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Part of St. Barth’s marine reserve, Fourchue offers boaters a peaceful place to moor.

The next time you’re in Saint-Barth, take the opportunity to visit Fourchue, an uninhabited islet located 2 miles northwest of Colombier beach. It is a perfect and nearby choice for pleasure boating and picnicking, daytripping and dreaming. Part of St. Barth’s marine reserve, Fourchue offers boaters a peaceful place to moor and snorkelers need only hop overboard to acquaint themselves with the underwater denizens of the bay: multi-colored fish, rays, sea turtles, the occasional barracuda… 

If you want to leave your boat and go for a nature hike, you can paddle to land in just minutes. Here’s a tip: load a wakeboard with your precious cargo to keep it dry. When exploring Fourchue, precious cargo means ample sunscreen, a hat, good sunglasses, water and finally thick-soled, close-toed walking shoes. The island’s former residents, a herd of goats, were placed into early retirement. But when they lived on the islet, they nibbled through every green thing that grew, leaving nothing but naked, rocky terrain populated by cactus, the only thing the goats seemed to show little taste for. Since their departure, the island is greener than it used to be, but it’s a far cry from lush. It is by arid by any standard, and there’s not a shade tree in sight. If you can brave the terrain, you’ll enjoy gamboling up and down Fourchue’s five hills- the highest measuring 80 meters-and catching some panoramic views of both St. Barts and St. Martin. You may even see some of the balancing rock installations (artist/s unknown) that have gone up in clusters around the islet. 

During your hike, chances are high that you’ll run into the ‘bones’ of the island’s history.  A cistern-in-ruins bears silent testimony to the fact that the island was not always uninhabited. According to records, it was the Swedes who first took interest in the islet. More particularly, it was Swedish botanists, who in 1826, catalogued over 300 plant species there. Around 1788, a young Swedish doctor observed that nowhere else in the Caribbean had he seen as many “English head” (melocactus intortus) as in Fourchue. This particular species of cactus, also found in St. Barths, produces tart, yet edible magenta fruits the size of pumpkin seeds, and at the time, was the snack-of-choice for Fourchue’s wild rabbit and goat population. The doctor went on to report the presence of a “negro”, the island’s only human inhabitant, who shared Fourchue with “several hundred goats” and “an innumerable flock of birds”. At the time the doctor made his observations, the island was also used for quarantine. “When there is a smallpox outbreak among the negroes”, he noted, “it is customary to send the sick here.” Sickness and isolation were but two of the incalculable hardships suffered by African slaves who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean on European vessels.  

Later, around 1813, a Frenchman made Fourchue his home. According to historical accounts, the native of Marseille spent the last fourteen years of his life as a naked hermit. He was reported to have used a coffin as his bed for the duration of his island tenure. He was buried in his ‘bed’, but no trace of his tomb has ever been found. For those who visit the islet today, it is hard to imagine that the island was once animated by pirates and sea merchants who sailed through the West Indies, or by ruthless traders who ran a thriving business of human trafficking. As it turns out, Fourchue’s calm waters made the perfect hand-off spot for contraband, gunpowder among them, freely and illegally traded by American, French and English marines alike. Swedish archives document how pirates captured an American vessel with 380 slaves aboard who were sold off for the sum of $30, 000 to unscrupulous bidders. Though they condemned slavery, St. Barth’s former Swedish governors would sidestep moral policy. Heinous or not, the slave trade meant wealth for both local merchants and the Swedish crown, and governors reluctantly tolerated the practice.  

This article is based on Per Tingrand’s book “Saint-Barthélemy à l’époque suédoise”, published in 1995 by St.Barts town hall and cultural center

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