History of Bagatelle

Bagatelle is a village on the southeastern coast of Dominica. The community actually consists of four main hamlets namely, Bagatelle, Fond St. Jean, Point Carib and Fab. The present village first started as a Kalinago settlement, then was a plantation growing coffee, sugar cane, and later, limes. Bagatelle was named by its French owners after a park and chateau north of Paris. However, before the French came to Dominica it was called Malabuca by the indigenous people.

Malabuca was first inhabited by Amerindian people who came from South America in canoes and settled overlooking the seashore. They fished in the surrounding waters and cultivated manioc and other food crops in the valley and nearby hills. The Kalinago name for Point Carib was Ouycala. They controlled much of the land in the district until about 1715, when increasing numbers of French settlers began to come across the sea channel from the north coast of Martinique.

Gradually the Kalinago people traded their land with these new settlers for tools, cloth and other goods. The indigenous names such as Malabuca and Ouycala were changed to French ones. Many of the families of Bagatelle and Fond St. Jean are descended from the French families mixed with the Kalinago people and with later African arrivals. When the British took over Dominica by the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the land surveyed and subdivided for sale under the direction of Crown Surveyor, John Byres. The district that had been known by the French as "Quartier de Grand Baie" became the Parish of St. Patrick. The main lots of land, lots 22, 23 and 34 on Byres' map, were bought by British owners Laughlan McLanew, William Thomas and John Nelson respectively. As soon as the British took over, the forest was totally stripped of vegetation. Sugar cane was planted, and enslaved Africans were brought in to work the plantation. The original mill was constructed in 1770 and the huge wheel that turned the rollers to crush the canes was powered by water. This canal was still running up to the 1970s. The remains of the boiling house, distillery and steam equipment can still be seen on the site.

In 1791 Bagatelle was part of the "New Year's Day Revolt" in which the slaves of the parish of St. Patrick rose up with the Maroons, the Neg Mawon, in a brief attempt to take over the south of Dominica. In 1827, when the estate was owned by V.J. Jolly, it was worked by 56 slaves who produced 10,400 lbs of sugar and 800 lbs of coffee.

Other owners in later years were St. Rose Munier, H. Ellisonde, G.J. Herbert, C.S. Lockhart, A.S. Hilaire and A.C.S. Shillingford. Bagatelle stopped producing sugar in the 1880s, but it continued to produce rum up to the 1970s. For a time, A.C.S. manufactured 'Bagatelle' and 'Black Sam Rum' from this distillery under special labels.

Fond St. Jean is located in a cove at the end of a steep valley and is a fishing village. The Fond St. Jean Fisheries Co-operative is one of the main suppliers of fresh fish on island.

Fab is a small community situated on a ridge and in a valley east of Fond St. Jean. Possibly it was named from the French 'Fable', as in fairy tale, for the magical quality of this little valley which runs down to its own rocky cove. It was one of the last communities in Dominica to be connected by a motorable road, which was completed in 1999. The main occupation here is bay oil production and fishing.

Retiro is a small estate to the east of Fab. It is set in a narrow valley looking out to the Martinique Channel. It grew sugar and coffee at different times from 2,550 lbs of coffee. In 1861, Retiro was owned by H. Ellisonde and, from 1869 – 1879, it is described as being owned by the "heirs of Herriart". It now grows bay leaf and produces bay oil. Beyond Retiro is Wai-Wai, which in the Kalinago language means "Tall-Tall", indicating the steep and precipitous nature of the land in the area.

In the 20th century, land holding for villagers became more organized. A wooden, one roomed, village school situated at Pointe Carib served the community and in the 1940s, a motorable road reached Bagatelle. But the road stopped there and went no further until 1964. As a result, Bagatelle was an important point for those villagers of Petite Savanne and Delices who had to continue on foot carrying their loads on their heads. During the Second World War, Fond St. Jean was an important landing place for brave young Martiniquais who crossed the channel at night to escape the Vichy regime that the German Nazi regime. These men and women, known as “les dissidents”, landed at Fond St. Jean and were helped by the villagers to get to Roseau. From there hey were sent for training so that they could fight Europe for the Free French, under General Charles de Gualle, against Germany.

In September 1977 disaster struck Bagatelle when days of heavy rains brought down a hillside at the back of the village, sweeping away houses and people killing some thirteen villagers. Two years later, Hurricane David struck and destroyed most of the houses in the community as well as the school and other major buildings. A new concrete school, a Roman Catholic Church and private homes were rebuilt in the years that followed. Down at Fond St. Jean new seas defenses and fisheries buildings were put in place. As the 21st century progresses, Bagatelle looks to its rich heritage and history, as it moves into the new industry of tourism, using its past to secure a place for its future.

By Lennox Honychurch

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