Tour Of The Caribbean – The Morne Fortune

A WINDING road ascends from Castries to the summit of the Morne Fortune. It is a road made gracious by many trees, by cocoanut palms, by a dell or a thicket here and there, and by glimpses of the sea. All who mount this steep way will find that, step by step, they are carried back into the past. It is a Via Dolorosa, a road of ghosts, a place more full of memories of a kind than are the heights by the Alma or the Ridge at Delhi.

How many hundreds of men, French and English, have climbed this hillside with such ardour and breathless determination and with such fervent light in their eyes that one would suppose they thought to find at the top some beatific vision ! If the wealth of the world had been there they could not have stormed the slope with more passionate eagerness. Yet there was nothing on the height but a mast from which hung a faded flag.

The summit of the Morne is flat and of wide extent. There are still many old trees standing against whose trunks soldiers, French and British, must have leaned while they smoked rare pipes and talked of the time when they would be home again, and of “cakes and ale.” No traces are now left of the English cottages, of the green clipped hedges and smooth grass plats, about which Breen wrote some sixty years ago.’ So far as I am aware the famous ” iron barracks ” are now no more. These buildings were fearfully and wonderfully made in the year 1827, and were designed to resist hurricanes. To what extent they succeeded in defying the elements the records are silent. I can only find an account of extensive damage done to them by the earthquake of 1839.

The Morne is now very largely occupied by immense barracks and storehouses of quite recent construction. They belong to that class of ” Government building” in which the struggle to attain to primeval plainness and a surpassing monotony has been crowned with success. Defiant in their unblushing ugliness they remain as a monument of the time when the British Government determined to establish a naval and military station at St. Lucia. The huge brick structures which crowd both the Morne and La Vigie were promptly put in hand and were erected at a cost stated to be not less than two million pounds sterling. The precious buildings have never been occupied, nor indeed were they ever quite completed, for the Government, having expended the sum above named, changed its mind and decided, in its wisdom, that St. Lucia was not to be a military station at all. So the mighty pieces of ordnance sent out to further adorn the hill were at infinite cost and labour carried back again. The proceeding seems to have been inspired by an attempt to imitate that Duke of York who is credited in song with having marched a body of men to the top of a hill for the simple pleasure of seeing them march down again.

Still, however, on the Morne are a few venerable buildings which belong to the old fighting days. Here, for example, is an ancient magazine constructed stoutly of stone, once white it may be, but now black with age. Its roof is covered with weeds, its walls and its ponderous buttresses with moss and ferns. It squats there like an old veteran of many wars, wrinkled, scarred and shaky with the weight of years. If its stones could speak they would be very garrulous no doubt, as is the habit of the senile, and would mutter of bygone days as well in French as in English. Probably the British were the first to use the magazine, yet it must have been a French soldier who rushed through the door for a last armful of ammunition. Here, too, is the old well with its memories of blazing heat and thirsty men. There is a cannon with the date 1818, but it would have arrived long after all the fighting was over.

By far the most interesting object on the summit of the Morne Fortune is the ancient fort which commands its south-eastern face. This is the side immediately opposite to Morne Duchazeau. There can be little doubt but that it is the identical ” fleche ” which played so conspicuous a part in Abercromby’s attack upon the hill. The details of the venture are as follows : Sir Ralph Abercromby landed in Anse du Choc with 12,000 men on April 26, 1796. With him was that Sir John Moore who thirteen years after was shot dead at Corunna at the moment of victory. At Corunna he was buried amidst surroundings which are made familiar by Wolfe’s famous poem ” The Burial of Sir John Moore.” His portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows a clean-shaven man with a face so good-humoured and hearty that he seems as if he must break into laughter. Moore first of all took Morne Chabot and then Morne Duchazeau—two out of the three hills which surround Castries. This he effected with the loss of only seventy men. Morne Duchazeau is the saddle-topped hill already described (page 113). It is 890 feet high, is steep and well-covered with trees and bushes. It commands the Morne Fortune which has an altitude of only 845 feet.

Batteries were constructed on the summit of Duchazeau and then with fearful toil guns were dragged up the mountain side to the emplacements. It must have been a labour of Hercules Imagine the hauling, pulling and pushing, the skyward-pointing guns, the creaking ropes that swung them from bending tree trunks, the shower of stones when the carriage skidded, the red-faced perspiring men in clammy shirts, the shouts and the oaths, and around all the atmosphere of steam and flies ! It was a slow business as well as a hot one, but at daybreak on May 24 Duchazeau opened fire on the Morne Fortune. The guns did well. In due course Moore at the head of the 27th Regiment ” stormed a fleche’ which formed the principal outwork of the Morne Fortune towards the East.” 1 He captured it and held it against two desperate attempts of the enemy to retake the position. By sundown the hill was practically in the hands of the English, and on the following morning the garrison of 2000 men laid down their arms. The 27th lost in this strenuous attack eight officers and eighty men.

The old fort or fleche stands alone at the very edge of the hill, immediately facing Morne Duchazeau. In the col between the two heights is a connecting ridge along which Moore came at the head of the 27th Regiment. The fort is well built of stone, but is now so overgrown with grass and bushes that only in a few places can the masonry be seen. The works are in two tiers with a ravelin on one side. It must have been a desperate place to have reached, as any may judge who will descend to the foot of the slope and then climb up to the fleche again.

This quiet, gentle, green mound and ditch are grandly placed, and even now it needs no imagination to tell that he who led the assault upon such an eagle’s aerie must have had a stout heart. It is, to-day, an utter solitude, hushed in eternal silence. Probably the last stirring sound that echoed round its walls was on that very day in May when, at sundown, the dirt-stained bugler of the 27th Regiment blew the call ” Cease firing.”

The view from the summit of the Morne Fortune is a delight to the eye. Inland is a superb country of steep, soft hills, of black ravines and of valleys that lead far away into bays of purple mist. Directly below, over the tree tops, are the roofs of Castries and the blue harbour. Beyond is the spit of land, La Vigie, lying on the sea as a model in clay would lie on a sheet of violet glass. Then comes a stretch of sea coast so enchanting that it might be the shore of a happier world. It ends in the famous bay of Gros Islet where Rodney anchored his fleet before the great fight of April 12, 1782.

In the far haze is Pigeon Island, a pale, conical rock standing out of the sea. This is the little island that Rodney fortified to the great discomfort of the French, as well as the perch from which he watched, with such good effect, the movements of the enemy. Yet it is a place only three-quarters of a mile long and much less than that in width. It once had barracks for six officers and one hundred men, or for as many of the hundred as had survived death from yellow fever.

A little way down the side of the Morne Fortune is the officers’ cemetery. The road leading to it, which was once so well worn, is now overgrown with grass. Round about the cluster of graves is a thicket of sand-box trees, while beyond the trees is a home-suggesting stretch of open sea. This ever silent gathering place of the British is the most beautiful spot on the side of the hill. A number of the graves are blackened with age. Some are of stone, others of weather-worn brick. Most of them tell the same story—the roll-call of the Yellow Death, the major of this regiment or the lieutenant of that, and so many of them mere lads.

The loss of life among the British troops in the West Indies and notably in St. Lucia, was in those days appalling. The majority of the deaths was due to yellow fever. After Sir Ralph Abercromby’s attack on the Morne in 1796 Sir John Moore was left in command of the island with a garrison of 4000 men. This was in June. When November came the force had been reduced by yellow fever to 1000 fit for duty and 1500 sick. When the English were compelled to leave St. Lucia in 1795 among the total force of 1400 there were no less than 600 sick, nearly one-half, while on the very day of embarkation one officer and seven men died.

The whole campaign, lasting from 1793 to 1796, resulted in ” the total of 80,000 soldiers lost to the service, including 40,000 actually dead ; the latter number exceeding the total losses of Wellington’s army from death, discharges, desertion and all causes from the beginning to the end of the Peninsular War.”

It was during the year 1794 that the mortality was the highest. Men were dying in numbers every day, in Guadaloupe at the rate of 300 a month. Of General Grey’s original force of 7000 men at least 5000 perished in the course of this one year.’ Taking the army, navy and transport together, writes Fortescue, ” it is probably beneath the mark to say that 12,000 Englishmen were buried in the West Indies in 1794.”

The soldiers were badly housed and badly fed. Many were in rags. There was a lack of clothing, especially of boots ; a lack, not only of comforts, but of the simple necessaries of life. The Home Government remained unmoved and unmovable. Either from indifference or incompetence the Secretary of State did nothing. Grey wrote letter after letter, but without avail. At last he sends home a message with this pitiable sentence, ” You seem to have forgotten us.”

In 1780 four newly raised regiments were ordered to Jamaica. They stopped on their way at St. Lucia, where they contracted yellow fever. By the- time the transports reached Kingston Harbour they had lost 168 men by death, and had 780 on the sick list. During the course of the first five months, after the survivors had been stationed at Jamaica, 1100 more had died of the fever and of other diseases. It was then that Dalling, the Governor, ventured . to place the matter before the Secretary of State in a way that he thought would appeal to his intelligence. He writes as follows : ” Considered only as an article of commerce these 1100 men have cost 22,000£., a sum which, if laid out above ground, might have saved half their lives.”

It is, and always will be, a gruesome and discreditable story. If ever, on some silent tropical night, there should be heard again on the Morne Fortune the tramp of the sentry by the barrack wall and the challenge of the guard at the outpost, and if ever the stir of human life should waken among these blackened graves, the voice that would call from the summit of the hill would utter those reproachful words, ” You seem to have forgotten us.”