St Lucia: Rising from the Ashes

Built on reclaimed land and tucked away in the north west of a tropical Caribbean island, Castries is the capital and largest city of St Lucia. It lies on a flood plain but on 19 June 1948 was devastating by a fire that destroyed more than 75% of the city and led to a reconstruction that is commemorated in one of the most striking stamp designs of the era featuring a phoenix, the mythical bird symbolising immortality, resurrection and life after death.

The original conurbation was founded in 1650 by a group of Frenchmen led by De Roussillon after the island had been purchased from the French West India Company. The site, then known as Carénage, was the location of a fort located at the north side of a natural harbour. In 1969, the capital was moved to the south side of the harbour and in 1785, was renamed Castries after the Marquis de Castries, the French Minister of the Navy and Colonies. Later, the British built the western wharf to support trade and today, Castries is noted as a port-of-call for cruise ships that dock at Pointe Seraphine to the north of the harbour.

Photograph of view over Castries, capital and largest city of St Lucia
View over Castries, capital and largest city of St Lucia

However, on 19 June 1948, a fire started in the north east of the city with the first alarm sounding shortly after 8:00 p.m. By 8:30 p.m. the blaze had spread to as many as six buildings but was now out of control and continued to spread for a full 10 hours, fuelled by changing winds that made fire fighting a challenge. The main fire initially spread westward until it reached the city docks where it then headed southward towards Columbus Square (now known as Derek Walcott Square after the Nobel laureate) where it was halted by the efforts of fire fighters drawing water from the River Castries.

Whilst a large proportion of the city had been devoured by the fire, thankfully there were no reported fatalities. Much of the city had been of timber construction and, as the featured image suggests, all that was left of large parts of the city was the outline of the streets and the foundational stone outline of the buildings. Many of the local population lost everything – houses, furniture and personal treasures. Military buildings on the island provided shelter for the homeless and much generosity was forthcoming from local West Indian islands, marines from H.M.S. Sparrow, Red Cross, Scouts and Guides.

After the event, there was much debate about unsatisfactory water supply into the city and inadequate fire-fighting material. The Government and Castries Town Board came under severe criticism after suggesting that constraints were a result of ongoing war restrictions – particularly given the close proximity to the sea on two sides of the city and a river on a third. At the time, the cost of the fire was estimated to be of the order of £2m. The majority of the city was rebuilt including a new sewerage system, government buildings and the main Post Office which is now sited on Bridge Street.

St Lucia 1951 12c stamp commemorating the reconstruction of the capital, Castries, after a devastating fire
1951 12c issue commemorating the reconstruction of Castries

The reconstruction of Castries was commemorated in a stamp issue of 19 June 1951, exactly three years to the day after the fire. The stamp features an outline of the burning city with a white phoenix rising from the flames. The single stamp issue printed in blue and carmine on paper watermarked Multiple Script CA and perforated 13½ x 13, is denominated 12c and features the emblem of George VI in the top left.

To view postal issues of the St Lucia, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by nigelmandsphilatelycom

Nigel Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 30 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the Caribbean including associated British Commonwealth countries (incl. Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Monserrat, St Lucia, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos) as well as Cuba, Danish West Indies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles and Puerto Rico.

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