I love Guadeloupe—each time I visit I discover a new source of wonder and delight. On our recent return to Venezuela we made our customary stop, anchoring in Isle de Saintes where we usually do because of its accessibility and charm. Although I have made a dozen visits to this island, I had never visited Fort Napoleon and the gardens housed there. The fort, which has five magazines and sits atop Isle de Sainte’s highest hill, is prominently figured on the island’s coat of arms along with an iguana, many of which are seen scurrying up the ramparts to the buildings themselves.
Fort Napoleon was built over a century ago by the French and is considered a historical oddity because it was built for purposes of war; however no one has ever fired a shot either “at it or from it”. Still, it has been in full use since its erection for a number of communal and island events—just never for a war. There were famous l7th and l8th century battles involving Les Saintes, and there are mementos on exhibit as to that fact, but the fort’s museum collection of 250 modern paintings contains not a single one with a military theme. Of course, in my opinion, knowing that soldiers were not held here, or tortured by the various means used in those days, made the surrounding vibes much more pleasant and exacted happy visits from the many tourists and school children who were there the day I visited.
In a taxi to the fort, I passed dozens of trudging, uniformed school children along the way. Approximately 18 years ago, different volunteer groups started restoring the fort so that it is now well attended, manned, although in constant repair, and is a wonderful point of interest. I had been told that it was only open from nine a.m. to noon so I was there bright and early, loaded with cameras and gear.
The views, from almost any point of the fort itself, are a photographer’s dream. Flowering cactus gardens surrounding the fort, among the most exotic and best maintained in all of the Caribbean, are located within the five magazines with a printed guide available in English. Directly across the bay, at the top of Islet a Cabrit, sit the ruins of another French fort, those of Fort Josephine, named for Napoleon’s first wife who was born l20 miles south on the French island of Martinique.
By terms of the Treaty of Amiens of 1800, Great Britain returned ownership of the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe to the French. Napoleon I (Bonaparte) had just declared himself Emperor and it meant a great deal to him, and to his armies, that he once again had a viable force in the Caribbean.
Throughout the museum section of the fort there are pictures, maps and drawings, as well as historical articles attesting to the history of the period. My only complaint was that the tours, quite naturally, were in French so I was not able to take advantage of them or engage in personal conversation with the volunteer workers. However, the huge tabletop model of the fort was most interesting. Hopefully, as more and more cruisers visit this area, English will be offered as a guide choice. I suggested having a taped tour in English, just as they do in major art museums worldwide.
We love Isle de Saintes and through our numerous visits now have many friends there. It is a wonderful island with warm hospitality and I suggest a visit to both the island—and to Fort Napoleon—when you are in the area.
Nancy Terrell is a freelance writer who has lived in the Caribbean for 22 years. She holds an MA Degree in Literature and is currently cruising on her trawler, Swan Song, throughout the Caribbean.