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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 17380

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


One rises from the perusal of the "Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l'Amêrique" with a feeling approaching regret; for although the six pursy little volumes composing it-full of quaint drawings, plans, and odd attempts at topographical maps-reveal a prolix writer, Père Labat is always able to interest. He reminds you of one of those slow, precise, old-fashioned conversationalists who measure the weight of every word and never leave anything to the imagination of the audience, yet who invariably reward the patience of their listeners sooner or later by reflections of surprising profundity or theories of a totally novel description. But what particularly impresses the reader of these volumes is not so much the recital of singular incidents and facts as the revelation of the author's personality. Reading him, you divine a character of enormous force,-gifted but unevenly balanced; singularly shrewd in worldly affairs, and surprisingly credulous in other respects; superstitious and yet cynical; unsympathetic by his positivism, but agreeable through natural desire to give pleasure; just by nature, yet capable of merciless severity; profoundly devout, but withal tolerant for his calling and his time. He is sufficiently free from petty bigotry to make fun of the scruples of his brethren in the matter of employing heretics; and his account of the manner in which he secured the services of a first-class refiner for the Martinique plantation at the Fond Saint-Jacques is not the least amusing page in the book. He writes: "The religious who had been appointed Superior in Guadeloupe wrote me that he would find it difficult to employ this refiner because the man was a Lutheran. This scruple gave me pleasure, as I had long wanted to have have him upon our plantation in the Fond Saint-Jacques, but did not know how I would be able to manage it! I wrote to the Superior at once that all he had to do was to send the man to me, because it was a matter of indifference to me whether the sugar he might make were Catholic or Lutheran sugar, provided it were very white." [10]

He displays equal frankness in confessing an error or a discomfiture. He acknowledges that while Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy, he used to teach that there were no tides in the tropics; and in a discussion as to whether the diablotin (a now almost extinct species of West Indian nocturnal bird) were fish flesh, and might or might not be eaten in Lent, he tells us that he was fairly worsted,-(although he could cite the celebrated myth of the "barnacle-geese" as a "fact" in justification of one's right to doubt the nature of diablotins).

One has reason to suspect that Père Labat, notwithstanding his references to the decision of the Church that diablotins were not birds, felt quite well assured within himself that they were. There is a sly humor in his story of these controversies, which would appear to imply that while well pleased at the decision referred to, he knew all about diablotins. Moreover, the father betrays certain tendencies to gormandize not altogether in harmony with the profession of an ascetic.... There were parrots in nearly all of the French Antilles in those days [11] and Père Labat does not attempt to conceal his fondness for cooked parrots. (He does not appear to have cared much for them as pets: if they could not talk well, he condemned them forthwith to the pot.) "They all live upon fruits and seeds," he writes, "and their flesh contracts the odor and color of that particular fruit or seed they feed upon. They become exceedingly fat in the season when the guavas are ripe; and when they eat the seeds of the Bois d'Inde they have an odor of nutmeg and cloves which is delightful (une odeur de muscade et de girofle qui fait plaisir)." He recommends four superior ways of preparing them, as well as other fowls, for the table, of which the first and the best way is "to pluck them alive, then to make them swallow vinegar, and then to strangle them while they have the vinegar still in their throats by twisting their necks"; and the fourth way is "to skin them alive" (de les écorcher tout en vie).... "It is certain," he continues, "that these ways are excellent, and that fowls that have to be cooked in a hurry thereby obtain an admirable tenderness (une tendreté admirable)." Then he makes a brief apology to his readers, not for the inhumanity of his recipes, but for a display of culinary knowledge scarcely becoming a monk, and acquired only through those peculiar necessities which colonial life in the tropics imposed upon all alike. The touch of cruelty here revealed produces an impression which there is little in the entire work capable of modifying. Labat seems to have possessed but a very small quantity of altruism; his cynicism on the subject of animal suffering is not offset by any visible sympathy with human pain;-he never compassionates: you may seek in vain through all his pages for one gleam of the goodness of gentle Père Du Tertre, who, filled with intense pity for the condition of the blacks, prays masters to be merciful and just to their slaves for the love of God. Labat suggests, on the other hand, that slavery is a good means of redeeming negroes from superstition and saving their souls from hell: he selects and purchases them himself for the Saint-Jacques plantation, never makes a mistake or a bad bargain, and never appears to feel a particle of commiseration for their lot. In fact, the emotional feeling displayed by Père Du Tertre (whom he mocks slyly betimes) must have seemed to him rather condemnable than praiseworthy; for Labat regarded the negro as a natural child of the devil,-a born sorcerer,-an evil being wielding occult power.

Perhaps the chapters on negro sorcery are the most astonishing in the book, displaying on the part of this otherwise hard and practical nature a credulity almost without limit. After having related how he had a certain negro sent out of the country "who predicted the arrival of vessels and other things to come,-in so far, at least, as the devil himself was able to know and reveal these matters to him," he plainly states his own belief in magic as follows:

"I know there are many people who consider as pure imagination, and as silly stories, or positive false-hoods, all that is related about sorcerers and their compacts with the devil. I was myself for a long time of this opinion. Moreover, I am aware that what is said on this subject is frequently exaggerated; but I am now convinced it must be acknowledged that all which has been related is not entirely false, although perhaps it may not be entirely true."...

Therewith he begins to relate stories upon what may have seemed unimpeachable authority in those days. The first incident narrated took place, he assures us, in the Martinique Dominican convent, shortly before his arrival in the colony. One of the fathers, Père Fraise, had had brought to Martinique, "from the kingdom of Juda (?) in Guinea," a little negro about nine or ten years old. Not long afterwards there was a serious drought, and the monks prayed vainly for rain. Then the negro child, who had begun to understand and speak a little French, told his masters that he was a Rain-maker, that he could obtain them all the rain they wanted. "This proposition," says Père Labat, "greatly astonished the fathers: they consulted together, and at last, curiosity overcoming reason, they gave their consent that this unbaptized child should make some rain fall on their garden." The unbaptized child asked them if they wanted "a big or a little rain"; they answered that a moderate rain would satisfy them. Thereupon the little negro got three oranges, and placed them on the ground in a line at a short distance from one another, and bowed down before each of them in turn, muttering words in an unknown tongue. Then he got three small orange-branches, stuck a branch in each orange, and repeated his prostrations and mutterings;-after which he took one of the branches, stood up, and watched the horizon. A small cloud appeared, and he pointed the branch at it. It approached swiftly, rested above the garden, and sent down a copious shower of rain. Then the boy made a hole in the ground, and buried the oranges and the branches. The fathers were amazed to find that not a single drop of rain had fallen outside their garden. They asked the boy who had taught him this sorcery, and he answered them that among the blacks on board the slave-ship which had brought him over there were some Rain-makers who had taught him. Père Labat declares there is no question as to the truth of the occurrence: he cites the names of Père Fraise,

Père Rosié, Père Temple, and Père Bournot,-all members of his own order,-as trust-worthy witnesses of this incident.

Père Labat displays equal credulity in his recital of a still more extravagant story told him by Madame la Comtesse du Gênes. M. le Comte du Gênes, husband of the lady in question, and commander of a French squadron, captured the English fort of Gorea in 1696, and made prisoners of all the English slaves in the service of the factory there established. But the vessel on which these were embarked was unable to leave the coast, in spite of a good breeze: she seemed bewitched. Some of the the slaves finally told the captain there was a negress on board who had enchanted the ship, and who had the power to "dry up the hearts" of all who refused to obey her. A number of deaths taking place among the blacks, the captain ordered autopsies made, and it was found that the hearts of the dead negroes were desiccated. The negress was taken on deck, tied to a gun and whipped, but uttered no cry;-the ship's surgeon, angered at her stoicism, took a hand in the punishment, and flogged her "with all his force." Thereupon she told him that inasmuch as he had abused her without reason, his heart also should be "dried up." He died next day; and his heart was found in the condition predicted. All this time the ship could not be made to move in any direction; and the negress told the captain that until he should put her and her companions on shore he would never be able to sail. To convince him of her power she further asked him to place three fresh melons in a chest, to lock the chest and put a guard over it; when she should tell him to unlock it, there would be no melons there. The capttain made the experiment. When the chest was opened, the melons appeared to be there; but on touching them it was found that only the outer rind remained: the interior had been dried up,-like the surgeon's heart. Thereupon the captain put the witch and her friends all ashore, and sailed away without further trouble.

Another story of African sorcery for the truth of which Père Labat earnestly vouches is the following:

A negro was sentenced to be burned alive for witchcraft at St. Thomas in 1701;-his principal crime was "having made a little figure of baked clay to speak." A certain creole, meeting the negro on his way to the place of execution, jeeringly observed, "Well, you cannot make your little figure talk any more now;-it has been broken." "If the gentleman allow me," replied the prisoner," I will make the cane he carries in his hand speak." The creole's curiosity was strongly aroused: he prevailed upon the guards to halt a few minutes, and permit the prisoner to make the experiment. The negro then took the cane, stuck it into the ground in the middle of the road, whispered something to it, and asked the gentleman what he wished to know. "I, would like to know," answered the latter, "whether the ship has yet sailed from Europe, and when she will arrive." "Put your ear to the head of the cane," said the negro. On doing so the creole distinctly heard a thin voice which informed him that the vessel in question had left a certain French port on such a date; that she would reach St. Thomas within three days; that she had been delayed on her voyage by a storm which had carried away her foretop and her mizzen sail; that she had such and such passengers on board (mentioning the names), all in good health.... After this incident the negro was burned alive; but within three days the vessel arrived in port, and the prediction or divination was found to have been absolutely correct in every particular.

... Père Labat in no way disapproves the atrocious sentence inflicted upon the wretched negro: in his opinion such predictions were made by the power and with the personal aid of the devil; and for those who knowingly maintained relations with the devil, he could not have regarded any punishment too severe. That he could be harsh enough himself is amply shown in various accounts of his own personal experience with alleged sorcerers, and especially in the narration of his dealings with one-apparently a sort of African doctor-who was a slave on a neighboring plantation, but used to visit the Saint-Jacques quarters by stealth to practise his art. One of the slaves of the order, a negress, falling very sick, the wizard was sent for; and he came with all his paraphernalia-little earthen pots and fetiches, etc.-during the night. He began to practise his incantations, without the least suspicion that Père Labat was watching him through a chink; and, after having consulted his fetiches, he told the woman she would die within four days. At this juncture the priest suddenly burst in the door and entered, followed by several powerful slaves. He dashed to pieces the soothsayer's articles, and attempted to reassure the frightened negress, by declaring the prediction a lie inspired by the devil. Then he had the sorcerer stripped and flogged in his presence.

"I had him given," he calmly observes, "about (environ) three hundred lashes, which flayed him (l'écorchait) from his shoulders to his knees. He screamed like a madman. All the negroes trembled, and assured me that the devil would cause my death.... Then I had the wizard put in irons, after having had him well washed with a pimentade,-that is to say, with brine in which pimentos and small lemons have been crushed. This causes a horrible pain to those skinned by the whip; but it is a certain remedy against gangrene."...

And then he sent the poor wretch back to his master with a note requesting the latter to repeat the punishment,-a demand that seems to have been approved, as the owner of the negro was "a man who feared God." Yet Père Labat is obliged to confess that in spite of all his efforts, the sick negress died on the fourth day,-as the sorcerer had predicted. This fact must have strongly confirmed his belief that the devil was at the bottom of the whole affair, and caused him to doubt whether even a flogging of about three hundred lashes, followed by a pimentade, were sufficient chastisement for the miserable black. Perhaps the tradition of this frightful whipping may have had something to do with the terror which still attaches to the name of the Dominican in Martinique. The legal extreme punishment was twenty-nine lashes.

Père Labat also avers that in his time the negroes were in the habit of carrying sticks which had the power of imparting to any portion of the human body touched by them a most severe chronic pain. He at first believed, he says, that these pains were merely rheumatic; but after all known remedies for rheumatism had been fruitlessly applied, he became convinced there was something occult and diabolical in the manner of using and preparing these sticks.... A fact worthy of note is that this belief is still prevalent in Martinique!

One hardly ever meets in the country a negro who does not carry either a stick or a cutlass, or both. The cutlass is indispensable to those who work in the woods or upon plantations; the stick is carried both as a protection against snakes and as a weapon of offence and defence in village quarrels, for unless a negro be extraordinarily drunk he will not strike his fellow with a cutlass. The sticks are usually made of a strong dense wood: those most sought after of a material termed moudongue, [12] almost as tough, but much lighter than, our hickory.

On inquiring whether any of the sticks thus carried were held to possess magic powers, I was assured by many country people that there were men who knew a peculiar method of "arranging" sticks so that to touch any person with them even lightly, and through any thickness of clothing, would produce terrible and continuous pain.

Believing in these things, and withal unable to decide whether the sun revolved about the earth, or the earth about the sun, [13] Père Labat was, nevertheless, no more credulous and no more ignorant than the average missionary of his time: it is only by contrast with his practical perspicacity in other matters, his worldly rationalism and executive shrewdness, that this superstitious na?veté impresses one as odd. And how singular sometimes is the irony of Time! All the wonderful work the Dominican accomplished has been forgotten by the people; while all the witchcrafts that he warred against survive and flourish openly; and his very name is seldom uttered but in connection with superstitions,-has been, in fact, preserved among the blacks by the power of superstition alone, by the belief in zombis and goblins.... "Mi! ti manmaille-là, moin ké fai Pè Labatt vini pouend ou!"...

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