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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 13251

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Few habitants of St. Pierre now remember that the beautiful park behind the cathedral used to be called the Savanna of the White Fathers,-and the long shadowed meadow beside the Roxelane, the Savanna of the Black Fathers: the Jesuits. All the great religious orders have long since disappeared from the colony: their edifices have been either converted to other uses or demolished; their estates have passed into other hands.... Were their labors, then, productive of merely ephemeral results?-was the colossal work of a Père Labat all in vain, so far as the future is concerned? The question is not easily answered; but it is worth considering.

Of course the material prosperity which such men toiled to obtain for their order represented nothing more, even to their eyes, than the means of self-maintenance, and the accumulation of force necessary for the future missionary labors of the monastic community. The real ultimate purpose was, not the acquisition of power for the order, but for the Church, of which the orders represented only a portion of the force militant; and this purpose did not fail of accomplishment. The orders passed away only when their labors had been completed,-when Martinique had become (exteriorly, at least) more Catholic than Rome itself,-after the missionaries had done all that religious zeal could do in moulding and remoulding the human material under their control. These men could scarcely have anticipated those social and political changes which the future reserved for the colonies, and which no ecclesiastical sagacity could, in any event, have provided against. It is in the existing religious condition of these communities that one may observe and estimate the character and the probable duration of the real work accomplished by the missions.

... Even after a prolonged residence in Martinique, its visible religious condition continues to impress one as somethmg phenomenal. A stranger, who has no opportunity to penetrate into the home life of the people, will not, perhaps, discern the full extent of the religious sentiment; but, nevertheless, however brief his stay, he will observe enough of the extravagant symbolism of the cult to fill him with surprise. Wherever he may choose to ride or to walk, he is certain to encounter shrines, statues of saints, or immense crucifixes. Should he climb up to the clouds of the peaks, he will find them all along the way;-he will perceive them waiting for him, looming through the mists of the heights; and passing through the loveliest ravines, he will see niches hollowed out in the volcanic rocks, above and below him, or contrived in the trunks of trees bending over precipices, often in places so difficult of access that he wonders how the work could have been accomplished. All this has been done by the various property-owners throughout the country: it is the traditional custom to do it-brings good-luck! After a longer stay in the island, one discovers also that in almost every room of every dwelling-stone residence, wooden cottage, or palm-thatched ajoupa-there is a chapelle: that is, a sort of large bracket fastened to the wall, on which crosses or images are placed, with vases of flowers, and lamps or wax-tapers to be burned at night. Sometimes, moreover, statues are placed in windows, or above door-ways;-and all passers-by take off their hats to these. Over the porch of the cottage in a mountain village, where I lived for some weeks, there was an absurd little window contrived,-a sort of purely ornamental dormer,-and in this a Virgin about five inches high had been placed. At a little distance it looked like a toy,-a child's doll forgotten there; and a doll I always supposed it to be, until one day that I saw a long procession of black laborers passing before the house, every, one of whom took off his hat to it.... My bedchamber in the same cottage resembled a religious museum. On the chapelle there were no less than eight Virgins, varying in height from one to sixteen inches,-a St. Joseph,-a St. John,-a crucifix,-and a host of little objects in the shape of hearts or crosses, each having some special religious significance;-while the walls were covered with framed certificates of baptism, "first-communion," confirmation, and other documents commemorating the whole church life of the family for two generations.

... Certainly the first impression created by this perpetual display of crosses, statues, and miniature chapels is not pleasing,-particularly as the work is often inartistic to a degree bordering upon the grotesque, and nothing resembling art is anywhere visible. Millions of francs must have been consumed in these creations, which have the rudeness of mediaevalism without its emotional sincerity, and which-amid the loveliness of tropic nature, the grace of palms, the many-colored fire of liana blossoms-jar on the aesthetic sense with an almost brutal violence. Yet there is a veiled poetry in these silent populations of plaster and wood and stone. They represent something older than the Middle Ages, older than Christianity,-something strangely distorted and transformed, it is true, but recognizably conserved by the Latin race from those antique years when every home had its beloved ghosts, when every wood or hill or spring had its gracious divinity, and the boundaries of all fields were marked and guarded by statues of gods.

Instances of iconoclasm are of course highly rare in a country of which no native-rich or poor, white or half-breed-fails to doff his hat before every shrine, cross, or image he may happen to pass. Those merchants of St. Pierre or of Fort-de-France living only a few miles out of the city must certainly perform a vast number of reverences on their way to or from business;-I saw one old gentleman uncover his white head about twenty times in the course of a fifteen minutes' walk. I never heard of but one image-breaker in Martinique; and his act was the result of superstition, not of any hostility to popular faith or custom: it was prompted by the same childish feeling which moves Italian fishermen sometimes to curse St. Antony or to give his image a ducking in bad weather. This Martinique iconoclast was a negro cattle-driver who one day, feeling badly in need of a glass of tafia, perhaps, left the animals intrusted to him in care of a plaster image of the Virgin, with this menace (the phrase is on record):-

"Moin ka quitté bef-la ba ou pou gàdé ba moin. Quand moin vini, si moin pa trouvé compte-moin, moin ké fouté ou vingt-nèf coudfouètt!" (I leave these cattle with you to take care of for me. When I come ba

ck, if I don't find them all here, I'll give you twenty-nine lashes.)

Returning about half an hour later, he was greatly enraged to find his animals scattered in every direction;-and, rushing at the statue, he broke it from the pedestal, flung it upon the ground, and gave it twenty-nine lashes with his bull-whip. For this he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to imprisonment, with hard labor, for life! In those days there were no colored magistrates;-the judges were all békés.

"Rather a severe sentence," I remarked to my informant, a planter who conducted me to the scene of the alleged sacrilege.

"Severe, yes," he answered;-"and I suppose the act would seem to you more idiotic than criminal. But here, in Martinique, there were large questions involved by such an offence. Relying, as we have always done to some extent, upon religious influence as a factor in the maintenance of social order, the negro's act seemed a dangerous example."...

That the Church remains still rich and prosperous in Martinique there can be no question; but whether it continues to wield any powerful influence in the maintenance of social order is more than doubtful. A Polynesian laxity of morals among the black and colored population, and the history of race-hatreds and revolutions inspired by race-hate, would indicate that neither in ethics nor in politics does it possess any preponderant authority. By expelling various religious orders; by establishing lay schools, lycées, and other educational institutions where the teaching is largely characterized by aggressive antagonism to Catholic ideas;-by the removal of crucifixes and images from public buildings, French Radicalism did not inflict any great blow upon Church interests. So far as the white, and, one may say, the wealthy, population is concerned, the Church triumphs in her hostility to the Government schools; and to the same extent she holds an educational monopoly. No white creole would dream of sending his children to a lay school or a lycée-notwithstanding the unquestionable superiority of the educational system in the latter institutions;-and, although obliged, as the chief tax-paying class, to bear the burden of maintaining these establishments, the whites hold them in such horror that the Government professors are socially ostracized. No doubt the prejudice or pride which abhors mixed schools aids the Church in this respect; she herself recognizes race-feeling, keeps her schools unmixed, and even in her convents, it is said, obliges the colored nuns to serve the white! For more than two centuries every white generation has been religiously moulded in the seminaries and convents; and among the native whites one never hears an overt declaration of free-thought opinion. Except among the colored men educated in the Government schools, or their foreign professors, there are no avowed free-thinkers;-and this, not because the creole whites, many of whom have been educated in Paris, are naturally narrow-minded, or incapable of sympathy with the mental expansion of the age, but because the religious question at Martinique has become so intimately complicated with the social and political one, concerning which there can be no compromise whatever, that to divorce the former from the latter is impossible. Roman Catholicism is an element of the cement which holds creole society together; and it is noteworthy that other creeds are not represented. I knew only of one Episcopalian and one Methodist in the island,-and heard a sort of legend about a solitary Jew whose whereabouts I never could discover;-but these were strangers.

It was only through the establishment of universal suffrage, which placed the white population at the mercy of its former slaves, that the Roman Church sustained any serious injury. All local positions are filled by blacks or men of color; no white creole can obtain a public office or take part in legislation; and the whole power of the black vote is ungenerously used against the interests of the class thus politically disinherited. The Church suffers in consequence: her power depended upon her intimate union with the wealthy and dominant class; and she will never be forgiven by those now in power for her sympathetic support of that class in other years. Politics yearly intensify this hostility; and as the only hope for the restoration of the whites to power, and of the Church to its old position, lies in the possibility of another empire or a revival of the monarchy, the white creoles and their Church are forced into hostility against republicanism and the republic. And political newspapers continually attack Roman Catholicism,-mock its tenets and teachings,-ridicule its dogmas and ceremonies,-satirize its priests.

In the cities and towns the Church indeed appears to retain a large place in the affection of the poorer classes;-her ceremonies are always well attended; money pours into her coffers; and one can still wittness the curious annual procession of the "converted,"-aged women of color and negresses going to communion for the first time, all wearing snow-white turbans in honor of the event. But among the country people, where the dangerous forces of revolution exist, Christian feeling is almost stifled by ghastly beliefs of African origin;-the images and crucifixes still command respect, but this respect is inspired by a feeling purely fetichistic. With the political dispossession of the whites, certain dark powers, previously concealed or repressed, have obtained, formidable development. The old enemy of Père Labat, the wizard (the quimboiseur), already wields more authority than the priest, exercises more terror than the magistrate, commands more confidence than the physician. The educated mulatto class may affect to despise him;-but he is preparing their overthrow in the dark. Astonishing is the persistence with which the African has clung to these beliefs and practices, so zealously warred upon by the Church and so mercilessly punished by the courts for centuries. He still goes to mass, and sends his children to the priest; but he goes more often to the quimboiseur and the "magnetise." He finds use for both beliefs, but gives large preference to the savage one,-just as he prefers the pattering of his tam tam to the music of the military band at the Savane du Fort.... And should it come to pass that Martinique be ever totally abandoned by its white population,-an event by no means improbable in the present order of things,-the fate of the ecclesiastical fabric so toilsomely reared by the monastic orders is not difficult to surmise.

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