Rendez-moi à Guadeloupe

        A recent return to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies has prompted a number of readers to request that I write a little piece about our adventures there. At the same time it is my hope that this little exposé might whet your appetite for a future venture to this idyllic spot yourself.


        The French West Indies lies in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean Sea.  Lying within the Tropic of Cancer they consist of (from north to south): the French half of the island of

        1. Saint Martin (the Dutch half is called Sint Maarten),

        2. Sainte Barthélemy, (very chic and expensive)

        3. Guadeloupe (including the neighboring islands of Marie Gallante, Les Saintes, and La Désirade), and

        4. Martinique

        5. French Guiana, although a part of South America, is also an overseas territory of France.

        In this sketch I will focus mainly on Guadeloupe. If you have read my personal profile you will know that I worked with my French students on Martinique for two summers in the 60's.  This is when I became friends with Abbé Maurice Marie-Sainte, a young priest under whose direction we worked.  After many years this wonderful and beloved man has become the Archbishop of Fort de France and overseas the work of the church in all the above territories, as well as the Isle of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

        Guadeloupe is a center for Creole culture to this day.  When Columbus discovered this area in 1493 it was inhabited by the fierce Carib Indians.  Several Spanish attempts to subdue these Indians were failures and they eventually gave up any claim to the territory.  It wasn't until 1635 that the French were able to subdue the Caribs and establish themselves on the island. It is a sad fact that today the only remnant of the Carib Indians (about 3000) live in remote areas of the neighboring island of Dominica. Today, besides a significant minority of French among the population there are also many residents of East Indian, Lebanese and Syrian background as well.

Another map is available from Antilles tourism:

        You can see that Guadelopue is really made up of two islands looking somewhat like a butterfly.  The eastern wing is called Grande-Terre (note on the map where we stayed: Plage de La Caravelle on the southern coast within walking distance of the town of Ste, Anne.)  The Grande-Terre half of Guadeloupe is quite level, cultivated,sunny and has the best beaches.  The capital of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre, is located on Grande-Terre as well.

       The  western wing of Guadeloupe, Basse-Terre, is mountainous, often cloud-covered, with a dense rain forest. It includes a large national park, magnificent cascades, and a smoldering, sulphurous  volcano, La Soufrière (1467 meters). Basse-Terre has a rainfall of 390 inches per year. There is also Pigeon Island nearby:  the site of the Reserve Cousteau, an underwater park  said to be "one of the world's top dive sites." Here you can take a ride on a glass-bottom boat for a closer look below the water.  The sand on the beaches on Basse-Terre, just as you will find at the foot of Mont Pelé in Martinique, is dark volcanic sand.

        In winter the temperature in Guadeloupe ranges from a daily high of 83 degrees to a low of 67. In summer in can range from a daily high of 88 to a low of 74.  February to April are the driest months and July-November are the wettest and most humid months.

        The two main isalnds of Guadeloupe have a population of over 300,000.   Guadeloupe also has three nearby islands:

1. Marie Galante (pop. 13,000)

2. La Désirade, a former leper colony, (pop.1600)

3. and the formidable Les Saintes, (pop.  3000).

        We visited this last extraordinary group of islands, nicknamed the Switzerland of the Caribbean.

        The history of Les Saintes is connected with the American Revolution as you will see.  It reflects as well the long struggle between England and France for supremacy in the area.  Many of the islands in this area of the  Caribbean passed back and forth between France and England over the years.  When Columbus discovered Les Saintes on his second voyage to the New World it was the Feast of All Saints Day (Nov. 1).  Hence the name he gave these islands.

        A day trip to Les Saintes cost us about $80 per person. It included a 10-kilometer boat ride from Pointe à Pitre, past the magnificent panorama to Basse-Terre and its vocanos, to Terre-de-Haut, the largest and most beautiful of the eight islands that constitute Les Saintes. Terre-de-Haut was colonized by Breton and Norman fishermen and, because it was once a penal colony and cut off from the rest of the world,  there was much intermarriage with the indigenous population.  A short jaunt up a steep hill leads to Fort Napoléon (build under Napoléon III) that still stands intact. It is surrounded by a garden of cacti in which iguanas roam freely. Inside the fort is an extraordinary museum of great interest to Americans.

        The main interest here is the detailed history of the great naval battle of Les Saintes (1782).  Before the French joined our cause in the American Revolution in 1778, "Britain held almost unchallenged naval superiority in American waters." The French navy changed the scenario completely.

        Count François Joseph Paul de Grasse  led a decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781. The fiery Admiral de Grasse reportedly "stood six feet two on ordinary days and six feet six on fighting days." Even after the surrender at Yorktown the war lingered on and in 1782 the British had their revenge on de Grasse and the French in a decisive naval battle fought in the waters between Les Saintes and Dominica.  Here where the turbulent waters of the Atlantic meet those of the Caribbean British Admiral Rodney got his revenge on de Grasse in the Battle of Les Saintes.  There was a great loss of men and ships for the French- a sad tale of America's oldest ally that is graphically recounted in this museum.

        Included in the day trip was a short boart ride around the island to the Hôtel Bois Joli where we were offered a Planter's Punch and served a fine luncheon and the use of the hotel pool and beach. On an even lighter note a visitor to Les Saintes might have a pretty girl offer a sweet cake specialty with coconut filling called "tourment d'amour" ("agony of love").  Ah, leave it to the French to find the right word ("le mot juste")!

        The visitor to Guadeloupe is surprised to find how many French people speak English.  Although they seemed shy and reserved at first we found them very friendly, well-informed about American affairs and articulate far beyond expectation. We made good friends and enjoyed lively conversation. The people of Guadeloupe are very friendly as well and always greet you with a pleasant "Bon jour."  Although Guadeloupe is a department of France and its population are French citizens with all the concomitant rights there are constant reminders of the colonial era as in its architecture.  One reminder of the slave era was outside our very window at La Caravelle-  the tulip tree of Gabon.  The seeds of this magnificent flowering tree were brought by slaves from Africa centuries ago as a relic of their homeland. It  is a sad reminder today of a cruel past. To their credit, however, it should be remembered that the French abolished slavery in 1848 long before our Civil War.

        We always like to go to church when we visit a foreign land.  And the Saturday before we left we trekked into Sainte Anne for the 6:00 pm mass.  We had visited the church earlier in the week and found a young man practicing the organ. When we introduced ourselves as church musicians he invited me to play the small organ. I doodled a few hymns to Ste. Anne that I remembered from Brittany.  When a French lady came up to us in tears I did not know whether she was happy or sad because she recounted a tale of relatives who had died in a car crash. She asked Kathleen to sing.  With a rendering of  "Danny Boy" of course there were even more tears.  It's not a great cheering-up song, but she seems delighted and thanked us profusely.  Everyone was happy by the time we left.

        The Saturday evening liturgy the next day was extremely dignified and faith-filled. No 45- minute "clear-the-parking-lot" mass here!   The church was filled with a mostly black congregation but there were  a good number of French people present as well.  The priest was French and his sermon was moving. All the ministers at the altar, men and women, were black. They read and sang with great dignity. Before the service a lady went through the church offering a colorful diocesan monthly publication which included, to our delight, a nice photo of Archbishop Marie-Sainte presenting the Gospels to the people during an ordination ceremony in French Guyana.

        There  followed about a ten minute warmup during which the songs for the mass were rehearsed with the congregation.  The choir director used her choir up front  to teach the songs to the congregation.  Since the theme of the Sunday was the Beatitudes the opening hymn ran thus: (my free translations)

    "If the Father calls you to love as He loves you in the fire of his Spirit:
            Blessed are you,
    If the world calls you to bear witness to its salvation.
            Blessed are you."

            Refrain: "Tremble with joy, for you are written forever in the heavens,
                Tremble with joy, for your names are written in the heart of God."

    The Kyrie and Gloria were sung as were the other parts of the mass.  The Creed was sung and the Prayer of the Faithful as well.  The celebrant sang many of his parts as well.

During the Offertory we sang:

        "Blessed is the poor man who stands outside the banquet of this world.
        The palaces of God are open to him in brotherhood.
        Blessed is the world where money means nothing:
        The treasures of God last forever...

        The Holy Holy Holy, as we know it, was not sung - probably because in French, "Saint, saint, saint" is not very musical. Something was sung in its stead which I did not understand.

        As is the practice in Europe and most parts of the world, the congregation stood during the Eucharistic Prayer (Canon of the mass).

        During the Communion we sang:

            "Bread broken for a new world, Glory to you, Jesus Christ.
            Bread of God, come open the tombs of our hearts,
            Make us live in the Spirit..."

        After Communion the song was:

            "Love as I have loved you.  Love one another. I have commanded you:

         The final hymn:

            "Take the hand God offers you. It's time. Time to live in grace.
            It's time to give thanks.  The Kingdom is here.  The fire is kindled.
            It's time to live in grace with one another..."

 Have a nice trip!

Richard Cross