Basse-Terre and Pointe-à-Pitre (1635-1945)
The spatial organization of the towns of Basse-Terre and Pointe-à-Pitre corresponds to the needs of colonial enterprise.
The colonial center of Basse – Terre (17th – 18th centuries). port
Basse-Terre is the oldest town founded by the French in the Guadeloupe archipelago in mid-17th century. It is situated on the Western Coast of the island which name it bears, at the foot of the Soufrière volcano. It has been decided to locate it on hilly ground close to the seashore, between the rivers Galion and the Grass river, because the difficult terrain was likely to discourage land invasion attempts, and because the location was close to timber-rich forests and sweet water rivers. The initial site of Carmel is developed close to fort Saint-Charles, which protects the town and its provisional harbor with several batteries aligned along the seashore. In the 18th century, the town spreads beyond the Grass River towards the Saint-François settlement, built alongside an alluvial lowland, following a rectangle plan the colons adopted in view of setting up a commercial port. The high city of Carmel becomes in this way the colony’s military, religious, and administrative quarter (the place where artillery, hospitals, weapons’ depots and of the seat of government are located) while the low city, with its merchant streets, grows into a port and a commercial quarter.
In the meantime, because of its vulnerability to high winds and cyclonic high tide swells, the provisional harbor of Basse-Terre fails to meet the requisite benchmarks for a commercial port. Besides, the city is positioned too far away from the center of the archipelago, which is why the French decide to lay the foundation of Pointe-à-Pitre, a new city at the center of Guadeloupe, close to the sheltered seaport of Petit Cul-de-sac Marin (after the 1763 Treaty of Paris).
The success of Pointe-à-Pitre in 19th century
Even though Pointe-à-Pitre was established along a mangrove thicket on swamplands, its initial site offered better conditions for ships to anchor than the older harbor of Basse-Terre. The colonial authorities favor the site of Morne Renfermé, a secure, strategic place likely to facilitate commerce. Until mid-19th century, the city is structured on a rectangle plan, cut into orthogonal segments, inlets, and a parade grounds outside the center. The seashore is dedicated to exchange and commercial activities, hence the presence of warehouses, storerooms and high building occupied by merchant families. Military, administrative, and religious installations border the main square, and the belfry alerts visitors to the presence of a church in the proximity.
While the low city of Basse-Terre remained the seat of the colony’s government, Pointe-à-Pitre becomes the center of commercial exchanges and the main port of the colony in the 19th century. The town enters a period of remarkable growth, thanks to the sugar economy on the island of Grande-Terre, later thanks to the Darboussier factories (1867 – 1869). In the interwar years, the port of Pointe-à Pitre takes advantage of the increased traffic made possible by the opening of the Panama canal; at the same time, the banana trade invigorates commercial activities at the port of Basse-Terre too.
The spread of suburbs (1848 – 1945)
From the 1860s to 19393, new inhabitants arrive, attracted by the dynamism of the two main cities of the colony; the newcomers set up residence in the suburbs, which spread around the colonial city without a pre-established plan, on swampy terrains, at the foot of the hills or along the seashore. Their outline differs from the 18th century checkerboard model. At Pointe-à-Poitre, the suburbs follow the contour of roads and urban courtyards, and the habitat breaks down into islets of one or multi-floor wooden cabins. The old ring canal around the city (Canal Vatable), dug towards 1830, subsequently filled up and turned into a throughfare, marks the separation between the colonial center and the suburbs inhabited by the poor segment of the population – people coming most often from the countryside; their numbers grow especially after the 1928 cyclone, which destroyed large parts of the cities of Basse-Terre and Pointe-à-Pitre.
After this catastrophe, at the initiative of Ali Tur, nominated chief architect in Guadeloupe (1929 – 1939) concrete was introduced in the colony. The modern architecture Tur championed served the colonial propaganda during the celebrations of the tri-centennial of Antilles’ annexation to France (1635 – 1935). Only the boards of the colony’s two main ports, and public buildings such as the Governor’s Palace or the Tribunal of Basse-Terre were rebuilt, while nothing was planned for improving the suburbs’ habitat. For this to happen, residents must wait for the Popular Front to come to Power, and hence for the nomination of Felix Eboué to the post of governor of Guadeloupe (1936 – 1938). These changes prompted the first hygienist program of building a worker city in the suburbs of Pointe-à-Pitre; however, with the start of WWII, the project came to an end.
Published in june 2023
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