Deep in the green interior of St Lucia, in Praslin, high above the sea, a project is under way to save a small fragment of history. It involves the ruins of the de Micoud Estate House, site of a bloody battle during the 18th century.
For many years, Veronica Shingleton-Smith had wanted to incorporate the old estate-house ruins into a botanical haven she had created called Mamiku Gardens – part of a 500-acre plantation where her family farms bananas and other fruit. But the project only truly began to unfold when her daughter-in- law Louise became intrigued by the history of the estate and started her own investigation.
“Going up to the hill, I noticed pieces of pottery littering the site,” says Louise, a former schoolteacher. “This scattering was everywhere, and was mainly due to livestock grazing on that hill 40 to 50 years ago.” She found that there were stone walls underground. Around the ruins of the house she found pieces of glass, bottles, pottery and soldiers’ buttons – all from the estate that had been burned to the ground in 1797.
“The crucial moment for me was when I was walking around and I noticed a long stick on the ground which seemed too straight to be from a tree,” Louise said. “I picked it up and realised it was made of metal.” Further inspection showed that it was a French musket barrel.
Louise was hooked. Her enthusiasm and her background as a science teacher prompted her in 1997 to visit Fort George in Ontario, Canada, where she received advice from military expert and author Rene Chartrand. Then she contacted Polly Thompson, an English archaeologist living in St Lucia, who volunteered to help her dig test excavations on the site.
When the dig began in earnest, the rewards increased: more and more buttons, a belt buckle, a brass table, the workings of an 18th-century English grandfather clock. “After the fire, it appears that no one went back to clean up or recover things. Everything was left as it must have been on the day of the fire.” So far, Louise has collected over 500 items from the site.
The events at the de Micoud estate began to unfold after 1794 when British military and naval forces conquered the island and the French Revolutionary Government declared the African slaves free. The slaves took to the woods and became armed guerrilla fighters. Meanwhile, a large army had been sent from England under Lt. Gen. Sir Ralph Abercromby to try to recover the neighbouring islands; it was successful in May 1796. Control of St Lucia switched between France and England 14 times over the years, until the English finally gained control in the 1814 Treaty of Paris.
Abercromby left Sir John Moore and some 5,000 men to maintain control in St Lucia. Moore established military posts throughout the island- one of them at the home of Baron de Micoud and his wife. What ensued is detailed in a history of the property, compiled for the owners in 1927 by Thomas Ferguson.
Moore was not on the island when the Brigands attacked, but he set sail from Martinique as soon as he received word. In his diary, he wrote that the post had 70 men from the Guadeloupe Rangers, commanded by Cpt. de Marchay. “His negligence was shameful,” Moore wrote of de Marchay. “He was surprised at three in the afternoon; he, fortunately, was killed, for it is better for an officer not to survive such a disgrace. Fifteen of the men also fell, 20 were wounded.”
Moore learnt that the “Captain was asleep in the house, most of the men at the river below the house washing themselves. The men on guard upon the height above were either asleep or drunk; they were bayoneted without resistance.” The Captain, he wrote, was so angry with his men that he “lost his head and was incapable of giving orders.” He was wounded twice and when he saw that his men had been routed and had no choice but to retreat, he shot himself. The house was burned to the ground.
According to Ferguson’s report, there were numerous buildings on the property: a main building with a 12-foot-wide verandah, a sugar factory, a 96-foot mill house, a rum building, a manager’s house, a boathouse, a bakery, a dungeon, 54 slave houses and a hospital. So far, Louise has accumulated 10 boxes of relics, and the property is now cordoned off for the large archaeological dig.
Louise is particularly fascinated by the Baron and his wife. “I dream of finding her diary,” she says. “I have been uncovering information about the Baron and it appears he lived quite an exciting life.” While St Lucia was involved in the French Revolution, the Baron was in a Dutch jail for treason.
Looking for answers has occupied many of Louise’s waking hours. “I have often thought that I may be the reincarnation of the Baron de Micoud, trying, 200 years later, to unravel the mystery of what happened to his estate,” she jokes.
In any case, both she and her mother-in-law feel that Madame de Micoud would have been pleased to see her house used to educate St Lucians and visitors about the history of the island.
Louise has received a grant through the European Union, which has given St Lucia EC$5 million to help develop natural and heritage sites on the island. With this, Louise and Veronica will be able to restore the metal artefacts and, eventually, open a small museum on the site.