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For many reasons, I am always interested in the documents that allow me to better understand the Ilet-à-Ramiers [Pigeons Island]; this rock near Anse à l’âne in Martinique, which shelters a military fort and of which I have already told you because of the imprisonment of Marc Cyrus from Le Carbet. Some time ago, I discovered in administrative letters that before being a military fort, the islet was mainly known as a place of contraband! Today, I speak to you French settlers, English sailors, secret appointments and illegal trade. As a bonus, I’ll tell you the island’s nickname!
The Exclusive Colonial vs. Underhand Trade
In the administrative correspondence, I came across a letter from La Varenne, Governor General of the Windward Islands. On 15 January 1717, from Martinique, he wrote to the Island Council to inform them of the « arrest of an English ship caught while engaged in foreign trade on the islet aux Ramiers ». The Governor reported « Mr. Intendant and I have the honour to give advice to the Council, that having learned through conversations that very often English ships were roaming around this island, apparently to do business there (…) we made the decision to do whatever was necessary to surprise one of the said ships. »
Why is this English trade in the islands under French domination a problem? Because the principle of the « Exclusive » was in use in the French colonies. This principle of Exclusivity prohibited the trade of French settlers with foreigners in order to favour trade with the French Kingdom. It should be remembered that one of the primary objectives of colonization in the New World was the enrichment of the Kingdom. Ideally, it was therefore necessary to trade only and in favour of France, and any illegal trade with foreigners was smuggling. In 1680, the king reminded Governor Blénac of this fact: « the order you must keep with regard to foreign trade is that you prevent any foreign vessel from approaching the rafts of the said islands, and in the event that, despite the defences that have been made and are published, no foreign vessels board them, you must send them an order to leave immediately; if they remain there, you must have them arrested, and then allow the procedure to be conducted, and confiscation and sale by the Sovereign Council in ordinary form. »
January 14, 1717: the capture of the ship
In view of the conversations heard, the governor and the intendant were therefore organizing themselves to mobilize the rowboat and canoe of King La Valeur‘s frigate « to go and observe if there were not some English boat anchored at the coast ». At ten o’clock in the evening on the night of 13 to 14 January, the two small armed boats left to examine what was happening in Fort-de-France Bay, in the presence of Donnery, lieutenant of the ship at the head of a few soldiers.
The rumours that are being spread were not just rumours. « These gentlemen found between midnight and one o’clock, near a small island which is a mile from the good anchorage of this bay [of Fort-de-France] to starboard as they entered it, which is called the Isle aux ramiers in its real name; but as smuggling is familiar, the people of the region commonly call it Petite Barbade [little Barbados]. » The man continues his report: there was « a boat anchored from where they cried out in bad French, hola hola who is going there, who is going there. Mr. de Donnery still making his way on it, replied, goes fishing and in the moment was approached. » Donnery was suspicious; he did not know whether he was dealing with merchants or pirates; because 2 forban ships were reported scouring the surrounding seas at the same time. But he finally took control of the boat without much difficulty.
Product flow between the West Indies and the New World
The captured boat was called Le Chrestien. It was a merchant ship, whose crew consisted of 6 sailors, a kind of counter-master, and a passenger who was to be carried to Barbados (the real one, the big one this time). The latter was the only one injured in the capture of the ship. He received « a sword blow on his hat, which caused him a very slight cut from which he will be perfectly healed in five or six days ».
There are also in the ship:
*7 buccaneer rifles with a little powder and bullets,
*A ballast forward and backward in the hold bottom of « the value of two good firewood chaloupées made in Ste Alozie », the middle close to receiving a load,
*Food: 5 loaves of bread weighing 3 to 4 pounds, half a barrel of flour, a small barrel of spirit and nothing more,
*2 chests on which seals have been affixed without being opened.
You may be wondering, perhaps like me, where « St. Alozie » is: it is St. Lucia Island. Wood from Saint Lucia, a passenger to be dropped off in Barbados, contraband in the bay of Fort-de-France… Traffic in the Lesser Antilles was well established between the English and French, despite the bans. But what is interesting is that a second letter dated 24 February 1717 reveals that trade was in fact well beyond the Lesser Antilles alone. The Governor thus discovered that the exchanges were taking place « from nouvelle york (New York) to the French islands and other places belonging to the English ». The whole Caribbean and the American coast were concerned.
Finally, the confiscated boat was sold for 5500 livres and the trade in flour, some English horses and boards discovered later on was estimated at 7 or 8000 livres.
Inhabitants and the underhanded trade
At the time of the Chrestien‘s capture, its captain was not on board that he jumped into the water or that he had already been on land before. That is why the governor specified that he and the intendant would « carefully examine which inhabitant could be the one who took it away », understand who hid it. This was the difficulty for the colonial administration. The inhabitants did not support the principle of Exclusivity, which was not at all advantageous for them. Especially in time of war, the difficulties of maritime traffic often prevented the supply of flour, meat, candles and other everyday products that cannot be manufactured locally. It was also in 1717 that the episode of Gaoulé took place, a revolt by the inhabitants against trade measures, among other things.
At the time of the Chrestien‘s capture, at least 2 people were pinned. The interrogation of the crew mainly implicated « a resident of this city, an Irish national named Martin Bermingham, who has been living in the city of Fort Royal for two years ». The man had tried unsuccessfully to save the situation by claiming the boat. But considered as a bad subject and a stranger, he ended up in prison.
Among those involved is also a certain Duprey. In this second case, the governor seems to apologize as much as possible for the involvement of this settler, « in charge of a large family that he raises very well ». However, Duprey, although presented as a respectable person, was « employed for a small sum on papers that were in the said ship the Chrestian, Mr. the Intendant and I brought him to Fort Royal to give him the mercurial he deserved ». Hear that he was given a hard time and sentenced to pay the sum of 1000 livres as punishment for a « reputation » that was not good.
From smuggling to building the military fort.
Smuggling was a recurring phenomenon in the Caribbean Sea. In 1717, at least two other cases of the same kind were reported for the Ilet-à-Ramiers alone! Charles Mesnier, Controller of the French Navy, testifies in a letter dated July 3 of another boat, containing 50 barrels and 30 barrels of raw sugar, 35 bags of cocoa. It also refers to the same illegal trade that also takes place in Guadeloupe.
In October 1717, the boat Anne Marie was confiscated. While it had obtained to anchor (and not to trade!) 24 hours in the bay, it remained there from October 23 to 26. In the inventory, there is a lack of « 2 barrels of flour and 3/4 of boeure (butter?) of the number contained », probably already smuggled before the boat was taken. The boat was confiscated as well as « the nigger Caesar » for auction. Dobbins, Barron and the other crew members were sentenced to 6 months in prison in accordance with a regulation dated 20 August 1698. Jean Mariette, a cabaret owner, was sentenced to 100 livres in fines for sending a canoe to meet the boat. In his report, Charles Mesnier castigates the protagonists who came to anchor near the islet « for and in order to facilitate trade with the inhabitants of this district and not for having been forced to do so by forbans as they stated in their interrogations ».
As early as January, the Governor of Martinique was finishing his letter on the need to bring a frigate and a boat to fight against illegal trade. Malherbe, Artillery Commissioner, indirectly suggested a solution to this problem in June. In a memorandum on the « reasons for the request for forty guns and three mortars… », he proposed to build on the islet in Ramiers « a battery of large guns with a powder store, a water tank and a guard unit to house a detachment of 30 soldiers to be relieved every month ». In addition to the defensive interest of the bay, Malherbe pointed out that « foreigners usually anchor downwind of this islet where they are covered by the Fort Royal gun and by this means quietly and safely do strange trade, which would no longer happen if this battery were built ». Elementary, my dear Watson!
But the development of the battery came late and it was only from 1746 that a more ambitious project of the fort itself took shape. Smuggling to the islet in Ramiers therefore still had a bright future. In 1720, Mirabeau-Desmarais, a staff assistant at Fort Royal, made yet another statement about the capture of an English interloper on Île-à-Ramiers. And how many were not taken?
And you, did you know the nickname of the îlet-à-Ramier? Have you heard of other known smuggling sites in the Caribbean?
French Archives of Anom
*Romain, JB Pr., Plan de l’isle Martinique, l’une des isles Antilles…, 1734,
*La Varenne (Antoine d’Arcy de), lettre du 15 janvier 1717, FR ANOM COL C8A 22 F° 25
*La Varenne (Antoine d’Arcy de), lettre du 21 février 1717, FR ANOM COL C8A 22 F° 39
*Mesnier (Charles), lettre du 25 juillet 1717, FR ANOM COL C8A 22 F° 355
*Raisons de la demande faite de quarante canons et trois mortiers mentionnés en sept articles du mémoire ci-joint par Malherbe (16 juin 1717), FR ANOM COL C8A 23 F° 250.
*Extrait du jugement rendu par le sieur Mesnier au sujet de la barque anglaise l’Anne-Marie, de la Barbade, arrêtée à l’îlet à Ramiers par la frégate la Valeur (20 novembre 1717), FR ANOM COL C8A 22 F° 411
*Déclaration faite par le sieur Mirabeau-Desmarais, aide-major au Fort-Royal sur la capture d’un interlope anglais à l’Îlet à Ramiers et le combat livré à un autre Anglais à l’Anse du Figuier (août 1720), FR ANOM COL C8A 27 F° 193
Other French document
*On « Sainte-Alouzie » other name for Sainte-Lucia.