All entries for May 2016

May 02, 2016

In the Footsteps of the West India Regiment: Castries, St. Lucia


When visiting St. Lucia last year I was able to visit the sprawling garrison site in the capital city, Castries, that formerly housed the West India Regiment. I was shown around by local historian Gregor Williams, who has served as Chair of the St. Lucia National Trust and is an authority of the garrison site including its buildings, its armaments, and its past inhabitants.

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The West India Regiment were stationed in St. Lucia throughout their history. In fact, as early as 1794, a Company of the Carolina Corps (who were later amalgamated into the West India Regiment) were sent to capture St. Lucia from the French. There are also a number of photographs in a photograph album held at Yale's Beinecke Library of the 1st West India Regiment during their stay in St. Lucia in in the early 1860s.

However, it was in the late 1880s that the garrison site at Castries was massively expanded, following a decision that Castries Harbour would become a major coaling station. In December 1888, a detachment of soldiers was transferred to St Lucia to help protect the newly reovated harbour. By 1890 this improved garrison consisted of two battalions of infantry, one white British and one black West India Regiment, companies of artillery and of engineers (including a submarine mining detachment), and medical and other staffs. This gave rise to the impressive barracks on Morne Fortuné and at Vigie to accommodate them. By 1899, there were 295 black soldiers of the West India Regiment stationed in St Lucia. They lived in barracks like the ones pictured below which now form part of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College.

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(The Barracks on Morne Fortuné)


The West India Regiment's time as a permanent garrison in Castries was brief, with the Entente Cordiale of 1906 meaning that France was no longer perceived as a threat to British interests in the region. By 1907 the structure of defence for Castries had been abandoned and the imperial garrison was withdrawn. The soldiers' permanent presence on the island was eventful despite its brevity. On a late August evening in 1891 a large disturbance broke out that led to fighting and rock throwing. It involved several black soldiers, local St Lucian women, and a few of the police constables who had been imported to St Lucia from Barbados. This kind of fracas was common according to historian Bonham C Richardson, who writes that 'soldiers of the West India Regiment were involved in an endless series of scuffles and disturbances after dark' (Richardson, 1997, p39). Soldiers involved in such breaches of discipline were held in the jail cells pictured below.

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(The jail cells at Morne Fortuné)

In 1901 and 1902 authorities in St. Lucia were forced to deny an outbreak of yellow fever among soldiers of the West India Regiment stationed at Castries. Admitting the outbreak would have led neighbouring islands to impose a quarantine and would therefore have threatened shipping traffic from the new coaling station. Even in leaving St. Lucia the soldiers of the Regiment did not escape contoversy. When plans were finalised about their withdrawal from the garrison, the island's Governor made arrangements for a British Navy ship to be nearby fearing that some members of the local West India Regiment might attempt to "pay off old scores" before they left for West Africa (Richardson, 1997, p231).

After 1907, the buildings of the old garrison were put to various other uses ranging from secondary schools to the police training academy. Two of the old soldiers' barracks at Vigie have even been utilised as the Mexican and Venezuelan Embassies (see below). Although in St. Lucia many of the sites formerly inhabited and used by the Regiment are not marked as such, the Regiment have left a clear footprint on the island's landscape. Even the current Prime Minister's residence was formerly a building that was part of the garrison. Their connection to the island's present is therefore inescapable, and it would be great to see this rich heritage made clearer to the local population and tourists. The postcard pictured below from the 1890s shows that these sites and their soldiers were definitely appreciated in the past.

Vigie barracks and postcard

(Top: a postcard of the West India Regiment at Vigie Barracks c.1890, Bottom: the barracks today)


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