In 1751 one of the first charts of the Bay of “Becouya” was prepared on the French naval vessel Friponne. The bay is now named Admiralty Bay. It is on the island of Bequia which is the largest island of the Grenadines, all of which is part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. What is interesting is that on larger charts at the time for all the Lesser Antilles, the tiny island of Bequia was indicated by name rather than the much larger island to the north: St. Vincent. Included on the chart were the settlements and even a church in what is now called Admiralty Bay. Clearly, it was an important bay to chart. There is still a church in that location.
We had a good 11-hour sail down from St. Lucia to Admiralty Bay in the typical Trade Winds of the islands. It seems that this season, the strong Trade Winds have been blowing more consistently with fewer intervals of lighter winds than in any other year that we can remember. As always, the between island jumps, in this case, St. Lucia to St. Vincent and St. Vincent to Bequia, were typical “ocean passages”. And in the last two weeks in Bequia the winds were up even in the anchorage of Admiralty Bay. Fortunately, there was no northerly swell so it wasn’t too rolly. On the Kalunamoo Guide to Anchorage Roll, it was mostly a stage 2 and occasionally a stage 3 roll.
We met up with several other cruisers that we knew ,also anchored in Admiralty Bay and enjoyed the violin performance of Samuel Toka at the Fig Tree, a day at the Plantation, Easter Mass at St. Michaels, sundowners and a beach BBQ on Princess Margaret Beach. Bequia is a wonderful little island and we have always enjoyed our visits. A few years ago, we visited the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, a privately run “sanctuary” run by a former turtle fisherman, Orton King who turned from fishing for hawksbill turtles into protecting them from predators and extinction. Rescued from being eaten by birds when they emerge from their eggs or lost on the way to the water, he raises them to be released later. Arguably not the best way man can help nature, but the turtles have been protected and their numbers have been increasing. Of course, fishing for them (for consumption), is now outlawed. It is always fun to watch these turtles swim around the anchorage and all visitors are impressed.
This year we visited the Bequia Heritage Foundation and Whaling Museum in Friendship Bay. We went with cruiser friends from Roxy and Casa Tu. This privately funded museum and foundation had a similar start as the turtle Sanctuary. Started by locals, the foundation and museum traces the history of Bequia from the earliest inhabitants.
After major hurricane, Ivan crossed Grenada in 2004, the high seas ripped into Bequia’s eastern beaches with a vengeance. The result exposed ancient artifacts, mostly pottery fragments, which were collected by locals and eventually analyzed. It was found that the oldest pottery came from South America around 300-500 AD. It is theorized that this was the time when the migration from South America up the Lesser Antilles took place. Bequia seemed to be an important stop and supported a small settlement.
That was the beginning of the heritage Museum which reconstructs the history of the island from that time with the artifacts that are found here. The Amerindians, gave rise to various indigenous people. Then in the early 1600’s the Spanish, English and French came and put their mark on the island. The islands changed hands a few times as the Europeans fought for their respective empires. Farming, and fishing were the basis of the interest here and boat building and servicing became equally important. Since this is a small island farming and fishing wouldn’t seem enough to keep the island going for long.
Whaling goes back to the 1800’s and was practiced world-wide. The flesh, oil, and even the bones derived from whales became a lucrative trade. Whaling from shore, as it started in Nantucket, was relatively easy. When the whales headed for extinction, ships were needed to go further off shore to find them, eventually traveling from New England to the Pacific. Well, to make a long story short, read Moby Dick.
Many whale species mate and “winter” in the Caribbean (they knew this way before man invented Florida). It was therefore natural that this industry could be practiced here, and Bequia was a good location for whale hunting from shore. When whaling was internationally regulated (to prevent their extinction) Bequia, in 2013, was grandfathered in to allow 4 whales a year to be harvested to support the local population. The methods used today, totally hand rowed boats with the same manual equipment of the 1800’s, has not been changed. This is carried out from the east coast at Friendship Bay. But the local whalers, as like the turtle fisherman, realized that it was also time to protect for tomorrow rather than harvest for today, hence the establishment of the whaling museum a few years ago. When the small group of whalers do get a whale, (only 2 boats are in use and in many years they don’t get any whales), no whale products are exported and all products are used locally on the island. The money selling the products on island supports the families for a year.
Eventually St. Vincent and the Grenadines became independent of the UK and tourism became the dominate source of income. This is true of most of the islands here. But the above are examples of what Bequia has done on its own, and with the exclusion of major “international resorts”, does make it a unique and interesting place.
That brings me back to 1751. Why was Bequia, specifically what was to be become Admiralty Bay on the west coast, charted in detail? There didn’t seem to be any economic potential of the land or sea that would interest the empires of England or France to take notice. The Heritage Museum provided the answer and it had to do with the nature of the bay. Besides being protected from the trade winds the bay itself was well suited as a carenage to careen boats and larger vessels on the sand beaches. Boats brought up at low tide on sand beaches, free of coral rocks, the boat bottom can then be scrapped clean and repaired. Also boat building on the beach and launching was possible. That, apparently, was the basis of the settlement over many years as boats were the essential vehicle to access the small islands in this area. Bequia became a center for small boat building well into the 20th century. Bob Dylan commissioned the boat Water Pearl, built on the beach here in the early 1970’s.
In the 1930’s James Mitchell’s (Prime minister of St. Vincent, 1984 – 1996) father built and sailed the Gloria Colita, the largest wooden schooner (165’ long) in the Caribbean. It took 21 days just to pull the hull off the beach where it was built into the water. He sailed it as a cargo ship, from the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba and islands area. He was lost in 1940 when the wooden sloop was lost at sea (mysteriously) between Alabama and Cuba with a cargo of wood. James, who was born and lived on Bequia, died recently but we had a chance to meet and talk with him a few years ago here as he recalled his efforts to keep the Grenadines and in particular Bequia, “unique” in the world of tropical tourism. I think he succeeded as it is a wonderful place to connect with the past and to enjoy the present with people who have pride of place and a sense of history.