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Marie-Galante - 5 409 Hab.

Grand-Bourg:  Energy to Spare in the Land of Sugar

The commune of Grand-Bourg (55.5 km2, population 5,530) is the administrative and commercial center of Marie-Galante. The commune shares a common history with its nearby neighbors on the island, Saint-Louis and Capesterre, but this common destiny has not kept it from developing its own distinctive features. Saladoid Amerindians are known to have lived here well before the Common Era, as evidenced by archaeological findings at Folle Anse cove (unpainted Huecan and Saladoid pottery characterized by incisions and adornos), followed by Arawaks (3rd century C.E.), who called the island Touloukaera, and Caribs (9th century C.E.), who called it Aichi. Amerindian civilizations fished, grew manioc and cotton, and were experts in the use of medicinal plants.
On November 3, 1493, during his second voyage to the Antilles, Christopher Columbus landed here at Anse Ballet cove, naming the island “Maria Galante” after his flagship. He didn’t stay long, moving on to the larger island of Guadeloupe. The French did not begin arriving here until the mid-17th century. Interesting fact:  Constant d'Aubigné, whose daughter eventually became Madame de Maintenon (the secret wife of Louis XIV), was named Governor of Marie-Galante in 1645. The initial economy of the French colony was based on tobacco, indigo, coffee, and cotton. However, after a period of peaceful cohabitation, the colonists found themselves at odds with the native Caribs, who were moved to the islands of Dominica and Saint Vincent following the signing of a peace treaty in 1660. Marie-Galante was purchased in 1664 by the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales (“West Indies Company”). Sugar cane was introduced in 1655, and planters soon began focusing more of their energies on it, to increase revenues.
The island became an official dependency of Guadeloupe in 1674. By then, it already had twelve sugar mills. Until 1790, Grand-Bourg, with its long coastline, was known as Marigot. Development focused around an area known as La Savane, now Grande Savane. Between 1675 and 1816, when the island officially became a part of France, Grand-Bourg was attacked repeatedly by Dutch and British troops (1675, 1689, 1691, 1702, 1759), who killed its residents, pillaged its villages, and set fire to it multiple times. In addition to attacks by the British, a series of slave revolts occurred here in the late 18th century.
In the early 18th century, the sugar industry began to dominate the island’s economy, gradually replacing other agricultural concerns. By 1738, there were fifty-four sugar refineries here. By 1818, just over one hundred windmills were being used to crush sugar cane on Marie-Galante, spawning the nickname, “Island of 100 Windmills.” The juice extracted by these mills was used to make both sugar and rum. Windmills began replacing oxen-powered mills in 1780, and steam mills began replacing windmills in about 1883, at which time 70% of the island’s cultivated lands were being used to grow sugar cane. In 1826, the Bielle family built a sugar refinery that would later become a distillery. In 1838, Grand-Bourg was destroyed by fire. In 1843, the island was struck by an earthquake. Gradually, the smaller sugar operations were transformed into sugar factories. The Grande Anse Factory opened in 1845.
Slavery was abolished in France for the second and final time on April 27, 1848, resulting in major societal and economic upheavals. Joyful celebrations gave way to violent confrontations:  during the legislative elections of 1849, when former slaves were allowed to vote for the first time, protests against ballot-rigging and were brutally repressed at Morne Rouge and, during one uprising, rum and sugar from the Pirogue Plantation were dumped into a nearby pond (now known as Mare au Punch, or “Punch Pond”). The Roussel Factory in Trianon opened in 1860, closing its doors 14 years later during the great sugar recession of the late 19th century. The recession, along with the hurricane of 1865 and the cholera epidemic, plunged the island into poverty. In 1901, Grand-Bourg was ravaged again by fire. However, in 1910, the sugar economy began to rebound, and remained prosperous until 1928, year of a terrible hurricane and high social tension. In 1932, the Grande Anse Factory was destroyed by fire. In 1946, the Pirogue Factory closed. The year 1961 marked the beginning of land reform.
Today in Grand-Bourg, home to the Grand Anse Factory and the Bielle and Poisson distilleries, sugar cane still forms the basis of the economy, providing several thousand jobs across the island. Marie-Galante’s trademark is the clear white “rhum agricole,” bottled at 59% alcohol, which benefits from an “appellation d’origine” (protected designation of origin). Primarily an agricultural commune (2,000 hectares cultivated, of which 1,100 are devoted to sugar cane), Grand-Bourg also has a small fishing industry. Vestiges of the past—windmills, colonial plantations, and former sugar refineries—provide the basis for cultural tourism, which has become one of the commune’s vital activities. Grand-Bourg adheres to the Charte Pays signed in 1994. This regional planning document facilitates coordinated efforts among member communes to promote local economies. The commune is proud to claim as native sons two famous poets:  Guy Tirolien (1917-1988), who fought alongside Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire in the Négritude movement; and Bernard Leclaire (b. 1959), romantic poet whose exemplary work sings the praises of Marie-Galante.

Tour of Grand-Bourg

Grand-Bourg, with its sugar cane fields stretching as far as the eye can see, has preserved with pride many vestiges of its past, including dozens of windmills, remnants of former sugar refineries, old colonial houses, and historical sites symbolizing the island’s resistance to oppression. It has also preserved its traditional sense of hospitality. As the island’s most populated commune, Grand-Bourg is considered the capital of Marie Galante, home to the island’s main government facilities. The town of Grand-Bourg comes to life early in the morning. Pause to stroll about the streets, where concrete buildings and traditional houses blend harmoniously with small businesses and artisan boutiques. Stop by Victor Schœlcher Square to view a number of interesting public edifices, including the Town Hall and Palais de Justice (Courthouse), built in the style of architect Ali Tur in 1930/31. Walk down Beaurenom Street to the square in front of the church of Notre Dame de Marie-Galante (19th and 20th century) to buy local fruits and vegetables. Continue past the ferry terminal to the bustling port, where fisherman briskly unload their catches, repair their nets, and prepare for their next outings. Follow Boulevard de la Marine to National Highway N9 past a pleasant beach featuring a recently opened water sports center. On the way, don’t miss Kreol West Indies, where visitors may explore Antilles history and culture. Continue on Highway N9 for one kilometer before turning right toward Château Murat, a former 18th-century Great House and now the Eco-Museum of Marie-Galante. Soon after, find coastal road D203, Les Basses, and its airfield. The road directly across from this leads up the plateau toward Thibault (former sugar plantation, where Charles-François Bonneville, then mayor of Grand-Bourg, experimented with growing long-staple cotton in the late 19th century). Return to Highway N9 at Vidon. Continue for 4 kilometers toward Grand-Bourg (the famous “Punch Pond” at the former Pirogue Plantation is nearby), then veer right and cross the cane fields to reach Bielle Distillery (tours and tastings). Departmental Highway D204 leads to country road Port-Louis (former distillery) and Faup (beautiful views of “Les Saints” Bay and Basse Terre). Venture inland over small, scenic roads across hilly, pond-studded plateaus and “dolines” (shallow sink-hole depressions) toward Bonnet, Vanniers, Saint-Marc, and Mouessant, or hike the trails to explore remarkable vegetation, philodendrons, genipap trees, heliconia plants, and more.
Several windmills may be seen from the road. Descend via Canada to return to Highway N9 directly across from the Grande-Anse sugar factory. Traveling toward Saint-Louis, stop off at the Poisson Distillery for some famous Père Labat Rum. In Siblet, hike the “Sources” trail along a section of the Saint-Louis River. A short incursion into Saint-Louis takes you back to coastal highway D206 past a long strip of sand known as Folle Anse (“Crazy Cove”) to the cargo port of the same name. An Amerindian site was discovered here in 1963. On the other side of this lie the marshlands and mangrove bayou forests of Folle Anse and Poisson, 450 hectares of protected biotope. Take Highway N9 toward the town of Grand-Bourg, past the vestiges of the Roussel-Trianon Plantation, with its beautiful brick buildings and windmill. In developing its tourist industry Grand-Bourg has adhered to a policy of environmental preservation, creating a network of guest lodgings to welcome all lovers of “green tourism.” It is also developing a series of cultural and artistic events sure to please both local and international visitors throughout the year, its flagship event being the Terre de Blues Festival held each year at Pentecost. Chemin Bleu tourist maps of Guadeloupe and city street maps are available at the Office of Tourism.

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