Guadeloupe – The Caribbean with that je ne sais quoi

First Caribbean Memorial to Slavery opens In Guadeloupe. Judith Baker reports

Memorial ACTe Image (c)aeroworx

Memorial ACTe Image (c)aeroworx

Slaves being brought from the Interior

Slaves being brought from the Interior

Chains for Slaves

Chains for Slaves

Memorial ACTe Image (c)aeroworx 1

Memorial ACTe Image (c)aeroworx

Guadeloupe House

Guadeloupe House

Guadeloupe Lobster

Guadeloupe Lobster

GuadeloupePetit Bourg (Basse-Terre)Cascade aux Ecrevisses

Guadeloupe Waterfall

Francois Hollande, the French President, opened the first memorial to slavery in the Caribbean on the French island of Guadeloupe on May 10th. Hollande paid homage to slaves and their sacrifices at the memorial, which is the first of its kind by France to remember those who suffered during the slave trade.

The way I see it, this monument will allow Guadeloupe and also the entire Caribbean with a deep link to Africa, to tell the whole world that the fight for human dignity is not over,” Hollande said “We have to remember what happened, remember history of course, but also we must find hope, and we must fight on

Called the Memorial ACTe, the site is described as “a Caribbean centre on the expression and memory of slavery and the slave trade” and is housed in a former sugar factory in the Guadeloupian city of Pointe-à-Pitre.

The museum holds hundreds of objects dating back several centuries that bear witness to France’s turbulent history — that included slavery from the 17th to 19th centuries — when people were sold to work on the islands’ sprawling sugar plantations. The museum explains the history of slavery and the slave trade using archived documents, images, artefacts, everyday objects plus visual and audio testimonials.

The 85 million euros Memorial ACTe project is a distinctive building built from black granite with silver flecks. The memorial, which hopes to welcome 300,000 people annually, is scheduled to open to the public in July.

Caribbean French style

Elsewhere on the island, Guadeloupe is an intoxicating mix of Caribbean cool and French chic. The French influence gives it a very different dynamic to that of West Indian islands such as Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica which are more familiar to British travellers.

Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France, which means it is actually part of France. Its currency is the Euro, its language is French and visitors enter the country via flights from Paris with no immigration cards. As such it is relatively undiscovered by the British, and armed with a little schoolgirl French I set off to explore. It is an archipelago of islands, including the outer Les Saintes, Desirade, and Marie Galante which are like the Caribbean of yesteryear, sleepy and charming.

The butterfly shaped main island is made up of two parts, the right hand bigger ‘wing’ called Grande Terre and the left Basse Terre, with the two parts connected by road. Both have distinct personalities with Basse Terre being the most dramatic with a national Park crowned by the Soufriere Volcano. I headed to Des Haies on the north coast of Basse Terre, passing sugar cane plantations and old rum distilleries. Because it is part of France, and Europe, my driver tells me that the infrastructure here – roads, hospitals, schools, – is very high standard compared to other Caribbean islands.

Six reasons to visit Guadeloupe

French charm
The tiny seaside town of DesHaies (pronounced Daaaay) might look a little familiar to the British, especially if they are fans of the BBC drama Death in Paradise, as this is where it was filmed. On the Main Street the Mairie which flies the Tricolore and the EU flag in the Caribbean sunlight and has a number of cafés and restaurants – a charming mix of French patisseries and West Indian eating places selling fresh lobster and other seafood overlooking the sea bobbing with sailing boats
There are some good hotels in the area, where English is widely understood, which is not the case everywhere on the archipelago

The Islands
The islands of Guadeloupe offer a glimpse into old world Caribbean and are all different. Desiderade is wild and undeveloped and pancake shaped Marie Galante is rural and unspoiled, filled with sugar cane. Les Saintes can be reached from Basse Terre by ferry. Terre de Haute, the largest of the eight islands of les Saintes was not considered suitable for sugar production because of its hilly terrain. Consequently it had no slaves and the people you see there are descended from Norman and Breton colonists, with many of them having blond or red hair.

The cuisine here is one of the main reasons to visit. Guadeloupe food is a reflection of the mixing of European, African, Indian and Native American cultures. As well as the delicious fresh local produce such as seafood, bananas, mangoes and papaya expect to find black puddings wrapped in filo pastry, beef roasted in Jamaican peppercorns and flambéed in rum.

In Basseterre the beach of Grand Anse is one of the islands best kept secrets the sand runs in front of an emerald jungle and has lovely sunsets. Guadeloupe’s main island has about fifty beaches with many more on the smaller islands.

The huge lagoon Cul de Sac is enclosed by a 29 kilometre coral reef, a nature reserve that contains a rich ecosystem, mangrove and Swamp forest which can be explored by kayak or boat

In the centre of Basseterre the parc national is full of hiking trails and here you find is the magical Cascade des Ecrevisses , a jungle waterfall . The island is home to 270 different ferns and 100 species of orchids.

The Reserve Cousteau underwater park is a must for divers. The famous French father of scuba thought this part of the world was one of the finest for marine life, and lends his name to the centre on Basseterre with world class diving at Pigeon Island.

In the Gran River valley the Griviliere is an old coffee farm which extends over one of the islands most beautiful natural sites. You can go on a journey from the master’s house to the former slaves box which tells the story of coffee, cocoa and the plantation system which lies behind the new ACTe memorial in the capital

Getting there

Air France flies to Guadeloupe via Paris –