifications, vulnerability to naval gunfire and encirclement by enemy troops landing on the coast out of range of its guns. However, the limitations in artillery technology of the time meant that in order for their guns to have reasonable range out to sea and properly cover a bay they had to be sited directly on the coast. In 1690, during one of the many armed conflicts between the English and French on St. Kitts, Charles Fort was overrun by the French. The English with the assistance of enslaved Africans dragged guns up Brimstone Hill (which at the time was a limestone quarry) to fire onto the occupied Charles Fort. The artillery fire from Brimstone Hill succeeded in routing the French from Charles Fort and opened English eyes to the utility of Brimstone Hill as firing position. It was from then that fortifications began to be erected atop Brimstone Hill, initially for the purpose of providing a backup defence for Charles Fort. By the mid eighteenth century advances in artillery technology permitted guns located slightly further inland to adequately cover a stretch of coastline and the waters off it. Such progress enabled Brimstone Hill to come into its own, superseding Charles Fort as the primary defence of the Sandy Point Anchorage, although the latter remained an important defensive position up to the late nineteenth century.


While we can pinpoint the dates at which construction of Sandy Point’s major fortifications began and the dates of the first English and French settlements on St. Kitts, much more elusive is the date of the town of Sandy Point’s founding. Early map references to “Sandy Point” refer to a natural geographic feature, the expansive sandy bluff also known as Belle Tete (Pretty Head), not a town. However, a document from the sixteenth century offers a tantalizing clue of at least the period by which the town was already in existence. The Bibliotheque Nationale (National Library) in Paris, France contains a book published in 1667 titled Histoire general des Antilles par les François. By R.P. Jean Baptiste du Tertre. An illustration contained in this French text depicts the 1666 Battle of Sandy Point, apparently one of the major battles that took place that year during war between the English and French settlers. What is interesting about this illustration is that in the background of the fighting depicted a town is clearly shown. Therefore, the Sandy Point referred to in the illustration’s title was not just a beach but an already established settlement. Du Tertre’s depiction of the Battle of Sandy Point is the earliest reference uncovered thus far to the town of Sandy Point

detail from Norwood map 1698
detail from Norwood map 1698


By the nineteenth century Sandy Point had become an important slave trading port and a focal point for trade, in the form of both legal trade and smuggling, as well as communication between the British and Dutch West Indies. John Newton, the slave trader who later claimed a conversion to Christianity, records landing at Sandy Point on more than one occasion in his Diary of a Slave Trader.


Whereas in the French islands, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, slave auctions typically took place aboard the slave ship, Newton recounts that in the Leeward Islands the auctions occurred ashore. While it is uncertain where exactly in Sandy Point slave auctions took place, whether at Pump Bay, Downing Street or some other location, local folklore among Sandy Pointers claims that an unoccupied lot of land known as The Pound was once a slave market. The Pound is located above the Methodist Cemetary on Downing Street. It has not been possible thus far to verify The Pound’s reputed past but what is interesting is that even some younger members of the community are familiar with The Pound’s alleged association with the nefarious Slave Trade.


The late eighteenth century was a time of heightened tensions in the Caribbean. A French invasion attempt on St. Kitts was expected, it was not a question of if but when. In 1779, a large detachment of British troops were deployed to St. Kitts. The soldiers were landed at Sandy Point and met by members of the Assembly. As the number of troops was too great for them to be adequately housed at the fortresses, accommodations were rented in Sandy Point and Dieppe Bay. By 1796 there were 150 soldiers and officers living in Sandy Point and Dieppe Bay. The majority of them may have been residing in Sandy Point for in 1802 it was recorded that there were 105 soldiers living there.

Siege of Brimstone Hill 1782
Siege of Brimstone Hill 1782


When the anticipated French attack came in 1782, Sandy Point found itself centre stage with the invading force occupying the town, consequently attracting heavy artillery fire from the defensive positions around Sandy Point. After a month long siege British forces on St. Kitts capitulated to the French but by 1783 the island was returned to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Within half a century slavery in the British Empire was legally ended and by the 1890s the last military garrisons were withdrawn from Sandy Point’s primary defences and other locations throughout the British West Indies. With India’s star on the rise and the British West Indies strategic value on the wane it was seen as no longer necessary to maintain expensive defences at small island ports such as Sandy Point.


However, while Sandy Point was no longer a strategic priority for British and French generals and admirals, the port town would up to the mid twentieth century come to play an increasingly important role in the lives of many people in the islands neighbouring St. Kitts. This we shall discuss in Part Two.

National Archives
Government Headquarters
Church Street
Basseterre
St. Kitts, West Indies

Tel: 869-467-1422 | 869-467-1208
Website: www.nationalarchives.gov.kn
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