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Pilgrimage to the past


Melissa Banigan seeks out ancient pre-Hispanic art and strands of the slave route on a cultural journey around Guadeloupe

The French overseas department of Guadeloupe is home to pristine mangroves and rainforests, coral reefs, a volcano and a bevy of white, gold, black and even pink sandy beaches. But it’s so much more than merely an idyllic set of islands. The Guadeloupe archipelago also contains dozens of cultural heritage sites that provide a lens through which to understand the whole region’s history of colonisation, slavery and abolition.

Visiting cultural heritage sites is more important now than ever before. Over the centuries, the expansion of cities and the collective silence over horrors such as genocide and slavery have led to many important sites falling into disrepair. But today people have started to seek more authentic and sustainable cultural experiences, and governments are now working harder to ensure that cultural heritage sites will be intact for the next generation.

In 1994, UNESCO launched the Slave Route, a global project that aims to increase understanding of the slave trade and build a bridge between Africa and its diaspora around the world. Part of this project is Guadeloupe’s own Slave Route, a trail linking 18 destinations on the island. I set out to follow this trail…

Reflections in the rocks
When Christopher Columbus first set foot on Guadeloupe in 1493, the only inhabitants on the islands were the indigenous Kalinago people. Before the arrival of the Kalinago, the previous occupants of the islands were the Arawak people who left behind incredible carvings on stones. Some of these petroglyphs have been rediscovered in the rainforest on Guadeloupe’s westernmost island, Basse-Terre, near the town of Trois-Rivières.

The petroglyphs predate the Slave Route by hundreds of years, but shine a light on a little-known period of Caribbean history. One of my favourite experiences is to go hiking with friends to see some of the Arawak engravings in the rainforest along the Sentier de la Grande Pointe – the Path of the Great Point. This 5km trail runs through the rainforest parallel to the Caribbean. To one side, the sea crashes along the shore; on the other, the forest rises up along the hillside. Hike highlights include crossing a gentle river, sitting for a spell in the cool pool at the base of a series of waterfalls, and reaching Anse des Galets (Stone Cove), where a number of rocks are engraved with petroglyphs: a man surrounded by faces, a woman in the midst of childbirth.

Just a short drive from the path is the Parc Archéologique des Roches Gravées (Archaeological Park of the Carved Rocks). Admission to the park is free, but it is accessible only on a guided tour. Like many of the cultural heritage sites on Guadeloupe, the tour is only in French, which means that when I visit, I’m able to add a number of new words to my slowly expanding vocabulary. Unlike at Stone Cove, where the petroglyphs are very weather-worn, the carvings at the park look like they could have been made yesterday – though in fact they date from around AD 300 – and clearly depict people wearing what appear to be headdresses.

On the opposite side of Guadeloupe, on the island of Grande-Terre, the Edgar Clerc Archaeological Museum contains a few more petroglyphs as well as a small but fascinating collection of pre-Hispanic pottery, jewellery and carvings in shell, stone and coral. Also in the collection are a number of artefacts from the time of slavery, including shackles and chains that serve as powerful reminders of the islands’ dark history.

Steps to freedom
Though it was the Spanish who first settled the island, it was only after the French slaughtered the Kalinago and claimed Guadeloupe in 1635 that colonisation began in earnest. From 1640, massive numbers of slaves were brought to the islands from Africa to support the burgeoning sugar-cane and plantation economies.

The ruins of the Vanibel, Belmont, Roussel-Trianon, Néron, Murat, Mahaudière, Grivelière, Beausoleil and Indigo plantations are all listed on UNESCO’s Slave Route. These sites can be harrowing to visit. At Belmont, for example, you’ll see the sobering ruins of a small cell that was once used to lock up slaves as punishment – many plantations had a cell of this type. Dating from the 18th century, this vaulted hole measures just 4m square with no windows; a solid bench was the only piece of furniture.

In the small coastal town of Petit-Canal, 54 stone steps lead to an esplanade next to the sea where many slaves were once purchased. Today, these stairs – the Marches des Esclaves – are among the many important sites along Guadeloupe’s Slave Route. Stone walls line the steps, and they bear plaques naming some of the African peoples who were enslaved on the island: Congo, Yoruba, Wolof, Ibo, Fulani, Bamilékés. At the bottom of the stairs stands a bust of Louis Delgrès, who fought to the death against slavery; at the top of the stairs, a single word adorns a plaque commemorating what he was fighting for: Freedom. There is also a date, 1848 – the year slavery was finally abolished in Guadeloupe.

Slavery on Guadeloupe was initially abolished in 1794, but it was then reintroduced by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Born free on the neighbouring island of Martinique, Delgrès was a mulatto who fought for the French Republic, but then formed a rebellion of soldiers of colour and resistance fighters battling against slavery.

At the Battle of Matouba in 1802, Delgrès and his followers – men, women and children – were overcome by French troops. Rather than be taken alive, 400 members of the resistance ignited their stores of gunpowder, effectively martyring themselves to take out as many French soldiers as possible.

On Guadeloupe you are able to visit many sites where you can reflect on this great man, including a colonial-era military fort on a hillside on Basse-Terre. Originally called Fort Saint-Charles, in 1989 it was renamed Fort Louis Delgrès. A memorial to Delgrès has been built at the fort. A large sculpture of his head has been placed on top of a hillside, surrounded by many smaller stones standing in a circle.

The story of resistance that has remained with me the most is that of La Mulâtresse Solitude, or Solitude the Mulatto. Born to slaves, she fought alongside Delgrès for freedom. She survived the Battle of Matouba but was imprisoned by the French. Pregnant during her capture, the French allowed her to give birth before hanging her. It is unknown what became of her infant daughter. In 1999, a statue by Jacky Poulier was installed on the Héros aux Abymes Boulevard in her memory. A gorgeous work of art, Solitude looks like a force to be reckoned with as she looks upward into the sky.

Onwards from Abolition
In the 19th century, many French people worked tirelessly towards the abolition of slavery. Victor Schœlcher was one of these. He learned about the history of slavery in the USA, Greece, Turkey and the west coast of Africa, and subsequently published many articles calling to abolish slavery. I found it quite moving to learn more about this great man at the Victor Schœlcher Museum, another of UNESCO’s sites along the Slave Route in downtown Pointe-à-Pitre.

After slavery was abolished in 1848, the island felt the continued effects of colonisation. Thousands of indentured servants from India were brought to work on the sugar plantations. More than 10,000 of these people died as a result of the harsh living and working conditions. Today, of the 400,000 inhabitants of Guadeloupe, 55,000 are of Indian descent. Although there isn’t a site along the Slave Route specifically dedicated to the contributions made by Indians to Guadeloupe society, the striking Changy Hindu Temple stands as a reminder.

Never forget
Perched at the mouth of the city’s harbour on the site of the former Darboussier sugar factory and rum distillery, Mémorial ACTe is a museum and educational centre dedicated to the history, memory and condemnation of slavery and the slave trade. This black-granite museum is shrouded by a gossamer-like aluminium lattice. The architectural juxtaposition of shadow and light, of weightlessness and gravity, is a metaphor for what the building contains: a record of the history of oppression and the sublime hope that by learning this history, we might prevent more human suffering in the future.

Over the past few years, I’ve visited Guadeloupe many times and have driven, walked and hiked to many of the department’s cultural heritage sites in an effort to better understand the complex history of this small French department. Yet Jacques Martial, President of Mémorial ACTe, tells me that it’s best not to see the history of slavery as “a local history, but a story of the modern world. We all share this history – we’re all connected.”

The fact that the museum replaced the defunct Darboussier site makes it even more meaningful. After the distillery closed in 1981, the neighbourhood surrounding it suffered an economic collapse. Today, the museum employs 30 people, some of whom live in the immediate area, and more than 100,000 people from around the world annually visit the museum.

“Some people see [Mémorial ACTe] as a pilgrimage site,” says Martial. Indeed, after visiting so many of Guadeloupe’s sites along the Slave Route as well as places where pre-Hispanic peoples left their mark, Mémorial ACTe feels like the connective tissue that binds so many of these places, time periods and peoples together.

“The biggest challenge that the world has to face in the 21st century is how we can all live together,” says Martial. “Some people build walls and separate [people from one another]. Other people have a different vision for this century: they promote peace by learning our shared history – to do so means we can then go beyond our history.”

Need to know
For more information on the UNESCO Slave Route, see
For more details of Mémorial ACTe, visit

3 more to visit

There are 18 sites along Guadeloupe’s UNESCO Slave Routes. Look out for these places to visit around the islands…

1 Slave Burial Ground of Anse Sainte-Marguerite
The discovery of this cemetery containing several hundred burials – on a beach far from places of formal worship, in an area dominated by historic sugarcane plantations – suggests it was a slave burial ground. It is now the best-documented burial site in the Antilles. In the late 18th century, almost 90% of the population of northern Grande-Terre was made up of slaves.

2 Les Rotours Canal
Constructed between 1826 and 1829 to transport sugar and other goods, Les Rotours Canal flows through the town of Morne-à-l’Eau and empties into the Atlantic at Vieux-Bourg. It was dug by a workforce of 200-400 free men and slaves, of whom around 30 lost their lives.

3 La Mahaudière Plantation
The former estate of Jean-Baptiste Douillard Mahaudière is remembered for his association with an infamous legal case. Mahaudière accused his slave Lucile of poisoning his wife, four other slaves and 281 cattle. Lucile was locked in a tiny cell, her legs chained to an iron bar, her right hand held in a ring. Lucile spent 22 months in this cell in almost total isolation, on minimum rations. The courts were eventually alerted to Lucile’s conditions and, in October 1840, Mahaudière was tried for unlawful imprisonment – but was found not guilty. Slave Lucile was sold.