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The Battle for Bellaforma


Anna Walcott-Hardy

October 22, 2020

Tobago has long been a place of inspiration to many, from artists to botanists and nature lovers. If cinematic views are what you crave or a Disney-like adventure into an undiscovered world, look no further. This stunningly scenic isle is said to have been an inspiration for Daniel Defoe when he wrote the classic novel, Robinson Crusoe, and the popular film from the 1960s, Swiss Family Robinson, was filmed entirely on location, and the monumental Samaan tree house still stands today in Goodwood.  

Named after the tobacco crop planted by the Amerindians and the Spanish colonials, the island boasts many natural wonders, from the Buccoo Reef and Bon Accord Lagoon, a renowned Ramesar wetland, to the crystal clear Nylon Pool and the largest brain coral ever-recorded 10 ft x16ft, that you snorkel around at the reef in Speyside. But much lies unseen, in the waters below.

The island was originally settled by Amerindians cultures, the Ciboney being the pioneers; followed by those we call the Caribs and Arawaks. It’s easy to see why Christopher Columbus arguably named the isle Bellaforma (beautifully formed) or Asumpcion, when he first saw it in the late 1400s; but it wasn’t until 1580 that British seamen visited the land and recorded it as uninhabited, followed by Walter Raleigh’s lieutenant, Lawrence Keymis. It was England’s King James I who claimed the isle for the crown. However, over the centuries the island would be settled by the Dutch, fought over by the French, Spanish and then British and many times, successfully protected by the First Peoples, the original settlers.

Fort James, Photo: RAPSO Imaging

Even after over 100 European families attempted to settle, a migration advocated by the Duke of Courland, the island treasured for its strategic location, harbour and agricultural potential would change hands over 30 times. In 1783 it was ceded to Britain, captured by France in 1781 and recaptured by the British in 1793 before becoming part of the empire in 1814. After the British defeated the Spanish, they claimed neighbouring Trinidad in 1797.  And in 1889 it was annexed to Trinidad for administrative purposes.  Early in the nineteenth century African slaves were brought to Tobago and their industriousness, the forced, oppressive hours of labour they worked in the sugar cane fields, proved to be a significant source of wealth to the owners of the plantations.  Today, Tobago’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, fishing and eco-tourism, with its ties to the proven oil and gas reserves of the islands.

Its vast and varied history makes the island a haven for divers and in recent times, archaeologists.  In the aqua waters of Scarborough Harbour lie the remnants of sixteen shipwrecked ships.  In the battle of 1677, Rockley Bay was the site of a significant naval battle for control of the island.  In 2012 a team of local and international researchers led by Dr Kroun N Batcharov, Professor of Maritime Archaeology at the University of Connecticut and Affiliated Scholar of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology were excited to look into what the wrecks could unearth about the 17th Century.

The discovery has led the Tobago House of Assembly to authorise the Rockley Bay Research project to preserve the island’s rich maritime heritage. The discoveries have led to the development of an archaeological conservation lab in the Scarborough Harbour that’s sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism.

Fort King George, Photo: Jason Sookermany

What do the bloody battles of the Franco-Dutch war of 1672-1678 have to do with the Caribbean and this serene island in the south of the archipelago? This historic battle that took place in the aquamarine waters of Tobago would ultimately tilt the balance of power in Europe and the world, for decades.  It took place on March 3, 1677 in Rockley Bay where Dutch and French warships battled for supremacy. The Amsterdam Admiralty sent one of their best, Commander Jacob Binckes and a squadron of ships to one of the treasured forts to face-off against the French on a raid of their possessions.

Recognizing the threat, the French sent M. le Comte d’Estree to crush the nascent Dutch colony.  After fierce battles for two weeks, the French fleet risked it all with a daring strategy of launching a two-pronged attack by land and sea.  Surprising the Dutch, the French fleet sailed two ships at a time through the narrow passage-way into the harbour and faced the waiting cannons, head-on.  However, the unexpected and highly risky manoeuvre would benefit the French as the Dutch ships were poorly manned, although they were able to sink four of the fifteen French ships, including the prized La Glorieux and the French were forced to retreat in the chaos, the carnage was worse for their foes.

Ultimately eight of the ten Dutch warships would sink to the floor of the harbour, and thousands of innocent lives were lost including mariners, women and children. Months later the French would lay claim to the isle. Although in the 1990s the dredging of the harbour destroyed many of the wrecks and artefacts, some cannons and timbers have been reclaimed. Surveys continue and geometrics have been used to search hundreds of acres for new artefacts.  It’s a war story that will let us understand world history and the tumultuous fight among Imperialists for this now picturesque, stunningly beautiful land.

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