Our Readers' Opinions
May 28, 2010
The Argyle chronicles 1

By Dr Arnold Thomas Fri, May 28, 2010

This is a slightly edited version of a presentation made at UWI Centre for Continuing Studies, 30 May, 2006. This article is dedicated to Daphne Deane-deShong – descendant of an Argyle Indian – who died tragically on 5 April, 2010, at Mt. Pleasant Beach.

In 2007, the Parliament of St. Vincent and the Grenadines officially designated 1 June as Indian Arrival Day (IAD) and 7 October as Indian Heritage Day. The publication of this article, therefore, coincides with the celebration of the 149th Anniversary of the arrival of Indians to these shores, and the third year that IAD will be officially celebrated under the auspices of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Indian Heritage Foundation (SVGIHF).{{more}} The celebration takes place on 1 June, 2010, at the Peace Memorial Hall in Kingstown.

On a personal note, I began my research into the history of East Indians in St. Vincent in 1992 and spent the next six years trawling the public records, archives and university libraries in the UK, and, of course, several field trips to St. Vincent to reconstruct the history of Indians in SVG. The research was an exciting journey, which revealed many exciting moments, and sometimes not so happy ones in the journey of Indians from Madras and Calcutta to Calder and other villages, with the long stopover at Argyle.

The historical context

Not many people are aware of the prominent role Argyle has played in the economic, social and demographic history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a history that stretches back to the struggle for possession of the island from the Caribs for well over a century, then between the French and British which was finally settled in 1763, and its subsequent development as a premier sugar estate and home to the largest community of East Indians for three quarters of a century.

The Caribs

Chapter I of the Argyle Chronicles must, of course, begin with the Caribs: how do we know that Argyle was once a large Carib Settlement? First, there is the historical record that following the carve-up of the island in 1768, large tracts of land remained in Carib possession in what later became the Parish of St. George. And for ousting the French, General Monckton was said to have received 4000 acres stretching down the windward side to the Yambou River, where a military post was established. The names Ribishi, Guanaree and Coubaimarou have long been forgotten, but Coubaimarou is what we know today as the river/stream from Pumset/Chile Dam to Stubbs Bay, and Guanaree was the name of river fed by Mahoe stream, Jack Gutter and Jonjo, all of which fed the Argyle Dam on the way to the Yambou River. These were the rivers that demarcated pockets of Black Carib lands stretching from Diamond to Stubbs, Pumset, Calder and Argyle from Calder Ridge to the Yambou River.

By the 1760s there were over 1000 French settlers on the island growing coffee, cocoa and tobacco in places such as Argyle with the help of African slaves. On the other hand, the British were more interested in growing sugar cane, but the allotment to the Black Caribs in these parts created an obstacle to road building along the windward side, although the demarcation did not prevent the settlers from encroaching on Carib lands. We hear a lot about the Marriaqua Caribs, but these might have included the Argyle Caribs pushed up from the Yambou River by the encroaching settlers, and as we know from the historical records the Marriaqua Caribs were at the forefront of the struggle against the white settlers that culminated in the first Carib War of 1772.

A second evidence is, of course, the petroglyphs or stone carvings on the banks of the Yambou River close to Argyle. Another piece of evidence came to light when a cache of Carib pottery and other artefacts were unearthed while someone was excavating the foundation for his house in Argyle. Recently, a most significant archaeological find was the discovery of a Carib burial site at Escape near to the shoreline on the eastern bank of the Yambou River. Both findings are significant because they confirm that Argyle/Escape was home to Caribs before their ethnic cleansing and the retreat of survivors to areas further up the Yambou River and to the surrounding hills.

In October 1996, the Times Newspaper of London published an obituary on the death of Prince Guy de Polignac, the eldest of three sons and two daughters of Prince Henri de Polignac and former manager of the champagne house Pommery and Greno. Among other things, his obituary stated that the de Polignacs are an old French family established since 1205. Jules Francois-Armand who died in 1817 had established three lines of the family through his sons, of which the ducal line has died out.

In my research I found that Argyle Estate was once owned by the Prince and Princess de Polignac and this is the story I tried to piece together to make the connection between Argyle and the French Royal Court. Although the French were kicked out under the Treaty of Versailles in 1763 they still continued dealings with the Caribs, even settling among them in the north windward area. The French again invaded and captured the island in 1779 which they occupied until 1783, and during the French occupation we are informed that one Mrs Martha Swinburne, a ‘lady of honour’ at the French Royal Court received a grant of over 20,000 acres of Crown Lands. Later when the British regained control, the Imperial Government had to pay some 6000 pounds to redeem the rights to the land. It seems likely that Argyle estate remained part of the Swinburne legacy which was passed on to the de Polignacs. Argyle remained under this French Royal ownership until it was sold by the Encumbered Estates Court in the 1860s, then again in 1883.

In 1884 the Commissioners of the West Indian Encumbered Estates Court again ordered the sale of Argyle Estate which was then the property of Charles James Simmons. When the estate was put up for sale it was stated that there was a mortgage of 6750 pounds in favour of Jules Armand Jean Melchoir Duc de Polignac and Princess Polignac of No.10 Place de la Concorde in Paris and Campbell MacDonald living in Chalet Spa in Belgium. Duncan Campbell and his wife were listed as trustees of Argyle who had borrowed on behalf of the Prince and Princess de Polignac.

Continued next week

Dr Arnold Thomas is a former diplomat at OECS Embassy/Mission in Brussels.