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Baillif:  Rich Land, Wise People

Pre-Columbian settlement of Côte-sous-le-Vent (“Leeward Coast”), particularly around Baillif, has been confirmed by several archaeological digs and sampling cuts, spurred by the discovery of petroglyphs in the bed of the Plessis River and the appearance of traces of human habitation at the mouth of the Baillif River following hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995. Pre-Colombian sites are located primarily along the coast, and contain copious artifacts dating back to the Cedrosan Saladoid peoples (400-600 C.E.). Ceramic finds generally consist of bowls, often decorated or painted red inside, and other vessels, either white-on-red or polychrome. The widespread presence of traces of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans indicates a diet of coastal marine products. The first Europeans to settle Baillif were Dominican priests to whom Governor Charles de l’Olive granted, in 1637, a plot of land extending from the River Des Pères to the Baillif River. The transfer of ownership of Guadeloupe and its dependencies to then-Governor of Guadeloupe Charles Houël du Petit Pré, former owner of the Compagnie des Isles d’Amérique (Company of the American Islands), and his brother-in-law, Jean de Boisseret d’Herblay, is documented by a deed of sale issued on May 20, 1643, in Paris. The colonial economy quickly took shape, with the intensified development of sugar growing operations.
Mountainous terrain overlooking the sea made Baillif a strategic location. Boisseret d’Herblay chose to make his home here, ordering the construction of an imposing fortress on Madeleine Mountain in around 1650. Although early colonial forts—designed to defend against the Carib people—were primarily hasty wooden palisade constructions, this structure was made of stone, with an enclosure flanked by four bastions, according to a medieval layout. The fort defended the hamlets of Saint-Louis and Baillif. During this same period, Charles Houël built a fortified manor house in Basse-Terre at the current location of Fort Delgrès. In 1691, the fates of the two fortresses diverged when Fort Madeleine was destroyed by the British.
In the early years of colonization, Baillif enjoyed a flourishing economy. The forests of Saint-Robert and Saint-Louis mountains were cleared to an elevation of 300 meters, as many sugar refineries were established, making the area Guadeloupe’s first sugar-producing region. However, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, disaster struck multiple times. The British attacked in 1691, and again in 1703, destroying the fort and the lower part of town. The river burst its banks several times, flooding the town. With development stalled, Charles Houël seized the opportunity to make Basse-Terre the island’s capital. It is during this time that Father Labat was called upon by Governor Auger to develop a system of defense against the British. A number of fortifications were erected, including the unique defensive tower known as “Tour du Père Labat“ (“Father Labat Tower”) near the Marigot plantation, owned by the Dominicans. Over the course of the 18th century, the sugar industry recovered.
In this mountainous part of the island, engineering projects focused, above all, on the coastline and the lower inhabited foothills. The enemy could only invade by sea and, in the absence of roads, trade depended on maritime transport. Most of the plantations had coastal warehouses and used dinghies for moving merchandise. The various estates were connected by criss-crossing paths. Despite difficulties relating to access, many plantations established themselves some distance from the sea, at the breezy higher elevations, such as on mounts Saint-Louis and Bellevue. Because this land was difficult to clear, and manpower was scarce, early land grants were generally small (10 to 20 hectares). Like all agricultural concerns, even modest ones, plantations required a number of buildings in addition to the master’s house:  agricultural outbuildings, sugar factories, and slave quarters. Such buildings were frequently destroyed. Slave dungeons were often found under sugar refineries. The commune was home to many plantations, among them Bellevue (first owned by Jean-Baptiste Dupuy-Desillets, subsequently the Beauvallon Plantation), Saint-Louis, Claire Fontaine, and Bouvier. The abolition of slavery, followed by the collapse of the sugar industry, put an end to the cane economy. During the second half of the 19th century, the amount of sugar produced by these smaller entities did not generate enough profit, forcing refineries to convert to distilleries. Later, farmers turned to banana growing. Today, land that has not been polluted by kepone, particularly former sugar cane fields (Bovis, Bellevue), is now used to cultivate diverse crops, mainly vegetables and fruit (citrus, mangoes), in addition to traditional market crops (papayas). Such concerns now represent a growing proportion of the local agricultural sector. A change in agricultural identities is well underway.
In the late 20th century, Baillif’s suburban location made it a good base for an artisanal craft and business zone between the town and the River Des Pères. The commune, which has an airfield near this economic zone, plans to continue improving its agricultural practices and marketing its food and market crops, while also encouraging the development of renewable energies and promoting its historical, cultural, and natural resources, particularly via access to Guadeloupe National Park.

Tour of Baillif

With its many reminders of the past, Baillif may seem attractive to visitors primarily for its history. However, locals have long understood that their heritage provides a unique foundation for building a contemporary development vision that has given them an exceptional quality of life. An excursion to the heights of the commune over highway D30 in the direction of Saint-Louis offers opportunities to explore the remnants of former plantations and distilleries—some of which still boast handsome, gracious residences—including:  the former Bellevue distillery, the ruins of the Bouvier distillery, the Saint-Louis sugar plantation, the Bovis plantation, and even the former Grand Marigot distillery, on land originally owned by the Dominicans, with its canal designed by Père Labat that is still used to irrigate the mountain’s growing operations today (unfortunately, a smokestack is all that remains of the plantation’s infrastructure). All of these vestiges testify to the former dominance of sugar in the commune’s economy.
Sugar production required advanced technical skill, not to mention major financial investment in the many requisite buildings. Mills were required to crush the cane. The juice resulting from this process was boiled in the refineries. The sugar was then placed to drain in “purgeries” (curing houses), large masonry buildings that had to be well ventilated. Sugar was dried in a sort of oven that often took the form of a round (Saint-Robert Plantation) or square (Campry Plantation) tower. The molasses residue (an extremely thick, viscous syrup) was used to make alcohol. Most of the master’s houses were built of wood in the second half of the 19th century, or the early 20th. However, some stone structures were built in the second half of the 18th century, or the early 19th. Houses with wrap-around galleries began appearing in the late 18th century. Striking edifices rising from the middle of immense banana plantations, with magnificent views of the Caribbean Sea. Here one experiences life at a slower pace. Highway D30 continues to climb along the Saint-Louis River, eventually reaching Matouba Falls in the commune of Saint-Claude. A short hike through banana groves takes visitors to a trailhead leading to a small, rushing waterfall. Please note:  due to a powerful whirlpool current, swimming in the pool at the base of the falls is highly discouraged.
Petroglyphs along the Plessis River and nearby traces of several Amerindian villages dating from 600 to 900 C.E., offer ample motivation for an exploratory expedition. Take D13 highway toward Saint-Robert. The site can be reached in under thirty minutes. Dozens of rocks may be admired displaying carvings dating from 400 C.E. Further remnants of Amerindian habitation (mortar stones, tools, etc.) have been discovered at the mouth of the Baillif River. The road continues past the heights of Morne Saint-Robert hill to the foot of Morne Montval and the boundaries of the Guadeloupe National Park preserve. For a change of scenery, follow the steep roads leading toward Campry and Bovis to witness new directions in agricultural through crop diversification. Since the 1980s, former sugar cane fields have been converted to market vegetables and fruit, particularly citrus. Tour the town to see Saint-Dominique church with its beautiful main altar, and the Town Hall designed by Ali Tur. Stroll along the maritime boulevard toward Basse-Terre to visit the famous, can’t-miss attraction, Tour du Père Labat (“Father Labat Tower”), the pride of the people. Chemin Bleu tourist maps of Guadeloupe and city street maps are available at the Office of Tourism.

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