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Basse-Terre:  Rich heritage, Courageous people

The city of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe’s seat of government, is located in the southern part of the island of Basse-Terre, between the Caribbean Sea and the mountainous “amphitheater” formed by the Soufrière massif. Basse-Terre owes its name to a 17th-century sailing term indicating land facing leeward, sheltered from the wind, in opposition to Capesterre, land facing windward. Now covering an area of 578 hectares, the city is characterized by a varied topography of tall hills, alluvial plains, and bluffs. The abundance of fresh water due to the presence of nearly a dozen ravines and 3 rivers (the Galion River, Rivière aux Herbes, and Rivière des Pères), is one of the rich natural resources that favored human settlement here well before the arrival of the French.
Indeed, many archeological excavations conducted between 2000 and 2006 around the Cathedral, Place Saint-François, the colonial cemetery of Saint-François church, and the site of the self-governing port, have uncovered signs of occupation dating back as far as 800 B.C. (ceramics, stone tools, shells, jewelry, charcoal, etc., as well as a sepulture). In the 15th century, Spaniards searching for gold landed here to replenish their stores of fresh water (from the Galion River).
The expedition that left the island of Saint Christopher (aka Saint Kitts) in 1635, led by Charles Liènard de l'Olive and Jean du Plessis d'Ossonville and joined by 4 missionaries and 550 colonists, landed at Point Allègre, then headed south to take possession of this sector. Charles de l'Olive waged merciless war against the indigenous Caribbean people. However, the Dominicans who came to evangelize them disassociated themselves from this bloody enterprise and obtained a large land grant in the southern part of the island. The first colonists initially settled on the left bank of the Galion River. These included Lieutenant-General Aubert, who succeeded Charles de L'Olive as governor of the island. In 1643, Charles Houël, appointed governor and marshal of Guadeloupe, bought the island from the Compagnie des îles d'Amérique (Company of the American Islands). In 1649, he moved onto the right bank of the Galion River and in 1650 built a fort there.
Religious friars erected the first church here, which became Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel (“Our Lady of Mount Carmel”). At that time, the town consisted only of the Carmel quarter, with no settlements across the Rivière aux Herbes until the late 17th century when the Saint-François quarter was established. In around 1680, Capuchin friars built a chapel dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi on the site now occupied by Notre-Dame de Guadeloupe Cathedral. Around this place of worship a second settlement developed. Thus there were two populated areas across from one another on the Rivière aux Herbes. Attacks by the British, who burned down the first town of Basse-Terre in 1691 and 1703, sent residents fleeing to the newer Saint-François settlement. In 1739, a stone bridge was built to replace the fording area and wooden bridge across the Rivière aux Herbes. The British occupied the town from 1759 to 1763, a period of relative prosperity for Basse-Terre.
At the beginning of 1765, French governors Nolivos and d'Arbaud undertook a number of town improvement and sanitary works. Bridges were built between the two settled quarters, uniting them into a single village. Basse-Terre felt the effects of the Revolution in September 1789, but on April 22, 1794, the British retook the town, which was governed at that time by Collot. The occupation was short-lived, however, as the Convention in Paris sent Victor Hugues to dislodge the occupiers in December of the same year. In 1802, General Richepance’s troops were ordered by Napoléon Bonaparte to reinstitute slavery. They encountered the unconditional resistance of Louis Delgrès and his comrades-at-arms, who withdrew into the fort on May 20, 1802, abandoning it on May 22 following fierce combat. The city underwent two other occupations (from February 6, 1810, to May 30, 1814; and from August 10, 1815 to July 1816), and was attacked by four hurricanes (in 1816, 1821, 1825, and 1844), whose effects were felt by the city for the next 30 years. However, despite capricious weather events and a memorable cholera epidemic in 1865, “Basse-Terre-the-Brave” regained its forward momentum with the development of the Champ d'Arbaud parade grounds; the construction of a military hospital (now Lycée Gerville-Réache secondary school), bishopric, and town hall (1889); and the settlement of new residential areas such as Trianon, Versailles, Petite Guinée, and Petit-Paris.
The boundaries of the commune have changed over the centuries. The Colonial Decree of September 20, 1837, established the creation of communes (retroactive to November 12, 1789) and the powers of mayors and municipal councils. Until 1837, Basse-Terre was split into two areas:  the land within the city limits, and the land in the city’s periphery, which extended as far as the slopes of Mount Soufrière. In 1837, lines were drawn within the territory to define two new communes:  the future Saint-Claude and Gourbeyre. On March 15, 1839, the boundaries of the commune were set by deliberation of the municipal council. On October 16, 1953, the commune was expanded to include the coastal residential areas of Rivière-des-Pères and Pintade, which were too distant from Saint-Claude, and the sections of Thillac, Morne-à-Vaches, Desmarais, Guillard, and Delille. Basse-Terre was the first city to receive electrical power in 1913. Following the hurricane of September 1928, several buildings were constructed by Ali Tur, including the Palais du Conseil Général and the covered market, in the 1930s. After 1960, a new port was built to replace the wooden quays, with the Boulevard Maritime stroll succeeding the gravel strand along the shoreline.
The year 1976 was a memorable one. The eruption of Mount Soufrière led to the evacuation of the southern part of Basse-Terre Island. Some 25,000 people voluntarily fled South Basse-Terre to seek refuge in Grande-Terre before a total mandatory evacuation was ordered on August 15. The evacuation lasted three months, until November 18, 1976. Fortunately, the eruption caused only physical damage, no loss of life. The event upset the city’s demographics and governmental organization. As the seat of government and administrative power for the area, Basse-Terre enjoys a robust tertiary sector, and has welcomed the headquarters of the Communauté d’agglomération (“agglomeration community”) of South Basse-Terre and many other public edifices, including the Prefecture building, the offices of the Conseil Régional (regional council) and Conseil Général (general council), and the Palais de Justice (courthouse), which includes a court of appeals, a lower and an upper court, a Tribunal Administratif (for adjudicating civil service matters) and a Conseil des Prud’hommes (employment tribunal). Basse-Terre also has a Chambre des Huissiers (chamber of judicial officers), a Chambre des Notaires (chamber of notaries), and a Chambre de Commerce (chamber of commerce), in addition to a police station and detention facility.
Through the centuries, this city, whose current population is 11,790, has overcome every obstacle it has faced:  attacks by the British, the trusteeship of Martinique, the growth of Pointe-à-Pitre, the decline of traditional trades, lack of area for urban expansion, the decline of port activity, and natural disasters. Long the island’s sole official landing stage, nothing has diminished Basse-Terre’s importance to the entire region, with its lively business and tertiary sectors, active cultural and athletic associations, and, following the development of a cruise ship port, renewed tourist industry, which serves as the gateway to the island’s many natural attractions.

Tour of Basse-Terre

Organized along the main thoroughfare formerly known as Grand'Rue, the city of Basse-Terre first developed on opposite sides of the Rivière aux Herbes in two settlement areas:  the Carmel and Saint-François quarters. It then expanded along the narrow, 3-kilometer coastal band between the Caribbean Sea and the first tall hills of the island’s central mountain ridge, which includes the Soufrière volcano to the northwest, and mounts Caraïbes and Houëlmont to the southeast, encircling the city. Classified as a “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire“ (“City of Art and History”) in 1995, Basse-Terre offers visitors a rich heritage to explore. From Fort Delgrès to the east, to the Bologne Distillery to the west, many attractions bear witness to the major events that have shaped the city’s history and the cultural, societal, and economic life of Guadeloupe. The city’s traditional architecture, public squares and parks, and paved walks embody the tranquility and quality of life of its inhabitants, imbuing it with a soul.
Some fifteen public and private landmarks are classified as protected Historic Monuments. Each may be visited, and each has a story to tell, beginning with Fort Louis Delgrès and La Vauban, city birthplace and showcase of Guadeloupe history, constructed in the mid-17th century during the reign of Lord Charles Houël, who purchased the island in 1649. From here, enter the city and admire the charm of its old quarters, the historic heart of this important seat of government.
The Carmel quarter, with its narrow, winding streets and hilly terrain, was the first City of Basseterre, which was at that time primarily a religious center and garrison town. Visit Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel church and the Gerville-Réache secondary school, which housed a Carmelite Convent during the Revolution. Then stroll along Boulevard Félix Eboué to admire several important buildings:  the Palais de Justice (courthouse), the Palais du Conseil Général and, to the north, the Palais d'Orléans (Governor’s palace). These were the first official buildings to be constructed between 1930 and 1935 by Ali Tur, architect for the colonies, whose efforts were solicited by the governor in the aftermath of the damaging hurricane of 1928. Breaking with tradition, Tur replaced wood construction with reinforced concrete. These public buildings were classified as protected Historic Monuments in 1990. Nearby lies the pleasant park area of Champ d’Arbaud parade grounds and, beyond it, Pichon Square, in the former garden of the historic British government house, now converted to a Stroll. Here you will also find Artchipel, Guadeloupe’s National Theater. Further north, visit the Jardin botanique (botanical garden), which currently contains over 130 species of trees and plants of various origin, and the remarkable historic creole house Maison des Aînés (“House of the Elders”).
Coming back toward the Boulevard Maritime oceanfront area, you will see a monumental sculpture entitled “Sé lavi-la ki pli bèl“ (“c’est la vie qui est plus belle,” or “life is beautiful”). The shoreline is a pleasant place for strolling and attending cultural and athletic events. Continue to the covered market, an attraction not to be missed, colorful and bustling, full of enticing tastes and smells. Then it’s on to the Saint-François quarter, the historic mercantile town, with its flat terrain, streets laid out in a grid, vast oceanfront warehouses, boutiques, pedestrian street, and the Notre-Dame de Guadeloupe Cathedral, built by the Capuchins in the 18th century. Next, cross Cour Nolivos courtyard to reach Place de la Liberté square, where you will find the town hall. Around the square are a number of remarkable buildings, including the Auditorium and Maison Chapp (Chapp House). Take Passage Cicéron to reach the adjoining streets of Docteur Pitat and Baudot, where you will find the Maison du Patrimoine (“heritage house”) and the Office of Tourism of South Basse Terre, Peynier, etc. Take the time to admire the magnificent façades of the historic upper-middle-class homes.
To the south lies the port, full of lively activity. Next, stroll along Corsaires and Père Labat streets through the historic mercantile sector, with its warehouses and narrow streets known as “cales” (“docks”) directly overlooking the port, to reach the Calebassier quarter in the direction of the Rivière des Pères river. Stroll along the oceanfront on the recently developed Boulevard Maritime. Soon you will reach the Bologne Distillery, lone remaining witness to Basse-Terre’s sugar cane past. Chemin Bleu tourist maps of Guadeloupe and city street maps are available at the Office of Tourism.www.ot-sudbasse-terre.com

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