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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 5846

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


All of the multitude who wash clothing at the river are not professional blanchisseuses. Hundreds of women, too poor to pay for laundrying, do their own work at the Roxelane;-and numerous bonnes there wash the linen of their mistresses as a regular part of their domestic duty. But even if the professionals did not always occupy a certain well-known portion of the channel, they could easily be distinguished from others by their rapid and methodical manner of work, by the ease with which immense masses of linen are handled by them, and, above all, by their way of whipping it against the rocks. Furthermore, the greater number of professionals are likewise teachers, mistresses (bou'geoises), and have their apprentices beside them,-young girls from twelve to sixteen years of age. Among these apprenti, as they are called in the patois, there are many attractive types, such as idlers upon the bridges like to look at.

If, after one year of instruction, the apprentice fails to prove a good washer, it is not likely she will ever become one; and there are some branches of the trade requiring a longer period of teaching and of practice. The young girl first learns simply to soap and wash the linen in the river, which operation is called "rubbing" (frotté in creole);-after she can do this pretty well, she is taught the curious art of whipping it (fessé). You can hear the sound of the fesse a great way off, echoing and re-echoing among the mornes: it is not a sharp smacking noise, as the name might seem to imply, but a heavy hollow sound exactly like that of an axe splitting dry timber. In fact, it so closely resembles the latter sound that you are apt on first hearing it to look up at the mornes with the expectation of seeing woodmen there at work. And it is not made by striking the linen with anything, but only by lashing it against the sides of the rocks.... After a piece has been well rubbed and rinsed, it is folded up into a peculiar sheaf-shape, and seized by the closely gathered end for the fessé. Then the folding process is repeated on the reverse, and the other end whipped. This process expels suds that rinsing cannot remove: it must be done very dexterously to avoid tearing or damaging the material. By an experienced hand the linen is never torn; and even pearl and bone buttons are much less often broken than might be supposed. The singular echo is altogether due to the manner of folding the article for the fessé.

After this, all the pieces are spread out upon the rocks, in the sun, for the "first bleaching" (pouèmiè lablanie). In the evening they are gathered into large wooden trays or baskets, and carried to what is called the "lye-house" (laca?e lessive)-overlooking the river from a point on the fort bank opposite to the higher end of the Savane. There each blanchisseuse hires a small or a large vat, or even several,-according to the quantity of work done,-at two, t

hree, or ten sous, and leaves her washing to steep in lye (coulé is the creole word used) during the night. There are watchmen to guard it. Before daybreak it is rinsed in warm water; then it is taken back to the river,-is rinsed again, bleached again, blued and starched. Then it is ready for ironing. To press and iron well is the most difficult part of the trade. When an apprentice is able to iron a gentleman's shirt nicely, and a pair of white pantaloons, she is considered to have finished her time;-she becomes a journey-woman (ouvou?yé).

Even in a country where wages are almost incredibly low, the blanchisseuse earns considerable money. There is no fixed scale of prices: it is even customary to bargain with these women beforehand. Shirts and white pantaloons figure at six and eight cents in laundry bills; but other washing is much cheaper. I saw a lot of thirty-three pieces-including such large ones as sheets, bed-covers, and several douillettes (the long Martinique trailing robes of one piece from neck to feet)-for which only three francs was charged. Articles are frequently stolen or lost by house-servants sent to do washing at the river; but very seldom indeed by the regular blanchisseuses. Few of them can read or write or understand owners' marks on wearing apparel; and when you see at the river the wilderness of scattered linen, the seemingly enormous confusion, you cannot understand how these women manage to separate and classify it all. Yet they do this admirably,-and for that reason perhaps more than any other, are able to charge fair rates;-it is false economy to have your washing done by the house-servant;-with the professionals your property is safe. And cheap as her rates are, a good professional can make from twenty-five to thirty francs a week; averaging fully a hundred francs a month,-as much as many a white clerk can earn in the stores of St. Pierre, and quite as much (considering local differences in the purchasing power of money) as $60 per month would represent in the United States.

Probably the ability to earn large wages often tempts the blanchisseuse to continue at her trade until it kills her. The "water-disease," as she calls it (maladie-dleau), makes its appearance after middle-life: the feet, lower limbs, and abdomen swell enormously, while the face becomes almost fleshless;-then, gradually tissues give way, muscles yield, and the whole physical structure crumbles. Nevertheless, the blanchisseuse is essentially a sober liver,-never a drunkard. In fact, she is sober from rigid necessity: she would not dare to swallow one mouthful of spirits while at work with her feet in the cold water;-everybody else in Martinique, even the little children, can drink rum; the blanchisseuse cannot, unless she wishes to die of a congestion. Her strongest refreshment is mabi,-a mild, effervescent, and, I think, rather disagreeable, beer made from molasses.

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