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HomeNewsArchivesTHE FRENCH IMMIGRANTS FROM SAINT-BARTHELMY

THE FRENCH IMMIGRANTS FROM SAINT-BARTHELMY

When the earliest migrants from Saint-Barthelemy arrived on the Danish West Indian island of St. Thomas, between 1785 and 1825, they hired out as planters, gardeners general maintenance men. As they were honest, diligent and enterprising, the French immigrants found employment soon after arrival.
As more and more French immigrants arrived on St. Thomas, the employment opportunities became less. Being enterprising, the new arrivals began fishing as a means to obtain a livelihood.
Those French immigrants who had found employment in Estate Tutu had been planters of cotton on large tracts of land on their home island. Soon they began to look at the possibility of finding land suitable to farm. On the Northside of St. Thomas they found land available for leasing with an option to buy in the future.
They grabbed the opportunity as their funds permitted. They lived frugally and saved every penny they could.
At the first opportunity, agreements were made with the landowners and the French cleared the land and built their little cabins. They then sent for to Saint-Barthelemy for their wives and children.
Those who had found employment at the Carenage, at Villa Olga and at Estates Honduras and Altona, also lived frugally and saved their earnings to build fishing boats. They wove nets and made fish traps, which they called fish pots, out of lianas which they gathered from the hillsides. They built their little cabins on land which they rented on a monthly basis from the estate owners. They then sent to Saint Barthelemy for their wives and children.
All the French immigrants had been planters of cotton, for export, on their home island of Saint-Barthelemy but the market for their crops had failed. Wars and natural disasters had devastated the land. Now on St. Thomas, there was no market for cotton so they planted food stuffs, fruits and vegetables.
The French immigrants who leased land on the Northside of St.Thomas found the land to be fertile and the rainfall fair. But it was all hillsides so terraces had to be constructed to prevent the topsoil from washing away each time it rained. There were also large boulders which had to be removed after the land had been cleared.
All the work had to be done with hand tools, machetes, picks, hoes and iron bars to pry loose the rocks and boulders.
The French farmers now constructed pens and chicken coops and the bought goats and chickens to raise as food and for sale. While the men worked in the fields, preparing the land and planting their crops, the women took care of the home and children and they also tended the goats and chickens.
The settlers at the Carenage found the soil hard and stony, not suitable for planting and the rainfall was sparse at best. Mostly it was hot and dry except during the hurricane season when there was some rainfall. There was no vegetation suitable for goats because of the arid condition of the area so the French settlers at the Carenage only raised chickens. They planted small areas with vegetable such as pigeon peas and West Indian pumpkins and sweet edible gourds.
The also planted some herbs. They were not allowed to build cisterns so they gathered rainwater in used rum barrels and in galvanized zinc wash tubs. When there was a drought, they carried buckets and large lard cans of water on their heads, all the way from the dockyards, up the steep hillside with only a rocky footpath. They had to feel their way up the hill stepping on the larger rocks, since they could not look down to see where they were stepping. They wore no shoes so their bare feet was a help. They had to carry enough water
for the use of the whole family to drink, to bathe, to cook, to water their few plantings and to do their laundry.
While the men of the Carenage fished, peddled their catch, repaired their fishing gear and maintained their boats, the women cared for the home, the children, the chickens and they made straw craft to be sold to the town residents and to the strangers who came as tourists.
The men made brooms from the silk-palm straw and baskets from the lianas. These they took to the open market in town on Saturday mornings, along with the hats and bags which the women had made. The Frenchmen sat on the sidewalk next to the open-air bungalow and waited for buyers to come to them.
Besides those who hired out as planters and maintenance men and those who fished, there were several persons who engaged in shop keeping. In the village there were two or three small grocery stores and there was one general store where everything was sold except textiles such as clothing and yard goods. In the early days clothing and yard goods had to be obtained from the stores in the town. Of course, only a few of the early settlers could afford the store- bought clothes. The rest of the settlers purchased the least expensive goods and the woman of the house sewed, by hand, clothes for the whole family.
When the French immigrants had first left their homeland on Saint-Barthelemy, King Louis XVI of France had just negotiated an agreement with Gustavus III, King of Sweden, to trade the island of Saint-Barthelemy for warehouses at Gotheberg, Sweden. Not only had the economy of Saint-Barthelemy been devastated by wars and natural disasters but now their little rock in the big ocean was no longer French. So they left their homes and traveled to other islands in search of a better life. They traveled in small sailing vessels, sharing space with cargo of sacs of potatoes and live animals.
Hundreds of the French Immigrants went to the Island of Puerto Rico, where the Spanish Government gave them grants of land to plant in cotton and other crops. The Government of Spain was anxious to enhance the economy through agriculture. The married men had brought their wives and children. In some cases, entire families came at the same time to settle on the island of Puerto Rico. The bachelors and widowers found wives among the inhabitants and a new mix of French-Spanish was born. Many of these French-Spanish eventually became rich and influential citizens of Puerto Rico.
The French immigrants who settled on the Danish Islands did not fare as well as their relatives who settled on Puerto Rico. In the village at the Carenage, life was especially difficult. The settlers were not even allowed to dig a pit for an outhouse. It was very unsanitary as body wastes had to be gathered in large garbage cans which were then removed at night by the night- soil workers of the government's sanitation department.
In the village at the Carenage, the houses were built close to each other and sometimes separated by a fence to define the boundaries of each renter. On the Northside since it was a farming community, the houses were more distant each from the other.
Which site was the first to be inhabited? All data leads us to believe that the village at the Carenage was established around 1835 with about a dozen small cabins. This information was gleaned from writings found at the Enid Baa Library, Von Scholten Collection.
Editors' note: Anne-Marie Danet is an historian and writer who has compiled a history of the French people in the Virgin Islands.

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