Seventy years ago a fired-up coal iron was left unattended in the wooden confines of a tailor’s shop in Castries. Not much remained after the first embers evolved into a roaring blaze that would eventually devour acres. Later there was unsubstantiated talk that the tailor’s iron had been purposefully planted to torch the shop with insurance payout on his mind.
It was 8 p.m. on Saturday 19th June, 1948 when the initial alarm cry went out to emergency services but destiny would have its way. Due to a strong south-easterly wind, an ill-prepared fire brigade, an insufficient water supply and much timber construction, the flames were fanned along a vengeful course of destruction. Within hours, four-fifths of the town of Castries had been reduced to ashes. By the time a fire squad from a United States Air Force Base in Vieux Fort arrived and successfully put out the inferno, 809 families – 2,293 residents to be exact – were homeless. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Destroyed were the government treasury, the court building, post office, printery, Carnegie Library and commercial buildings.
One week after what early reports had referred to as “the greatest calamity to befall a colony of its size and resources in so short a time”, attempts to resume business began. The local government, along with administrators of neighbouring islands and far away countries, offered assistance. Those with the means started to rebuild their homes. Some were rehoused; others found shelter wherever they could.
It was not the first time fire had brought down Castries. There had been earlier fires in 1796, 1805, 1813 and 1927. Then there were the fires of 1951, 1959 and 1960. It’s the fire of 1948, however, that is most often cited by local historians and purveyors of local folklore, possibly because of the extent of damage it wreaked . . . or maybe for lack of reliable information about the earlier disasters.
A City’s Death by Fire
After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
Derek Walcott (1930-2017)
Saint Lucian poet and Nobel laureate.