Courtesy The Bequia Tourism Association
Bequia’s earliest permanent inhabitants, dating back to the beginning of the first millennium AD, were small groups of pottery-making Amerindians whose origins lay in the northern coastal regions of South America. These indigenous people were followed in around 1400 AD by another group, the Island Caribs, who along with their fellow Caribs in St. Vincent and Dominica, successfully resisted the ravages of European colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries. There is plenty of evidence of pre-historic life on the island which has been unearthed, with doubtless still more to be discovered.
A small exhibit of artifacts and shards can be seen in the Tourism Office and at the Frangipani Hotel, providing an intriguing glimpse into Bequia’s distant past. By the late 1600s, indigenous (”Yellow”) Caribs had to a great extent merged with runaway or shipwrecked African slaves, giving rise to the so-called Black Caribs. So fervent was the resistance of these Caribs to European settlement that both the French and the English essentially agreed to leave the Caribs of St. Vincent and Dominica in peace, despite both countries’ desire for further colonisation of ‘new’ lands. A 1659 account of the French Antilles describes Bequia as being “too inaccessible to colonise”, and used only by Caribs from St. Vincent for fishing and for “cultivating little gardens”. But by the early 18th century the French were showing renewed interest in the lush and fertile island of St. Vincent. After developing if not an alliance, then at least a working accord with the Black Caribs, the French were permitted to develop small settlements there. Bequia and the other Grenadine islands however, were at this time considered to be part of French-owned Grenada and very much under French control. British ships were banned from setting ashore for lumber or water and French ships rigorously patrolled the Grenadine waters. First cultivated in the early 18th century by a scattering of French smallholders from Grenada, the earliest crops on Bequia were indigo, cotton, sugar and lime, and its tiny population was made up of French whites, “free coloureds”, slaves and Black Caribs. (Traces of French works and roads can still be found on parts of the island, and as in St. Vincent, many locations, and indeed families still carry French names.)
The turning point in St. Vincent’s colonial history came with the cessation of hostilities between the French and British in the Seven Years War, marked in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. By this treaty, previously ‘neutral’ St. Vincent and the Grenadine Islands were ceded to the British, along with Grenada, Tobago, Dominica and Canada – while Britsh-captured Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia were returned to the French. Although interrupted briefly by a short-lived French seizure of St. Vincent in 1779, the long period of British settlement, colonisation and control of St. Vincent & the Grenadines had now truly begun. On Bequia, whilst the existing French settlers were at least initially allowed to claim the acres they had cultivated, the 1760s and 1770s saw the lion’s share of its prime land going, as always, to the British elite who either expanded and developed, or sold on their allocations. Much smaller tracts of land – nineteen in all – were offered to so-called “poor white settlers” – English, Irish and Scottish labourers, many formerly displaced from small farms or exhausted plantations elsewhere in the British West Indies – who applied to come to this newest British territory, eager to acquire those precious virgin acres and desperate to finally settle down. well in Industry 18th century well at Industry estate By 1829, Bequia boasted nine sugar plantations of between 100 and 1000 acres, numerous smallholdings, its own new church and a close-knit population of maybe 1400 people, of whom at least 1200 were slaves.
But the island’s prosperity was short lived: 1828 was the peak of production of sugar in the islands. Thereafter the industry slowly declined, and in the years following Emancipation in 1838 the once wealthy planters returned to England or moved on, often bankrupt, while the majority who remained sought new ways to make a living. Maritime activities were nothing new to Bequians; the island had for more than a century been totally dependant on inter-island trading for its survival. Just as today virtually all supplies, including all but the simplest ground provisions, were imported into Admiralty Bay, and the island’s produce – sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, indigo and cotton – left on the same island traders. Many of the island’s earliest settlers and smallholders were also shipwrights, seamen and carpenters, and with an abundance of indigenous White Cedar on the island, the development of boat building was a natural – and essential – progression to ensure the islanders’ survival.
The waters surrounding the island were also fabulously rich fishing grounds. Yankee whalers frequently ventured south to the Grenadines in search of their catch, and one young Bequian, William (Old Bill) Wallace Jr. worked for many years on New England whaleboats before returning to his native island in the 1870s to start a whaling station in Friendship. A second station, started by Joseph “Pa” Ollivierre swiftly followed. Even as early as the 1870s whale oil already ranked fourth in value of exports from the whole country, whilst the whale meat became – and today still remains – a staple food for many Bequians. It was not long before Bequia became renowned for her uniquely successful whaling fleet and her heroic whalermen. old Bill Wallace William “Old Bill” Wallace (left), founder of Bequia’s first Whaling Station (photographed in Bequia c. 1914) It was the building of whaleboats in the last quarter of the 19th century that gave the real impetus for the rapid development of Bequia’s home-grown boat-building into a thriving industry. In just ten years, between 1871 and 1881, the number of mariners and shipwrights on the island increased from 73 to 157. Boats of all sizes, from 28ft whaleboats to large island schooners, were built on beaches all over the island – at Friendship Bay, Lower Bay, La Pompe, Paget Farm, Hamilton, Belmont and of course Port Elizabeth.
In the 20th century, boat and ship building in Bequia continued to dominate over the rest of the Grenadines. Of the 153 ships registered as having been built in St. Vincent & the Grenadines between 1923 and 1990, no less than 71 were built in Bequia by thirty-seven of the island’s boatbuilders. schooner launching Admiralty Bay One of the most famous of these vessels was the “Gloria Colita” built in 1939 on the beach at Belmont in Admiralty Bay, by Reginald Mitchell. (Photo left) At 165 feet including bowsprit and 182 gross tonnes, she was the largest wooden ship ever to be constructed in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and indeed the whole of the West Indies. Reginald Mitchell was from a richly talented boat-building family. His father James Fitzallan (”Uncle Harry”) Mitchell was one of four boat-building sons of William Mitchell and Mary Compton, daughter of English-born shipwright Benjamin George Compton who had emigrated to the Grenadine island of Canouan in 1838. Although Bequia’s golden age of shipbuilding has now passed, descendants of the Compton/Mitchell boatbuilders, (and indeed of many of Bequia’s other renowned shipwrights), are still building boats on the island today, employing skills and methods that have remained unchanged for generations.
Twenty-first century Bequia retains its proud seafaring heritage, its fierce independence and its open-hearted welcome for visitors from other shores. Today’s Bequians are for the most part direct descendants of those African, Carib, English, Irish, Scottish, Asian and Portuguese settlers, labourers and slaves who came to the island in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who chose never to leave – or at least always to return. And Bequia is still casting that spell; many of its more recent “settlers” from America, Canada and Europe came once, then came again, and never left. Visitors too return year after year, eagerly anticipating that very special warmth that is shared by Bequia and its people.
BEQUIA GENEALOGY There is a keen interest worldwide in tracing the history of Bequia families. Cheryl Hazell, a Vincentian-born editor, writer and researcher from Toronto, Canada, whose family emigrated from St. Vincent to Canada in the late 1960s, is a major contributor to an extraordinarily interesting website about Vincentian history and genealogy. You can visit her page at http://sv.usaroots.com/hazell.htm or the Vincentian genealogy research page at www.sv.usaroots.com or www.sv.usaroots.com/history.htm Cheryl welcomes new information and contacts and is keen to hear especially from members of Bequia and southern Grenadine families who have links to the following names: Hazell, Ollivierre, Wallace, Simmons, Derrick, Snagg, Mitchell, Adams, Gooding, Peters, Stowe, Williams, and Kydd.