The Express des Isles catamaran slams into the waves on another rough crossing, this time coming from Martinique across the St Lucia Channel, but after passing Point du Cap on the northern tip of St Lucia the waves abate and soon enough the ferry turns left into Castries harbour bay and, as it slows down, sets lower in the water to dock at the Passenger Ferry Port on the southern end.
I follow the same route as Jacques du Parquet, then French Governor of Martinique, did in 1643 when he established the first French settlement in Soufrière a bit further south of Castries, starting a long battle of dominance over the island between the French and the English, in which St Lucia changed hands no less than 14 times.
I look about the shed we enter coming from the ferry. It looks like an abandoned warehouse now taken over by the border police and customs. I join one of the two queues for the makeshift booths standing somewhat forlorn under the high corrugated iron roof. A striking difference with the modern facility in Fort-de-France and judging from the many suitcases, taped or tied-up cartons, bags that people are bringing in, they have seriously been stocking up in Fort-de-France too.
Having passed the border police you walk alongside a wooden partition and then turn left into another part of the warehouse where a jumble of people and piles of packages are waiting without any apparent organisation behind a line painted on the floor, about four metres from three stations where customs officers are slowly and meticulously opening up all the taped and tied-up packages brought in. Each station has two sides with the officer standing in the middle. When he is ready on one side, he turns to the other one. The person who has been dealt with collects his scattered goods and moves on making room for the next one in line. Indeed, but who is that? I am standing at a little spot I found among the jumble of people. Mind you not waiting in three queues, but spread out along the painted line on the floor and it is completely unclear who’s next. The whole thing is so hopelessly disorganised it becomes comical again. I took a picture for you to see for yourself.
That now, I should not have done. A stern officer, looming with authority, beckons me in front of the crowd and has me humbly delete my picture, before sending me back again to my spot. However, with this new found notoriety nobody in the crowd objects when I walk up to the next spot opening up at the checking station.
The pivotal moment in the British and French colonial fortunes is exemplified in the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which concluded the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War. It marked the end of the French presence on the North American continent and sealed British colonial supremacy in the rest of the world (in a strange irony it also bore the seed of American Independence just 13 years later, since the cost of the war was at the root of the imposition of taxes the colonies revolted against). St Lucia and other French islands that had been conquered during the war were restored to France, but by 1814 St Lucia would again become British and remain so until independence in 1979.
The dual French and British heritage makes for a curious mix. All geographical references are French, all institutions are British, the popular language is French Creole and the official one is English.
So, I am staying in the Auberge Seraphin, overlooking the Petit Carenage harbour, plan to drive around the island to visit Vieux Fort, the Soufrière Volcano (yet another one) and St Lucia’s claim to tourist fame: the Gros and Petit Piton (they were quite impressive actually). St Lucia is a member of the Commonwealth (but to be true also of La Francophonie), celebrates Queen Elisabeth the II’s 60-year reign, has a ‘bobby’ police force and a common law based judiciary, that is as British as it gets.
The differences with the French controlled islands are also striking. What infrastructure there is, is crumbling and income levels are about 60% of those on Martinique. Yet there is no sign of the discontent that was so visible on Guadeloupe and Martinique.
On that note, I would say, the needle seems to veer towards the British decolonisation approach.
Time to move on to my last stop on this Caribbean tour, Barbados, which has been uncontested British territory since 1624, to see if under that condition an island fares differently.