From our correspondent
Formerly, the Habitation de La Ramée, in the north of Guadeloupe, was a prosperous estate. Sugar cane abounded there, a hundred slaves bustling about. There was a mill, as well as a landing stage from which deliveries were shipped. Of this opulence, only the aqueduct remains, strewn with construction debris. A walker, used to the place, stops, sorry: “To leave it in this state is a nameless contempt.” It is a construction of the XVIIIe century, all the same. “ Same complaints, same reproaches thirty kilometers away, on Grande-Terre, where Fort Louis, classified as a historical monument since 1997, has been abandoned, devoured by vegetation.
“There is so much to rehabilitate here, making an inventory would be impossible”, underlines Jeanine Morentin, delegate of the Heritage Foundation in Guadeloupe. In addition to the historical sites, it only takes a stroll through town to observe countless colonial houses in distress. The facades wear and deteriorate, making city centers ugly: “We let the potential and the history of our communities wither away”, regrets Chantal Hilaire, president of the Hier & Après association, previously SOS Patrimoine Guadeloupe. With laughing eyes, she tells the story of the Basse-Terre of yesteryear, the first large city of the island founded in 1650, where people rushed for a long time to enjoy jazz clubs and cinemas. In the absence of a real enhancement of its heritage, Basse-Terre attracts very few tourists and is turning, according to Chantal Hilaire, into a “Dead city”.
It must be said that, in the West Indies, renovating quickly turns out to be complicated. Indeed, very few local companies work with stone, a very particular know-how; as for importation, it is financially unaffordable.
Sometimes the problem is more rooted in the very history of the overseas territories. “Some would like to remove everything related to slavery, testifies Gérard Lafleur, member of the History Society of Guadeloupe. We willingly destroy and procrastinate rather than restore. “
Last July, a bust of Victor Schœlcher was debunked and stolen in Basse-Terre. Two years earlier, already, in 2018, the tomb of General Richepanse, sent to the island in 1802 to reestablish slavery, was ransacked. It is then inside Fort Delgrès, classified as a historical monument and property of the department. The latter consults historians to know how to handle the case. Gérard Lafleur and his colleagues unanimously agree: “The tomb had to be repaired for educational purposes. We can never build projects for the future by denying the past. “
History and memory remain extremely painful and politicized in Guadeloupe. So much so that it is not uncommon for heritage enhancement projects to be abused and canceled as the majority changes. Sometimes, too, we inaugurate with great fanfare, then we abandon it. On the island of Marie-Galante, for example, the Bézard mill, a historical monument since 1979, was restored to working order by the Compagnons du Duty in the late 1990s. The operation made the headlines, “The wings were turning again”, testifies Gérard Lafleur, almost moved. But, quickly, the places of reception of the public are deserted: the mayor of the time, very involved until the inauguration, did not foresee a maintenance budget. Today, two of the wings of the agricultural mill lie on the ground.
But gradually the minds are changing. The Heritage Loto in particular, launched in 2018 to finance Stéphane Bern’s mission “Heritage in danger”, highlighted the importance of renovating and preserving buildings. In Guadeloupe, the first flagship project of the Bern mission was the restoration of the bell tower of Notre-Dame de Bon-Port, in Petit-Bourg. The inhabitants contributed € 16,000 and the bells are ringing again. “Guadeloupeans are beginning to appropriate their heritage, to feel responsible for it”, rejoices Jeanine Morentin. If the awareness is “Too late to save everything”, the delegate of the Heritage Foundation has high hopes for the future. Three other renovation projects have already been selected by the Bern mission, while applications for the year 2021, closed on December 15, have poured in.