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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8367

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The legend of "Missié Bon" had prepared me to hear without surprise the details of a still more singular tradition,-that of Father Labat.... I was returning from a mountain ramble with my guide, by way of the Ajoupa-Bouillon road;-the sun had gone down; there remained only a blood-red glow in the west, against which the silhouettes of the hills took a velvety blackness indescribably soft; the stars were beginning to twinkle out everywhere through the violet. Suddenly I noticed on the flank of a neighboring morne-which I remembered by day as an apparently uninhabitable wilderness of bamboos, tree-ferns, and balisiers-a swiftly moving point of yellow light. My guide had observed it simultaneously;-he crossed himself, and exclaimed:

"Moin ka couè c'est fanal Pè Labatt!" (I believe it is the lantern of Perè Labat.)

"Does he live there?" I innocently inquired.

"Live there?-why he has been dead hundreds of years!... Ouill! you never heard of Pè Labatt?"...

"Not the same who wrote a book about Martinique?"

"Yes,-himself.... They say he comes back at night. Ask mother about him;-she knows."...

...I questioned old Théréza as soon as we reached home; and she told me all she knew about "Pè Labatt." I found that the father had left a reputation far more wide-spread than the recollection of "Missié Bon,"-that his memory had created, in fact, the most impressive legend in all Martinique folk-lore.

"Whether you really saw Pè Labatt's lantern," said old Thereza, "I do not know;-there are a great many queer lights to be seen after nightfall among these mornes. Some are zombi-fires; and some are lanterns carried by living men; and some are lights burning in ajoupas so high up that you can only see a gleam coming through the trees now and then. It is not everybody who sees the lantern of Pè Labatt; and it is not good-luck to see it.

"Pè Labatt was a priest who lived here hundreds of years ago; and he wrote a book about what he saw. He was the first person to introduce slavery into Martinique; and it is thought that is why he comes back at night. It is his penance for having established slavery here.

"They used to say, before 1848, that when slavery should be abolished, Pè Labatt's light would not be seen any more. But I can remember very well when slavery was abolished; and I saw the light many a time after. It used to move up the Morne d'Orange every clear night;-I could see it very well from my window when I lived in St. Pierre. You knew it was Pè Labatt, because the light passed up places where no man could walk. But since the statue of Notre Dame de la Garde was placed on the Morne d'Orange, people tell me that the light is not seen there any more.

"But it is seen elsewhere; and it is not good-luck to see it. Everybody is afraid of seeing it.... And mothers tell their children, when the little ones are naughty: 'Mi! moin ké fai Pè Labatt vini pouend ou,-oui!' (I will make Pè Labatt come and take you away.)"....

What old Théréza stated regarding the establishment of slavery in Martinique by Père Labat, I knew required no investigation,-inasmuch as slavery was a flourishing institution in the time of Père Dutertre, another Dominican missionary and historian, who wrote his book,-a queer book in old French, [7] -before Labat was born.

But it did not take me long to find out that such was the general belief about Père Labat's sin and penance, and to ascertain that his name is indeed used to frighten naughty children. Eh! ti manmaille-là, moin ké fai Pè Labatt vini pouend ou!-is an exclamation often heard in the vicinity of ajoupas just about the hour when all found a good little children ought to be in bed and asleep.

... The first variation of the legend I heard was on a plantation in the neighborhood of Ajoupa-Bouillon. There I was informed that Père Labat had come to his death by the bite of a snake,-the hugest snake that ever was seen in Martinique. Perè Labat had believed it possible to exterminate the fer-de-lance, and had adopted extraordinary measures for its destruction. On receiving his death-wound he exclaimed, "C'est pè toutt sépent qui té ka mòdé moin" (It is the Father of al

l Snakes that has bitten me); and he vowed that he would come back to destroy the brood, and would haunt the island until there should be not one snake left. And the light that moves about the peaks at night is the lantern of Père Labat still hunting for snakes.

"Ou pa pè suive ti limié-là piess!" continued my informant. "You cannot follow that little light at all;-when you first see it, it is perhaps only a kilometre away; the next moment it is two, three, or four kilometres away."

I was also told that the light is frequently seen near Grande Anse, on the other side of the island,-and on the heights of La Caravelle, the long fantastic promontory that reaches three leagues into the sea south of the harbor of La Trinité. [8]

And on my return to St. Pierre I found a totally different version of the legend;-my informant being one Manm-Robert, a kind old soul who kept a little boutique-lapacotte (a little booth where cooked food is sold) near the precipitous Street of the Friendships.

... "Ah! Pè Labatt, oui!" she exclaimed, at my first question,-"Pè Labatt was a good priest who lived here very long ago. And they did him a great wrong here;-they gave him a wicked coup d'langue (tongue wound); and the hurt given by an evil tongue is worse than a serpent's bite. They lied about him; they slandered him until they got him sent away from the country. But before the Government 'embarked' him, when he got to that quay, he took off his shoe and he shook the dust of his shoe upon that quay, and he said: 'I curse you, 0 Martinique!-I curse you! There will be food for nothing, and your people will not even be able to buy it! There will be clothing material for nothing, and your people will not be able to get so much as one dress! And the children will beat their mothers!... You banish me;-but I will come back again.'" [9]

"And then what happened, Manm-Robert?"

"Eh! fouinq! chè, all that Pè Labatt said has come true. There is food for almost nothing, and people are starving here in St. Pierre; there is clothing for almost nothing, and poor girls cannot earn enough to buy a dress. The pretty printed calicoes (indiennes) that used to be two francs and a half the metre, now sell at twelve sous the metre; but nobody has any money. And if you read our papers,-Les Colonies, La Defense Coloniale,-you will find that there are sons wicked enough to beat their mothers: oui! yche ka batt manman! It is the malediction of Pè Labatt."

This was all that Manm-Robert could tell me. Who had related the story to her? Her mother. Whence had her mother obtained it? From her grandmother.... Subsequently I found many persons to confirm the tradition of the curse,-precisely as Manm-Robert had related it.

Only a brief while after this little interview I was invited to pass an afternoon at the home of a gentleman residing upon the Morne d' Orange,-the locality supposed to be especially haunted by Père Labat. The house of Monsieur M- stands on the side of the hill, fully five hundred feet up, and in a grove of trees: an antiquated dwelling, with foundations massive as the walls of a fortress, and huge broad balconies of stone. From one of these balconies there is a view of the city, the harbor and Pelée, which I believe even those who have seen Naples would confess to be one of the fairest sights in the world.... Towards evening I obtained a chance to ask my kind host some questions about the legend of his neighborhood.

... "Ever since I was a child," observed Monsieur M-, "I heard it said that Père Labat haunted this mountain, and I often saw what was alleged to be his light. It looked very much like a lantern swinging in the hand of some one climbing the hill. A queer fact was that it used to come from the direction of Carbet, skirt the Morne d'Orange a few hundred feet above the road, and then move up the face of what seemed a sheer precipice. Of course somebody carried that light,-probably a negro; and perhaps the cliff is not so inaccessible as it looks: still, we could never discover who the individual was, nor could we imagine what his purpose might have been.... But the light has not been seen here now for years."

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