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 Accidental Cruiser in the West Indies

Empire: Battle of the Saintes
This journal is a log of all the messages from Susie & Lance. For pictures, please see the Gallery.
February 25, 2005: Iles des Saintes, Guadaloupe
    To disable and board an 18th century warship, it is best to shoot your cannon from the bow or from the stern. Shooting along the length of the ship, you stand a great chance of hitting critical bits like rudder, masts, rigging and sailors. Shooting at the ship from the side, your cannonball will probably only put a harmless hole in the sail or splash uselessly into the sea. Accordingly, the big naval battles were conducted with each side forming a long line of warships. Like elephants marching in the circus, they formed up trunk to tail and blasted away at each other with broadside after broadside until one side conceded or until the smoke obscured the escape of one side. This is why they were called ships of the line. In the famous (in some quarters) battle of the Saintes, the English admiral Rodney "broke the line" and charged into the line of French ships. This was probably due to a wind shift making it impossible for the French fleet to maintain formation plus a dose of naval genius to take advantage of the situation. Breaking the line became a new naval tactic, as it resulted in the destruction of the enormous French fleet in the Caribbean and gave the English domination of the area.

All of this is explained and illustrated by dioramas, paintings, text and video in the museum located in Fort Napoleon, a 19th century fort perched atop the tallest hill above Bourg in Iles des Saintes a small island group part of and just south of Guadeloupe. Since Susie and I are now walking again, we took the hike up the hill to see the fort and the view and enjoyed the museum, the cactus collection, and the many iguanas we found up there. The thorough explanation of the battle of the Saintes was just a bonus. We now know quite a bit more about 18th century warships than many would consider reasonable, but are more confused than ever about the 21st century Caribbean. Most of this extensive museum is devoted to a naval battle that the French lost. The English won. They still have the ship's chronometer from the "City of Paris" in their naval museum in London. They got a whole bunch of stirring paintings of the battle. The French still have Guadeloupe and Martinique. Iles des Saintes might as well be on the coast of Brittany with better weather. The inhabitants are ethnically (as well as culturally) French. The town looks like it was build by Disney with sturdy houses, shops and tidy streets. We anchored in 40 feet of water and could clearly see the anchor on the bottom. The dining and style is France, the tropics are tamed and picturesque. This is just 20 miles from Dominica which is still part of what is optimistically called the "developing" world.
Dominica gained independence in the early 70's and is still part of the British commonwealth. It is as stunningly beautiful as the tourist brochure given to us by our Immigration officer portrays. 365 rivers. Parrots. Lush tropical rain forests and high mountains wreathed in clouds. Miles of sandy beaches lined with palms. Conspicuously absent from the brochure is one fact: Dominica is dirt poor. Most people seem to live in houses about the size and shape of a UPS truck. Instead of wheels, they are perched on logs or concrete posts in an often vain attempt to keep them away from the termites. They are often clustered in tight little groups and sometimes have little showers outside made of sheets of corrugated roofing stood on end. Communal water tap and lavatory get much use. Fisherman sell their wares directly to the customers on the beach (availability is announced by coded blowing of the conch shell). We saw women washing their clothes in the river and spreading them to dry on the rocks. There are a great number of abandoned and rusted autos, ships and houses and a fair amount of garbage loose. None of this shows up pictured in the tourist brochure. We ended up taking no pictures this year for the web site out of a sense of not wanting to intrude on the people's considerable sense of dignity.
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Click for a journal entry listDon't get me wrong, we love Dominica. The people are justly proud of the beauty of their island and have a very attractive "west Indian" attitude to life. After the first couple of days, the boat boys and beggars stopped hassling us and started waving to us and we spent at least a week happily exploring the island. We looked for opportunities to spend money, getting our laundry done (by now, after two sets of guests, quite an impressive pile), eating out and looking for new tours to take. Some of the islands problems seem to be due to the collapse of agricultural prices. We were told that bananas sell for less than it costs to get them down from the mountains to the dock. Colgate Palmolive has a plant (very old and run down) processing coconut for cosmetics and that was the only thing that looked like it might benefit from globalization in the whole place. This little country has nearly nothing to offer the world market but its vote in the UN and a hope of tourism. You feel they didn't so much win independence as have it thrust on them by an British Empire who realized belatedly that world domination doesn't pay its way.

Dominica is having an election. No one knows exactly when it will be held but the campaign is in full spring. The "United Workers Party" has the symbol of a saw and hangs blue flags and paints palm trees blue. The "Labor Party" paints the palm trees red and has red flags. Both parties have sound trucks and are in favor of progress and development. As in Berkeley, so little being at stake, the political debate is ferocious and personal. We listened to call in radio shows which had the former commissioner of something accusing the current government of corruption, self enrichment and visiting Libya, Cuba and Venezuela. Later, the current prime minister called in and was teasing the host about making him wait on the call in line. Much good natured, west Indian style bantering ensued. Each side accuses the other of the worst forms of criminal skullduggery though no one we met was actually planning on voting. Neither party mentioned fixing the roads which are atrocious. Our ride to Roseau along the coast resembled a drive on highway one, if highway one was 1 1/2 lanes wide, full of potholes and fallen rocks, and driven exclusively by teenage boys in rusting (but fast) trucks. We took a ride in another "bus" (really a mini-van with extra seats) back from the capital up through the mountains and along the windward coast. This driver was a shade less suicidal and a bit more talkative and let us sit in the front seat. He goes through tires in 2 months and redoes his brakes every month. Great ride, once your feet are safely back on level ground.

So. the question is: if the British won, how come the French ended up with these lovely, groomed bits of tropical Europe for a playground and the British got the ship's chronometer and the picture of a young Queen Elizabeth on the Eastern Caribbean dollar? Why is there no "Please colonize us, France" party in Dominica?

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