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Commentary: Chronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler: Bountiful Benefits of Jean Baptiste Bideau's Bolivarian Bicentenary
Published on April 13, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

During his state visit to Saint Lucia in December 2015, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro paid homage to Saint Lucia’s Jean Baptiste Bideau at the special park in his name in Castries; and the two countries agreed to jointly observe the bicentenary of the death of the indefatigable fighter for Venezuelan Independence in 2017. (Photo: Nohelia Fernandez)

By Earl Bousquet

Originally writing this column on the actual date of the bicentenary of the death of Saint Lucia-born Hero of Venezuela’s Independence Jean Baptiste Bideau, my mind raced back down Memory Lane to 2015, when I visited the place his bones remained buried where he died in battle for Venezuela after all of 199 years.

I was among a group of journalists from the OECS who visited Venezuela for two days to better understand the workings of the PetroCaribe and ALBA agreements to which all OECS member states (and nearly all CARICOM nations) belong.

The ruins of Casa Fuerte (The Strong House) have remained standing in Venezuela’s Barcelona City for 200 years, just as it was left after the April 7, 1817, battle in which Saint Lucia-born master mariner Jean Baptiste Bideau died fighting to preserve and defend Venezuela’s Independence. (Photo: Earl Bousquet)
A visit to Casa Fuerte (The Strong House) in Venezuela’s Barcelona region was on the cards and there I took the opportunity to learn all I could about how Bideau is regarded in the country he gave his life for.

The Saint Lucian combatant was among many soldiers and civilians, including nuns and children, who died during the final battle for the defence of Venezuela from the Spanish colonial invaders -- and the place has been left the same since that battle two centuries ago this month. No marked graves, just well informed guides with answers to all questions.

My interest in Bideau had already been considerable since reading Paul Verna’s essay published in The Voice in 1983 to celebrate the bicentenary of Simon Bolivar’s birth.

Myself from a family of Saint Lucian mariners, I was also attracted by the fact that he was a seafarer and a shipwright who built his own boats. I was even more proud that this Micoud-born sailor had also built ships for and sailed with Venezuelan Latin American Independence Hero Simon Bolivar in his many voyages of conquest for liberation. Bideau also saved Bolivar’s life in battle and captained his naval flagship, later to become the Governor of Venezuela’s east coast.

Verna writes in Jean Baptiste Bideau – An Unknown Saint Lucia Hero:

"(He) was a free mulatto, born in Saint Lucia. He was an experienced sailor who defended the Venezuelan eastern coast together with Santiago Marino. He saved The Liberator’s (Bolivar’s) life in Ocumare de la Costa and liberated the slaves in Guiria. His spirit of Freedom and equality make him lead the expedition of Chacachacare in the Gulf of Paria and he conquered and controlled the city of Guiria, where he became afterwards the highest acting authority. He accompanied the Liberator in the expeditions to Los Cayos and Jacmel in Haiti, which made an incursion into Venezuela with the purpose of reclaiming the Republic. He was promoted to Colonel for his service to the cause of Independence."

The entrance to the original sacred burial place of Jean Baptiste Bideau is guarded with military honor, even though the Saint Lucia-born sailor, fighter and Governor’s remains were exhumed and relocated in 2016 to Venezuela’s National Heroes circle alongside that of Simon Bolivar and other Heroes of Venezuelan Independence, ahead of the Bicentenary of his death. (Photo: Earl Bousquet)
Interestingly, like Bideau, Verna wasn’t born in Venezuela, but in Haiti (in 1927) and wrote several texts about Venezuelan and Haitian history. Like Bideau too, he made Venezuela his home, where the writer dedicated his life to teaching and historical research.

Three-and-a-half decades after Verna’s eye-opening essay on Bideau in The Voice, another Bideau publication has been produced, this time The Story of Jean Baptiste Bideau by Saint Lucian author Dawn French.

The French Bideau book was launched on April 5, alongside a re-published edition of Verna’s essay (in English and Spanish and a special cover with his best known portrait), as part of several public activities organized here by the Venezuelan Embassy to observe the Bideau Bicentenary. A week earlier, historian Gregor Williams delivered a revealing lecture at Alliance Francaise; and to mark the actual bicentenary on April 7 – a wreath-lying ceremony, attended by the governor general, was also held at Place Bideau (Bideau Park) in Castries, where Bideau’s statue stands astride that of Bolivar, his comrade-at-arms.

Publication of Verna’s and French’s books last week and dedication of a park in Castries in Bideau’s name over three decades ago are first steps in Saint Lucia’s centuries-overdue posthumous discovery of a great son of Micoud soil who helped liberate several South American states; and whose voyages in battle brought him to ride every wind and wave in the wider Caribbean Sea.

Bideau is naturally better known and more appreciated in Venezuela, where his history and contribution are carved in stone. Public places, schools and streets have been named after him and in 2016, a year before the bicentenary of his death, his bones were exhumed and relocated to Venezuela’s national heroes circle, alongside that of Bolivar and other Heroes of Venezuela’s Independence.

The Venezuelan government has always wished that the full Bideau story be as well-known in his place of birth and the current ambassador of the Bolivarian Republic, Leiff Escalona, has done everything possible to fulfil that desire. The embassy, under her direction, has reached out to and embraced the Bideau family and often visited with the descendants of that great Saint Lucian internationalist fighter for the liberation of Venezuela.

I have also visited the part of Desruisseaux in Micoud where Bideau lived, where remains from his time are still visible. I have met many of his surviving relatives, who are as unknown to his history as most Saint Lucians.

Gregor Williams recently put the question of recognition of Bideau as a National Hero of Saint Lucia to the public, pointing out that the Order governing selection includes consideration of Saint Lucians whose contributions were made abroad. In my book and by my yardstick, Bideau immediately qualifies. It will do well to research his entire history, including his time in Saint Lucia before leaving for Trinidad and Tobago. But even without that as yet, the man qualifies as a Saint Lucian who also contributed significantly to the anti-colonial resistance of Caribbean and South American fighters against imposed European colonialism -- Spanish, French or British.

One hundred years ago (1917) this marbled stone homage was placed at Casa Fuerte in honor and memory of the soldiers, young people, mothers, children and grand-parents who died in the fratricidal holocaust of April 7, 1817. (Photo: Earl Bousquet)

As Saint Lucia reviews its ties with Venezuela, it is hoped that sharing Bideau’s stifled history and contribution to Caribbean and South American history will get a prominent position on the government’s checklist for Caracas.

We have benefited significantly from PetroCaribe and ALBA, without owing a single cent to either: ongoing assistance and training for the Saint Lucia School of Music, participation in the annual Jazz and Arts Festival, three brand new bridges (in Dennery and Vieux Fort) and renovation of the Sans Soucis Bridge in Castries, scores of university scholarships for Saint Lucian students, hundreds of direct areas of contribution, thousands of laptop computers for students, millions of dollars for the National Initiative to Create Employment (NICE) – and so much more.

Earl Bousquet is Editor-at-Large of The Diplomatic Courier and author of the regional newspaper column entitled Chronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler
From 2000 to 2017, from Hugo Chavez through to Maduro, Saint Lucia has only benefitted, never lost, from its ties with Venezuela and its relationships with PetroCaribe and ALBA. Saint Lucians will also continue to support Venezuela, as did the thousands who signed petitions in its defence as part of an international solidarity campaign two years ago. It is now for the Saint Lucian government to do likewise and step up to the plate honorably, if only in memory of Bideau and his universal and everlasting bond with Bolivar.

For all that Saint Lucia has benefited, it hasn’t signed-up to the PetroCaribe and ALBA agreements and that much was discussed when the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez visited the March 7 for the Bideau Bicentenary. She also met with Prime Minister Allen Chastanet and vibes from the meeting was said be leaning in the direction of Saint Lucia finally signing-up to the regional accords it has been benefiting from free of charge or cost. Saint Lucia was also invited to this week’s 2017 ALBA Summit in Cuba.

When Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro visited Saint Lucia in December 2015, the two governments agreed to jointly commemorate Bideau’s bicentenary in both countries. The Venezuelans have done their part there and here. Saint Lucia’s indications it will stay with PetroCaribe and ALBA are positive moves at the start of the Bideau Bicentenary observance here. It will do well, during what is left of the Bicentennial Year, for Saint Lucia to play a bigger part in bringing home more of the bountiful benefits of the Bideau Bicentenary.

That much Saint Lucia owes to its own Jean Baptiste Bideau!
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