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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 14536

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


And who was Père Labat,-this strange priest whose memory, weirdly disguised by legend, thus lingers in the oral literature of the colored people? Various encyclopedias answer the question, but far less fully and less interestingly than Dr. Rufz, the Martinique historian, whose article upon him in the Etudes Statistiques et Historiques has that charm of sympathetic comprehension by which a master-biographer sometimes reveals himself a sort of necromancer,-making us feel a vanished personality with the power of a living presence. Yet even the colorless data given by dictionaries of biography should suffice to convince most readers that Jean-Baptiste Labat must be ranked among the extraordinary men of his century.

Nearly two hundred years ago-24th August, 1693-a traveller wearing the white habit of the Dominican order, partly covered by a black camlet overcoat, entered the city of Rochelle. He was very tall and robust, with one of those faces, at once grave and keen, which bespeak great energy and quick discernment. This was the Père Labat, a native of Paris, then in his thirtieth year. Half priest, half layman, one might have been tempted to surmise from his attire; and such a judgement would not have been unjust. Labat's character was too large for his calling,-expanded naturally beyond the fixed limits of the ecclesiastical life; and throughout the whole active part of his strange career we find in him this dual character of layman and monk. He had come to Rochelle to take passage for Martinique. Previously he had been professor of philosophy and mathematics at Nancy. While watching a sunset one evening from the window of his study, some one placed in his hands a circular issued by the Dominicans of the French West Indies, calling for volunteers. Death had made many wide gaps in their ranks; and various misfortunes had reduced their finances to such an extent that ruin threatened all their West Indian establishments. Labat, with the quick decision of a mind suffering from the restraints of a life too narrow for it, had at once resigned his professorship, and engaged himself for the missions.

... In those days, communication with the West Indies was slow, irregular, and difficult. Labat had to wait at Rochelle six whole months for a ship. In the convent at Rochelle, where he stayed, there were others waiting for the same chance,-including several Jesuits and Capuchins as well as Dominicans. These unanimously elected him their leader,-a significant fact considering the mutual jealousy of the various religious orders of that period, There was something in the energy and frankness of Labat's character which seems to have naturally gained him the confidence and ready submission of others.

... They sailed in November; and Labat still found himself in the position of a chief on board. His account of the voyage is amusing;-in almost everything except practical navigation, he would appear to have regulated the life of passengers and crew. He taught the captain mathematics; and invented amusements of all kinds to relieve the monotony of a two months' voyage.

... As the ship approached Martinique from the north, Labat first beheld the very grimmest part of the lofty coast,-the region of Macouba; and the impression it made upon him was not pleasing. "The island," he writes, "appeared to me all one frightful mountain, broken everywhere by precipices: nothing about it pleased me except the verdure which everywhere met the eye, and which seemed to me both novel and agreeable, considering the time of the year."

Almost immediately after his arrival he was sent by the Superior of the convent to Macouba, for acclimation; Macouba then being considered the healthiest part of the island. Whoever makes the journey on horseback thither from St. Pierre to-day can testify to the exactitude of Labat's delightful narrative of the trip. So little has that part of the island changed since two centuries that scarcely a line of the father's description would need correction to adopt it bodily for an account of a ride to Macouba in 1889.

At Macouba everybody welcomes him, pets him,-finally becomes enthusiastic about him. He fascinates and dominates the little community almost at first sight. "There is an inexpressible charm," says Rufz,-commenting upon this portion of Labat's narrative,-"in the novelty of relations between men: no one has yet been offended, no envy has yet been excited;-it is scarcely possible even to guess whence that ill-will you must sooner or later provoke is going to come from;-there are no rivals;-there are no enemies. You are everybody's friend; and many are hoping you will continue to be only theirs."... Labat knew how to take legitimate advantage of this good-will;-he persuaded his admirers to rebuild the church at Macouba, according to designs made by himself.

At Macouba, however, he was not permitted to sojourn as long as the good people of the little burgh would have deemed even reasonable: he had shown certain aptitudes which made his presence more than desirable at Saint-Jacques, the great plantation of the order on the Capesterre, or Windward coast. It was in debt for 700,000 pounds of sugar,-an appalling condition in those days,-and seemed doomed to get more heavily in debt every successive season. Labat inspected everything, and set to work for the plantation, not merely as general director, but as engineer, architect, machinist, inventor. He did really wonderful things. You can see them for yourself if you ever go to Martinique; for the old Dominican plantation-now Government property, and leased at an annual rent of 50,000 francs-remains one of the most valuable in the colonies because of Labat's work upon it. The watercourses directed by him still excite the admiration of modern professors of hydraulics; the mills he built or invented are still good;-the treatise he wrote on sugar-making remained for a hundred and fifty years the best of its kind, and the manual of French planters. In less than two years Labat had not only rescued the plantation from bankruptcy, but had made it rich; and if the monks deemed him veritably inspired, the test of time throws no ridicule on their astonishment at the capacities of the man.... Even now the advice he formulated as far back as 1720-about secondary cultures,-about manufactories to establish,-about imports, exports, and special commercial methods-has lost little of its value.

Such talents could not fail to excite wide-spread admiration,-nor to win for him a reputation in the colonies beyond precedent. He was wanted everywhere.... Auger, the Governor of Guadeloupe, sent for him to help the colonists in fortifying and defending the island against the English; and we find the missionary quite as much at home in this new role-building bastions, scarps, counterterscarps, ravelins, etc.-as he seemed to be upon the plantation of Saint-Jacques. We find him even taking part in an engagement;-himself conducting an artillery duel,-loading, pointing, and firing no less than twelve times after the other French gunners had been killed or driven from their posts. After a tremendous English volley, one of the enemy cries out to him in French: "White Father, have they told?" (Père

Blanc, ont-ils porté?) He replies only after returning the fire with, a better-directed aim, and then repeats the mocking question: "Have they told?" "Yes, they have," confesses the Englishman, in surprised dismay; "but we will pay you back for that!"...

... Returning to Martinique with new titles to distinction, Labat was made Superior of the order in that island, and likewise Vicar-Apostolic. After building the Convent of the Mouillage, at St. Pierre, and many other edifices, he undertook that series of voyages in the interests of the Dominicans whereof the narration fills six ample volumes. As a traveller Père Labat has had few rivals in his own field;-no one, indeed, seems to have been able to repeat some of his feats. All the French and several of the English colonies were not merely visited by him, but were studied in their every geographical detail. Travel in the West Indies is difficult to a degree of which strangers have little idea; but in the time of Père Labat there were few roads,-and a far greater variety of obstacles. I do not believe there are half a dozen whites in Martinique who thoroughly know their own island,-who have even travelled upon all its roads; but Labat knew it as he knew the palm of his hand, and travelled where roads had never been made. Equally well he knew Guadeloupe and other islands; and he learned all that it was possible to learn in those years about the productions and resources of the other colonies. He travelled with the fearlessness and examined with the thoroughness of a Humboldt,-so far as his limited science permitted: had he possessed the knowledge of modern naturalists and geologists he would probably have left little for others to discover after him. Even at the present time West Indian travellers are glad to consult him for information.

These duties involved prodigious physical and mental exertion, in a climate deadly to Europeans. They also involved much voyaging in waters haunted by filibusters and buccaneers. But nothing appears to daunt Labat. As for the filibusters, he becomes their comrade and personal friend;-he even becomes their chaplain, and does not scruple to make excursions with them. He figures in several sea-fights;-on one occasion he aids in the capture of two English vessels,-and then occupies himself in making the prisoners, among whom are several ladies, enjoy the event like a holiday. On another voyage Labat's vessel is captured by a Spanish ship. At one moment sabres are raised above his head, and loaded muskets levelled at his breast;-the next, every Spaniard is on his knees, appalled by a cross that Labat holds before the eyes of the captors,-the cross worn by officers of the Inquisition,-the terrible symbol of the Holy Office. "It did not belong to me," he says, "but to one of our brethren who had left it by accident among my effects." He seems always prepared in some way to meet any possible emergency. No humble and timid monk this: he has the frame and temper of those medieval abbots who could don with equal indifference the helmet or the cowl. He is apparently even more of a soldier than a priest. When English corsairs attempt a descent on the Martinique coast at Sainte-Marie they find Père Labat waiting for them with all the negroes of the Saint-Jacques plantation, to drive them back to their ships.

For other dangers he exhibits absolute unconcern. He studies the phenomena of hurricanes with almost pleasurable interest, while his comrades on the ship abandon hope. When seized with yellow-fever, then known as the Siamese Sickness (mal de Siam), he refuses to stay in bed the prescribed time, and rises to say his mass. He faints at the altar; yet a few days later we hear of him on horseback again, travelling over the mountains in the worst and hottest season of the year....

... Labat was thirty years old when he went to the Antilles;-he was only forty-two when his work was done. In less than twelve years he made his order the most powerful and wealthy of any in the West Indies,-lifted their property out of bankruptcy to rebuild it upon a foundation of extraordinary prosperity. As Rufz observes without exaggeration, the career of Père Labat in the Antilles seems to more than realize the antique legend of the labors of Hercules. Whithersoever he went,-except in the English colonies,-his passage was memorialized by the rising of churches, convents, and schools,-as well as mills, forts, and refineries. Even cities claim him as their founder. The solidity of his architectural creations is no less remarkable than their excellence of design;-much of what he erected still remains; what has vanished was removed by human agency, and not by decay; and when the old Dominican church at St. Pierre had to be pulled down to make room for a larger edifice, the workmen complained that the stones could not be separated,-that the walls seemed single masses of rock. There can be no doubt, moreover, that he largely influenced the life of the colonies during those years, and expanded their industrial and commercial capacities.

He was sent on a mission to Rome after these things had been done, and never returned from Europe. There he travelled more or less in after-years; but finally settled at Paris, where he prepared and published the voluminous narrative of his own voyages, and other curious books;-manifesting as a writer the same tireless energy he had shown in so many other capacities. He does not, however, appear to have been happy. Again and again he prayed to be sent back to his beloved Antilles, and for some unknown cause the prayer was always refused. To such a character, the restraint of the cloister must have proved a slow agony; but he had to endure it for many long years. He died at Paris in 1738, aged seventy-five.

... It was inevitable that such a man should make bitter enemies: his preferences, his position, his activity, his business shrewdness, his necessary self-assertion, yet must have created secret hate and jealousy even when open malevolence might not dare to show itself. And to the these natural results of personal antagonism or opposition were afterwards superadded various resentments-irrational, perhaps, but extremely violent,-caused by the father's cynical frankness as a writer. He spoke freely about the family origin and personal failings of various colonists considered high personages in their own small world; and to this day his book has an evil reputation undeserved in those old creole communities, but where any public mention of a family scandal is never just forgiven or forgotten.... But probably even before his work appeared it had been secretly resolved that he should never be permitted to return to Martinique or Guadeloupe after his European mission. The exact purpose of the Government in this policy remains a mystery,-whatever ingenious writers may have alleged to the contrary. We only know that M. Adrien Dessalles,-the trustworthy historian of Martinique,-while searching among the old Archives de la Marine, found there a ministerial letter to the Intendant de Vaucresson in which this statement occurs;-

... "Le Père Labat shall never be suffered to return to the colonies, whatever efforts he may make to obtain permission."

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