Baliceaux: no place like home

The tiny island of Baliceaux in the Grenadines is uninhabited today. But over two centuries ago, it was a place of temporary exile for St Vincent’s Black Caribs. Christopher Taylor goes in search of that tragic past

The cliffs of Baliceaux. Photograph by Christopher TaylorToday the island is inhabited only by cattle. Photograph by Christopher Taylor

We set off from Bequia on a calm sea and in bright sunshine. Twenty minutes later, though, I found myself huddling beneath a waterproof cape in a boat open to the elements, as we sat out a biblical downpour that had rolled in ominously from the east.

Bobbing at a standstill in the now grey sea, it seemed a good time to ask the captain if he had any lifejackets. “Yeah,” said Simeon — who, with his rangy physique and canerows, bore a passing resemblance to the Togolese footballer Emmanuel Adebayor. “Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah, I lent them to a friend of mine.”

The drenching rain passed, and we resumed our voyage, knowing that the trickiest part was yet to come. As we reached the northern tip of Baliceaux, the peaks of the waves got higher and the troughs got deeper. Our little boat lurched drunkenly. Detecting perhaps a hint of concern in my whitened knuckles as another wave towered above us, Simeon nonchalantly beamed. “Don’t worry, I’m the best water taxi captain in Bequia!”

Well, I thought, why didn’t you say so earlier?

Simeon was as good as his word, steering us safely round the point and across the open sea to our tiny island destination. Two days earlier, the weather had defeated a delegation of Garifuna people from the United States hoping to make a pilgrimage to Baliceaux. The island holds a special resonance in the history of their ancestors, known to St Vincent’s white colonists as the Black Caribs — a name that reflects their origin as a mixture of shipwrecked and runaway slaves and the indigenous inhabitants of the island.

My own brush with the unpredictability of sea conditions in the Grenadines certainly instilled respect for the seamanship of the Black Caribs of old. They used to fish the coastal waters in canoes and — in larger pirogues fashioned from a single tree and capable of carrying twenty men or more — they would sail up and down the island chain, particularly to Martinique and other French-controlled territories, where they traded tobacco for rum, wine, and weapons.

Their journey to Baliceaux in 1796 was different, though, transported in Royal Navy ships to an uncertain fate. Decades of antagonism with the British colonists on St Vincent, who coveted their territory as prime sugar-growing land, had exploded into a decisive and, for the Black Caribs, cataclysmic war. In alliance with the revolutionary French, they had sought to expel the British once and for all, and came within an ace of doing so. But their leader, Chatoyer, was killed in a nighttime battle at Dorsetshire Hill. Ultimately, after a year’s fighting, they were abandoned by their allies. The British, using armed slaves, then employed a scorched-earth policy to starve the Black Caribs into submission. Over a period of six months, some 4,600 men, women, and children were taken captive and, emaciated by hunger, shipped to a makeshift internment camp on Baliceaux.

There is still no easy way to get to Baliceaux. The first step is the ferry port at the east end of downtown Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent, whose layout still reflects the three streets laid out by the French in the early 1700s. The car ferry makes five crossings a day to Bequia, the nearest and largest of the Grenadines, an hour’s voyage away. There, it’s a question of asking around at the beach for someone offering a water taxi service, which is where Simeon came in. Preparations for departure involved shuttling around various locations to collect fuel for the trip — but not, as it turned out, those life jackets.

After rounding the northern point of Bequia, it was a five-mile voyage across open sea to our destination. Happily, the weather improved, the waters calmed, and survival seemed a distinct possibility. Baliceaux rose steadily from the waves until a broken reddish cliff loomed ahead of us, concealing a tiny speck of land covering barely 320 acres.

Baliceaux today shows no sign of its baleful past. Visitors, then as now, land at a small stony beach. There are no freshwater streams and, despite the presence of a farmer’s shack, the island today is uninhabited. Close by is Baliceaux’s smaller sister island of Battowia, and clearly visible away to leeward is the millionaire’s playground of Mustique, where Princess Margaret once cavorted with her beau, Roddy Llewellyn. But 218 years ago, this peaceful spot was a charnel-house.

Simeon left me to my own devices as I explored the island. It was of necessity a brief visit. We had to make sure we were back in Bequia in time for the last ferry of the day. On the low saddle of land at the island’s pinched waist is a green meadow, home to an abundance of tortoises and a few cows and squabbling birds. The island is less than a mile and half long, and at each end rises steeply, cloaked in low, scrubby trees and cactus plants. I looked in vain for a sign of the Black Caribs’ presence.

Baliceaux in 1796 did have a modest number of buildings: a large boarded and shingled house with a gallery, a large thatched cotton house, and about thirty “negro houses.” Whatever amenities were in existence, they proved woefully inadequate for the thousands of unwilling residents the island was called upon to accommodate.

Defeated and uprooted from their villages on St Vincent’s windward coast, the Black Caribs must have found Baliceaux a miserable prospect. As the military doctor on site reported, “Baliseau being entirely destitute of water was by no means favourable to the comfort and convenience of its new inhabitants — who regard the luxury of total immersion in fresh Water an indispensable necessary of Health.” Within weeks, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. A mystery disease — a “malignant pestilential fever” — took hold among the inmates with appalling ferocity. Victims sickened and died within days, no doubt striking fear into their families — who, like their captors, had little idea how the malady was communicated. The British suggested that the Black Caribs had brought their misfortune upon themselves by holding out for so long.

It is not clear from contemporary accounts what the disease was, but yellow fever is a likely candidate. Its impact on the Black Caribs was devastating. By the time the survivors were shipped off the island in March 1797, only 2,248 remained, less than half of those captured. The Black Caribs were believed to have numbered some nine thousand in 1795, which implies that in the space of two years disease and direct casualties from what one British soldier described as “a horrid, butchering war” slashed their population by three-quarters.

My voyage back from Baliceaux around the south side of Bequia was straightforward in comparison with the outward trip. The Black Caribs’ own journey off the island was a sombre occasion. The British had decided to ship them into exile on the island of Roatán, 1,700 miles to the west in the Bay of Honduras, never to see their homeland again.

But that was not the end of their story. From there, the barely two thousand souls spread along the Caribbean coast of Central America from Belize to Nicaragua, where their descendants live to this day, and are known in their own language as Garifuna. Along with large communities in big US cities, they number in the hundreds of thousands, still retaining a distinctive culture and language.

On a hilltop, overlooking Baliceaux’s green slopes, now so lonely and tranquil, it was hard to conjure up an image of the events that had turned this into a place of pilgrimage. I felt I should mark the moment, particularly for my friends on the Garifuna delegation who had been defeated by the weather, but I was alone and had nothing with me.

Then I remembered the small portion of Garifuna food I had in my backpack, some cassava bread and a sort of banana tamal known as darasa. A pathetically inadequate gesture, but, placing the banana-leaf package on a rock, I reflected that for the Garifuna people, Baliceaux remains a place of mourning, of sadness, but, crucially, of survival.