St Lucia: a beautiful island with a dark history

Danny Buckland
Snorkeling in St Lucia

A few footsteps from the warm, soft sand and manicured beach palms lead you to an unexpected frame of the Caribbean’s dark history.

The clinking of cutlery and murmur of gentle conversation at the beach is replaced by an orchestra of natural sounds as more than 60 species of bird compete for attention.

A dark, muddy trial snakes from the first fringes of foliage into a tropical forest and, amid the vibrant colours from flowers, leaves and seed pods, the outlines of hulking iron structures come into view.

Decaying boilers, that once heaved with energy, rusting cauldrons that bubbled and steamed and creeper-strewn brickwork landmark a hellish outpost of the sugar plantation slave trade.

The imprints on the ironwork are British – Bullers of London; the Vauxhall Foundry, Liverpool; props in a tableau of a brutal colonial past in the grounds of the luxurious Anse Chastanet hotel, on St Lucia’s south-western coast.

View of St Lucia's volcano

The hotel and its sister property, the Jade Mountain Resort, are beacons of style and architectural ambition but the owners actively encourage guests to view the past as well as luxuriate in the modern.

St Lucia – visited by Prince Harry in December - is becoming a more popular destination with a broad range of hotels and resorts and regular direct flights from London but it is also steeped in a rich and tempestuous heritage. It’s ‘ownership’ changed hands 14 times over 150 years before Britain finally took control from the French in 1814.

It was a strategic naval point in the Caribbean and its fertile earth, stemming from the huge volcano that created the island, made it a perfect spot for growing sugar cane where slaves from West Africa, and then indentured labourers from East India, were put to work on a grueling treadmill of production at 50 plantations.

A dilapidated slave master’s home is perched on a hillside looking down on what was an inferno of production – a stone hall where six cauldrons boiled sugar cane almost 24 hours a day to make molasses. The grooves of the 30ft-high water wheel that powered the enterprise are still visible in the masonry, while the discarded boilers lie menacingly in peaty earth.

“Many people worked here and many people died here,” says Meno, the hotel’s official nature guide and historian, who has taken us on a beguiling walk through part of the 200-acre forest with frequent stops to savour the sights and sounds. Tasting the sweet, tangy, fleshy coating around a cocoa seed and inhaling an intense lemon balm smell from a crushed leaf opened a new array of natural notes are sensorial rhapsody.

But it is the slave trade past, told with honesty, that arrests the soul.

“They would work all day, till they dropped and the ones that ran away would be captured and executed,” adds Meno, a 54-year-old former local footballer, who has worked at Anse Chastanet for almost 30 years. “They existed on a diet of bread fruit. They were allowed to worship once a week but some of them decided suicide was the best way out.”

An old boiler

A guillotine, established by the French in the nearby port of Soufriere, was regularly used to set an example on runaway slaves, he adds.

It is still disturbing to see the supporting role British craftsmanship played in a trade that lingered until 1838 in St Lucia. Bullers, which was based near the Monument and supplied goods post slavery, and the Vauxhall Foundry, have long gone but their products survive almost 200 years later.

Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain Resort are jewels in the island’s current profile as a fast emerging holiday and honeymoon destination. Reached via an unmade road that offers a bone-juddering ten-minute challenge even to 4x4s and jeeps, they are the work of architect Nick Troubetzkoy and his wife Karolin who have carved a unique destination overlooking The Pitons, the towering volcanic plugs that are a World Heritage site.

The immediate beauty of nature was encompassed into his designs with vast open balconies and some rooms built without a fourth wall so guests have no option but to be part of nature.

Cottage-style room

Cottage-rooms nestle just behind its volcanic sanded beachfront and quirky villas are dotted either side of a steep lane that leads up from its reception and open restaurant where a beauty parade of the island’s 174 species birds compete for attention and crumbs at breakfast.

At the top of the lane, stands the jaw-dropping Jade Mountain with rooms positioned in what appear floating platforms with open views of the Pitons, indoor infinity pools and more than a hint of a James Bond villain’s lair.

It is pure escapism. No TVs, radios or telephones in the room and the pace and volume are deliberately set at chill.

The sea remains a focal point of life with fisherman still setting out in wooden vessels for the daily catch to catamaran cruises that hug St. Lucia’s contours and allow guests to plunge into snorkeling adventures where an array of fish appear to be auditioning for roles in a remake of the Disney movie Finding Nemo.

A casual drift in the many safe snorkelling areas brings you close to a palette of colours that would defy any paint mixing. Parrot fish exchange darting glances and shoals of stripped Sergeant Majors continue on stately processions. Iridescent blues, arresting yellows, black and gold fill the facemask view and even the sea snakes look attractive.

Sunset over St Lucia

A sunset cruise return as the setting sun bruises the wispy clouds purple and the island sinks into an outline is a moment to savour and back at the Sandals Grande St Lucian, at Gros Islet, there is everything a luxury resort can offer.

The resort, on a peninsula leading to the historic Pigeon Island where British ships would hide and harry passing French vessels, boasts a mile-long beach, a British-themed pub and an array of high quality restaurants.

St Lucia helps visitors forget their cares in its luxury hotels and beautiful natural surroundings but it is also remembers a turbulent history.


For further information, contact the Saint Lucia Tourist Board at

Sandals Grande St Lucian Spa & Beach Resort at

Anse Chastanet

Virgin Atlantic

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