Potted History

St Lucia’s Amerindian, African and European heritage is reflected in the clay pottery made at Choiseul. Simon Lee reports

  • Clay pots. Photo by Chris Huxley
  • Making coal pots the traditional way. Photo by Chris Huxley

Caribbean handicrafts — from canoe building to basket making, lace embroidery and vaudou flags — combine function, aesthetics and history. With so much Caribbean history undocumented, handicrafts often provide us with the only insight into life in the islands before Columbus. Techniques and processes have been passed down from the indigenous Amerindians to succeeding generations of islanders, so that Amerindian traditions mingle with those of Africa, Europe or even India.

Some Amerindian craft traditions remain entirely intact. The Carib Territory in northwest Dominica still produces dugout canoes like those which transported the first waves of migrants from the South American mainland hundreds of years ago. The Dominican Caribs continue to make hammocks and waterproof baskets like their ancestors.

The Choiseul district of south-west St Lucia is home to a tradition of handmade, open-fired clay pottery which may well have Amerindian roots. Similar sturdy pottery is made in the Antiguan village of Seaview Farm and in Trinidad’s predominantly East Indian Chase Village.

The village of Choiseul itself lies on the south-west coast between the Pitons to the north and Laborie to the south, but the pots are made in the village of Pointe Caribe in the shadow of Gros Piton. There’s no doubt that this was an Amerindian settlement before the arrival of the Europeans, a fact commemorated in the name Carib’s Point.

The whole Choiseul area is covered with evidence of Amerindian settlement: a petroglyph (rock carving) near the road which runs through Choiseul village; stone axes and tools found inland at Morne Lezard; artefacts found on the banks of the Piaye and Balembouche rivers and at the Balembouche estate.

The Caribs repulsed all the early efforts at European settlement, starting with an English party which put ashore in the 1630s near Vieux Fort. A second English colony in the south was virtually wiped out by a combined party of island Caribs joined by fellow tribesmen from Dominica, Martinique and St Vincent. The forces of history, however, were against the Caribs. By 1763, St Lucia was recognised as a French possession by the Treaty of Paris. Anse Citron (Lime Bay) changed its name to Anse Choiseul in honour of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Duke of Choiseul.

By 1774, the only recorded Caribs left were three families in Pointe Caribe. But their legacy lives on in the craftwork practised throughout the district: clay pots, mats and baskets. Even the pottery workshops in La Pointe resemble Carib buildings with their wattle walls and palm-frond thatched roofs. The pestle-shaped “mach te” clay pounder probably has Amerindian and African antecedents.

The Pointe Caribe potters are women, like the Amerindian potters before them. Nowadays, their main products are coalpots, cooking pots and small figurines for the tourist market. Up until the 1960s, they made a specifically Amerindian pot form, the “platin”, used in preparing the Amerindian staple cassava. This griddle-type cylindrical dish was mounted on stones over a fire to cook cassava cakes and flour.

The cooking pots or “canaris”, which are among the most popular forms at Pointe, originated from sheer necessity, as did most Caribbean crafts. For the Amerindians or African slaves, buying expensive imports was economically impossible.

French influence is evident in the shapes of many Pointe pots which bear a strong resemblance to French provincial pottery of the 17th and 18th centuries. Among these are the “le kastol” (from French casserole or saucepan), “le krish” (from French le cruche or water jug) and “potsham” (from pot de chambre or chamber pot).

The origin of the “teso” coalpot could be Amerindian or African or might even have been inspired by the cast iron stoves used in early boats. Coalpots exist throughout the Caribbean, but the St Lucian version is unique.

If you have time in St Lucia, visit the potters of La Pointe Caribe and watch them at their centuries-old craft. If you’re only passing through, you can sample their wares at the Castries craft market.