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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 6687

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


One leaves Martinique with regret, even after so brief a stay: the old colonial life itself, not less than the revelation of tropic nature, having in this island a quality of uniqueness, a special charm, unlike anything previously seen.... We steam directly for Barbadoes;-the vessel will touch at the intervening islands only on her homeward route.

... Against a hot wind south,-under a sky always deepening in beauty. Towards evening dark clouds begin to rise before us; and by nightfall they spread into one pitch-blackness over all the sky. Then comes a wind in immense sweeps, lifting the water,-but a wind that is still strangely warm. The ship rolls heavily in the dark for an hour or more;-then torrents of tepid rain make the sea smooth again; the clouds pass, and the viole transparency of tropical night reappears,-ablaze with stars.

At early morning a long low land appears on the horizon,-totally unlike the others we have seen; it has no visable volcanic forms. That is Barbadoes,-a level burning coral coast,-a streak of green, white-edged, on the verge of the sea. But hours pass before the green line begins to show outlines of foliage.

... As we approach the harbor an overhanging black cloud suddenly bursts down in illuminated rain,-through which the shapes of moored ships seem magnified as through a golden fog. It ceases as suddenly as it begun; the cloud vanishes utterly; and the azure is revealed unflecked, dazzling, wondrous.... It is a sight worth the whole journey,-the splendor of this noon sky at Barbadoes;-the horizon glow is almost blinding, the sea-line sharp as a razor-edge; and motionless upon the sapphire water nearly a hundred ships lie,-masts, spars, booms, cordage, cutting against the amazing magnificence of blue.... Mean while the island coast has clearly brought out all its beauties: first you note the long white winding thread-line of beach-coral and bright sand;-then the deep green fringe of vegetation through which roofs and spires project here and there, and quivering feathery heads of palms with white trunks. The general tone of this verdure is sombre green, though it is full of lustre: there is a glimmer in it as of metal. Beyond all this coast-front long undulations of misty pale, green are visible,-far slopes of low hill and plain the highest curving line, the ridge of the island, bears a row of cocoa-palms, They are so far that their stems diminish almost to invisibility: only the crests are clearly distinguishable,-like spiders hanging between land and sky. But there are no forests: the land is a naked unshadowed green far as the eye can reach beyond the coast-line. There is no waste space in Barbadoes: it is perhaps one of the most densely-peopled places on the globe-(one thousand and thirty-five inhabitants to the square mile)-.and it sends black laborers by thousands to the other British colonies every year,-the surplus of its population.

... The city of Bridgetown disappoints the stranger who expects to find any exotic features of architecture or custom,-disappoints more, perhaps, than any other tropical port in this respect. Its principal streets give you the impression of walking through an English town,-not an old-time town, but a new one, plain almost to commonplaceness, in spite of Nelson's monument. Even the palms are powerless to len

d the place a really tropical look;-the streets are narrow without being picturesque, white as lime roads and full of glare;-the manners, the costumes, the style of living, the system of business are thoroughly English;-the population lacks visible originality; and its extraordinary activity, so oddly at variance with the quiet indolence of other West Indian peoples, seems almost unnatural. Pressure of numbers has largely contributed to this characteristic; but Barbadoes would be in any event, by reason of position alone, a busy colony. As the most windward of the West Indies it has naturally become not only the chief port, but also the chief emporium of the Antilles. It has railroads, telephones, street-cars, fire and life insurance companies, good hotels, libraries and reading-rooms, and excellent public schools. Its annual export trade figures for nearly $6,000,000.

The fact which seems most curious to the stranger, on his first acquaintance with the city, is that most of this business activity is represented by black men-black merchants, shopkeepers, clerks. Indeed, the Barbadian population, as a mass, strikes one as the darkest in the West Indies. Black regiments march through the street to the sound of English music,-uniformed as Zouaves; black police, in white helmets and white duck uniforms, maintain order; black postmen distribute the mails; black cabmen wait for customers at a shilling an hour. It is by no means an attractive population, physically,-rather the reverse, and frankly brutal as well-different as possible from the colored race of Martinique; but it has immense energy, and speaks excellent English. One is almost startled on hearing Barbadian negroes speaking English with a strong Old Country accent Without seeing the speaker, you could scarcely believe such English uttered by black lips; and the commonest negro laborer about the port pronounces as well as a Londoner. The purity of Barbadian English is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that, unlike most of the other islands, Barbadoes has always remained in the possession of Great Britain. Even as far back as 1676 Barbadoes was in a very different condition of prosperity from that of the other colonies, and offered a totally different social aspect-having a white population of 50,000. At that time the island could muster 20,000 infantry and 3000 horse; there were 80,000 slaves; there were 1500 houses in Bridgetown and an immense number of shops; and not less than two hundred ships were required to export the annual sugar crop alone.

But Barbadoes differs also from most of the Antilles geologically; and there can be no question that the nature of its soil has considerably influenced the physical character of its inhabitants. Although Barbadoes is now known to be also of volcanic origin,-a fact which its low undulating surface could enable no unscientific observer to suppose,-it is superficially a calcareous formation; and the remarkable effect of limestone soil upon the bodily development of a people is not less marked in this latitude than elsewhere. In most of the Antilles the white race degenerates and dwarfs under the influence of climate and environment; but the Barbadian creole-tall, muscular, large of bone-preserves and perpetuates in the tropics the strength and sturdiness of his English forefathers.

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