Pierre Belain Sieur D’Esnambuc arrived in St. Kitts in 1625 on a vessel belonging to his comrade, Urbain Du Roissey. They found here a Kalinago community, a few French sailors who had been shipwrecked on the island and were waiting for an opportunity to return to France and a small group of English colonists who had started to cultivate tobacco for export. D’Esnambuc in particular liked the idea of growing a cash crop and after promoting the idea in France, the two men returned to the island the following year with a group of French colonists. In both instances the French landed on the northern side of the island.
On the 13th May 1627, following the routing of the Kalinago community, the island was divided between the two European nationalities. The English took the middle section while the French occupied the northern and the southern extremities. Du Roissey, took charge of Basseterre, the leeward (southern) side of the island. There he built a fort to protect the settlement that was to become the town of Basseterre.
In September a Spanish fleet appeared off Basseterre and eventually landed. Du Roissey prepared to defend his small community but without much success. He then sailed round to Pointe de Sable and convinced the colonists there that they too should leave. Without allies to help them defend the colony, the English surrendered. A small group of French men, lead by D’Esnambuc found refuge in Antigua and awaited an opportune moment to return. Du Roissey, however decided to go back to France.
D’Esnambuc and his companions returned to St. Kitts that same year and he took up residence in the Basseterre quarter, at Fountain. Very gradually the small community started to grow and in 1635, Capucin missionaries were sent out to convert the Kalinago that remained on the island and to minister to the French population. They set up a convent in each of the French quarters with the one in Basseterre being located between the settlement and the Governor’s residence.
D’ Esnambuc died in 1636 and the governorship of the island was placed in the hands of Phillip De Lonvillier De Poincy, Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. When La Petite Europe carrying the Knight Governor, arrived in St. Kitts on the 20th of February 1639, the tiny settlement of Basseterre saw the finest spectacle of European grandeur to be displayed in theNew World. The new governor’s retinue of gentlemen and guards in cloaks embroidered with the white eight pointed cross of the Order of St. John, lead a procession to the church of Notre Damewhere the Te Deum was sung and where the planters came forward to ensure him of their loyalty. De Poincy quickly embarked on a number of construction projects. He had come prepared with a number of artisans and skilled personnel. True to his calling as a knight of St. John he built a hospital for visitors who fell ill during their stay on the island and for residents who could not get the care they needed in their own homes. He also made fostering arrangements for orphans at his own expense. A substantial Fort Basseterre, replaced the small Fort Pierre, a fairly large building was constructed as the meeting place for the council and for the conduct of administration.
Cesar De Rochefort’s work Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l'Amérique... avec un vocabulaire Caraïbe originally published in 1658 contains a brief description of the town. It was translated in 1666 by John Davis.
Both the English and French settlers on the island were engaged in the planting of crops for export. Most of them had tobacco plantations and employed small numbers of European indentured servants. Among these were a number of Irish Catholics who had either been transported or who had left Ireland lured by the possibility of a better life in the West Indies. Those who were free of indenture chose to settle to the West of Basseterre in what came to be called Irishtown.
Wars and Destruction
In 1666 war broke out between England and France. English Governor Watts on St. Kitts informed his French counterpart of the development. The French General having doubled his guards near Cayon, marched from Basseterre with an army that included enslaved men armed with bills, hoes and firebrands. The fighting took place in the English Quarters and resulted in the French gaining control of the whole island. However the Treaty of Breda signed 1667 restored the original division of the island. The actual restoration took some years to accomplish as the French had made investments in the English part of St. Kitts and were not willing to relinquish it. This led to a great deal of mistrust between the two sides and both attempted to maintain a military presence. In 1672, it was estimated that in the Basseterre quarter there were about 800 musketeers and 100 horse. The town itself had one platform commanding the road with 12 cannon. There were also several sturdy stone houses.
In 1689 the Irish on St. Kitts refused to recognise the substitution of James II who was a catholic with protestant William and Mary. They rose in rebellion and were supported by the French whose war ships attacked Fort Charles in Old Road. The English capitulated and were allowed to go to Nevis. However on the 20th June 1690 British forces landed in Frigate Bay and made their way to Basseterre. The squadron then weighed for Basseterre, which the French evacuated, both forts and town, on our approach, and fled to the mountains. Our army marched on, burning all before them, and in the evening encamped about a mile from the town. (Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, v. 13: 1689-1692 (1901)) Governor Codrington insisted that the English should resettle the island and advocated full control over it. Although a resettlement was accomplished, the English once again gave up the French Quarter of St. Kitts in 1697 at the Treaty of Ryswick. The English settlers vented their anger at this decision by destroying what they could before they left. R. P. Labat described the town in ruins in his Voyages aux Isles de l’Amerique 1693-1705.
England and France were again at war in 1702, this time over who should inherit the Spanish throne. As soon as the news reached Governor Codrington, he marched on the French in St. Kitts. Taken by surprise they surrendered immediately and most were sent to Hispaniola. The Irish who had settled in the Basseterre area had to leave with them. However in 1706, a French fleet put troops ashore on St. Kitts and they spent most of the following week wreaking havoc on the island. The Church of Notre Dame seems to have survived the ravages but was later set on fire by English soldiers. It is not clear if this was arson or an accident.
End of the French Interest
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht gave the whole of St. Kitts to Great Britain. In the years preceding the Treaty, much of the land that had belonged to the French had been given to persons who had helped the British. Some of the holders were British, others were French Huguenots, a few were former enslaved persons. There was a great deal of speculation as to what was to become of these grants and any remaining land. Finally all grants were annulled, and in 1726 a Commission of three men was sent to the island with the express purpose of selling the land. Holders tried to make claims before the committee, some even offered to purchase the land that had been granted to them. The committee heard and decided cases individually. The task was difficult because many of the surveys were found to be inaccurate. Among the properties sold were those in the town of Basseterre itself. At the commission’s meeting of the 19th August 1726 it was agreed by general consensus that the construction of thatch and wattle houses would not be allowed in the town.
In 1727 Basseterre stretched between the old French Fort in the East and College Street in the West. The following year th town was described as “the most opulent, and the chief place of trade and business.” It was therefore decided that plans to build a court house in Old Road should be abandoned and that such a building should be constructed in Basseterre. It was built on Church Street. Although wars continued to be fought in the region, St. Kitts seems to have experienced a respite and both trade and agriculture flourished.
The Eighteenth Century
Flourishing trade meant taxable goods and transactions, so following the Seven Years War, (1756-1762) Britain introduced the Stamp Act to recoup some of the costs it had incurred and to protect its new acquisitions in North America. Basseterre erupted in civil unrest in opposition to the act. It was an expression of exasperation felt by mant colonists in the British colonies in the Americas but the people of Basseterre left no doubt as to how they felt about the new taxes.
In 1768 another law adjusted the boundaries again as a significant number of houses, , had been erected outside the old limits of the town. The new boundaries were pushed west towards Fort Thomas. In 1792 Maria Woodley Riddell described a tiny Basseterre in her book Voyages to the Madeira and Leeward Caribbean Isles.
The construction of the Court House in 1792, and the housing of administrative and legal officials in it, contributed to a west ward expansion of the town and the creation of New Town. In 1818 the Council passed legislation to facilitate the draining of the pond on the western edge of town. This procedure did not produce permanent results as legislation had to be passed again in 1894. The McMahon map of 1828 shows housing precariously close to the swamp on Ponds Estate. Despite this in 1825, in his book Six Months in the West Indies Henry Samuel Coleridge described Basseterre as “a large town with many good houses.”
The Post Emancipation Era
The distribution of population on St. Kitts started to change soon after Emancipation with significant numbers moving into town. In 1838 when Apprenticeship was terminated, the labourers on the plantations were no longer bound to work there. Their continued service on depended on the conditions being offered. Kitttian planters continued to allow labourers to occupy estate housing and to grow provisions on estate land but when disagreements occurred ejections often followed and the name of the offender circulated to other estates. Planters used this tactic to eliminate the options of alternative employment for their workers. Lt. Governor Charles Cunningham was aware that this placed labourers at a disadvantage and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the Colonial Office curtail it by law.
For those workers who were ejected from estate land or who wanted to try a different life style there was the option of a move to town or migration. Many chose the former and the population ofBasseterre grew to the extent that the authorities became concerned with poverty and sanitation particularly in Irish Town and New Town. In 1846 a poor house was established and in 1848 a hospital was built mostly through the private efforts of Lt. Governor Cunningham. In 1852 a start was made towards the improvement of the water supply in the town.
In 1854 the island suffered an out break of cholera. In Basseterre alone 1,514 persons succumbed to the disease, most of them in Irish Town and New Town. It was indicative of the dangers of overcrowding. More was to come in 1867 when a fire broke out and consumed most of the town west of New Town and in 1880 congestion in the College Street resulted in many deaths when flood waters carried away buildings. Some of the people in town lived in two storey building but the vast majority occupied “one storey, one room huts built of light material and loosely put together.” Major disasters prompted changes in the layout of the town which included access to a water supply, wider and straighter roads, and protective walls. Eventually the Colonial Administration also intervened by acquiring land to make town expansion possible in the vicinity of Fort Thomas. Visitors James McQuade and William Paton wrote descriptions of the town and its people in their travelogues. Their books denote an air of condescension towards the people of the island and use language that would be considered political incorrect today, yet their descriptions are a valuable source of information.
Basseterre became the centre of administration for two other islands, Anguilla in 1825 and Nevisin 1883. It was a relationship that was rife with bitterness on both sides as Anguillians and Nevisians resented their loss of autonomy while St. Kitts, which was barely weathering difficult economic situations, had additional responsibilities foisted on its strained resources. The purpose of the exercise was to reduce administrative costs and the only beneficiary of the new arrangement was Britain.
As sugar failed to provide a livelihood people started looking elsewhere for work, first in the Windwards, Trinidad and Guyana in the days after Emancipation and then moving further afield to Panama, the Dominican Republic and Bermuda. Basseterre became the port through which passed these mostly seasonal workers, including those from neighbouring islands. The constant comings and goings produced what the authorities called “a bad crowd of loafers.” (see Papers relating to the Disturbances in St. Christopher 1935 p. 4)
Workers from Madeira started arriving in St. Kitts in the mid-19th century. They were brought in to work in the cane fields but some later set up retail businesses in various parts of the island including Basseterre. Another group were the Lebanese who left their country because of violent political unrest. They went straight into business starting out small with a cart full of goods that travelled the country side until they were able to set up shops in town.
The 20th Century
By the middle of the 20th century the Administration, then heavily influenced by the presence of Labour leaders, started looking for opportunities to make land available to the people, where possible for agricultural purposes but also closer to town for improved housing conditions. The habitations of Basseterre expanded into Dorset, Greenlands, Ponds, Birdrock, Shadwell and Wades, and within thirty years the town had extended its boundaries considerably. In the 1990s another type of influx took place with workers from Guyana and the Dominican Republic coming to St. Kitts to cut cane and staying on, many of them in Basseterre. The town is now also the home of a more transient population – students for North America, India, and Africa who are coming to the island to study at the off-shore universities that have established schools here. Many of them live in apartments on the outskirts of town. Down town Basseterre, has become a small but bustling business area with Government agencies, banks, communication companies and small shops. A number of establishments cater of a growing tourist industry. In 1993, the government embarked on a land reclamation project now called Port Zante that created docking facilities and a duty free shopping areas.
Despite its small size, Basseterre has proven to be a town with capabilities matching those of any other in the Caribbean. The town hosted Carifesta VII in 2000, outbidding rivals many times its size. It was even able to outbid the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, to host matches for the 2007 Cricket World Cup making St. Kitts and Nevis the smallest country in the world to ever host any World Cup event.
Further reading: Sir Probyn Innis Historic Basseterre (Basseterre 1985)